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The BBC are now bingeing on Beethoven, which is fine by me. (And yes, I quite agree that if you do not care for Beethoven, you should not have to pay for it, blah blah. Let us take that as a given, shall we?)

On Saturday night BBC4 TV showed three videos of the first three symphonies, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington in One (which I missed), the late Otto Klemperer in Two (in 1960s black and white), and Rattle doing the Eroica with his old City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1995. Rattle’s Eroica was, for me, as gloriously invigorating as Klemperer’s Second was cloddish and over-solemn. Watching a very obviously heart attacked, slack-jawed Klemperer sitting like someone in a hospital waiting room waving one finger vaguely in the air while the New Philharmonia tried to divine some musical sense out of these wobbly gestures suddenly did not seem funny any more, although on another night I might have been entranced.

But Rattle’s Eroica was fabulous. All his calculatedly wide-eyed astonishment and arm-waving, armpit-flaunting drama-queening made perfect sense, given that he was conducting what is probably the single most astonishing and dramatic piece of music ever written. This is amazing, said Rattle’s every look and gesture, and it was. It helped a lot that Rattle was conducting his Birmingham orchestra, rather than his more recently acquired Berliners. In Birmingham, Rattle took a decent orchestra and, over a period of about two decades, wheedled, arm-twisted, blackmailed, begged, charmed, ordered, sacked and replaced, politicked, terrorised and seduced and generally all round made them play out of their collective skin. He also made Birmingham build them a brand new and very fine concert hall to play in. All the podium posturing Rattle likes to go in for accordingly seemed justified, in front of these lucky and adoring people (the cameras were especially keen on two very nice looking lady violinists), for he had earned the right to conduct them any way he wanted to. On the other hand, all that Great Conductor stuff in front of the Berlin Philharmonic looks, to me, rather embarrassing. Am I the only one who fears that Rattle may now have reached his level of incompetence? I mean, what can he tell those guys that Abbado, Karajan and the rest of them have not?

The BBC also recently aired two other Beethoven shows that I found of extreme interest, and which complemented one another very nicely.

First, there was the rerun of Eroica, last Monday on BBC4 TV, which all takes place on the day of the first performance, June 9th 1804, of that symphony, and centres on that first performance itself (re-performed in its entirety), at the Vienna home of Prince Lobkowitz.

I enjoyed Eroica a lot, but had doubts. The performance of the symphony itself, invisibly conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, was too polished and polite and safe sounding. I cannot believe that the first performance of the Eroica was as efficient and as error-free as this one was. In this respect, it was the polar opposite of ‘authentic’, for all that Gardiner is the original instruments, original performing practice maestro par excellence. Basically, the Gardiner soundtrack was conducted, in the Simon Rattle sense, while the original performance itself was not. It was merely kept in reasonable time by the lead violinist, with occasional scowlings and arm wavings from Beethoven himself.

And even if this was exactly how the Eroica Symphony sounded at its premiere, there is one item of originality that it is nearly impossible to conjure up out of the distant past, and that is the audience. It is one thing to hear the first two chords of the Eroica for the hundredth time, in an age of stadium rock and hi-fi volume knobs on our CD players; quite another to hear these two explosions when they were the loudest and most bad-mannered musical noises that anyone had, until then, ever heard indoors. To communicate musical and social disruption like that takes acting, and acting is hard when all you are doing is listening along to classical music. We did get a sense of what a musical revolution it all was, but more from what was said than merely from how they smiled, or looked severe and disapproving, during the music itself.

Ian Hart played Beethoven like a north of England cotton factory manager, which may well have been what he was like, I suppose, although from what I have read, he was a bit more eccentric than that. And Beethoven’s deafness was talked about – by Beethoven to his much put-upon assistant, and by such people as the aristocratic young lady who was refusing to marry him – but it still did not really come across as the dominant fact of Beethoven’s life at that time, from which all else was to flow. Ian Hart’s Beethoven seemed too much in control to get that across.

I mean, imagine it. You have it in you to be the greatest composer ever, and you know it, and you are already a huge worldly success as a composer and musical performer. And you are going deaf. And what is more, it is the kind of tormenting deafness that comes with a relentless, unavoidable, un-switch-offable sound attached. Imagine being Beethoven, and having to live with that, all day and every day, until death do you part. And then tell me that anything else in your life is going to matter a damn by comparison, aside from music itself.

Napoleon, revolutionary democrat, or betrayer of revolutionary virtue when he proclaimed himself Emperor? Well, yes, all very unfortunate, and Beethoven was duly enraged, and duly tore up the dedication page with Napoleon’s name on it. Silly aristocrats loftily lecturing him about how to compose music, as of right, when he, Beethoven, regarded himself as their social equal and as their human superior. More bad temper. But what was really enraging Beethoven at that time was that he was being betrayed by his most important musical organs, his ears.

All of which is extremely well explained here, in the website attached to the TV show. But the show itself didn’t quite drive this point home:

1802, however, was a year of crisis for Beethoven, with his realization that the impaired hearing he had noticed for some time was incurable and sure to worsen. That autumn, at a village outside Vienna, Heiligenstadt, he wrote a will-like document, addressed to his two brothers, describing his bitter unhappiness over his affliction in terms suggesting that he thought death was near. But he came through with his determination strengthened and entered a new creative phase, generally called his “middle period”. It is characterized by a heroic tone, evident in the “Eroica” Symphony . . .

That is the bit of the story that really matters.

By focussing all our attention on one day of Beethoven’s life, after he had pulled himself together and resolved to tough out his deafness, and by Beethoven being placed in an inevitably social setting, we got to see the outer Beethoven, so to speak, the mostly stoical, occasionally exasperated, face that he presented to the world, rather than the inner man. Which was interesting, but which did not get to the heart of the matter. And it especially did not get to the heart of the matter if you did not know the Heiligenstadt part of the story that came earlier.

In this respect, I found episode one of Beethoven, shown on BBC2 on Friday evening, more telling. In many ways this programme was a muddle compared to Eroica, and featured a deal too much of Charles Hazelwood strutting about and opining for my liking. At the very beginning, we saw Hazelwood gazing soulfully into the distance, for all the world as if he, or someone, thought he was Beethoven. But for all its faults, from this docu-drama film you got a stronger sense of what a catastrophe Beethoven’s deafness was for him, both socially and professionally.

That the young Beethoven was a social and musical lion was splendidly illustrated with a scene in which he was shown trouncing some other bloke you have never heard of in a piano improvisation contest, to tumultuous acclaim. But, faced with the horror of his deafness, Beethoven had to give up all that, and he withdrew into a parallel musical universe, and in the process decided, by a supreme effort of will, to become the Beethoven who has ever since then been loved and celebrated. As Frank Finlay’s Haydn was shown explaining, when he showed up half way through the premier of the Eroica (in Eroica), Beethoven turned music from being the mere supply of aural wallpaper for aristocrats (albeit often superbly well done) into the supreme vehicle of personal artistic expression. Not even Mozart ever went as far as Beethoven did with the Eroica. Beethoven never turned his back on the classical style, but he used it to serve altogether new artistic purposes. As Haydn said, everything is now changed.

While Sir Simon Rattle’s career may or may not illustrate the dangers of reaching one’s level of incompetence, Beethoven’s career illustrates an opposite process, which is that many people have to reach up to their level of competence before they can truly shine. Beethoven (like many politicians, I think) is an example of the late Sir Peter Ustinov’s dictum that top people are those without sufficient qualifications to detain them at the bottom. Deafness smashed up any plans Beethoven had for overwhelming and immediate worldly success, and for getting himself a pretty aristocratic wife and having a pretty aristocratic family. All he had left, and only in a very weird and other-worldly form, was music. In Heiligenstadt, he decided that, musically, he would go for broke, and write music of a greatness never before heard, and which he himself would scarcely hear, and later on not hear at all, except in his mind’s ear. What else could he do?

In an earlier posting here, I speculated that Shostokovich might not have been such a fine composer had Stalin not tormented him. Something very similar applies, I think, to Beethoven’s deafness.

Chance, God, destiny, call it what you will, created in Beethoven the archetypal Great Composer. It equipped him with supreme musical and compositional talent, adding into the starting mix a vilely bad tempered, drunken and financially incompetent father, thereby ensuring that Beethoven got into the habit of relying on his own economic and his own inner psychological resources from an early age. It then allowed Beethoven to taste enough worldly and conventional success, or as near to conventional as Beethoven was capable of, for him to get everyone’s attention. And then, with one evil disability, it snatched away everything except his ability to compose and people’s willingness to attend to his compositions. It dealt Beethoven a hand which combined personal ecstasies with personal agonies, with both disaster and with the inner courage he needed to struggle ceaselessly against disaster, together with a sublimely flexible artistic language with which he could universalise these experiences. Out of all this emerged a social misfit, who picked his nose with candlesticks, who moved house over fifty times, whose outbursts of rage and frustration echoed those of his ghastly father and who terrified everyone he had anything to do with, but who was also . . . Beethoven.

The Heiligenstadt testimony reeks, understandably, of self-pity. But as I recently read in a CD sleeve note by George Tintner, Beethoven – like Bruckner, whom Tintner was writing about, but unlike Mahler or Tchaikovsky – purged all trace of self-pity from his music.

Thanks to the BBC, and also to such things as the Internet (which finally had me actually reading the Heiligenstadt Testament for the first time), I now understand all this a whole lot better than I did a week ago.

9 comments to Eroica

  • Verity

    God, Brian, I don’t know what to say. That was a mind-boggling post. I’m in awe.

    It is too deep and intense to discuss in general, but just to address one tiny part of it, is it fair to say Rattle has been, in effect, Peter Principled? I mean, isn’t there a level beyond which it’s not possible to go?

    The Eroica is my Beethoven favourite; and my second favourite is The Duke of Wellington’s Victory Dances, which is a very intriguing work.

  • I was all excited about this post until I noticed what the title really read… ;(

  • Robert

    Maybe if we demand it enough we will get a thread based on the title we all thought it was.

  • benjybritten

    “(And yes, I quite agree that if you do not care for Beethoven, you should not have to pay for it, blah blah. Let us take that as a given, shall we?)”

    Can we, then, also take it as a given that you’d prefer not have seen this programme? As we know, the BBC is evil. In fact, shouldn’t we allow market forces to kick-in and wave bye-bye to classical music full stop? All classical labels run on losses, most symphony orchestras are funded to the hilt, and the only place you see / hear this kind of broadcast – certainly in the UK – is via dear old Auntie.

    I’m getting mixed signals, Brian. How do you like your bread buttered?

  • Andrew Duffin

    Heh. I had to look back at the title of the post in order to work out what you ‘orrible lot might have THOUGHT it was. Shame on you.

    But back to the topic.

    Did Klemperer ever conduct anything at the right tempo, Brian? Every single thing I’ve ever heard has been like a dirge. Maybe I missed his youthful stage or something?

    Just wondering.

    And I am old enough to have been to watch Beecham conducting the good old BBC orchestra at the Albert Hall back in the 60’s.

    (that’s good old orchestra, not good old BBC, before you all start up again..;-)

  • Magnificent, Brian, thank you.

    My brother played for the CBSO quite regularly in Rattle’s Birmingham days, and rates him quite highly. Personally I’ve never heard him live, and none of the (few) recordings I’ve heard of him have made me want to particularly.

    A hot up-and-coming composer to look out for is Arild Remmereit. I heard him with the Munich Phil a little while ago and he was great; recently he was in Pittsburgh and seems to have turned heads there too.

    Any chance of ever getting the culture archives back on brianmicklethwait.com?

  • Johnathan

    Terrific post, Brian. I have been to Birmingham and the new musical facilities in that city are superb. Rattle’s contribution has been immense. People often tend to snobbishly overlook any cultural life outside the M25. Manchester also has a fine classical musical tradition, going back to the influence of Halle.

    Which CD of Eroica do you recommend, Brian?

  • Johnathan

    I also see that a guy above, bemused by your remarks about the BBC, claims that orchestras are loss making and one could not see programmes like this without the licence-fee supported BBC. Is that actually true or collectivist horse manure?

  • Johnathan: I’m not Brian, but for sheer passion I recommend Furtwängler’s 1944 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic – if you don’t mind lousy sound quality and having to mentally hold your nose at the thought of who’s in the audience.

    My personal second favourite, with better sound, would be Erich Kleiber with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw circa 1950. I have some other recomendations here