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Beethoven's Musical Imagination

MSO programs three of the composer's symphonies

Mar. 19, 2014
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Praising the great symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven seems as redundant as extolling the significance of the Lincoln Memorial. Whereas the mighty edifice remains forever marooned in stationary glory, Beethoven’s wondrous third, seventh and ninth symphonies—scheduled for upcoming performances by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra—are great scores that live and breathe for music lovers, their significance often obscured by respectful but slavishly pedagogical analysis. Well-intentioned musicologists lend credence to the scholarly conceit that it all has something to do with the written notes. Nothing is further from the truth. This music must be heard. It speaks for itself.

While the symphonies are quite distinctive from each other, their underlying similarity lies in Beethoven’s intensity of style, the beguiling originality of his inspiration. Ultimately these factors distinguish each symphony with an amazing freshness often obscured by daunting familiarity. Overexposure may account for the MSO’s omission of the Fifth Symphony, the most monumental and quotable of the lot, from its concert series.

The Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” was the first to break from the prevailing modes of 18th-century music. Written in 1803 as a tribute, soon abandoned, to Napoleon, the work’s “heroism” remains a testament to the forbearance of the human spirit under adversity. Beethoven had just learned of his impending deafness.

Take for example the first movement. A simple sonata motif almost immediately clashes between cellos and violins. Without warning the key changes and a heroic burst of intensity emerges, culminating with an amazing horn clarion producing unexpected exhilaration. Using the same technique, the finale begins with an innocuous dance motif followed by one of those famous Beethoven pauses before launching into a glorious but more contemplative finale that speaks directly to the listener. This creates a new kind of musical dialogue, a subjective communication using pure music that only Gustav Mahler would later employ (but without Beethoven’s careful, economical scripting). The famous second movement funeral march slowly develops into another thrilling horn finale, agonizingly glorious in its overwhelming drama and foreshadowing Richard Wagner’s equally famous Siegfried funeral music.

Leaping from the superbly compact Third Symphony to the internationally acclaimed Ninth is not simple. The provocative opening movement of the Ninth is widely acclaimed for its structural coherence despite its enigmatic hesitancy—a dramatic contrast with the Third Symphony’s open-spirited optimism. In the Ninth, Beethoven struggles to overcome a desultory lassitude, introducing an opening motif which sounds defeated before it has begun. Unresolved chords struggle to give shape to a pedestrian introduction. Not to be undone, Beethoven struggles to give a more positive frame to the movement with a series of deliberate-sounding variations only half-heartedly assertive, as if determined not to allow melancholic pessimism to dominate. Finally the movement erupts in a magnificent, full-blown cataclysm. Beethoven wins his internal struggle with a mindboggling conclusion demonstrating his unique genius in speaking directly to the listener. However, a haunting sense of inconclusiveness also prevails.

The rambunctious, foot-stomping second movement scherzo, used in A Clockwork Orange to round out a night of debauchery, dispels the somber tone of the first movement. Yet a warning drumbeat reminds us that jocularity may only be reprieve. Similarly, the beautiful third movement with its lovely counter-theme seems a respite from the symphony’s prevailing anxiety, despite another forewarning hint from the first movement. All comes to naught as Beethoven’s cello quietly rejects all preceding motifs, introducing the “Ode to Joy” theme, universally recognized as a definitive testament to man’s never-ending spiritual quest. It’s too famous to require analysis, even if the original theme was based on a beer hall tune. This much-loved chorale finale has become an anthem of the free world.

With the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven stretches his musical imagination towards a more accessible form of music that exists for sheer visceral pleasure. With this work Beethoven unleashes a torrent of musical energy, described as “wonderful beyond explanation” and “unsurpassed anywhere for grandeur of sound” by musical historian Basil Lam. True, the beautiful second movement elegy (which influenced Franz Schubert) gives the listener an almost funereal reprieve before the relentless energy of the final movements, but no matter—the listener remains thrilled and exalted by the composer indulging in a bit of well-deserved fun.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony March 21-23, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St.  The Third Symphony will be performed March 27-30, and the Seventh Symphony, April 4-6, at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-291-7605 or visit mso.org.


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