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Beethoven's symphonies

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted September 22, 2003

I had the supreme honor of conducting the Cleveland Orchestra when George Szell was the conductor. I conducted all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, and even though I made a tremendous number of mistakes, the orchestra played on, never missing a beat. I finished each symphony, tears running down my face in grateful acknowledgement of the orchestra's perfection in its interpretation of Beethoven. Luckily, nobody saw me as I was in my living room with my miniature score, and my Cleveland Orchestra records.

Last June 23d, on these pages, I wrote about the joys of Beethoven's piano sonatas. This came about because I had purchased a CD burner, and while I stopped listening to my old records, after I transferred them onto a CD (for personal use only, of course), I listen to them all the time. The same goes for the symphonies.

I had stopped listening to my old 33s, and at one point, I bought a CD boxed set of all Beethoven's symphonies. This is not recommended. A lot of the CDs have two symphonies on them, and when you want to listen to just one, you're never sure when one ends and the next begins. So I transferred my old records, one symphony to one CD, and I have rediscovered the joy of those masterpieces.

The first two symphonies offer hints of things to come. While they sound, to me, very Haydnesque, you can hear the use of chromatics, key changes, silences, rhythmic techniques, and so on, that you will hear in his later works. The third symphony seems out of place. One expects a certain growth, a certain maturity, each symphony growing from the last, but with number three, he knocks a home run.

Finished in 1804, when Beethoven was 34, the Eroica was dedicated to Napoleon (he later renounced the dictator). Starting with two sledgehammer blows, the symphony never looks back. I can't imagine what it must have been like to have lived at the time, used to Haydn, and Mozart, and then hearing this! What an amazing piece of music. I'd like to point out one technique Beethoven used. Near the beginning of the 2d movement (in the 17th measure, actually) there is a simple 4 measure melody played in the violins. Soon after (17 measures later), it's repeated by the oboe. It's so simple you can't forget it, but you don't hear it again for a long time. Before the end, it's played again by violins, only differently. That little change is so dramatic, so beautiful, it'll grab your heart, but you have to be paying attention! We'll see the same technique in the 5th Symphony.

Number four seems like it should have been number three. It's definitely up a notch from one and two, but not in the class of three.

With number five, we're back into the world class league. When I grew up listening to this on record (without a score), I assumed the famous first three notes were triplets. You are wrong if you don't think much can happen in less than a second: The first time I heard this in concert, I watched in horror as the conductor gave the downbeat and…nothing happened! I couldn't believe the whole orchestra had made a mistake. Of course, less than a second later, the orchestra played those three notes, not as triplets, but as a rest followed by three eighth notes. Now, if you are really paying attention, you will hear the technique I described in number 3: a simple melody played by the violins in the 15th measure of the 2d movement. You'll hear it again in the 35th measure, and again, much later. Just before the end (as Count Basie would say, "One more time!"), it's played again with a different orchestration. It's the difference that makes such a simple melody so gorgeous and heartbreaking. (If you ever hear some music snob say something like "Oh, the fifth is OK, but it's really too popular," stick out your tongue and blow hard until it makes an obscene noise.)

The first movement of number six is loaded with repetition. I counted a theme that has an eighth and two sixteenths, followed by two eighths played 36 times in a row, followed by 36 more times. All is forgiven with the beautiful second movement.

Number seven is another monster. The second movement starts out unbelievably simple, but so different from anything we've heard. For 24 measures we get the simple statement; then 24 more measures with a counter melody in the violas and cellos; then 24 more with the second violins taking over the counter melody, and the violas and cellos now playing a rhythmic counterpoint. It keeps building and building until the whole orchestra is participating. It finally releases the unbelievable tension by moving from the minor to a major key. It's about as perfect a piece of music as you'll ever hear.

(All I can say about number eight is it is so simple Beethoven must have wanted to prepare us for nine. It had to be some kind of joke. One imagines animated cartoons matching the music.)

If you've listened, really listened to Beethoven's first eight symphonies, you are ready for number nine. There is nothing like it. Words can't begin to describe this work. Think about Haydn and Mozart, and what if they had written one more symphony before they died? It would have been great. It would have continued in their tradition, and maybe have been their greatest symphony. But what if Beethoven had written a 10th symphony? Based on his 9th, we know that it would have been unpredictable and unbelievably amazing. This is what sets Beethoven above all others for me.

So, when I get depressed, and wonder where Saddam is, and where the WMDs are, and why we have such a screwed up judicial nominating process, and why nobody will do anything about Social Security and Medicare, I lose myself in Beethoven's symphonies. They work their magic on me, and they will on you, too.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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