Thursday, June 1, 2006

Brilliantly Breathtaking Beethoven

Last Thursday I attended my last concert in Southern California – it was at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and it was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Not only was it my last concert, but it was the Pacific Symphony’s last concert at OCPAC. They were moving across the street to the new multimillion dollar Segerstrom Hall, built “in the round” like the Disney Hall. They had only been in OCPAC 20 years, and they started their run there with the 9th, so it was very fitting that they end with it.

On reflection, what is 20 years? One of my companions turned to me and jokingly said “Could you imagine if they closed La Scala down after 20 years?” It’s true. Our culture is always in need of updating. In a society where your computer automatically updates your computer for you, even a concert hall isn’t permanent.

But the music we were listening to was. Say what you want about Beethoven – but the Ninth will give you chills – even if it's not live. The last time I had heard this piece live was in Boston Common with Seiji Ozawa and the BSO and about 50,000 Bostonians.

For those of you who have not heard this piece, let me give you a quick primer.

Beethoven and Mozart consistently switch between #1 and #2 in my mind as greatest classical composer, with Bach always a steady third. That’s just like Bach – steady. Beethoven, however, is not. And that’s where his critics get him. The 9th is par excellence why the classicists don’t like Beethoven, but even they have to admit that this piece is wonderful.

Symphonies are typically 4 movements. A theme is introduced in the 1st, developed in the 2nd, with an interlude in the 3rd, and a recapitulation and summary in the 4th. Mozart and Haydn showed their mastery of this genre in nearly 150 symphonies between them.

In the 9th, Beethoven does something extraordinarily novel – he introduces a 5th movement, and with that, a chorus which uses the operatic recitative to recapitulate the theme. Even beyond that, he uses the chorus as a mini-episode which carries a theme unto itself vis-à-vis the words. The words themselves are fairly meaningless and largely Masonic – but the orchestration is so beautiful that you will almost find yourself singing along – even in the German.

Indeed, I’m reminding of Beethoven’s passion in the words themselves – they are so hopeful in “the project of man” and in their humanism pay a last semblance of an homage to a Creator which our century has completely forgotten (as a brief aside, we started the concert with Schubert’s Tantum Ergo, which was an orchestration of a well-known Catholic hymn – I wondered aloud with my companion how many people knew they were listening to the words that Catholics listen to when they assist at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament).

In Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved, there is a scene in which Vienna is being shelled by Napoleon’s troops and Beethoven, holding his score for the Emperor Concerto (which he had so called in his optimism for the ideals of the French Revolution that he thought Napoleon would champion. Rather, Napoleon became more absolute a ruler than Europe had seen in 300 years), angrily scratches out the words “Emperor” to tragic strains of the 7th Symphony.

In today’s Ipod world – where music is defined by 3 minute dittys – it is a testament to the lasting and eternal in our souls when an audience can be captivated by a work stretching out over 5 movements and 80 minutes. True, the 3rd movement drags just a bit, but only a bit, and doesn’t in the least hinder one from enjoying what is unmistakably an unbelievable experience. I felt Beethoven stirring the waters of my soul – not with his finger, but rather with his hands, in big waves.

That, not the noise that claims to be it these days, is music.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

I enjoyed you post on Beethoven's Ninth. If you have a moment, I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on the film I'm doing on the Ninth, called Following The Ninth at

All the best,