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Beethoven, Myth and Reality 

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
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Another Opening . . .

I will never tire of writing about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or of encountering new reasons for wanting to. On a benign Tuesday last week, that music — calm and openhanded one moment, furious and mysterious the next, triumphant yet watchful at the end — joined the air traffic and the heavenly bodies over the Hollywood Bowl, sent aloft by a respectful if not exactly eloquent performance by the forces massed, under Leonard Slatkin’s direction, on the stage down below. It was an Occasion (capital O): the Bowl’s first classical concert of the season — not to be confused with “Opening Night,” however, which had taken place some days (or weeks) before. You could tell this one, however, because the dwindling ranks of the classical press — freeloaders all — were beguiled pre-concert by a splendid Patina spread.

It seems to me, however, that a performance of the Ninth Symphony used to be even more of an Event (capital E). I heard it first in Boston in 1942. It was a Special (capital S, okay, let’s drop this) Boston Symphony Pension Fund concert that took up the whole of Easter Sunday afternoon and evening. It began with the “Egmont” Overture, and there was a dinner intermission after the first movement of the symphony. (Imagine!) The concert itself is not very clear in my memory, except for the way Serge Koussevitzky got the cellos and basses to play the “Ode to Joy” theme so softly that you heard it in your chest rather than in your ears, and for the fact that the Ninth Symphony came over to me and my self-important Harvard-freshman friends as some kind of unapproachable relic that one attended with a special brand of awe reserved for this one occasion and spoke about only in hushed tones for weeks afterward.

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Times change. The Ninth has been with us twice in recent weeks, and when Esa-Pekka Salonen performed it to end his “Beethoven Unbound” series last May, its impact was much diminished by its proximity on the program to the Ligeti Requiem. A vast and all-encompassing Beethoven Myth began soon after the composer’s death in 1827; no other composer — no other figure in the arts great or small — has bequeathed so rich a fodder to feed that kind of myth and renew its impact over the generations. The letters left behind (the Testament, the Unnamed Beloved), the unresolved family squabbles (the nephew), the mere biographical facts (the fights with landlords, the unpaid bills, the final illness, the funeral orations) . . . all these fuel novels, movie scripts. More than that, they spin off their own stories. They give us the Beethoven cult, not that far removed from the neo-Nazis of A Clockwork Orange. Somewhere in a drawer I think I still have a T-shirt from 1970, the Beethoven Bicentennial, from a Bay Area DJ, with the message that “Beethoven was Black (and Proud).”

This is all sideshow material, however, which the facts of Beethoven’s life supply in profusion. They go nowhere, however, in reaching a reconciliation in words with the miracle that takes place as fragments of musical gesture emerge out of blankness, somehow know to attach like ovarian cells, and form the astonishing bulk out of which the Ninth Symphony is born. This process, furthermore, is being regulated before our wondering ears by an aging, ailing, neurotic dyspeptic who happens, incidentally, to be stone-deaf, who finds from somewhere within his wounded soul the power to lead this material, to shatter it and rebuild it, to transform it at one moment into a song for horns of shivering, distant beauty, and at another into howling, defiant apotheosis. The first movement of the Beethoven Ninth is one, perhaps the foremost, of the Significant Monsters of my musical treasure chest. Hearing it sort of slink by, under a conductor who obviously knows the notes but doesn’t seem to let on that he cares for them, was not my happiest Bowl memory. (Mr. Slatkin did have the good manners, however, to observe all of Beethoven’s called-for repeats in the ensuing scherzo, and in the Eighth Symphony before intermission. Not all Bowl conductors are that considerate.)

Another Show

It’s easy enough to belittle the wonderful Eighth Symphony, especially if it turns up — as it did this time — as curtain raiser (“prep work,” my colleague dubbed it) to the Ninth. The connection is only an accident of numbering; the Sixth is hardly prep work to the Seventh. The individuality of the Eighth lies on every page, but most marvelously in the game-playing with sudden key changes, the quick lunges from a solid footing in one key to somewhere in the middle of next week. These tricks abound in the first movement and finale, and they are great fun.

The last two or three minutes of the work sum up the best that was in Beethoven’s lighter side. An orderly finale has come to its supposed close along the lines of proper classical form. The opening theme had come to an unruly cadence on a C sharp that had no place in the well-behaved key of F major. Now, at what should be the end, Beethoven lands on that C sharp, and it suddenly turns into a skyrocket. Where the music should properly end, it launches into a headlong flight through a sequence of unrelated keys, while the winds in the orchestra seem to surround the process with giggles and laughter. It’s a glorious event that eventually straightens itself out. Besides drawing from Mr. Slatkin an infinitely more spirited and, I dare say, more comprehending reading, the Eighth proved itself, as it always does, very much its own work. Told by some critic that his Eighth Symphony was less a success than the longer, larger-scale Seventh, Beethoven is said to have replied, “That’s because it’s so much better.” I think he was right.?

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