Gardiner Begins Beethoven Breakdown with a Bang

by Brian Clinkenbeard

Disclaimer: I was unable to attend the first concert of the cycle due to a scheduling conflict, so I will treat the second concert (Friday, February 28) as the first.

About the Orchestra:

The name “Beethoven” is so ubiquitous that it seems to lose all meaning at times, and the 1990s film franchise about a mischievous dog surely didn’t help. When asking a typical person to name a classical composer, Beethoven is probably the second most likely answer, after Mozart. But this prevalence risks desensitizing potential listeners to how shocking Beethoven and his music really were to late 18th and early 19th century audiences. Not so shocking as to start a scuffle in the audience, as in the legendary – and somewhat apocryphal – story of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, but his music was still avant-garde enough by the standards of the day that many of his works, especially later in his life, confused and even frustrated audiences and critics. In his cycle of Chicago concerts, Sir John Eliot Gardiner offers a solution that isn’t exactly original, but is nonetheless effective: historically-informed performance practices, or HIPP.

Instruments have developed tremendously since Beethoven’s time, a fact which is sometimes forgotten or neglected in discussions of his work. String players have adopted metal strings, over the previously preferred gut strings; woodwind instruments such as the clarinet and bassoon have undergone revolutionary advancements in the way they’re constructed and played; and most noticeably, brass instruments have added valves! (That may not sound like that big of a deal, but it is, just trust me.) All of these factors mean that the instruments have since become generally louder, but also that their timbres have changed, and the aforementioned increase in volume has not been proportional across the orchestra, either; this fact, combined with the increasing numbers of players per section (Beethoven’s orchestras would have generally had two or three horn players, while modern orchestras have as many as eight) has upset the balance of Beethoven’s carefully-planned orchestration, much to the chagrin of Beethoven buffs. Updated instruments even means issues for tuning, as standard pitch frequencies have gradually risen over the centuries. But the growing popularity of HIPP, which Gardiner helped pioneer in the 1970s and 80s, seeks to combat this issue by going back to the good ol’ days: valveless horns and trumpets, gut strings, wooden flutes, even small details like removing (or simply not using) the tailpin from the cello.

Gardiner founded the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Romantic and Revolutionary Orchestra, a reference to the era is seeks to imitate, not Gardiner tooting his own horn) in 1989; its mission was to create authentic performances of music written from the late 18th to late 19th centuries using relevant HIPP and musical scholarship. Since then, they have become known as premier interpreters of many works of the great composers of that era, especially Beethoven.

Well, here they are in Chicago, performing all of the Beethoven symphonies, in a breakneck concert cycle: symphonies 8 and 9 on Thursday, 1 plus miscellaneous other Beethoven excerpts on Friday, 2 and 3 on Saturday, their one and only day of rest on Sunday, followed by 4 and 5 on Monday, and 6 and 7 on Tuesday. The second concert in this cycle featured Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, as well as excerpts from his ballet suite, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), and his sole opera, Leonore (later renamed to Fidelio). Regrettably, however, I was there mostly for the symphony, and thus did not take notes on the other items on the program.

The Piece:

Beethoven’s first symphonic outing premiered in 1800 (there is debate about when he began/completed writing it), and straddles the line between the style of Beethoven’s predecessors and his own later attempts. This sense of “one-foot-in, one-foot-out” is apparent from the first bars of the piece; the first movement curiously opens the way that Beethoven’s inspirations Haydn and Mozart would have concluded one of their symphonies: with a light and unassuming set of chords, before breaking the spell by hammering out a couple more chords and proceeding into the first theme. One can read this as Beethoven knowingly declaring himself the conclusion of the Classical era and the start of something new, but given that his overt connections to his predecessors continued for years, if not decades to come, this interpretation is likely at least a tad anachronistic. In fact, the entire symphony is dripping with Classical influence, albeit with some particular Beethoven-isms, such as some more daring harmonic moments, frequent use of syncopation and off-beats, and rather extended final cadences.

The second movement opens with a figure that is canonic, if not outright fugal, and proceeds to a movement of Mozartian lightness and grace (in fact, the most immediate comparison I can think of is the second movement of Mozart’s Symphony 29 in A major, K. 201/186a). However, it wouldn’t be Beethoven if the pasture didn’t experience the occasional storm; the minor mode is used more frequently than one might expect in a movement like this, but Beethoven weaves it in so that it fits with the rest. One other aspect of Beethoven’s progression from Classicism is the de-emphasis and even obscuration of form. In the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn (or at least when Haydn wasn’t in the mood to write pranks on the audience into the score), the formal progression of a piece was often obvious, or at least recognizable, even to the untrained members of the audience; the introduction ends here, followed by the first theme, then the second, then a repeat of the exposition, etc. Beethoven, however, does less to cater (or, as some would say, pander) to the “riff-raff”. His structures and forms are sometimes audible, especially if it’s a relatively straightforward form like sonata or scherzo-and-trio, but other times, especially in second movements where forms weren’t as standardized, Beethoven does more to hide exactly what he’s doing. They are definitely there, but that can sometimes only be noticed through careful examination of the score; for Beethoven, the overall journey is more important that knowing exactly where you are. Such is the case in this movement: the form was not immediately recognizable, but all the other elements of the score make up for what could be seen as pretense.

The third movement is unique, in that it is only one of two times Beethoven used a minuet instead of the less highly-regulated scherzo (the other being Symphony No. 8 in F, and even there it was more of a suggestion than an instruction). Despite this, it is quite sprightly and even brash for the usually elegant and graceful minuet, possibly foreshadowing Beethoven’s impending abandonment of the form in favor of the scherzo. It seems to evoke the unadulterated energy of a rustic barn-turned-dancehall rather than the sophistication of an ornate ballroom. And yet, he does it with such conviction that what initially seems like it would be failure is actually quite convincing. Beethoven is quite confident in his ideas, and that confidence allows for quite a bit of suspension of disbelief; this dissonance of style is clearly not a mistake, but very much intentional. This slightly folksy aesthetic is partially achieved through largely chordal textures, particularly in the trio, rather than emphasizing counterpoint and pure independence of voices. The trio exhibits a key characteristic that, according to the program, was derided in Beethoven’s time: strong emphasis on a quasi-independent wind choir. (In this era, the horns and trumpets are considered to be part of the ‘winds’.) This would later prove to be a key characteristic of Beethoven: emphasizing the winds as more than merely accompaniment and/or coloristic augmentations of the strings, but their own sub-ensemble, capable of providing a unique voice in an otherwise string-heavy texture. On the other hand, Beethoven’s writing for the strings allows for several potential bowing schemes, all of which contribute to the energy of the piece. Beethoven has provided some level of choice, while also forcing the players to bend to his will, which shows a high level of planning and know-how.

The fourth movement opens with a trick that Beethoven would later use in several more of his symphonies: preceding a fast movement with a slow introduction, in this case, a single thunderous chord followed by melodic contributions from the first violins alone, ending on an F (which, in the key of C major, could be argued to imply a dominant seventh chord, meaning that the introduction ends on a half cadence; a classic method of building suspense). A particular hallmark of this movement is its experiments with rhythm, particularly syncopation. Aside from these elements, the movement is somewhat unremarkable, but not necessarily in a negative way; more in that it does what it needs to do, and it does it quite well, but in a rather non-descript fashion. The symphony is brought to a close by a typically Beethovian – although relatively brief – emphatic dominant-tonic passage.

Overall, this symphony reads as an aging piano prodigy – Beethoven was 30 when the symphony was premiered, somewhat young for a composer, but also too old to still be considered a wunderkind – trying to establish himself as a serious artist, while also trying to fit into the mold of his contemporaries and predecessors. He largely succeeds at one or the other, if not both, fulfilling expectations of form and expression, while also pushing the boundaries and defusing any claims of mere derivation or imitation. With this symphony, Beethoven simultaneously demonstrates his ability to inhabit and “properly” execute the existing forms, while also showcasing a level of creativity and ingenuity that had rarely, if ever, been seen before. He is aware of the merits of the “old way”, but also demonstrates that something is brewing, something new and more profound than music’s then-current status as mere “entertainment”. Regardless of the opinion of the critics at the time, this piece surely made the audiences of Vienna turn their heads and what that Beethoven fellow is up to.

As far as the performance, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique definitely lived up to its pedigree; to my knowledge, never was a wrong note played, and the expression and balance was highly effective. As Howard Reich noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune, the ORR’s use of historical instruments, as well as its noticeably lower numbers than a modern orchestra, has a curious effect on the product: the piece actually sounds larger and fuller. Now, if someone were to walk into a CSO rehearsal and ask the full orchestral force to play a tutti fortissimo, the decibels would surely be higher than if the same experiment was run with the ORR. However, the CSO has the advantage of modern instruments and greater numerical forces (CSO has 93 players, almost double the ORR’s 56).

However, the historical instruments provide greater clarity in reading Beethoven’s scores, and as Reich puts it, “Once [one adjusts] to the scaled-down dynamics, a remarkable transformation [occurs]: pianissimos [seem] softer, fortissimos louder, crescendos more striking. Subtle nuances often lost when modern orchestras roar suddenly [become] crisply apparent. The inner workings of the music – in which individual voices [intermingle] – [signal] the real drama inside the score.” Gardiner implies in his program foreword that his goal is to encourage audiences, some of which may be jaded from an over-prevalence of the Beethoven symphonies – particularly numbers 5, 9, and, to a lesser extent, 3 – to come into the hall with an open mind and a willingness to rethink what they’ve heard so many times before. I had somewhat of an advantage in this regard, as I’d never heard the work before in its entirety, but I can say that anyone who walked out of the hall not rethinking what they knew about Beethoven, his technique, and his legacy, failed to heed JEG’s advice.

Brian Clinkenbeard is a senior at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, studying Music with minors in History and Religious Studies. At North Central, he is a highly involved musician, singing with the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers, as well as studying piano, voice, and composition.