Thoughts arising from the Oxford Philharmonic Beethoven Festival Symposium

The only way to learn stuff is to immerse yourself in it. Just don’t ask any questions.

My Beethoven odyssey continues.

I’ve been in Oxford today at the Beethoven Festival Symposium at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in St Hilda’s College.

It was the first time I’ve been in amongst academics for a long time, so too in a conference style atmosphere – listening to papers read out, discussed, challenged, and picked over. Lots of hand-shaking. Warm smiles too. Some odd hair. Mild unnecessary curmudgeonly-ness at times. Fascinating. And one or two unexpected tidbits, highlights of which I share below along with a few thoughts.

Beethoven and numeracy

During a delightfully detailed presentation about the numbering and mis-numbering of variations, one tidbit surprised me: Beethoven wasn’t terribly good at multiplication it seems, but was stronger instead adding and subtracting. We know this because of his ‘conversation books’, books he scribbled down his exchanges, notes and ideas (?) with his friends once his deafness had taken hold.

Academics aren’t necessarily great presenters.

Some of the delivery styles masked the academics’ considerable knowledge and expertise.

Some might see that as me poking fun or being mean-spirited (come get me), but there is a surprising twist to all of this.

Just as people like me (and considerably better people with much bigger networks) are called upon to articulate the art form in a manner that suits a particular audience, so I’m reminded how academics can sometimes need their ideas articulated in slightly plainer or, in some cases, slightly more engaging language. So we all need each other. Which is nice.

Beethoven 9 as four movements plus a conflated symphony

I have always struggled a little with Beethoven 9. It’s never really hung together in the way I assumed a symphony should be. There are jarring moments.

I know that’s a bit presumptious. I mean who the actual fuck am I to dare question Beethoven’s greatness?

But Professor David B Levy – the best speaker of the bunch by far today – offered a useful primer in his survey of the origins of the symphony, and the way its been ‘used and abused’ to meet a variety of cultural and political agendas.

In addition to simply describing the five movements in terms of the emotional content each touches upon, ie first movement – tragedy, second movement – farce, third movement – lyricism, and the fifth movement – joy (where the ‘fourth movement’ is a transition sequence), he also pointed to a range of other analyses of the last movement that depicted it as symphony in itself. You may not necessarily buy into the view. And let’s be honest, I may not necessarily have grasped the finer points of his presentation because this was an academic paper, but it was quite a neat look on the work.

Keyboard maker guillotine inventer

Turns out that piano maker Tobias Schmidt was also the inventor of the guillotine, and realised quite quickly that he was going to make more money from the patent for the guillotine than any piano he made and sold. Tut tut.

Was Beethoven a better businessman than he realised?

If I’ve understood Elaine Sisman’s paper correctly, Beethoven was quite focussed on making sure he got credit for his own work, so much so that the discussion around opus numbers for his work (normally a retrospective labelling of a composer’s output after death?) was robust whilst he was alive. Does that mean that Beethoven had an eye for his own legacy? More reading necessary I suspect.

A new discovery: Piano Sonata No.32 (and No.24)

This was a free lunchtime recital given by one of the speakers – William Kinderman – who provided an annotated introduction before performing the extensive two movement sonata.

I’m fascinated with those moments when I connect with something unfamiliar. What was the element in Kinderman’s performance that pulled me in? The opening of the second movement . The word ‘repose’ had been used a great deal during Kinderman’s introduction. The stillness of the opening arietta signifiied repose – a musical depiction of utopia? And it had that effect: time slowed down; stillness; completeness; serenity. It wasn’t twee: we weren’t listening to a fine tune which went through a series of permutations. It was a musical argument expressing a complex series of emotions. There was chromaticism. Nothing settled. But my attention was completely hooked. I ended up listening to No.32, No. 23, and No.24 from Brendel’s landmark collection on Decca on the way home. I think I’m hooked.

Emotion not melody

This seems a bit of an odd observation to share on the face of it. But I’m increasingly of the mind that maybe a way of appreciating Beethoven as a newcomer (ie me) is to think of the emotional quality of his music first. If one were to listen out for melody first – ie listen to Beethoven like one might approach Mozart on a first listen, then Beethoven’s unorthodoxy, especially in his later works, is going to make Beethoven perhaps seem like a tall order. There is so much emotion in it, as in the piano sonatas, and so much narrative, that to only listen out for the mechanics of constituent parts is to miss the point of Beethoven entirely. This thought is essentially the musical equivalent of the advice a playwright friend of mine gave me before I watched an unfamiliar Shakespeare: “listen for the gist – be very light touch about it”.

Why so much attention?

Obviously, I get it’s Beethoven 250 this year. We all love an anniversary. But a question arose for me part way through the day: why do so many study the man and his music so closely and so much? Is can’t be just because he’s widely accepted as a genius. That doesn’t really account for the fervour or the range of views contained in the endless tomes. Is it possibly because there’s a lot of evidence to pick over? Is Beethoven a musicologist’s Aladdin’s Cave?

I like it though. I like the forensic attention. I like the year long immersion. And I’m reminded that what hooks me in is the three dimensional world that a musicologist exists in and, through their work, perhaps unintentionally creates.

The turning point in the day was seeing one of Beethoven’s early sketches for Eroica. Nothing especially moving in and of itself. Rather, the sight of his initial ideas for a work that is so very well known brought a man known from a bust careering into the present day. The handwriting made the herculean effort of a man from the past, a more human thing. The evidence made it real. In a split second, two hundred and fifty years didn’t seem quite such a long time ago.

And when those things from the past arrive in the present all shiny and new, there’s an electric charge. Exploring Beethoven further has all the addictive qualities that soaking up the life and work of Benjamin Britten in the early 2000s.

In our on-demand time-poor attention deficit world, it seems so tragic that something so wonderfully absorbing and enriching is going overlooked because of a false assumption that no-one is interested in detail. We really must try harder.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify