Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Magnificent Eroica

The Symphony #3 in E Flat Op. 55 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was first performed in public in 1805.  It had been written over the previous two years.  The portrait above was done about the same time.

According to Beethoven’s friend, Ferdinand Ries, “In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of [Napoleon] Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven's closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Ludwig van Beethoven" at the very bottom. …I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be re-copied and it was only now that the symphony received the title "Sinfonia Eroica."

Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s sometimes unreliable biographer recounted that upon hearing of Napoleon’s death in Saint Helena in 1821, Beethoven proclaimed "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago" - referring to the Funeral March (second movement).

Now the relevance of this piece, and especially to Beethoven's remarks concerning the Emperor Napoleon, should become obvious and clear when we consider current events.  I searched You Tube and found an incredible performance that took place in Japan in 2006.  The performers were The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen [German Chamber Orchestra of Bremen] with Paavo Järvi conducting.  Paavo is the son of the more well known Neeme Järvi.  They are of a very famous Estonian family of great musicians.  I think after more hear this performance he will become as well known as his famous father.

This symphony is in the typical four movements.  It is scored for an amazingly small orchestra to begin with.  What makes it big is not just the notes played but in this performance how they are played; with conviction and ardent force, in my opinion very much the way Beethoven intended it.  Those who know this music will understand right away why I have decided to highlight it in my blog.  To those who have never heard this music before, I assure you, this is one of the best performances of it I have ever heard.

As we are all about to go through exceedingly trying times in this country and around the world, I encourage you to hear this music, let it inform you of the very best that humanity is capable of, let it remind you of everything worth contending for, may you remember it when times get tough.  At the time it was written, the composer was discovering that he was losing his hearing and within a decade would become profoundly deaf.  It is inconceivable to many, even to me, how one of the greatest forces in music could continue after becoming deaf.  That too is worth recalling to continual reflection.  We are often known not just for our accomplishments, but for what we had to overcome in order to create and bring forth anything at all.

Beethoven always regarded this work as among his greatest and it was long one of his favorites.  Today, and especially with performances like this, the Eroica still stands out as among the greatest achievements in the history of music.


1st movement – Allegro con brio [fast with brilliance]

2nd movement – Marcia funebre: Adagio assai [funeral march: always slow]

3rd movement – Scherzo: Allegro vivace [A humorous dance: fast and lively]

4th movement – Finale: Allegro molto [The end: fast throughout]


Monday, August 2, 2010

Tanglewood At Last

A dear friend of mine from New York City came up for a visit, one of the intentions of the weekend to include a short trip from here to a rehearsal concert and pre-concert lecture at Tanglewood.  This festival is celebrating its 70th year.  One would have thought it was older.  The best possible weather, mild and not humid with steady breezes, helped perfect our visit to Tanglewood.  For my friend, it was a return to a familiar place known since childhood.  For me, my first time.

The setting could be among well kept farms or dairies or possibly golf courses, the Berkshires being smaller and softer than even the Catskills across the Hudson Valley to the west, both being part of the same old mountain chain.  And here at Tanglewood, a few farms were joined together, they mowed the grass down to fairway length where thousands of people would spread their picnics and relax to hear a concert emanating from the venerable Tanglewood Music Shed.  This enclosure, originally designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961),  is essentially of wood supported by metal poles, much more primitive than the later SPAC in Saratoga, NY or the Concord Pavilion (know called the Sleep Train Pavilion) in Concord, CA and no doubt many others.  Tanglewood’s Music Shed is built on barely more than the natural curve of a hill, clearly higher on the left than the right.  Many of these outdoor concert pavilions are built over a bowl, similar to a Greek theatre, making the radiating seating approach the stage from a steeper angle so that stairs are required.  But at Tanglewood the slope to the stage is gradual, there are no stairs and while the seats are wooden theatre chairs, the floor of the Shed is just packed earth.   All of this and no doubt the acoustic reflection scheme installed behind the stage, was going to produce amazing listening results.  The audience was polite and respectful, as if we were in church.  We sat in the tenth row and right off the middle isle.  We had perfect seats to hear everything.    

At about 10:30, Jan Swafford of Boston Conservatory (a composition teacher) delivered his brief talk.  As we listened, we took note of the place, the people who had come out to attend this summer camp style (almost outdoors) service for the fine art of music, and here we were in what might as well be a hallowed hall on sacred ground, for so famous had its musical forces been.  Within this very space the greats of the better part of the last century had all performed and many of their concerts had been recorded and televised, so that interested persons living thousands of miles away, might somehow have formed a connection with this place called Tanglewood.  Swafford spoke of the pieces on the program, by Mussorgsky (orchestrated by Ravel), by Sibelius (a youthful work of swashbuckling marches, etc.) and of the last to be played on today's program, the very sad cello concerto by Elgar to be played by Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, perhaps the world’s current “greatest” cellist.  Swafford said he regarded as the four greatest orchestrators, Mahler, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel.  Considering their accomplishments and briefly reviewing the works by these masters I knew so well, I found myself strongly in agreement with him.  But then, what was Swafford really doing with this talk?  We have what we call “music appreciation” which is what this was, but on another level, I was clearly feeling something like to being in church and this was the homily.  One subject was how a talented musician, though a hopeless drunk, managed to write a piano piece that could be, as it were, resurrected by another composer who took on the task of orchestrating it, and who just happened to be one of the most talented orchestrators.  It was a cue for us to pay attention to the many structural and textural devices we would be hearing in the music. 

After the talk, and a bit of an intermission, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra began to appear on stage and begin the tuning up process with their instruments.  I very much liked hearing this as it is really just what always happens; musicians for any band get together on stage before the gig and prepare themselves to try out various ranges and volumes to see what sounds best.  There may even be two or three engaged in repetitive practice of a particular passage in one of the compositions to be performed, or even some other composition.  Eventually the oboe calls for the entire orchestra to tune up and then the conductor walks on.  

Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal this morning, had studied with Charles Munch at Tanglewood, was thence part of the French tradition among Boston Symphony conductors.  Originally from Lausanne, Switzerland, just across the lake from France, Dutoit has spent much of his life in French Canada, but supposedly has five residences around the world to support his extensive conducting schedule.  Dutoit, who is 74, moves with the alacrity of a much younger man.  He sort of moved the orchestra to perform and as the music developed, we could both sense that Dutoit didn’t need much to get everything out of the orchestra that he wanted, stopping only a few times to briefly go over something with them, mainly over issues of balance, just how loud or soft something should be especially from the percussion section or the harps.

The music produced was as Swafford had said, of a nationalist character from three distinct nations; Russia, Finland and England.  And while one certainly could identify the Russian elements in Mussorgsky, even though orchestrated by a Frenchman, which is in itself a kind of acknowledgement of the talent of the orchestrator, the other elements were obscured more by the immediate purpose of the work by Sibelius or the intensely personal message in the Elgar Concerto, which was played with a smoothness and naturalness that might be equal to the way Heifitz played the violin.  My friend informs me that Ma and Dutoit made many gestures during the performance, indicating some differences, but they were seen hugging after the rehearsal.  Also we noticed how genuinely humble and patient Yo Yo Ma was giving autographs and taking other tearful adulations from his followers.  The orchestra had performed with marked precision and considerable warmth, the brass section was spectacular, the strings spoke with a warm unity of voices.  My friend noted the tightly synchronized bow strokes.  So many special orchestral tricks written into the music in various places, all ingeniously played by the orchestra , so that one was almost aware of being in the presence of a high energy/high intelligence corps of musical geniuses that functioned as a perfectly well oiled machine, at or nearly at the merest touch of Dutoit’s gestures. 

Before we left, we had occasion to just walk around and take it in, the grass, the views, the few old houses on the property reconverted into studios from which we occasionally heard musicians practicing or getting lessons.  This is also what they do here, the place is an active school of music and what I heard were toward the fringes of the avant-garde; phrases that are as abstract and natural as birdsong, the emphasis on playing each with perfect control and abandon combined.  The demographics could be observed; for the audiences being mostly older people certainly held, for the performers, certainly changing.  Yet in the final analysis, who other than those with the years of experience that it takes to appreciate and love this music or to approach the performance of it with what amounts to a careful reverence, would be called upon, from some source within themselves, to participate in a Saturday morning rehearsal and talk, as audience or performers, in a place and for which something approaching a religious experience was its goal?  Thank-you Tanglewood; and for all those who have made it great, and those who are continuing the tradition.  It would honestly be fair to say that we felt blessed just being there.