And now, we come to the Colossus that overshadows pretty much the entire history of the symphony since he put his pen to paper: Ludwig van Beethoven, whose nine symphonies represent one of the greatest of all human artistic achievements. I’m not going to feature all nine in this space — we’ll just do four, over this and the next three weeks. And where else to start than Beethoven’s beginning, his Symphony No. 1 in C Major.
At this point, Beethoven is still very much the Good Little Classicist, still standing firmly in the tradition of Mozart and Haydn, which is why this symphony clocks in at a nice and respectable 25 minutes. You can already hear hints of the independent streak that will lead Beethoven in deeply original and fascinating directions, such as his substitution of a forceful scherzo for the usual minuet. He hasn’t quite started to quite push against the boundaries yet, but you can tell that the boundaries won’t hold him back. This genial work is where it starts.
Pay special attention to the opening of the fourth movement, which is one of my favorite moments in all of classical music. Beethoven has the orchestra flirt with the major scale, making the music sound almost tentative, as if the orchestra itself isn’t sure of what to do — and then they hit on one of Beethoven’s most effervescent melodies as all the confidence comes flooding back. It’s one of the most charming moments in music I know, and it stands against the usual stereotypical picture of Beethoven as the moody genius shaking his fist at the heavens.
A special word about the performances I will be using for the Beethoven portion of this feature: they are all taken from the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies performed at the BBC Proms concerts in 2012, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This group is a youth orchestra comprised of students of Middle-Eastern background, and it was created not so much to promote peace as to demonstrate the kind of cooperative effort that is the true basis for peace. Maestro Barenboim has said of the orchestra:
The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward [Edward Said, Barenboim’s partner in forming the orchestra] died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.
I don’t know to what degree an orchestra can help foster peace, but this is a wonderful orchestra. Their sound and musicianship is as professional as any I’ve heard. More on the orchestra’s background here.
Next week: Beethoven Unchained!
I'm really enjoying this series. I like symphonies, but I've always drifted more towards tone poems and orchestral pieces, and I'm finding this really interesting to read because I've never really made a study of symphonies.
Also, on a self-serving level, I love listening to the videos on Sunday mornings, when I write my Hobo Trashcan column, because the music and I usually finish about the same time. It's a wonderful backdrop.
(Sunday morning is my favorite time for music.)
I always liked the odd Beethoven symphonies more than the even, though I do in fact like the 8th.