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The Beethoven Imperative 

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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"Gusts of splendor, gods and demi-gods contending with vast swords, color and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory . . . it will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man."

--E.M. Forster, Howards End

BEETHOVEN LOOMS LARGE, AS HE ALWAYS has. He is of all composers, a wise critic once wrote, "the one who most insistently tells us that we cannot do without him." Fortunately, we never have to. Other composers rise and fall in the world's affection: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Mahler. Two bodies of work endure: Handel's Messiah and all of Beethoven. A few weeks ago the Beaux Arts Trio surveyed Beethoven's bequeathal for piano, violin and cello on three radiant evenings at UCLA. Next week John Eliot Gardiner, his Monteverdi Choir and his period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique transmute Orange County into pure gold with the eternal Nine spread over five evenings that portend fire and magic. To hear the first concert, however, you must forgo a Beethoven program by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Chamber Music Society that includes the astonishing C-sharp Minor String Quartet. All five piano concertos turn up on this summer's Hollywood Bowl docket. Next season's Philharmonic schedule lists four symphonies (one of them played by visitors from San Francisco), three concertos and a whole evening of violin sonatas.

His genius endures under many names. No single compositional trick in the entire musical realm casts a longer shadow than the opening of the Beethoven Ninth, that procession of veiled mutterings out of which the substance of the first movement takes shape only gradually. You can't name a composer in the whole panorama of romanticism who didn't find some use for Beethoven's gambit: Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler. Last week the Philharmonic played a work far outside the Beethoven orbit (or so you'd think): the delectable Fifth Symphony of Antonin Dvorák; yet the very opening of the work -- a sustained F-major splashing-around that goes nowhere and has a fine time doing so -- is a page shamelessly filched from the start of the Beethoven "Pastoral."

He endures as a press agent's dream; the Beethoven-as-icon industry is almost as old as the music itself. The gadgetry exists in lavish supply: the Napoleon biz with the "Eroica," the "fate knocking at the door" biz with the Fifth, the mysteries and ultimate triumph of the Ninth, the deafness, the "immortal beloved" biz, the movies good and rotten. (My favorite: Harry Baur in the organ loft, in Abel Gance's Beethoven, thundering out the Funeral March from the Opus 26 Piano Sonata while his erstwhile sweetie gets married to someone else down below.) The ultimate PR triumph came around 1940, when the handouts proclaimed that the world's two supreme cultural inevitabilities, Beethoven and Toscanini, had joined forces under the aegis of the National Broadcasting Co. The music-appreciation racket fed handsomely on clichés and half-truths. The exploitation of mass-produced Beethoven created, in the words of critic Theodor Adorno, "a tendency to listen to Beethoven's Fifth as if it were a set of quotations from Beethoven's Fifth."

His music endures in many shapes. Before 1910, a collector of recorded Beethoven in pursuit of, say, the "Moonlight" Sonata found fulfillment only on a single-sided Victor disc played by Vessella's Italian Band; now the range of choice fills a full column of teensy type in the latest Schwann. In 1913, Arthur Nikisch, by some distance the most renowned and revered conductor of his time, gathered as many Berlin Philharmonic musicians as could fit in front of an acoustic horn and recorded the first-ever complete Fifth Symphony. (That recording also endures, available on several reprint labels.) Granted, a Schwann column's worth of "Moonlights," or two of "Fifths," smacks of conspicuous consumption; even so, you can spend fascinating hours wandering through the versions, charting the many things that Beethoven's music has meant to many people over the many years.

TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, THE OPENING OF the Fifth, just the first phrase up to the sustained G: surely the most famous opening of a symphony ever, with the four-note motif standing in for "fate knocking at the door" (in Beethoven's words) to "V for Victory" (in Winston Churchill's). I put the stopwatch to several versions from my own collection; in just this one passage -- 20 seconds, out of a movement that lasts nearly eight minutes -- the differences were astonishing. Here is John Eliot Gardiner, with his historically informed instrumentation that produces a comparatively light tone, setting the speed record of 16 seconds; yet George Szell, mustering the full symphonic potency of the Cleveland Orchestra, ties that mark. Roy Goodman's Hanover Band, another "authentic" group, lumbers at a poky 19 seconds, matched by two "modern" ensembles: Bernard Haitink and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the 1955 performance by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna. (Karajan revved up somewhat in later performances; his 1990 video clocks in at 17.) Toscanini lopes along at 20. Carlo Maria Giulini's wonderful Los Angeles performance from 1982 whips by at 18 seconds, while his 1993 La Scala Philharmonic recording slows the pace down to 25. Arthur Nikisch, with the indulgent slowdowns and speedups that define a whole 'nother era of performance values, demands 27 seconds of our valuable time, but so, half a century later, does Bruno Walter's much less affected reading.

These figures have to be balanced against other matters, of course: how long you sustain the held E-flat in measure 2, or the held D in measures 4 to 5. Yet the differences among the 86 years of performing the Beethoven Fifth, or even the 59 years since Toscanini's recording, seem to me the exact counterpart of the infinite and continual variety embedded in this inexplicable music itself. The Beaux Arts series began with Beethoven's Opus 1 No. 1, music he looked upon as his way of getting his foot in the doorway to Vienna's musical society: jolly, titillating Biedermeier note spinning. The journey from there to the profound eloquence of the "Archduke" Trio -- the final work in the series -- or from the jaunty frivolity of the First Symphony to the defiant outcries in the first movement of the Ninth follows arduous roadways over vast expanses. Beethoven struggled to chart these roadways for himself -- struggles we can observe in the page after page of frustration and victory in the published sketchbooks. We owe him some struggle of our own to understand where he is taking us, and to sense the glory that awaits us on arrival. "Oh no, not Beethoven again!" the clods among us will intone; yet anyone who arrives with ears properly washed -- on five nights at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Hall next week, or on Thursday nights at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, or at the Music Center come fall -- will encounter at least one major surprise per work, however you may think you already know it. That's part of the magic.

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