Beethoven’s symphonies – the complete guide

Beethoven’s symphonies – the complete guide.


The symphonies explored by nine leading conductors: Norrington, Zinman, Jansons, Vänskä, Gardiner, Iván Fischer, Tilson Thomas, Paavo Järvi and Chailly.

Interesting set of articles about Beethoven’s symphonies. A sample of the article about the 5th by John Eliot Gardiner:

Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, introduced by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Beethoven’s Fifth is, says the English conductor, a revolutionary symphony akin to a call to battle.

You don’t get anything more iconic than this symphony, especially its opening bars; and I don’t need to elaborate on all the different interpretations assigned to those bars, whether it’s ‘Fate knocking on the door’ or the ‘V for Victory’ Morse Code signal in the Second World War. I’m not sure how helpful any of that is. What does help, however, is to know a little bit about the political views and sympathies of Beethoven at the time of its composition. He went through various permutations of left-wingery and right-wingery, but at this point in his life he was really under the spell of the French Revolution, which appealed to his imagination and his sense of frustration. He was born in Bonn but now he lived in ultra-conservative Vienna, where any political message had to be encrypted. He was a great admirer of Luigi Cherubini, a composer of Italian origin who lived in France; and the famous theme that opens this symphony is derived from Cherubini’s revolutionary Hymne du Panthéon of 1794. Its rhythms and even the melodic outline, to some extent, lurk in the background of this symphony. Chenier’s words for that piece were overtly revolutionary – ‘We swear, sword in hand, to die for the Republic and for the rights of man’ – and it was a heck of a thing for a German composer to encode, in a symphony without words. If this had come out into the open in a city as incredibly reactionary as Vienna, he would have been incarcerated, there’s no doubt about it.

The extraordinary thing is what he does with that theme, because it’s so unbelievably brief. It also starts on a cushion of a quaver rest, not on a downbeat. As a conductor, the challenge is to make sure that those three notes – the repeated notes – sound off the beat, so there’s quite a technique involved in establishing the motto of the entire symphony. The theme is all-embracing and Beethoven uses it in extraordinarily concise and compact ways. I think it helps to know the words of the original Cherubini Hymne, where the second notes carry all the emphasis. I try to get the musicians to express that with their bows and their embouchures. There is an inexorable drive to this movement, an élan terrible, a propulsive energy akin to a call to battle.

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