Wings Over Ludwig

Photo by James Minchen

The timing was, as usual, immaculate. Only one aircraft penetrated the space over the Hollywood Bowl on opening night of the Tuesday/Thursday “classical” series, but that transgression occurred during the evening’s quietest moment. In the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there is a point when the simplistic, throbbing principal theme disintegrates down to a couple of notes that simply chase each other against a background of silence; eventually this activity takes on the shape of a fugue (which is, after all, another word for “chase”), and there is a swift, ferocious buildup. It’s a wonderful moment, but it’s the one we didn’t get to hear that night. Oh well, here we go again; I love the Bowl and so should you, but there are those problems . . .

Actually, this was one of the better Bowl evenings, and the size of the crowd — 7,500 or thereabouts — was above the Tuesday average. The high-flash piano whiz-bang Jean-Yves Thibaudet showed up in a suit, all shine and glitter, that exactly matched the music he got to play, the shine and glitter of Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. What distasteful music, these 20 or so minutes of empty exploitation of a shapeless tune, now fast and now slow now loud and now even louder! The young Thibaudet managed its banalities with steady hands; at the end one knew no more about his musical qualities than 20 minutes before; the paltry applause barely allowed for a solo bow.

Young Andreas Delfs conducted; he is German-born, currently head of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony. I had few kind words for his Philharmonic debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last year (Mozart, plus a new and empty-headed piece by Theodore Shapiro — remember?); all the greater, therefore, was his triumph at the Bowl this time around. The Beethoven Seventh is glorious, action-packed music, but that’s not the same as stating that the work can conduct itself. Aside from the usual Bowl practice of ignoring the composer-specified repeats, this was a strong, knowing performance, clear and brave and, allowing for the usual acoustic drawbacks, responsive to the work’s astonishingly broad range of sonority. (That range, I might as well confess, includes one of my favorite single notes in all music: the first horn’s blazing high E at the very end of the first movement. The Philharmonic’s William Lane did that note, and this grateful listener, proud.)

A smart performance of a Beethoven symphony always sends me home with the compulsion to write, write, write about Beethoven, and so it was this time. Everybody knows that not one of these nine works sounds like any other; what I find even more remarkable is that not one of the symphonies solves its own problems in the same way. The Fifth is extraordinary in its self-obsession; the Sixth, in its discursiveness; the Eighth, in its fond revisiting of ancestral models. The Seventh is a succession of irresistible crescendos, tidal waves, perhaps. The great recorded performances — Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic in 1936, Szell with the Cleveland in 1963, Harnoncourt with his own orchestra in 1990 — re-create that succession, and leave you exalted and drenched. Every movement seems to begin out of nowhere and build irresistibly. In the first movement it happens twice: in the spacious introduction, which takes you to the edge of a chasm and leaves you there, and the movement itself, which starts with the merest thread and jerks you constantly and violently until that culminating high E lands you safely ashore. In some way each of the ensuing movements works you over in similar fashion until the almost unbearable last few minutes. The low instruments grind out their final menace, and the rest of the orchestra, virtually aflame, becomes something you even feel in your teeth.


You don’t need me to write about Beethoven; the bookshelf is well-stocked. Lewis Lockwood’s The Music and the Life of Beethoven (W.W. Norton, $39.95) is a recent arrival, and an excellent one. It is the latest in a long line of fat volumes that bravely attempt a synthesis between the questions in Beethoven’s pain-haunted life and the answers that might lurk within the music. The most honorable of these authors — and Lockwood is one, along with (among others) Maynard Solomon in 1977 and Alexander Wheelock Thayer in 1866 — quickly come to realize that synthesis is impossible. The lifeline of Beethoven himself, and the lifeline of the 138 opus numbers that make up his staggering legacy, intersect only sporadically and then inconclusively. How do we match up the Seventh Symphony, with its gigantic outbursts of sheer joviality, the pounding rhythms of dancers not yet choreographed, with the composer whose hearing was virtually gone, whose abdominal distress and bronchial trauma were constant companions?

Lockwood is an excellent companion, as we struggle with, and then reject, the need to answer such questions. His account of Beethoven’s life, the society in which he moved, the dealings with publishers and performers to get his music attended to, manages with considerable grace to keep in front of us the awareness of the unfathomable genius about whom this history is being told. As often as we have heard the account of the “Eroica” Symphony, the planned dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte and the erasure of that dedication, Lockwood tells the story particularly well. Best of all, in his near-600 pages on the vagaries and products of genius, he keeps us close to Beethoven’s own awareness of what he is about. We know today that the “Eroica”’s explosive implications — the intensity of its language and the vastness of its design — changed the nature of music for all time. What we might forget, however, is that Beethoven himself knew what he had accomplished, in this work and across the realm of his creativity: that the “Eroica” in its time was “the greatest work I have yet written.” The image of the innocent genius, on whose shoulders the hand of God gently rests, makes for good film scripts and music appreciation CD-ROMs; this splendid new book, accessible and reader-friendly as it is, tells of battles hard fought and won, and thereby tells the truth.


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