It’s a little before one o’ clock in the morning on January first. I’ve just attended the Minnesota Orchestra New Year’s concert, and I’m in the atrium at Orchestra Hall. I’ve forgotten my coat on the rack and I need to get it before heading out into the icy new year.
Just inside the door, right beyond the dissipating crowds, there is a table loaded with CDs. Staff and volunteers are packing up boxes, but there is still a Minnesota Beethoven cycle left.
I stand and consider it. I think of the possibilities owning a complete recorded cycle would present. The Minnesota Orchestra is traversing all nine symphonies and all five piano concertos over the course of three weeks this January, and I have a ticket to every program. This CD set seems like a suitable memento.
Then I have an idea, and I step up to the table before my responsible side kicks in.
“Can I still buy this?” I ask the disassembling staff. “Sure,” they say, and they smile and hand me my change.
Looking at the set, I resolve to have my own Beethoven marathon…but as a listener. I promise myself I will find a day free from distractions and listen and follow the score to all nine symphonies, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth: all of them, straight through, no breaks, except for meals. I am inspired by the idea of a marathon. I am curious if these masterpieces speak differently together than singly.
So this morning…
11:00 AM. I open the set. I carefully consider the treasures within. I find the first disc. I check IMSLP for the score. I click play.
Beethoven 1 (ca 1800)
I recently played the first half of this piece with my amateur string orchestra. It was our first time playing Beethoven together, and that’s always a rite of passage. It was so much to perform with them. This symphony skitters back and forth like a puppy being leash trained.
But listening to it in context, thinking over what comes next, I’m…underwhelmed. First movement: I get it. Tremolo on an arpeggio. Good for you, man. If Beethoven had been in a tragic carriage accident immediately after the premiere, I’m skeptical we’d still be listening to this. (What would we be listening to?)
What strikes me most today is the violence of the sforzandos. Even at the beginning of his symphonic output, that’s a Beethovenian hallmark already very much in play. Regardless of what else might change in their interpretations from year to year, a Vänskä-led Minnesota Orchestra will kick those sforzandos hard, whether you like that or not.
The first finale of the nine melts me a little, though. It’s knowingly clever. It’s like a fizzing glass of champagne winking at you. You can’t help but want to drink it.
Beethoven 2 (1801-1802)
After the first symphony, the second feels like a veritable explosion of ideas. As I listen, I see a story (an opera?) playing out in my head. The first movement is an overture in and of itself. Plus, that flashy string writing! The should-be-a-minuet scherzo absolutely revels in being off-kilter and impossible to dance to, unless you want to look like a scarecrow disconnecting from your pole and flapping in the breeze.
Like most people, I haven’t paid a tremendous amount of attention to the second symphony. But I remember one thing very clearly, and that’s this factoid from the The Great Courses set of lectures I listened to years ago. Lecturer Robert Greenberg posited that the belches and hiccups in this movement are overt references to Beethoven’s issues…with gastroenterology. This idea intrigued and amused and horrified me all in equal measure. Apparently it stuck in someone else’s head, too, because it’s on the Beethoven 2 Wikipedia page.
So you’re welcome. I know you really wanted a musicological excuse to think about Beethoven’s bathroom habits. I live to serve.
12:45 PM. I defrost two pieces of bread. I take a knife from the drawer. I butter the bread pieces. I open the refrigerator and scoop out jelly. I remove a yogurt from the bottom shelf. I take a moment to reflect upon my glamorous work and life.
Beethoven 3 (ca 1804)
This has long been the Beethoven symphony that I respect but don’t love. Sometimes the bombast of it makes it hard for me to surrender to it, if that makes any sense. That being said, I do appreciate it more every time I hear it. And I’ve heard it a lot lately. It has appeared on Minnesota Orchestra programs more frequently than other piece post-lockout. Maybe after this January cycle, we can let the Eroica rest a bit. *gentle suggestion*
However, listening to it today and thinking of it in the context of a cycle… It’s beyond impressive. The growth between the first, then second, then third symphonies is almost frightening to contemplate. Look at the violence in the first movement first violin part alone. It’s staggering.
And how about that fourth movement, which begins with such a massive fanfare, then takes up a theme that wouldn’t be out of place in a nursery song? And yet out of such a simple theme comes all the vigor and tragedy and grandeur in the world. Damn.
The obvious question: Where do you go after this?
1:45 PM. I’m too lazy to move my dishes into the kitchen. My cat Genevieve absconds with a bread crust during the Eroica finale.
Beethoven 4 (1806)
So where do you go after the Eroica?
Why, to a symphony nobody ever plays, of course!!
Well, not nobody. But it seems like it. When you think of a headliner Beethoven symphony, nobody screams “THE FOURTH!” But I’m listening to it now and I’m not sure why it isn’t a blockbuster. It has clever pacing, character, mischief (so much mischief). The shadows in the first movement introduction are like movie music. The slow movement requires a marriage of elegance and control that, played well, takes your breath away. And the finale is like a beautifully malfunctioning motor that can never quite get started.
A while back, Osmo was interviewed by Gramophone magazine about the fourth symphony. It’s a great read. Among other things, he says:
Of all the nine symphonies, for me it is No 4 that is looking back a little bit to the earlier, Viennese, Classical style. It is more connected to the first two symphonies than to the Eroica. That’s how it speaks to me. I have always thought that the Eroica is the first big step to the Romantic era, the Fourth comes back – and we know what happened with the Fifth!
Beethoven 5 (1804-1808)
I wonder how many people can remember the first time they heard the fifth? I have no memory of learning it, only knowing it, and I think most people have had the same experience. That’s a loaded idea: a piece we all know before we even know that we know it. Every interpretation becomes a re-interpretation.
This is a symphony of rhythm, especially in Osmo’s hands. The incessant pounding of it! There’s the old (discredited) idea that the rhythm insinuates fate knocking on the door. Today this sounds less like fate knocking on the door than furious fate trapped inside a jail cell. After this assault of rhythm, the Minnesota version of the third movement feels almost like a waltz or a ballet: just delicious. And that ending. It keeps promising it’s going to end, and promising it’s going to end, and promising it’s going to end, and promising it’s going to end, and promising it’s going to end, and….promising it’s going to end, and then it does, and somehow the glory is worth all that wait.
Beethoven 6 (ca 1808)
When I think of Beethoven six, I think of words like “brooks!” and “fields!” and “thunderstorm!” and “peasants!” But today, after everything that has come before, I’m thinking of words like “rhythm” and “repetition” and “modernism” and even “minimalism.” In the fifth and sixth, Beethoven becomes fascinated by the effects of rhythm and stasis, colored by intense dynamic contrast. And slowly but surely he’s drawing me into this obsession.
In today’s context, this music is even more startling than the Eroica (or even the ninth). I guess because in all the other symphonies, you see hints of the violence, the revolution, to come. The narrative of Ever-Largening Biggerness makes sense. However, after the first through fifth symphonies, the last thing I expected was a tender-hearted sojourn into the countryside. On the surface, that transition doesn’t make sense…which also makes it all the more intriguing. From now on, I’m going to think of the sixth as the true radical among the symphonic siblings. It subverts nearly every expectation, and it works.
4:30 PM. I feel like I should be getting bored or restless or tired. I am not. I’m totally 100% absorbed. It is impossible to be bored by this.
Beethoven 7 (1811-1812)
I’ve been open on the blog about how Beethoven 7 is my favorite-est symphony ever. I’d be a lot cooler if I loved something else more, but I don’t, and I’m not. In today’s listen-through, I especially appreciate the rhythm of it, the color of it, the ebb and flow of it. Plus, such structure and cohesion: Beethoven knew exactly what to say and how to say it, and that’s just as attractive in a piece of music as it is in a person. The first movement twinkles with wit. The slow movement is seductive and theatrical. The scherzo dances and bounces and hints at something big to come. That something big is the finale, which doesn’t give you time or space for a single breath before spinning out of control and into orgasmic orbit. This music is batsh*t crazy, and it makes me laugh.
Every single time I listen to this symphony, I ask myself: is it really your favorite?, and every single time, I have to answer: yes. Yes, it is.
5:15 PM. I opt for the eighth symphony over an early dinner. The cats sleeping on me are pleased.
Beethoven 8 (1812)
This is the big surprise of today’s cycle. I must have heard Beethoven 8 at some point, but apparently I was not paying attention, because I did not remember how awesome it is. The premise: Beethoven returns to classical symphonic tradition after spending an entire career tearing away at classical symphonic tradition. The result is just as gloriously sarcastic as you’d expect.
We do not hear enough of this piece. To be fair, after the day I’ve had, after listening to all of these symphonies, the idea of Beethoven snarking on a classical era symphony is probably the most amusing it’s ever going to get. But still. Why have I not taken an interest in this piece before? Why have people not been like: you totally need to listen to Beethoven 8? Why have programmers not been like: you totally need to listen to Beethoven 8? It’s virtuosic, it’s so damn clever, and (dare I say it?) it has just as much energy as Beethoven 7. Plus, the sarcasm. The sarcasm here is amazing.
6:15 PM. For dinner I make some waffles.
6:35 PM. I realize I am not good at making waffles.
Beethoven 9 (1822-1824)
Annnd then. The ninth.
As the day comes to a close, I find myself dwelling not on the glory or gorgeousness of the Ninth, but rather on the non-existent work that might have come next. We think of Beethoven 9 as a summation. As the grand finale to a creative life well-lived. But in 1827 Beethoven wrote the London Philharmonic Society that he had sketches of a tenth on his desk. What if he had been granted a few years more? Or many more? What would the tenth and eleventh and twelfth have been like? Would they have caused us to reassess all the works that came before? Would decades of deafness have led him to embrace total cacophony? Would he have returned to the big symphonic forms, or would he have tightened his ambitions? And what about the old question, the one that haunted Wagner and Berlioz and Brahms and every other composer in the nineteenth century and beyond: where do you go after Beethoven’s Ninth? This might sound crass, but seriously, was death the only thing left?
There’s no way of knowing. But – I doubt it. I think the miracle of Beethoven’s creativity would have pulled through yet again, to bring us to something else that is now just…unknowable.
It’s evening now. After hours of concentrated listening, I’m starting to feel tired. But the day has been a rewarding one. I spent it in Beethoven’s wild imagination, tossed about by his sforzandos, melted by his melodies, in awe at his structure, logic, and his departures from structure and logic. In the end, I find I’m more drawn to this music than ever: trapped by it, even. Sooner or later, every listener must grapple with it.