Saturday, 20 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 10 Pontecorvo, Abercrombie, Nelson & Co (1)



First rehearsals of the Eroica do not seem to have been encouraging, and Lobkowitz may well have wondered if he had made a mistake in buying the performance rights. It's not recorded what Caroline von Lobkowitz and her brood had to say about it. What her husband was hearing at rehearsal, however imperfect and unpolished, was hardly in the same vein, or even style, as the orchestral music that had consolidated Beethoven's reputation as an outstanding creative artist over the previous ten years.

(Lobkowitz would not have been alone in expecting something in the same mould as the extrovert, dynamic and entirely approachable 2nd Symphony of the previous year, a benchmark work that became the model for the early symphonies of Schubert, and subsequently of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. In 1816, by which time Beethoven had written all his symphonies except the 9th, a Major-General Kyd called on him to commission a new symphony for the Philharmonic Society of London, whom he represented. The Society offered a generous sum in return for a work in his earlier style. In a passion Beethoven threw the Major-General out.)

We have some fragmentary insights into Beethoven the conductor. His pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries describes the Eroica rehearsals as 'horrible' and goes on to write that Beethoven's time-beating, so important in holding a new work together, was so wayward that the orchestra found it impossible to follow him. The contemporary opera conductor Ignaz von Seyfried, reminiscing more generally, clearly enjoyed Beethoven's rostrum antics:


He was accustomed to indicate a diminuendo by trying to make himself smaller and smaller, and at pianissimo slipped under the conductor's desk, so to say. As the tonal masses increased in volume, he too seemed to swell, as though out of a contraction, and with the entrance of the entire body of instrumental tone he rose on the tips of his toes, grew to well-nigh giant size, and swaying in the air with his arms, seemed to be trying to float up into the clouds.

However, he impressed von Seyfried with his patient attention to detail:

He was very meticulous with regard to expression, the more delicate shadings, an equalized distribution of light and shade...and without betraying the slightest impatience always took pleasure in discussing them individually with the various musicians. And then, when he saw that the musicians had grasped his ideas, and moved, carried away by the magic charm of his tonal creations, were playing together with increasing fervor, his face would be illumined with joy, all his features would radiate happiness and content, a satisfied smile would wreathe his lips, and a thundering Bravi tutti! would reward the successful artistic achievement...When it was a matter of playing at first sight, the players were often obliged to stop to make corrections, and the thread of continuity was severed: even then, however, he was patient. But when, especially in the Scherzos of his symphonies, sudden, unexpected changes of tempo [as in the scherzo of the Eroica] threw all into confusion, he would laugh tremendously, assure the men he had looked for nothing else...and would take almost childish pleasure in the thought that he had been successful in unhorsing such routined orchestral knights.

[Quaint translation from von Seyfried's reminiscences by Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Beethoven's great American biographer.]

One can conjecture (I try to resist using the term 'must have') that Lobkowitz and his routined orchestral knights, and eventually audiences, while raising an eyebrow as to his competence on the rostrum, found Beethoven a changed man. His new 'heroic' symphony was very long, easily the longest purely orchestral work then in existence. The four movements trembled with unfathomable, hitherto undared profundities: the immense structure of the first movement defied formal analysis, but suggested a titanic struggle; the second movement was cast as a gigantic funeral march, a cenotaph in music, rough-hewn in granite, unheard of in a symphony before; the scherzo third movement, the most conventional of the four, revealed Beethoven's tremendous laugh and the sway and stamp of his energy; the fourth turned out to be a set of variations on a tune he had already used in his Prometheus ballet and elsewhere, in which he systematically took apart the components of the tune, worked over them and reassembled them, re-created them, in a final mighty outburst of joy.

On each of the previous three occasions - as a contredanse, in the Prometheus finale, as the theme for the 15 Variations for Piano, Op.35 - Beethoven used this tune, he wrote it in the key of E flat. (It can be played, of course, in any key.) Similarly in the Eroica: it's as though the Prometheus theme gave its key to the whole symphony, and all the Prometheus associations were to colour it, and as though Beethoven's concept of the Prometheus legend, of the hero bringing joy to mankind at heavy cost to himself, was to be the conclusion and the resolution of it all.

At one of the private performances which preceded the public unveiling by some months, Lobkowitz entertained a musically inclined Hohenzollern, Prince Ludwig Ferdinand of Prussia, with the Eroica. According to a report quoted in Marion Scott's Beethoven (London, 1934), whose original source I'm unable to find:

The prince listened to it with tense attention which grew with every moment. At the close he proved his admiration be requesting the favour of an immediate repetition; and, after an hour's pause, as his stay was too limited to admit of another concert, a second. The impression made by the music was general, and its lofty contents were now recognized.

Three Eroicas in one day! Its lofty contents were also recognized by an anonymous critic a year or two later, who wrote of a performance in Leipzig: But one must not always wish merely to be entertained; as if through the Eroica Beethoven had put a crowbar under the purpose and meaning of music and had given it a mighty heave in a new direction.

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