Tuesday, February 2, 2016

New Insights into Beethoven's Symphonies

Last year, I enjoyed reading and learned a great deal from Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. In the beginning of this new year of 2016, I have been completely enthralled by another new book on the symphonist from Bonn. Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven Symphonies: An Artistic Vision (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015) was, for me, a real page-turner, shedding many new lights onto these iconic masterpieces that are such a part of our consciousness.

I was astounded to learn that because of the direction Beethoven scholarship and research took in the 20th century, only about twenty percent of the composer’s sketchbooks have been transcribed and published. In this information-packed book, the author went back to the source material including, significantly, the Eroica Sketchbook and, even more interestingly, many of Beethoven’s brief concept sketches marked Sinfonia or Sinfonie, tantalizing ideas for symphonies that “never got beyond this incipient stage.”

For each of the symphony, the author gives an outline and analysis of each movement. What made this book such a compelling read was the author’s insights into the genesis of each of the nine symphonies, as well as some of the historical and biographical background.

Throughout the book, Lockwood made connections between incidents –  personal and historical - in Beethoven’s life and the genesis of the symphonies. He argued against scholars such as Carl Dahlhaus, who dismissed the “intertwining of a great artist’s life and work” by “regarding the events of Beethoven’s life as essentially irrelevant to his works.”

In the introductory chapter, the author recounted a conversation between violinist Karl Holz and Beethoven. Holz intimated that one finds in the composer’s instrumental works a representation (Darstellung) analogous to the state of Beethoven’s soul. Because only Holz’s statement had been written down, we do not know what the composer’s response was, but we could deduce from Holz’s subsequent statements that Beethoven was not in disagreement.

Just as in the string quartets and piano sonatas, we can trace in the symphonies the evolution and development of his thinking as a composer, Lockwood argues that the symphonies “were not merely conceived as individual projects but were the products of an artistic vision that persisted throughout Beethoven’s lifetime.” This argument is borne out by the fact that ideas for many of the later symphonies were conceived of many years before the actual composition of the works. For instance, although it has been generally accepted that Beethoven sketched ideas for a D minor symphony in 1811 to 1812. But a much earlier entry in 1804 in the Eroica Sketchbook reveals an entry marked “Sinfonia in D Moll,” months after he completed his early drafts for the Eroica symphony and the Waldstein Sonata, and shortly after he wrote down his initial ideas for the Fifth Symphony. These early seeds, according to Lockwood, “looks at first like a passing thought but…holds the seeds of later growth.”

Knowledgeable music lovers would know of Beethoven’s early, middle and late period compositions. Lockwood classified Beethoven’s nine symphonies into five compositional phases. The first phase ends with the writing of the First Symphony, when Beethoven was “establishing his credentials, having delayed the writing of a symphony until he had an opportunity for a public concert.” The second phase (1801 to 1806) covers the Second and Third, as well as first ideas for the Fifth and (less so) the Sixth, and includes composition of his sole opera, Leonore, its two great overtures (Nos. 2 and 3), and the Fourth Symphony. The third phase comprises the closely intertwined Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The fourth phase covers the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. After that came a hiatus from writing symphonies (although there were ideas for them) until his work on the Ninth Symphony - 1822 to 1824 - the fifth period.

There were also interesting discussions on the subject of the dedication of the Eroica Symphony. On the published title page, the dedication was “composed to celebrate the remembrance of a great man.” The author speculated whether the composer was thinking of Napoleon, as he was before his coronation. Another plausible candidate that might have captured the composer’s imagination would have been Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, killed in battle in 1806. Lockwood believed that instead of a single individual, Beethoven was referring to “an ideal, mythic figure, whose heroism is represented by the power and weight of this symphony and whose death is commemorated by its Funeral March as second movement.”

Beethoven’s sketchbooks contain not only musical ideas for compositions, but “concept sketches and movement-plans,” using musical notations as well as words. Lockwood pointed out that these movement plans reveal that the composer “could establish what its primary lineaments might be, and even if the movement-sequence changed later, at least one basic movement-idea often remained intact, one that could serve as the invariant against which he could set the other movements.” Therefore, it seems that Beethoven composed with a basic musical idea, a “basic thematic shape that has a definite form in pitch content and rhythm.” From this primary idea, the anchor or the invariant factor of the work, he could then “build successive elaborations and contrasts as he worked out the larger shape of a movement or a piece.” In the Eroica, for instance, the anchor or invariant would be the E-flat major theme that formed the symphony’s finale, but was earlier used in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus as well as the Op. 35 piano variations, the so-called Eroica Variations.

Regarding the Pastoral Symphony, there was a discussion of the programmatic nature (or not) of the work. From the statement of Donald Francis Tovey that “not a bar of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony would have been different if its ‘programme’ had never been thought of,” to the claim in the 19th century that Beethoven was “father of nineteenth-century program music,” Lockwood pointed out that one view needs not really invalidate the other. The author quoted from an article by Richard Will that Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “inhabits two generic worlds, that of the symphony and that of the programmatic symphony as it was practiced, not by Berlioz and Liszt, but by Beethoven’s contemporaries and predecessors.” On the one hand, Lockwood argued, Beethoven was using “time-honored pictorial devices known to the programmatic genres… in such a way that listeners could indeed delight in recognizing and enjoying his imitations of natural sounds within the fabric of the composition.” One needs go no further than to think of the famous birdcalls at the end of the second movement, where Beethoven actually named the three individual birds. That said, the composer was, at the same time, writing a symphonic work “whose high level of expressive and formal cogency would match that of his recent path-breaking symphonies.”

The author gave his readers much food for thought about the (relatively) less played symphonies – the first and second, the fourth and eighth. Lockwood told us, for instance that, “without the innovations of the Second Symphony the Eroica might not have been possible.” About the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, Lockwood wrote that it “fully anticipates the world of the Romantics four decades later.” Regarding the Scherzo of the same work, a full five-part form with all sections written out (rather than merely repeated), the writer believes that this movement “now stands up handsomely to the other large movements in its weight and length, rather than serving as a point of relaxation before the finale.” I was fascinated to learn that sketches for the Eighth Symphony show that Beethoven initially conceived of the musical ideas not for a symphony at all, but for a piano concerto. Regarding the Eighth Symphony, Lockwood reminded us that Beethoven’s “re-animation of the classical manner in the Eighth should be seen not as a regression, but as a further widening of his command of a wide range of stylistic direction.” The author went on to argue that many aspects of this work foreshadow the composer’s late style.

A discussion of all the fascinating revelations this book contains would not be possible in this brief piece, but I would like to end with the author’s view, as part of the section that addresses the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, that Beethoven “is too little appreciated as a melodic composer because of the powerful developmental character of so much of his music.” Lockwood quoted Beethoven’s own words in a letter from 1825, that “melody must always be given priority above all else.” To me, the idea of melody for Beethoven might be akin to Wagner’s idea of melos, or song. Not an 8-bar melody in the sense of a Rossini aria, but something larger, something that is capable of expanding over an entire large-scale structure, such as a movement of a Beethoven symphony. Wagner reportedly believed that “the melodic flow in the Beethoven symphonies streams forth inexhaustibly, and that by means of these melodies one can clearly recall to memory the whole symphony.”

Can we, with all the disturbing news of wars and violence that come our way from every corner of the globe, still believe in Schiller’s sentiment that: “All men shall become brothers” (Alle Menschen werden Brüder)? Lockwood ended this mastery volume by sharing with his readers an excerpt from Kant that Beethoven wrote down for himself, “the moral law within us and the starry skies above us.” Indeed Beethoven’s “belief that personal recognition of both the earthly and the transcendental enables the realization of the human potential.” The symphonies of Beethoven, even today, bring us to a higher plane of consciousness, a higher plane of existence, and they are perfect examples that great music can still mean something to us in this “fragmented and pessimistic age.”

Patrick May

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