Lawrence Toppman

Beethoven’s Napoleonic complex

By Lawrence Toppman

Four years ago, conductors surveyed by BBC Music Magazine named Beethoven’s Third Symphony the greatest of all time. Yet the “Eroica” started life with a different title: “Bonaparte,” applied while Beethoven saw Napoleon as a symbol of democracy who would sweep away royal houses and assure the rights of the common man.

He tore up his dedication to Napoleon in 1804, when the puppet French Senate named him emperor. “Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition!” Beethoven told composer Ferdinand Ries, his student. “He will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!”

Beethoven changed the title to indicate to listeners that his ambitious new work – the longest symphony by a major composer to that point – still represented a hero’s journey. But his fascination with Napoleon lasted much of his life.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Both were short, homely, often dislikable men of relatively modest beginnings who elevated themselves to the tops of their professions through unrelenting hard work, single-mindedness and undeniable genius.

Beethoven’s interest in the Frenchman began unofficially in 1796, when he wrote 12 variations for cello and piano on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” Napoleon had already begun his campaign to break apart the Habsburg Empire and establish “sister republics” to France, and he’s almost certainly the “conqu’ring hero” lauded here.

Despite his subsequent rage at Napoleon’s self-aggrandizement, Beethoven respected him, and the imperial family returned that respect. Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, became King of Westphalia and offered the composer the job of kapellmeister at his court. (Beethoven said no but used that offer as a bargaining chip to solidify his position in Vienna.)

During the French occupation of Vienna in 1809, diplomat Louis-Philippe-Joseph Girod de Vienney visited the composer and reported that Beethoven not only peppered him with questions about Napoleon but expressed grudging respect for his achievements.

In 1813, Beethoven needled the emperor in “Wellington’s Victory,” hackwork which made its composer plenty of money. He wrote this “battle symphony” to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, that year in Spain.

He created the 15-minute potboiler for a mechanical contraption called the panharmonicon, then revised it for orchestra. “Victory” alternates themes associated with the two countries, mainly “God Save the King” for England and “Marlborough has left for the war” for the French. (We know it as the tune for “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”) Whatever Beethoven may finally have thought about Napoleon, the French get the better music!

The Unholy Grail

By Lawrence Toppman

Nearly 40 years ago, I started buying CD sets of symphonies to take to a tiny apartment in old age, where I’d have room for one box per composer. (That’s how OCD people think.) I did so satisfactorily for Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, even the 104 symphonies of Haydn.

Only Beethoven defeated me. After 12 complete cycles, I have given up the quest.

Sooner or later, Leonard Bernstein became too impetuous, George Szell too rigid, Michael Tilson Thomas too lightweight, Herbert von Karajan too ponderous, John Eliot Gardiner too shallow, Simon Rattle too bland, David Zinman too mechanical. Andre Cluytens comes closest to my ideal in his stereo cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, but even there the Fifth could blaze more, and the Seventh could be nimbler.

Why should this be? Because Beethoven, more than anyone else, never repeated himself in a symphony. Unlike Mahler or Mozart, who explored a wide range of ideas and feelings but remained fundamentally themselves, Beethoven changed personalities every time.

The elegant First Symphony pays quasi-traditional homage to his teacher, Haydn, whose last symphony had appeared five years earlier. The Second, where Beethoven replaced the minuet movement with a scherzo, shows his sense of wry and sometimes raucous humor. The Third changed the course of composition with its daring length, key changes and other innovations. The Fourth abandons high drama for mellow warmth.

The Fifth sets him battling with a cruel Fate, the Sixth ambling blissfully through a pastoral scene, the Seventh indulging his love of dance rhythms. In the brief Eighth, he revisits his early days as a composer with a light heart but an old man’s irony. The Ninth rockets us to the stars.

What conductor could express all these personalities with equal insight? Even within one symphony – say, the Eroica – nobody finds everything that’s there. The reduced forces of Tilson Thomas’ English Chamber Orchestra lack power but reveal details I have heard nowhere else. Bernstein has tremendous zest in some spots and languishes in others. Gardiner plays parts of it with the right intensity but tramples others to death like a rogue elephant.

Four decades of study have frustrated my space-saving self but revealed an astonishment of riches found in no other symphonic collection. I once figured I’d encounter the “correct” interpretations of Beethoven to take to my deathbed. How glad I am now that they don’t exist!

Beethoven on speed

By Lawrence Toppman

Between 1996 and 2000, musicologist Jonathan Del Mar oversaw a new edition of Beethoven’s symphonies known as the Bärenreiter Urtext. It aimed to follow Beethoven’s original intentions, mainly via stricter adherence to his printed tempo markings.

Conductors John Eliot Gardiner and David Zinman quickly adopted this approach, and their complete series can be heard on the Deutsche Grammophon and Sony labels respectively. To my ears, these interpretations have all the depth, charm and beauty of a paper plate.

I came to know Beethoven via conductors who valued crisp execution (George Szell), high drama (Leonard Bernstein) and a clear musical arc that revealed the composer’s intentions (Andre Cluytens, whose series with the Berlin Philharmonic would be the complete set I’d grab in a fire). All sought Beethoven’s soul; none obsessed over his metronome markings.

I generally admire attempts at historical accuracy, whether from groups trying to reproduce the sounds Bach heard to orchestras that shrink or expand to replicate original performances from Mozart to Mahler. But exact fidelity to Beethoven’s markings, perversely, seems to deliver something the composer really didn’t want.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel patented his wind-up metronome in the early 19th century, and Beethoven took it up by 1815. (Mälzel also made ear trumpets for Beethoven, at least two of which he seems to have used, and designed the noisy Panharmonicon Beethoven employed in his trashy battle symphony “Wellington’s Victory.”)

In 1817, Beethoven oversaw publication of his first eight symphonies with metronome markings. (He later approved insanely rapid ones for the Ninth Symphony, draining it of majesty if played that way.) Most speeds were faster than current performance practice, a few slower.

But he couldn’t hear his music by then, let alone judge the resonance in rooms where it was played, so he couldn’t adjust his ideas. Also, the general public found his symphonies long and difficult, so he may have been attempting to satisfy them with extra-brisk performances.

Jan Swafford’s excellent biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” tells us the composer wasn’t absolute in his demands. He quotes a manuscript note: “100 according to Mälzel, but … sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.” Reports by contemporaries say he sped up or slowed down when conducting, according to his moods.

As a child, I owned a paint-by-number set. I scrupulously chose colors according to instructions and carefully painted inside every line printed on the sheet. The Gardiners and Zinmans of the world seem to me to take the same mechanical approach, producing art that’s just as sterile.

Lenny and Ludwig

By Lawrence Toppman

Next week brings the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death. As I’ve listened to Beethoven recordings this year, I’ve been struck by the intimate connection between the most charismatic conductor of the 20th century and the most important composer of the 19th.

As a member of Tanglewood’s first class of conducting students in 1940, the 22-year-old Bernstein prepared Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and won the attention of Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein became the first American conductor to record a complete set of the symphonies with one orchestra. That version of the Third Symphony, still perhaps my favorite of the “Eroica,” came with a lecture entitled “How a Great Symphony was Written.” As a teenager, I heard this insightful teacher break down a masterpiece for the first time, analyzing the opening movement of history’s most revolutionary orchestral work.

Bernstein later recorded another complete set, rather less convincingly, with the Vienna Philharmonic. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he performed the Ninth Symphony in the German capital, changing the word “freude” in the climactic “Ode to Joy” to “freiheit,” or “freedom.” He augmented the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with musicians from nations involved in World War II: Germany, Russia, England, France and the United States.

Like Beethoven, he was a first-rate pianist. He recorded eight concertos but played only two composers who predated his lifetime, Beethoven and Mozart. Artur Rubinstein called Bernstein “the greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, and the greatest composer among pianists.” Wouldn’t that description have fit Beethoven in his day?

And in 1990, two months before he died, Bernstein led the Boston Symphony again at Tanglewood for his 50th anniversary there. Though frail and exhausted, he chose Beethoven’s dramatic Seventh Symphony as the last piece he would ever conduct.

What gave him such a deep identification with Beethoven’s music? Bernstein liked big gestures as a conductor, and Beethoven’s work lends itself to those. Both men were musical polymaths who lived at a high emotional pitch and, as Bernstein’s recently collected letters reveal, remained proud of their accomplishments yet insecure about their impact on society.

Most importantly, each believed the arts have the power to inspire us, heal us and make us better than we ordinarily are. Beethoven grew up with the ideals of the Enlightenment; he wanted music not only to move people but to connect them to fundamental principles of the universe. Think of his exhortations to seek wisdom and fraternal harmony in the “Ode to Joy.” They pose an impossibly tall order for most human beings, but Bernstein shared those sentiments all his life.

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.