Thursday, March 17, 2016

March Masterworks: Beethoven's 2nd - Sturm, Drang und Lebenslust

Beethoven, 1803
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest cellist Zuill Bailey
What: The March Masterworks Concert with Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, Nicolas Bacri's 4th Symphony (“Classical Sturm und Drang”) and Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto
When: This Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm (a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum, behind the State Capitol, at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg PA
Why: Well, aside from just hearing the orchestra play which is reason enough, there's Zuill Bailey returning to Central PA to play one of the most demanding concertos for the cello, an exciting, edgy work by Shostakovich; there's a Beethoven symphony – and probably one you don't hear that often (Beethoven's symphonies are often described of the Himalayas of the symphonic repertoire, but even if some of the “even-numbered” symphonies aren't quite as epic as the “odd-numbered” ones, it's still quite a magnificent mountain); and you get to hear something you've probably never heard before, a brief, “classically-lined” symphony from the 1990s looking back on the past, by a composer you've probably never heard (or, in this country, heard of) before.

You can read more about Zuill Bailey and the concerto he'll play in this post, here. And you can find out more about Nicolas Bacri and his 4th Symphony in this post, here.

While Bacri's 1995 symphony refers to the Sturm und Drang or Storm and Stress "movement" popular in the 1770s, a bit of emotional romanticism at the height of proper classicism, I've entitled this post about Beethoven's symphony on the program Sturm, Drang und Lebenslust because, in Beethoven's 2nd, there is not only a fair bit of storm and stress on the surface (far more behind the scenes, though), there is also an affirmation of "love for life" that permeates every measure of this music. What is it behind the music that makes this symphony what it is?

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Yes, there's something about Beethoven – he isn't considered “the greatest composer who ever lived” by so many music-lovers in the world for nothing; but that very superlative invites protest from those who think he's overplayed or has been turned into some idealized superhero.

Even in 1810, before Beethoven had completed his 7th Symphony, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote of his 5th Symphony, first heard five years earlier, “Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain.”

When Brahms was a young man in the 1850s, hearing the “tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind you” was enough to make him cautious about jumping too soon into the competition with the likes of him – and Beethoven had only been dead for 24 years when Robert Schumann anointed young Brahms his heir.

Composers ever since have reacted to Beethoven, either “with” him or “against” him. Even today, if you've read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise (and if you haven't, you should), with its 14th Chapter called “Beethoven Was Wrong (Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists),” it's clear that many composers today are still reacting to Beethoven, perhaps in a different way: if Beethoven's Path was the one most German composers took in the 19th on into the 20th Centuries, not to mention his impact on composers of other nationalities, today many composers have chosen the opposite path if only to see what the view might be like from there.

It was this “search for a new path” that led Beethoven to the 2nd Symphony in the first place, leaving behind the giants of the previous generation – Haydn directly, Mozart above all – to find his own way. The year 1800 seemed as good a time as any.

Let's begin with the music: here is a performance of Beethoven's 2nd Symphony complete in one clip, recorded at the London Proms in 2012 with Daniel Barenboim conducting his West-East Divan Orchestra, comprised of young Arab and Israeli musicians:
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When Stuart Malina introduced this program – music for people who enjoy “stormy music” – you would certainly think this is a “dramatic” symphony, certainly in the first movement. The slow movement has its dramatic moments, but the third movement is the first of his earthy symphonic “scherzos” (literally, a “joke” in Italian) rather than the old-fashioned, aristocratic minuet.

The fourth movement, rather than being a lively set of delightful variations or a heroic finale, sounds like another scherzo, starting off with a loud if not rude-sounding whoop that several commentators have called “a hiccup.”

One critic, writing for the Newspaper for the Elegant World, famously described it as “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies... in the fourth movement, bleed[s] to death.”

And yet a noted commentator in a respectably scholarly work more recently wrote, “the peaceful mood of the 2nd Symphony is unruffled throughout.”

Which only proves how dangerous it is to try to describe music in words... (Really? “unruffled”?)

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Not long after the premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1800 and the recent completion of a set of piano sonatas (Op. 28, the “Pastorale,” not quite as popular as its predecessor, the “Moonlight”), Beethoven wrote to a friend, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today I will take a new path.”

Beethoven was now in his 30s and, following the publication of such groundbreaking works as his Op. 18 String Quartets and the Symphony No. 1, in the midst of a surge of creativity that by 1802 resulted in the ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, eight piano sonatas, five violin sonatas, a string quintet, his 3rd Piano Concerto, the 2nd Symphony and an oratorio (Christ on the Mount of Olives). The following year, he would complete his 3rd Symphony, the Eroica – “new path,” indeed!

The 2nd Symphony is often overlooked between the sheer audacity of the 1st, coming out of its Haydnesque world into the new century, and the Eroica that followed it. At its premiere, the 1st Symphony did not sit well with the critics; after his Eroica, critics suggested he return to the more acceptable world of his first two symphonies. There is still something “classical” about this 2nd Symphony but only because we know what came after it – yes, by comparison, it would seem a “Classical” symphony, not a “Romantic” one that relies more on the sheer impact of its emotional, subjective response rather than on intellectual, objective ones, a typical aspect of “classical” music, literature, architecture and painting.

Things would change radically – and soon. But, for the moment, that is all in the future – well, most of it.

Beethoven was a painstaking creator – we have his sketchbooks to prove that: where Mozart seemed to write spontaneously, famously writing the Overture to his opera, The Marriage of Figaro, the night before its premiere, Beethoven labored over the shape of his thematic material not so much to find the right “tune” but to create the most productive idea that could generate what he was looking for. And the heart of this is that aspect of “Romantic” music we call development or, in his day, the “working-out.” Sometimes, with “tunes,” all you get is something you can only repeat over and over again; but with a “theme” based on a “generating motive” (like the 5th Symphony's famous opening notes), you could go far beyond the statement of the original idea.

As an example, Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven's few students, recalled seeing the manuscript of the 2nd Symphony's slow movement, a movement he thought “so beautifully, so purely and happily conceived and the melodic line so natural that one can hardly imagine anything in it was ever changed.” Yet the manuscript was a barely legible splotch of notes. Expecting to learn something about the composer's craft, Ries asked him why he made the changes he'd made. All Beethoven said was, “it's better this way.”

As an improviser at the piano – something many performers, especially composers, did in those days – the idea of being given a theme to improvise on was a typical challenge in a performance. In the days before TV and reality shows, people might attend “duels” between rival pianists (imagine that!).

One example from one such duel in 1800 involved a popular virtuoso named Daniel Steibelt. Beethoven was not impressed with either Steibelt's quintet that had just been performed or with the improvisation he had just offered (and clearly he didn't think much of the man, either). When asked to improvise something himself, Beethoven grabbed the cello part from Steibelt's quintet, sauntered over to the piano, put it on the rack then made a show of turning the page upside down, plunked out a few notes and then tore into a lengthy set of variations, all of which harkened back to these few notes from Steibelt's cello part. Often, such a “given theme” might just be the starting place for flights of fancy, but Beethoven stayed close to the idea of his chosen material so he could show the audience what all could be done with this simple fragment of “raw material” and make something out of it better than anything Steibelt had done with it, rightside up.

Suffice it to say, Steibelt had left the room before Beethoven had even finished.

I mention this for two reasons, aside from it being a great story: it shows what Beethoven was looking for in his material; and it shows how his creative energy worked, in this case when inspired by anger.

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Another thing to mention, given the writing of this symphony, is what was going on in his life.

In the midst of writing that last movement of his 2nd Symphony in October of 1802 – not to mention dealing with an impending concert for the following April which would premiere not only his new symphony but a new piano concerto and a new oratorio, none of which were yet complete – he wrote a letter to his brothers. Given the conviviality if not the hilarity of the music he was working on at the time, reading this letter is heart-rending. It is known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.”

The first symptoms of his impending deafness appeared when he was 28, at first occasional buzzing and humming heard in his left ear, then in both. He did not “go deaf” as we normally think it, completely losing his hearing, until later in his life, but his hearing from then on was never “normal,” often afflicted by bouts of this buzzing and what we might call “being hard-of-hearing.” Given the medical treatment available today, it's possible he might have been cured. But the question remains – remember that story about Steibelt? – how much of the music we know is the product of the man who was facing losing his hearing throughout his career? Was this burst of creativity, this level of creativity the product of his fear of becoming deaf?

In June of 1801, he wrote to a close friend still living in distant Bonn, “My hearing has grown steadily worse over the last three years... For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people 'I am deaf.' If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state... It is curious that in conversation there are people who do not notice my condition at all; since I have generally been absent-minded, they account for it in that way. Often I can scarcely hear someone speaking softly, the tones yes, but not the words. However, as soon as anyone shouts it becomes intolerable...”

Beethoven's Heiligenstadt neighborhood (in 1898)
So, in April of 1802, Beethoven's doctor advised him to spend some time in the bucolic little country town outside Vienna called Heiligenstadt (since 1892, part of the expanding modern city of Vienna). Here, amidst wooded paths and rural walkways, he would wander during the day, and work out details for all this music that was in him, everything he had brought with him – not just the 2nd Symphony, most of which was finalized and eventually completed here.

In October, he wrote a three-page letter to his two brothers, both now living in or near Vienna (though he doesn't mention Johann by name), that explains his condition, a last will and testament that at times reads like a suicide note. It begins,

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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... that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible)... I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness... and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.
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It continues,

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“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, 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 - truly wretched...”
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Four days later, he added this,

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“For my brothers Carl and [blank space instead of mentioning Johann by name] to be read and executed after my death.

Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee - and indeed sadly - yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree - I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away - even the high courage - which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer - has disappeared - O Providence - grant me at least but on e day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart - O when - O when, O Divine One - shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men - Never? no - O that would be too hard.”
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And yet he was in the midst of finalizing the last movement of the 2nd Symphony! Is there anywhere in this music you hear that tone?

It speaks not only to his ability to “compartmentalize,” not to give in to self-pity, perhaps, to continue with the work he had planned as planned.
pages from the Heiligenstadt Testament

But, in November, 1801, he had already written to his friend in Bonn about his impending deafness and said defiantly - prophetically - "I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely."

By the end of his Heiligenstadt crisis a year later, Beethoven had decided on the path of resignation, perhaps, but with a determination to resist.

I can think of a similar instance in classical music, Tchaikovsky and his Pathetique aside: when a 20-year-old student named Alexander Scriabin, writing his 1st piano sonata in 1892, concluded it with the gloomiest of funeral marches, after he had lost the use of his right hand through an injury (excessive practicing, ironically), and had imagined his career, barely begun, already over. (You can listen to the movement, here.)

This is, perhaps, how a “normal human being” would react to such a crisis. Perhaps Beethoven's response to his is what makes him seem like a super-hero in our eyes. It is, certainly, something to wonder about...

- Dick Strawser

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