Lawrence Toppman

The Curse of 9

By Lawrence Toppman

If you know pop music history, you’ve heard of the 27 Club. That’s the age at which an extraordinary number of musicians have died: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Kurt Cobain, Pete Ham of Badfinger, Amy Winehouse and many others, going back to bluesman Robert Johnson in 1938.

Yet classical music has its own fateful legend: For 129 years, no major composer after Beethoven finished a 10th symphony.

Haydn published 104, Mozart 41, and both men sketched out many others. But once Beethoven premiered his Ninth Symphony in 1824, everyone stopped there or gave up before that point. (I love that piece so much I own more recordings of it than any other – nine, in fact.)

The list of composers who quit arbitrarily at nine symphonies or died soon thereafter includes Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvořák, Louis Spohr (beloved during the 19th century), Malcolm Arnold and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Alexander Glazunov and Alfred Schnittke died before finishing their ninth symphonies. Anton Bruckner disavowed two youthful symphonies, started counting officially and died writing his ninth.

Gustav Mahler had such a strong superstition about this “curse” that, though four of his first eight symphonies had vocal parts, he refused to call “Das Lied von der Erde” a symphony. He followed it with an orchestral No. 9 and, sure enough, died writing No. 10. Said Arnold Schoenberg, “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

Dmitri Shostakovich dispelled this nonsense in 1953 with his 10th symphony and went on to publish 15. The floodgates opened for the likes of Nikolai Miaskovsky (27), Alan Hovhaness (67) and Finland’s Leif Segerstam (339 as of this June, many in a single, 20-minute movement in the style of Sibelius’ Seventh).

The real curse may have been fear of walking in Beethoven’s footsteps. Schumann waited until he was 31, the age at which Schubert had died, to finish a symphony. Franz Liszt premiered his first, a take on the Faust legend, at 45. Brahms, the natural inheritor of Beethoven’s symphonic mantle, made false starts over 20 years and didn’t sign off on a symphony until he was 43.

Conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed that one “Beethoven’s Tenth,” noting a resemblance between the main theme of Brahms’ finale and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. “Any ass can see that,” replied Brahms, who considered it not a rip-off but a long overdue homage to his greatest symphonic predecessor.

Naming of parts

By Lawrence Toppman

While re-reading my favorite World War II poem, Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts,” I realized Beethoven was the first major composer to use physical settings in the names of symphonic movements.

Plenty of predecessors embodied actions, animals or people in music, from Telemann’s frogs and birds to the plague of flies in Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” depicts a barking dog, dancing peasants, dripping icicles. But Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony went farther.

He tells us where we are in all five movements. The jaunty “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country” leads to birds twittering in “Scene by the brook.” A “Merry gathering of peasants” offers a town band whose tunes get interrupted by a ferocious “Storm.” When the weather clears, we hear a “Shepherds’ hymn – Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.” The piece describes tangible events while expressing intangible feelings.

Justin Knecht beat him to the punch by 23 years with the 1785 “Le Portrait Musicale de La Nature, ou Grand Symphonie.” (Why it has a French title when he lived and worked in Germany all his life, I have no idea.) Wikipedia claims he was much admired in his day, so maybe Beethoven knew this piece; it also features a storm, followed by a movement titled “Nature transported with joy.” But as the “Pastoral Symphony” can still be heard everywhere, and Knecht is forgotten, I’d call Beethoven the pioneer who inspired others.

Hector Berlioz followed the “Pastoral” 22 years later with “Symphonie Fantastique,” which also includes bird calls on a trip to the country. He, too, wrote five movements, with titles such as “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Mendelssohn used conventional names for orchestral movements but loosely captured journeys to Scotland and Italy in his third and fourth symphonies. Schumann’s Third Symphony has a movement depicting an archbishop being made a cardinal in Cologne Cathedral.

Liszt’s tone poems, all huge single symphonic movements, bear titles such as “Prometheus” and “Hamlet.” Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 offers sections titled “Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.” Mahler capped this trend with movements such as “Pan Awakes,” “Primal Light” and “What the Animals Tell Me.”

By the 20th century, music became more abstract. Composers seldom asked us to imagine specific scenes or behaviors, letting us give our own definitions to pieces. A raucous clamor was simply a loud noise, not a rural thunderstorm. But for the preceding 100 years, Beethoven’s concept of “pictures in music” reigned everywhere. 

Did Beethoven invent anything?

By Lawrence Toppman

This may sound like a goofy question. He revolutionized genres with audaciously difficult symphonies, complex piano sonatas, a vast Missa Solemnis, etc. His profound string quartets and mysterious piano trios surpassed anything his old teacher Haydn imagined.

Yet in each case, Beethoven reinvented a familiar form. And in other areas, such as dramatic opera and oratorio, he put his own stamp on materials without altering their structures. His piano concertos, great as they are, differ from Mozart’s mainly in length and demands on the soloist, not to mention the keyboard itself.

As far as I can tell, he came up with only one idea from scratch, one we don’t associate with him: the song cycle. As the first major composer to link songs programmatically, he triggered outpourings from every major Romantic composer, all of whom outstripped him. Schubert and Schumann, Berlioz and Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler used Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” (“To the distant beloved”) as a jumping-off point for the great song cycles of the next 90 years.

Scholars debate whether the title refers to a woman who’s geographically far away or in heaven. He wrote these six songs – the only such cycle he composed – in 1816 at 45, though the lyrics express a dreamy passion that sits more easily on a younger man. Tenors usually sing it; my preferred recording comes from Fritz Wunderlich, whose death at 35 robbed the world of the greatest lyric tenor of the 1960s. If you want to see the 15-minute cycle being sung, try this performance by masterful baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore.

Vocal works were flowing from Beethoven’s pen at that point: He’d written 42 songs and canons the previous year and would write 29 more in 1816 after “Geliebte.” This cycle musicalizes poems by physician Alois Jeitteles, who at 22 was a published poet; Beethoven asked Jeitteles to provide related pieces expressing loneliness in solitude, pleasure in the contemplation of nature, rapture that the brook and clouds and birds see his beloved wherever she is, and hope for eventual reunion.

Unlike his predecessors, who wrote concert arias or piano-accompanied songs to create single moods, Beethoven wanted to take listeners on a brief but varied emotional journey. We often consider him the first great Romantic composer today, and this modestly pioneering cycle is one reason why.

A disastrous outpouring of genius

By Lawrence Toppman

The concert lasted four hours in an unheated Vienna hall on a December night. The underrehearsed orchestra couldn’t follow the conductor, who started the last piece over after shouting “Quiet! Quiet! This isn’t working! Once again!” The soprano soloist, a terrified last-minute replacement, mangled her part. Yet never before or after have more masterpieces by one composer premiered on the same bill.

Beethoven intended this benefit concert of 1808 to show the world that, on the eve of his 38th birthday, he had no peer in classical music. So he bombarded listeners with brilliance, overwhelming even his fans. Composer Johann Reichardt couldn’t follow other weary patrons out the door, because he sat with Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons. Afterward, Reichardt wrote, “One can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

Judge for yourself on Aug. 16, when Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival airs a recreation of the concert. That free broadcast comes from a March 1 performance by conductor Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; it offers world-class soloists in pianist Inon Barnatan and soprano Dorothea Röschmann.

The first half consists of the Symphony No. 6 (the “Pastoral”), the 14-minute concert aria “Ah! Perfido,” the Gloria from the Mass in C, and the Piano Concerto No. 4. After intermission comes the Symphony No. 5, the Sanctus from the Mass in C, an improvised piano fantasia and the Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra.

The two symphonies, the concerto and the concert fantasy all got their first public performances at that benefit. Beethoven conducted and played the keyboard in the concerto, the fantasia and the long, mostly improvised beginning to the Choral Fantasy. (He never played a concerto publicly again, because of deafness.)

Imagine listeners trying to absorb the weighty drama of the Fifth Symphony after two hours of music and a long, drink-filled intermission. How strange it must have been to have two sections of a mass – translated into German and presented as “hymns,” because it was illegal to put sacred music on a secular program – shoved in among orchestral and pianistic powerhouses.

Stunned critics responded with guarded approval that grew after later hearings. Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s former patron, gave Beethoven 100 gulden to wipe out debts. The composer had proved his point, even if he’d blown people’s minds to do it.

Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

Who knew, right? After the May 1824 premiere of the Ninth Symphony, his longest and most overwhelming orchestral masterpiece, Beethoven turned to another symphony. Though he lived three more years, he never got beyond sketches for all four movements.

His intentions have inspired fiction, from Peter Ustinov’s play “Beethoven’s Tenth” to Sue Latham’s novel “The Haunted House Symphony.” NPR broadcast an April Fool’s Day “story” in 2012 about the discovery of the Tenth. Conductor Hans von Bülow even called Brahms’ First Symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth,” because the main tune of Brahms’s finale resembled a corresponding theme in Beethoven’s Ninth. (Brahms’ response: “Any ass can see that.”)

The reality remains elusive. Beethoven liked to work on two major pieces at the same time, as he did with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he started the Tenth while polishing the Ninth. In the 1980s, British musicologist Barry Cooper assembled 50 sketches amounting to 300 bars. He then filled them out with another 200 bars to create an andante-allegro-andante opening movement that lasts 16 minutes.

I listened this week to the 1988 recording by Walter Weller and the City of Birmingham Symphony in their complete set of Beethoven symphonies. Sadly, the piece remains forgettable after multiple hearings. It doesn’t break new ground, contain memorable material or even sound especially like Beethoven. Perhaps we’re lucky he didn’t leave enough material for Cooper to rebuild the other movements.

Why didn’t Beethoven finish it? His letters don’t say. He wasn’t completely out of creative juice, because he produced five incomparable string quartets after the Ninth Symphony. He could certainly have gotten the Tenth published, famous as he was, and made money if he’d wanted. Maybe he just didn’t care to complete hackwork in a genre he’d redefined and dominated.

We might equally well ask why he started in the first place, as neither he nor anyone else could surpass his monumental Ninth. I suppose one mark of genius is that you must never stop trying, even after you realize you’ve peaked.

That explains the mawkish late plays of Tennessee Williams and hollow final works of Igor Stravinsky. Not everyone can end on “The Cherry Orchard” or a great requiem mass; Chekhov and Mozart wouldn’t have done so either, if they’d lived past 45. Geniuses simply have to keep creating, whether the fires of inspiration blaze high or sink feebly to embers.

The journey that saved Beethoven’s life

By Lawrence Toppman

Had Beethoven killed himself in October 1802, he’d be known today as a fairly talented composer of unfulfilled promise – someone on the level of, say, Carl Maria von Weber or C.P.E. Bach.

At 31, he’d premiered one jaunty symphony in the style of late Haydn or Mozart, two amiable piano concertos, a few attractive sonatas for violin and piano and more impressive ones for piano alone, including the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique.” He’d shown only flickerings of the astonishing talent that would emerge over the next decade.

He went that autumn to Heiligenstadt, a resort about a one-hour carriage ride from the center of Vienna, with a troubled mind. He realized his oncoming deafness, which already affected his performances as a piano virtuoso and conductor, would eventually plunge him into silence. He often suffered agonizing headaches and stomach pains and doubted whether he could stand another 30 or 40 years of life under those conditions.

Beethoven poured his thoughts into a document written over two sessions to his brothers, Carl and Johann. The Heiligenstadt Testament, as we now call it, starts with a plea for understanding: “O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will.”

He confesses feelings of humiliation, profound loneliness, rage, terror. He flirts with the idea of dying, at God’s hand or his own. Yet his indomitable will keeps him going: “But little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence…. Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide. I have done so.”

In the following year, he triumphed with works of extraordinary emotional depth and musical daring: The tempestuous “Waldstein” piano sonata, the soaring “Kreutzer” violin sonata, his only minor-key piano concerto (No. 3) and the “Eroica” Symphony, his third and the most revolutionary symphony in history. Neither Beethoven nor his compositions would ever be the same after that dark night of the soul.

Was Beethoven Black?

By Lawrence Toppman

This controversy surfaces every decade, most recently in a Twitter feed that blew up two weeks ago. African-American writers first debated this in the early 20th century, noting contemporary accounts that described him in terms often applied to them: swarthy, dark-complected, round-nosed. Nobel Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer, a white South African, fancifully revisited this idea in a story from her 2007 collection, “Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black.”

Centers for Beethoven studies point out that this claim relies on unsupported speculation: His mother might’ve had an affair with a Spaniard of African ancestry, or his Flemish ancestors mixed with people of African descent while Spain ruled their land. Beethoven befriended George Bridgetower, an Afro-European violinist, and initially dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 to the Polish-born virtuoso before a falling-out. Could this have been a racial bond?

Unfortunately for these theorists, nobody has dug up positive proof that a person of color contributed to Beethoven’s genealogy. But as University of Michigan musicologist Kira Thurman points out in that Twitter thread, people pose the wrong question. They ask whether the best-known classical composer in history might be Black. Instead, they should ask whether Black composers overlooked by history should be better known.

Why wrangle over Beethoven’s heritage while you can explore the symphonies of William Grant Still, the tone poems of Duke Ellington, the piano music of Florence Price – the first Black woman to have a symphony played by a major U.S. orchestra, the Chicago Symphony – or William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony?” Why not give Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” a unique folk opera, a listen?

France sent us the catchy violin concertos of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a 19th-century fencer and soldier who ended up conducting one of the finest orchestras in Paris. England’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who died at 37 just before World War I, turned the most popular American poem of his youth – Henry Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” – into a stirring cantata.

All these recommendations come from my own music library and can readily be found online. Some of these people are in Sony’s Black Composers Series, issued on LPs between 1974 and 1978 and recently boxed as a CD set.

Orchestras that cling to conservative audiences, mostly made up of old white folks such as myself, seldom play this music for fear of empty halls. Maybe, as Americans broaden their racial awareness, we’ll hear more of this repertoire in person. In the meantime, recordings reward open ears of every color.

The greatest opera with no good tunes

By Lawrence Toppman

I was not listening to “Fidelio” again this week and wondering why. I’d been thinking about it since late May, when it premiered 206 years ago in its final form, but I never took it from the CD rack of operas in my front room.

Beethoven would have been disappointed. He worked harder on this project than any other in his career, writing the first bits in 1804 and revising it for a decade. The longer, earliest version still exists as “Leonore;” my complete Beethoven set contains a copy of that opera, which also beckons to me futilely for a tryout.

I’ve now seen “Fidelio” twice in person and heard five recordings, some multiple times, without altering my view: It’s the greatest opera ever written without a single memorable melody.

Excitement abounds, from the heroine’s determination to rescue her imprisoned husband to the saved-at-the-last-minute conclusion. It has spiritual uplift, political commentary, mild humor arising from mistaken identity and moments of musical radiance, from the final section of Florestan’s lament in the dungeon to a chorus of prisoners allowed to step into the sun after long days in darkness. But great tunes? Nope.

Beethoven knew he wasn’t Mozart, the highest genius of comic opera at that time, so he never attempted a comedy. He accepted an 1803 commission from Emanuel Schikaneder, who had commissioned and written the libretto for Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” but quickly lost interest in the romantic intrigue of “The Vestal Flame.” (Two arias survive in “Fidelio.”)

He premiered his lone opera in 1805 in a three-act version, cut it to two the following year, tightened and rewrote and re-released it in 1814. Along the way, he wrote four overtures: Three called “Leonore,” including a 13-minute piece occasionally used as an entr’acte, and the “Fidelio” overture we hear today. “Leonore No. 3” remains his most thrilling short orchestral work.

And he broke completely with tradition. His German operatic predecessors, Handel and Haydn and Mozart, wrote clearly defined recitatives and arias. So did his contemporaries, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert.

But “Fidelio,” though it contains solos and duets and quartets – including numbers with repeated choruses – depends on drama rather than songfulness. Verdi and Wagner found ways to combine both elements 40 years later in their visionary works, but Beethoven couldn’t do so in “Fidelio” – and he never tried again.

Pictured: Act 1, prison yard (Halle, 1920). By Paul Thiersch – Werner Freitag, Katrin Minner, Andreas Ranft (Hg.): Geschichte der Stadt Halle, Band 2: Halle im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle 2006, ISBN 3-89812-383-9, Tafel IX., Public Domain.