Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
12 Oct 2015
Sir Simon Rattle
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 1 in C major, op. 21 (27 min.)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 “Eroica” (56 min.)
Over just five years, Ludwig van Beethoven undertook a long journey from his First Symphony to the Eroica. The starting point of this significant music historical development, beginning with the C major Symphony composed in 1799-1800, were the models of the late Haydn Symphonies, at that time the measure of all things with their balanced form, rich contrasts and individual characteristics.
Although Beethoven took over many of these patterns in his First Symphony, the idea of what is considered symphonic is re-defined here. This can already be heard in the dissonant seventh that initiates the work: until then there had never been a comparably exciting beginning. It seems as if Beethoven wanted to make unmistakably clear with this first measure that he would start the genre afresh at the beginning of the new century.
Sir Simon Rattle follows up the C major Symphony in his Beethoven cycle with the Eroica, once and for all breaking with all his contemporaries’ expectations. That’s because in this work Beethoven exceeded the limits of the convention on the “new path”, as he designated it in unprecedented clarity, with a music which nowhere repudiated the storehouse of intonation from the world of sound of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s victories, with numerous echoes of official commemorative hymns and funeral marches of the first French republic.
In so doing, the Eroica does not follow the tradition of the battaglia and battle symphonies, the genre to which Beethoven later made his own contribution with the tone poem Wellington’s Victory or The Battle of Vittoria op. 91. Instead the heroic inflection, similar to the Grande Sinfonie caractéristique pour la paix avec la République françoise written by Mozart’s contemporary Paul Wranitzky in 1797, professes a worldview that achieves universal significance without respect to the specific political context of the time.
A New Era: Beethoven’s First Symphony
The genre of the symphony seemed to have come to an end with Ludwig van Beethoven. Robert Schumann declared that the “limits” of instrumental music had been reached with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Johannes Brahms, on the other hand, went through an extreme symphonic trauma and felt literally haunted by the “giant” Beethoven, whom he constantly heard marching behind him. And Richard Wagner boldly asserted: “The last symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of music from its own element into the realm of universal art. ... Beyond it no forward step is possible.”
Yet even the “redeemer” was once starting out himself and in those days would surely never have dared to dream of such idealization of his art. Nevertheless, from the very beginning his ambition was to achieve a new proportioning of the four movements and to give the finale, which was traditionally less important, more weight. This challenge caused him considerable difficulty, however, and led him to make several revisions. He finally shifted the themes with which his First Symphony was originally supposed to open to the finale and composed entirely new versions of the first three movements.
A comparison of Beethoven’s First Symphony, which had its premiere in Vienna on 2 April 1800, with works of this genre by Mozart and Haydn reveals significant differences in several respects. Beethoven consistently calls for faster tempos in the various movements than was the case with his two older colleagues. The opening Allegro, for example, is to be played “con brio”, and even the slow movement should still be animated – “Andante cantabile con moto”. Extremely unusual, however, is the marking “Allegro molto e vivace” for a minuet; here Beethoven anticipates the new scherzo form. The dynamic character of the symphony is intensified even more, since the various ideas and musical figures follow each other at lightening speed, while accents and dynamic changes provide an aggressive, rebellious and energetic style. In particular, Beethoven’s unconventional humour also comes across, especially striking in the introduction to the finale, where he savours a simple scale almost comically.
The Third Symphony: Eroica
In his 1870 essay on Beethoven, Wagner made several noteworthy statements about the Third Symphony: “Now from such of Beethoven’s letters as have been preserved, and the uncommonly meagre information regarding the outer life ... what possible conclusion can be drawn as to the connection of any particular events with his musical creations, and the course of development perceptible therein? Supposing we had all possible information about special facts before us ... even then we should see nothing beyond what is contained in the account, for instance, that the master had at first designed the Sinfonia eroica as an act of homage to young General Bonaparte and inscribed his name upon the title-page; and that he had subsequently struck out the name, when he heard that Bonaparte had made himself Emperor. ... what aid can such a plain indication give us in judging of one of the most wonderful of musical creations? Can it explain a single bar of that score? Is it not sheer folly to think seriously of making such an attempt?” translated by Edward Dannreuther, 1903
One hundred forty-five years after Wagner’s comments, the awe he expressed plays a less dominant role, no longer hindering a purely musical deciphering of the work. What if we were to explain this sprawling E flat major symphony as Beethoven’s self-portrait? All the “abnormalities” displayed in this music – the use of 3/4 time in the opening movement, the reduction of the second theme to two bars, the introduction of two additional themes and another new idea before the recapitulation – can be interpreted as expressions of the will of an artist who was able to create himself and the world on his own terms. Implicit in the work is his struggle against obstacles, the greatest of which was the onset of deafness in 1802, in the midst of his work on the Eroica. The Marcia funebre documents his struggle against depression, so to speak. After the C major trio, an elaborate harmonic dialogue between all the participants develops out of the E flat major theme (returning in inversion), making the lament swell to an accusation. Not until the final bars, with their gradually disintegrating melody, does it come to rest.
The contrast between propulsive vigour and elegiac colouring continues to pervade the work. The development of the Scherzo is equally “non-conformist” – 92 bars of shadowy pianissimo, then a sudden fortissimo tutti outburst, followed by an episode in the countryside during the trio and a completely unexpected alla breve section in the reprise. In the Finale Beethoven returns to an idea he had used several times before, as though he had exhausted his reservoir of innovations in the first three movements. The theme occurs in the ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, in the Variations for piano, op. 35, later called the “Eroica Variations”, and, even earlier, in a Contredanse from 1795. The symphony goes far beyond the previous works, however, not only because a new march theme is added in the sixth variation. At the close a vehement, electrifying coda resounds – a “triumphant éclat” crowned by the last 21 bars in E flat major.
On CD & Blu-ray: Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Symphonies