Tuesday, 30 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 10 Pontecorvo, Abercrombie, Nelson & Co (2)

I've helped myself generously to time, and have spread it thickly with my and others' patience, over the history and meaning of the Eroica, because it seems to me that this symphony is the key to understanding Beethoven's subsequent spiritual journey. Without some insights into the Eroica, this journey has no starting point, and maybe we find ourselves in the same position as early audiences, who found it such a complex work that they needed explanatory hooks to hang it on, if any sense were to be made of it. Very naturally, such aids to understanding by-passed the composer's personal needs, circumstances and preoccupations, and in time they have assumed a patina of legend.

Beethoven himself was ambivalent about Napoleon's influence on the composition of this symphony. His retraction of the name Bonaparte from the title page of his manuscript, probably in the spring of 1804 when Napoleon announced his intention of making himself emperor, has already been told, although the first written accounts of this appear to have surfaced more than 30 years later. Before 1804 Beethoven had supposedly found much to admire in Napoleon, identifying himself particularly with his energy and vitality. For how long Beethoven had entertained these feelings is uncertain.

It was while Napoleon was fighting in Egypt in 1798 that an opportunity apparently arose for Beethoven to express his admiration directly: the ruling Directory in Paris sent Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte as ambassador to Vienna, the first French ambassador since the Austrian Marie Antoinette lost her head under the guillotine some five years before. This Bernadotte was an unusual character, a huge-nosed soldier son of a lawyer from Pau in south-west France, who was created Prince of Pontecorvo by Napoleon and who eventually became king of Sweden. A self-serving and devious man, he rose through the ranks to generalship only a pace or two behind Napoleon, whom he disliked intensely but whom he recognised as the source of power and influence. He showed some talent for cosying up to Napoleon while retaining his own freedom of action, chiefly by marrying (he married one Desirée Clary, whom Napoleon had ditched in favour of the non-nocturnal Joséphine de Beauharnais) into the Bonaparte clan and exercising privileges of kinship.

Bernadotte's ambassadorship was disastrous. It ended with his premature recall following an ill-judged attempt to blackmail the Austrian Foreign Secretary and provocation of a Viennese mob into attempting to storm the French embassy. Several months before he returned to Paris, however, he made the acquaintance of Beethoven. Whatever conversation they had is supposed to have resulted in Bernadotte's invitation to Beethoven to write a great work in honour of Napoleon. This, at the least, is unlikely.

What exactly can Beethoven have admired in Napoleon? Before 1798, when Bernadotte took up his post in Vienna, Napoleon can only have been known as a lightning military commander and political adventurer who had thoroughly outmanoeuvred Austrian troops in northern Italy and had forced a peace settlement which deprived Austria of several territorial possessions including Beethoven's original Low Country and Rhineland homelands. In 1798 Napoleon led a military - and cultural - expedition to Egypt, where his return ticket was denied him by Nelson, who effectively marooned his expedition by destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. (Apparently, Viennese newspapers carried reports that Nelson had been killed in this action.) Napoleon subsequently abandoned his troops - and his savants - in the Near East and slipped back to France. At this stage, for Beethoven to have planned a major composition expressing his homage to Napoleon would have been as improbable as Benjamin Britten producing a 'Rommel' Symphony in 1942.

However, the period of great reforms followed Napoleon's return from Egypt and his assumption of power as First Consul. Napoleon threw his vast energies into reorganising the entire social, political and cultural structure of France, the true fruit of the French Revolution. Beethoven could surely find much to admire here, a truly Promethean spirit of service to mankind, a spirit of heroic, beneficent energy which he could express in music.

Maybe this elevated gossip does nothing more than place a question-mark over Bernadotte's role in the conception of the Eroica. Other commentators, in attempting to explain the symphony, had their two-pennyworth of puzzlement: assuming that Beethoven had painted a detailed, exact portrait of Bonaparte, it was inconvenient that the second movement of the Eroica was a funeral march when the subject was very much alive and would, before anyone was very much older, be training his artillery on the Austrian capital. Remembering that full title of the Eroica was 'Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man', perhaps other subjects, other great men, were involved? Nelson, perhaps, whose death had been erroneously reported from Aboukir Bay, even though the Battle of the Nile predated composition of the Eroica by some years? Beethoven did not demur. Or the British general Sir Ralph Abercrombie, killed while neutralizing the castaway French army in Egypt in 1801? Beethoven did not deny the possibility. Clearly the biographical path is a tortuous one.

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.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 9 Eroica (3)

(It's gratifying to be posting this on what was most probably Beethoven's birthday in 1770)

The Eroica symphony was first performed in August 1804 at a private concert in a palace belonging to one of Beethoven's most ardent admirers, Prince Franz Josef Max von Lobkowitz. Lobkowitz, a good amateur violinist, was an amiable Viennese aristocrat who, according to one Countess Lulu von Thürheim, a later Ruritanian gossip, 'devoted himself to music from morning till night and squandered an immense fortune maintaining the most outstanding musicians and singers in Vienna', leaving his seven children destitute. His wife, Princess Caroline von Lobkowitz, was the sister of Karl von Schwarzenberg, an able Austrian army commander who had distinguished himself fighting the French in the Revolutionary and earlier Napoleonic wars. From this one might deduce that glasses were as seldom raised to 'Napoleon Bonaparte' in the Lobkowitz and Schwarzenberg households as cabinet photos of Hitler adorned the mantelpieces of the Mountbattens; and that Beethoven, for all his earlier admiration for Napoleon, was well advised to rip 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the manuscript of the Eroica symphony, if this eased Prince Lobkowitz' purchase of the performing rights for the next three years or so.

Rehearsals were fraught and the players in Lobkowitz' private orchestra found the work difficult and incomprehensible. Beethoven attended some rehearsals, making generally slight amendments from the rostrum, or just behind it. In the context of tried rehearsal tempers not all these corrections found their way into the full score (the first page is shown above) and to this day, as far as I know, there is no definitive critical edition of the Eroica.

In my days as an amateur orchestral percussionist somehow it never fell to me to play the Eroica, but all the same I try to imagine myself sitting on the drum stool of Prince Lobkowitz' timpanist during those first rehearsals. I imagine his konzertmeister, orchestra leader, coming round with the individual parts, produced by the unsung heroes of practical Classical music-making, the copyists whose unenviable job it was to decipher and transform Beethoven's tempestuous manuscript into something musicians could conveniently read.

He would note first of all the key, E flat, and groan: this would mean tuning his right-hand, tenor kettledrum to the E flat below middle C, and his left-hand, bass drum to the B flat below. Both these notes would be slightly higher than the generally conventional notes to which timpani were tuned, and it might therefore be difficult to keep the highly stretched vellum or calfskin drumheads in tune. He would ask his neighbour, probably one of the two trumpets Beethoven required, to play the note E flat for him to tune from. Holding the note in his head, he would tighten the six square-headed screws around the rim of the tenor drum with a T-key, tapping the head with one of his ebony or leather drumsticks until a good, resonant E flat was reached. When he had tuned his bass drum to B flat in the same way he would be ready, having noted from his manuscript part that the first movement of this new symphony was, unusually, in three-time and that he had to play a loud staccato E flat in the first bar and again in the second, and that thereafter he had 34 bars rest, with nothing to play, which he would have to count, silently and to himself, ONE-two-three, TWO-two-three, THREE-two-three right up until THIRTY-FOUR-two-three when he had to play 8 bars'-worth of E flats and B flats very loud and then settle down to counting out another 20 silent bars before coming in again. If anything, his counting had to be more accurate than his playing: the slightest miscount might spell disaster.

He would be looking forward to exploring his way through this new symphony. During the previous four or five years he would have played several of Beethoven's works, including the 1st and 2nd Symphonies, which were masterfully written in a thorough-going, musicianly way, from which it was clear that Haydn's and Mozart's mantle had fallen on Beethoven's shoulders. They were challenging but not over-difficult to play, good to listen to, full of rich invention, life, energy and high spirits and popular with audiences.

I can imagine the stocky figure of Beethoven, hair awry, dark eyes flashing with a nervous truculence, stepping on to a low wooden rostrum. He would indicate with his hand, or with a roll of paper, how fast he wanted the first movement to go: allegro con brio, fast with spirit, at about one bar per second. He would lift his arms shoulder-high, pause, then flick his hands first up in a preparatory beat and then down at the speed he had already shown. At the bottom of the downstroke the whole orchestra would start to play, including the timpanist with his staccato E flat, and those present, Prince Lobkowitz, some of his family and entourage, and one or two of the composer's friends would witness the first faltering, uncertain realisation of a mighty outpouring that Beethoven had only heard in his head.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 9 Eroica (2)

In 1994 Sotheby's, the London auction house, offered for sale a most unusual item: a lock of Beethoven's hair. Its provenance, history and authenticity were well attested. It had been snipped the day after Beethoven's death in 1827 by a 15-year-old lad called Ferdinand Hiller. Hiller, who grew up to become enormously fat, a Christianized Jew and a sort of director of music in that very Cologne whose noxious dust I had been so glad to shake from my sandals, had the hair set in a locket, which eventually he passed on his son. The subsequent history is told in Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.

The lock of hair, mostly brown with a few strands of grey, was bought by two Americans. A small sample was sent for forensic analysis under the most stringent conditions. The results were extraordinary and utterly unexpected.

Did Beethoven have syphilis? Beethoven commentators have often concluded that syphilis was the underlying cause of his poor health and relatively early death. Before the development of Salvarsan in 1908 and the later discovery of pencillin, the usual treatment for syphilis involved various compounds of mercury. Post-treatment residual mercury lodges in several places in the body including the hair. The Beethoven sample showed no trace whatever of residual mercury.

Throughout his adult life Beethoven complained bitterly of pain, particularly towards the end and during his final illness. In 1827 as today, the most effective pain-killers were opiates, specifically laudanum, a mixture of opium with alcohol, often brandy. Despite laudanum being readily available, there is no record of his doctors, Wawruch and Malfatti, prescribing anything other than iced alcoholic punch. There was no trace, either, of any residual opiate in Beethoven's hair. The conclusion is that he refused pain-killers. Indeed, Wawruch produced a post-mortem report some weeks after Beethoven's death stating that he refused any kind of medication other than the iced punch.

The surprise residual element was lead. The concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair was 42 times greater than that found in control hairs, a vast difference. The conclusion was that by the time of his death and very probably for many years before Beethoven had suffered very severely from lead poisoning. Lead is very toxic. Lead poisoning, also known as saturnism or plumbism, leads to all but one of the symptoms Beethoven complained of. While there have been cases of lead poisoning affecting hearing, the possible link between lead poisoning and Beethoven's deafness remains to be conclusively established.

Where had this concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair come from? It's unlikely to have come from water-pipes, because Beethoven moved from one lodging to another so frequently. His household and kitchen effects, catalogued after his death, included very little containing lead, certainly not in quantities to account for the massive levels of lead Beethoven ingested. The answer probably lies in the amount of wine he drank. In the later years of his life, at least, it was normal for him to drink an entire bottle in the course of a meal. While he was never reported to be drunk, his thirst was notorious among his friends. The effect on his liver was probably no less disastrous than the amount of lead he consumed.

He seems to have been victim of a practice prevalent at times thoughout wine-producing Europe. In years and in areas deprived of enough sunshine to develop the sugar content in the grapes, it was the practice to sweeten the vintage to make it more acceptable to the taste. Before the widespread introduction of cane sugar from the West Indies, there were only two methods of sweetening otherwise bitter foodstuffs. The addition of honey was one, and the other, by which wine kept its characteristic taste and ability to complement certain dishes, and also to keep longer, was to add a bizarre compound: lead oxide (PbO), or litharge, treated with acetic acid, most commonly found in vinegar. The resulting lead acetate or diacetate (Pb(C2H3O2)2), to be exact), is whitish and crystalline, has a sweetish taste - it's sometimes called sugar of lead - and is very toxic.

As far as I know no research has been done into the correlation of sunshine and corresponding strength of natural and artificial sugars in Austrian and Rhenish vintages (Beethoven was particularly fond of wines from his native Rhineland) in Beethoven's wine-drinking lifetime, and it's difficult to imagine how this might be done. We're left with the conjecture that Beethoven did not contract syphilis; that he systematically but unwittingly poisoned himself with lead; that without a tough constitution he might have died earlier; and that lead poisoning may have contributed to or even caused his deafness.

Unconnected with Beethoven's hair, similar tests were carried out in the late 1990s on samples of his bone tissue. If I reveal where they came from, and in what circumstances, it would spoil the end of this account. But the results and the conclusions to be drawn were exactly the same: no mercury, so little likelihood of syphilis; no opiates, so a tendency to put up with pain, or to mask it in some other way; but massive concentrations of lead.