Revisiting Beethoven's Beloved, Radical Symphonies For His 250th Birthday | KBIA

Revisiting Beethoven's Beloved, Radical Symphonies For His 250th Birthday

Feb 25, 2020
Originally published on November 11, 2020 3:11 pm

This year marks the 250th birthday of one of the most revered composers who ever lived: Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. Beethoven wrote hundreds of piano sonatas, overtures and chamber pieces, but truly made his mark with his nine symphonies. To celebrate the impact of those pieces, Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique — an ensemble that has won international acclaim with concerts and recordings of Beethoven's compositions — will be performing all nine symphonies in a series of concerts in New York and Chicago.

NPR reached Gardiner in between performances at Carnegie Hall, to hear about the personal — and surprisingly political — side of Beethoven's music. Listen to the full conversation in the player above, or read on for highlights from the interview.

Interview Highlights

On why Beethoven is a key figure in classical music history

He was the first composer of symphonies who was addressing a public audience, as opposed to a court audience or an aristocratic audience. And he decided that not the piano sonata, not the string quartet, not any of the other forms was to be his arena. The symphony was to be his arena for dealing with highly charged, important philosophical and political issues.

On the reception to Beethoven's music during his lifetime

You have to remember that he was composing in Vienna, which was the most conservative society that's existed, until Donald Trump's America. He was writing subversive, radical music that was not totally appreciated by the audiences of the time — nor even by the orchestras, who were sight reading them on very little rehearsal.

Some of the reviews were quite favorable, which is amazing when you think that they probably were not very well performed at all, really, until after his death. He died in 1827, and it was the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1828, the first orchestra that really did justice to Beethoven's symphonies. And those performances had a huge impact on the musical world because composers as different as Wagner, Berlioz and Chopin attended. The word got around that here was an amazing symphonist, an amazing composer, who was addressing these deep issues, philosophical concerns, humanitarian concerns, political concerns, in a very volatile atmosphere, with such incredible emotional power and content.

On the revolutionary meaning behind one of Beethoven's most famous compositions, his Fifth Symphony

The Fifth Symphony [is] a bold polemical statement espousing the values of equality, fraternity and liberty that came from the French Revolution. Actually, the famous opening, the knocking on the door, is a quotation from a French Revolutionary hymn by Cherubini called "Hymn du Panthéon." The derivation of that rhythm and the words, which of course are not spoken, contain a message which, had it been made explicit by Beethoven, would have landed him in the deepest possible water. It's based on a text which goes "We swear, sword in hand, to defend and fight for the Republic and for the rights of man." That's pretty outspoken.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year marks the 250th birthday of one of the most revered composers who ever lived...

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL: II. MOLTO VIVACE")

KELLY: ...Ludwig van Beethoven. He was born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany. To mark the anniversary, all nine of his symphonies are being performed in New York and Chicago by an orchestra led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. We reached Gardiner in between performances at Carnegie Hall to hear about the personal and surprisingly political side of Beethoven's music.

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER: He was the first composer of symphonies who was addressing a public audience as opposed to a court audience or an aristocratic audience. And he decided that not the piano sonata, not the string quartet, not any of the other forms was to be his arena. The symphony was to be his arena for dealing with highly charged, important philosophical and political issues.

KELLY: Was he seen as a radical in his day, a revolutionary, someone subverting the form?

GARDINER: Well, you have to remember that he was composing in Vienna, which was about the most conservative society that's existed, you know, until Donald Trump's America.

KELLY: (Laughter).

GARDINER: And...

KELLY: Go on.

GARDINER: He was writing subversive, radical music, which was not totally appreciated by the audiences at the time nor even by the orchestras who were sight-reading them on very little rehearsal.

KELLY: Oh, really? He was not popular among the musicians being asked to perform him.

GARDINER: Well, he was popular as an improviser and as a pianist. It took him a while to establish his credentials as a symphony composer. The orchestras that were playing under his baton were made up of a mixture of jobbing musicians, freelancers and amateurs. Parts of the symphony written out were not accurate crossings-out. Revision that he's written over the top are very difficult to decipher, and it's a miracle that they - that they're legible at all, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 55 EROICA: III. SCHERZO (ALLEGRO VIVACE)")

GARDINER: And you have to remember that he was not profoundly deaf, but he was going deaf...

KELLY: Yes.

GARDINER: ...From his late 20s, early 30s so that he himself couldn't actually experience or hear his own symphonies with any degree of accuracy.

KELLY: That's astonishing when you think about that. How did it impact the music, as best as you can surmise?

GARDINER: Well, some of the reviews were quite favorable, which is amazing when you think that they probably were not very well-performed at all until, really, after his death. He died in 1827. And it was the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1828 that were the first orchestra that really did justice to Beethoven's symphonies. And those performances had a huge impact on the musical world because composers as different as Wagner, Berlioz and Chopin attended. And the word got around that here was an amazing symphonist, an amazing composer who was addressing these deep issues of philosophical concerns, humanitarian concerns, political concerns in a very volatile atmosphere with such incredible emotional power and content.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT, OP. 55 - EROICA: IV. FINALE (ALLEGRO MOLTO)")

KELLY: I suppose this is like asking a parent which is their favorite child. I won't ask which is your favorite of these symphonies, but of the nine, is there one that you secretly look forward to conducting the most that's more fun?

GARDINER: I'm going to answer the same way as you put the question, which...

KELLY: You can't possibly pick.

GARDINER: That I can't possibly pick, and I love them all deeply. I mean, he writes symphonies in pairs so that, for example, the Fifth Symphony, which is the most, I were to note, political symphony, is also twin brother to the Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral" Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6")

GARDINER: And in a way, they reflect the two sides of Beethoven's character, one being radical and polemical and the other being much more introspective and ruminative. One is urban, and the other is very much rural.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6")

KELLY: The Fifth - I suppose if people know any of Beethoven's work at all - it's the famous swell during the Fifth Symphony. Is it challenging as a conductor to find a new way into that, one of the most famous pieces of music that has ever been or ever will be performed?

GARDINER: Yeah, I think it is, but it's eased by the fact that if you just jettison all the kind of accretion, all the stuff that's surrounded the Fifth Symphony and see it as a bold, polemical statement espousing the values of equality, fraternity and liberty that came from the French Revolution and that, actually, the opening famous knocking-on-the-door theme - the ba, ba, ba, bum (ph) - is actually a quotation from a hymn - a French revolutionary hymn by Cherubini called "Hymne Du Pantheon."

KELLY: I didn't know that.

GARDINER: And the derivation of that rhythm and the words, which, of course, are not spoken, contain a message which, had it been made explicit by Beethoven, would've landed him in the deepest possible water. It's based on the text, which goes (speaking French). Will ye swear, sword in hand, to defend and fight for the republic and for the rights of man? I mean, that's pretty outspoken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR, OP. 67: I. ALLEGRO CON BRIO")

KELLY: You mentioned Trump, and it suggests to me you are aware that these works that were composed as political works 200-plus years ago - there is still political significance to performing them today in the United States.

GARDINER: Sure. I feel that very strongly - and also, Brexit because my orchestra's got a French name, but we're based in London, and it's composed of 14 different nationalities. And the ramifications, the consequences are - in a post-Brexit world in terms of work permits, visas and so on for my orchestra - are daunting, to say the least. And the isolationism and patriotism which is flirting with nationalism of a not particularly pleasant sort troubles me greatly.

KELLY: And what about here in Donald Trump's America?

GARDINER: Well, that's not for me to comment because I'm not a citizen of the United States. But as an observer and as somebody following political events, it's deeply troubling that he's somebody who is leading the free world. I'd probably be evicted straight away by now.

KELLY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8 IN F, OP. 93: II. ALLEGRETTO SCHERZANDO")

KELLY: Sir John Eliot Gardiner - his orchestra is performing all nine of Beethoven's symphonies in New York and Chicago in celebration of the 250th birthday of the composer. We were speaking to him there from Carnegie Hall in New York.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, thank you.

GARDINER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONNAIRE ET ROMANTIQUE AND JOHN ELIOT GARDINER PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8 IN F, OP. 93: II. ALLEGRETTO SCHERZANDO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.