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Classical 101

More on Beethovens Ninth Symphony

TWO AUDIO PIECES Even the late Michael Steinberg thought it overdone, but I'm a sucker for the drama of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. I've spent a lot of time with this work over the past week trying to find a favorite recording that will answer the question as to why the piece endures so strongly. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is like the opera Carmen, or like a New York City cockroach: not be killed. A symphony to a listener in Beethoven's time was more of a divertissement, a pleasant distraction or filler at a long evening at the opera or oratorio. The symphony was often played as a curtain raiser or at what we call today the intermissions. There were no intermissions 200 yeas ago because people moved in and out, drinking, eating, talking, flirting and peeing whenever the need arose. When Beethoven began writing his symphonies circa 1805, the concert halls were becoming democratized after a fashion. Anyone could get in for the price of a ticket and these were often inexpensive. Music was becoming a profession for the middle classes, and listening to music was less the province of the nobility. A better educated audience was ready to become more emotionally invested, not just diverted, and if pretty tunes and sophisticated composition techniques were appreciated, so was drama and the grand gesture. In fact, for its first performances Beethoven's d minor symphony was billed as a "Grande Symphonie." The audience coming into the Kaertnertortheater on May 7, 1824 would not have been surprised to see a chorus on stage (in front of the orchestra) since three selections from the Missa Solemnis were also on the program. But as the symphony began the chorus remained onstage. Imagine the buzz in the hall (1,000 seats in five tiers, reportedly a full house) when the chorus jumped up to begin the Ode to Joy. Here are the recordings I've been living with: Norrington 1 and 2, Toscanini, Karajan 1963, Harnoncourt, Zander 1, Koussevitzky,  and Bernstein 1972 NY Phil.  Norrington and Zander insist on following what they understand to be Beethoven's own metronome markings and who's to say they're wrong?  Norrington writes,

"The era of fascism, communism and grand capitalism was also the era of larger halls, larger orchestras and star conductors. During the Nazi period, Beethoven's Eroica was made to assume the mantle of the heroic German nation, either conquering or suffering heroic defeat at Stalingrad. The music became slower and slower and more Wagnerian. Wagner got slower, too. So did Brahms and Bruckner. Many conductors changed the notes to bring works "up to date"...(Sir Roger Norrington in The Guardian, March 14, 2009)

The only place Norrington slows down dramatically is in the "Marcia", in the fourth movement of the Beethoven 9th. He's conducting the London Classical Players in 1987: [audio:beethoven-marcia-norrington.mp3] Now listen to the same Marcia with Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1963: [audio:beethoven-marcia-karajan.mp3] It's true  that Norrington is almost three times slower in a march that can otherwise sound frivolous. I think he is very effective here, especially in context of a more bracing "run" for the rest of the performance. Every new recording of the Beethoven Ninth brings with it a new set of arguments. Like it or not the public, and not just the public for classical music, can't help but be emotionally invested in this work. We feel ownership, whether the Berlin wall is being torn down or Huntley-Brinkley are on the evening news. But for all my listening, the one performance that enthralled me was the one I avoided: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony.  Not for any musical reason God knows, but because Toscanini's 50 and 60 and 70 year old recordings survive in flat, over processed sound.  Not here: [youtube Ot4Jj_ILjoE&feature=related 490 344] It is enough, as Norrington has written, to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony effectively by playing well what the composer wrote and leaving interpretation alone. Still, the work in its power and beauty can mean whatever you the listener, need it to mean.