Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5
13 Oct 2015
Sir Simon Rattle
Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonore Overture No. 1 in C major, op. 138 (11 min.)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36 (33 min.)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (37 min.)
In Beethoven’s Second Symphony in D major, anything playful or cheerful is banned from the musical vocabulary, substituted for by the pathos later described with terms like “greatness” and “majesty”. No wonder the critic from the Allgemeinen musikalischen Zeitung wrote of a “colossal work” whose Finale, a veritable tour de force, ends in a thrilling stretta coda, ensuring a resplendent apotheotic conclusion.
In his Fifth Symphony, which Sir Simon Rattle has placed on the second half of this programme within his Beethoven cycle, Beethoven again drew on the idioms of French revolution music that he had used in the funeral march of the Eroica. Accordingly, the orchestral instrumentation, expanded in the Finale to include for the first time three trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon, approaches the instruments used in ceremonial martial music. In addition, there are many thematic references to the music of the French Revolution, which is why Robert Schumann pointed out the similarity with the First Symphony in G minor by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, composed at the same time.
The famous “knocking motive” of the first movement seems to be taken, on the other hand, from Luigi Cherubini’s Hymne du Panthéon: the corresponding passage from the chorus, performed as the official music of the French Revolution in 1792, is about pledging to die for the republic and human rights.
This credo of liberté, égalité and fraternité also determines the opera Leonore or rather Fidelio, as in Beethoven’s interpretation Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s originally politically unobjectionable libretto shifted into the revolutionary. In total he composed four overtures to the various versions of the opera; the Leonore Overture No. 1 in C major op. 138 was the third. All Leonore overtures document the attempt to capture in compressed form the action on stage in sound, resulting in an impressive concentration of motives and harmonic developments.
Symphony No. 2 in D major
Beethoven had long made his mark as a successful piano virtuoso and conductor in Vienna when, directly after the completion of his First Symphony op. 21, he began sketching his Symphony No. 2 in D major op. 36. In addition, the publication of his compositions demonstrates that he was embarking on a new path as a composer who was to be taken seriously. And yet a dark shadow was cast over his life. “For almost two years,” he wrote to his childhood friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler on 29 June 1801, “I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.” A devastating testimony to this desperate situation is the Heiligenstädter Testament which Beethoven wrote in the autumn of 1802. By this point, the Second Symphony was largely completed. Although Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl had already offered the work to the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in March 1802, it was eventually issued, in 1804, by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie in Vienna. Prior to that the symphony had been heard in a private concert at the palace of its dedicatee, Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, then publicly under the composer’s direction on 5 April 1803 at the Theater an der Wien.
Even if the Second Symphony does not reflect the reality of his life at that time, Beethoven creates a sense of drama. This begins right from the slow introduction to the first movement with the descending D minor triad with its fortissimo dotted rhythm (bar 23) which Armin Raab describes as a signal of horror. After this, in spite of the tempo indication “Allegro con brio”, the main section can no longer produce a sense of carefree merriment. The evenly flowing Larghetto is followed by a capricious Scherzo. Just like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Beethoven thwarts his listeners’ expectations. For example, he allows a peaceful piano in the woodwind to be abruptly followed by a thundering forte from the strings. Just how much everything that comes before is heading for the final movement, a combination of sonata and sonata forms, is shown in the finale. Contemporaries thought there was “something very bizarre” about it (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 1812). The brusque main theme does not seem quite to suit a light-hearted finale. But then, after a sudden pause, the view opens out onto a new, peaceful world. With powerful tutti chords, it anchors itself firmly to the ground.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor
The idealization of Ludwig van Beethoven as a “titan” is nowadays dismissed as bourgeois hero worship, yet this honorific is still worth debating: Beethoven created music that stirred up his contemporaries more than any other. The disruption, overturning and reassessment of all musical values were something that neither Haydn nor Mozart had imposed on the public, nor did they take their audiences into the moral and spiritual realms that Beethoven did. “Titanic” indeed is the effect of his music, its concentrated drama and almost superhumanly painful struggle. Many proponents of the Romantic image of Beethoven were unaware that a concrete mythological figure lay behind the characterization: in the Eroica, the composer evoked Prometheus, the Titan who rebelled against Zeus, father of the gods, by stealing fire and bringing that life-sustaining element to mankind. For a time, Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to Beethoven to correspond to Prometheus in the political sphere. The composer also saw himself as playing this role: he bestowed upon humanity the visionary sounds of a still unattained free society.
As an explanation of the Eroica or the Fifth Symphony, however, this is clearly inadequate. Anyone seeking to understand their epoch-making innovations, the historic quantum leap that took place in the early years of the 19th century, needs to address the issue of Beethoven the “Titan”, not only the composer. Old Haydn instinctively sensed the strangeness in his pupil’s nature and his music. He referred to his bristlingly self-confident junior colleague as a “Grand Mogul” and rejected Beethoven’s political views. Haydn hated the Revolution, and he was even out of sympathy with the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, on whose death Beethoven composed a funeral cantata in 1790. For Haydn, the so-called era of the Frenchman meant primarily a time of war and overturning the old order. Some of his works comment on these events: the “Military” Symphony composed in 1794, which eschews anything resembling a march, the mysterious “Drumroll” Symphony of 1795, the Mass in Time of War, written in 1796 as Napoleon’s army was approaching Vienna, and the “Nelson” Mass of 1798 – all works that strictly avoid the élan terrible, loved by Beethoven, of Paris composers like Gossec, Méhul and Cherubini.
In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony thisis hard to miss, yet his contemporaries managed to close their ears to central messages in the work. Beethoven allegedly said that the Fifth Symphony’s principal theme represented “fate knocking at the door”. Even if the words were not actually uttered by the composer himself, they are apt. Advancing deafness, isolation, lack of recognition, but also a lack of freedom, the war and the forces of Napoleon – formerly admired, now the enemy – in the heart of Vienna: the fate that gave the Fifth Symphony its nickname had to do not with Herr van Beethoven alone but with whole nations. Other composers also paid the emperor tribute, and one of them, Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, even struck the same note of fate in his G minor Symphony, premiered in 1808, six weeks before Beethoven’s Fifth. It was no longer only Revolutionary propaganda that was coming out of France.
Beethoven’s C minor Symphony, nonetheless, is not a commentary on current events. It reflects the struggle for freedom on a symbolic, meta-historic level. In spite of the triumphal finale, the emphasis is more on the “struggle” than on “freedom”. To this conception of per aspera ad astra – “through hardship to the stars” – Beethoven would remain true in the Ninth Symphony: even the greatest outburst of euphoria cannot efface the suffering that has been overcome or the memory of it.
Leonore Overture No. 1
The unsuccessful premiere of Beethoven’s opera Leonore took place on 20 November 1805 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien with the Leonore Overture No. 2; four months later a revised version of the work was produced using the Leonore Overture No. 3. The Leonore Overture No. 1 op. 138, long believed the earliest of the three, was probably not composed until 1807, for a planned performance in Prague. The two overtures from 1805-06 document Beethoven’s then revolutionary attempt to condense the opera’s plot within an orchestra prelude, yielding a compelling concentration of musical motifs and harmonic development. Sounded in both works is the trumpet signal announcing the arrival of the minister who rescues Florestan. In the Leonore Overture No. 1, which abstains from conflict and resolution – there is no trumpet signal – Beethoven pursued a different path, approaching the Italian overture type. He recognized that a staged music drama loses much of its effect if the entire action leading up to its triumphal ending is already anticipated orchestrally at the work’s outset.
On CD & Blu-ray: Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Symphonies