A New Beethoven Cycle

Yes, yet another Beethoven symphony cycle. But this one’s a real corker.

It’s a three-year project with Thomas Ades conducting the Britten Sinfonia, and with each concert pairing one or two Beethoven symphonies with a work by Irish composer Gerald Barry, whose music Ades has long been a champion of. Barry is most famously the man who made The Importance of Being Earnest, and more recently Alice in Wonderland, into operas.

So what does Barry have to do with Beethoven? Well, first off Barry has written a remarkable musical setting of Beethoven’s ‘immortal beloved’ letter. This song, simply titled Beethoven, was paired with Symphonies 1 and 2. It is almost operatic in its scope, lasting nearly twenty minutes and spanning two-days, from 6 July to 7 July [ETA: that is, in 1812]. Starting with Beethoven gives the following two symphonies a stronger personality. Rather than suffering through a talk where we hear about Beethoven’s intemperate character and, yet again, his deafness, we are introduced to the man musically, by a setting of this peculiar letter. Barry’s Beethoven is stiff and detached, in contrast to sometimes angular and jumpy, but usually very beautiful music. The highlight is doubtless the end, when a chorale-like section begins and Beethoven tries to pour his heart out. An extract:

No one else can ever possess my heart – never – never – Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet my life in Vienna is now a wretched life -Your love makes me at once the happiest and unhappiest of men

But the delivery is so idiosyncratic. ‘Never’ is almost barked. ‘Oh God’ is exclaimed with anger. Yet the next line is sung almost monotone and in an unchanging quaver rhythm. This Beethoven is quite incapable of expressing emotions in a normal way. He then rushes the end of the letter so he can get to the post office in time, by which time the audience were wholly convinced by the work, touched even, and greeted it with a warm laugh and much applause.

Musically, melodic simplicity and surprise link Barry and Beethoven. Barry’s Alice opera, for instance, is full of fundamental musical elements (arpeggios, simple motifs) that have been made much more interesting than they ought to be. Just as Beethoven’s Eroica symphony opens with a major triad that, on paper, ought to be boring.

The Beethoven itself was taut and exciting, full of quick tempi and controlled explosions. It sounds like we won’t be in for the sluggish interpretation so many conductors give the seconds movements of Symphonies 3 and 7. And goodness, the Seventh Symphony will be an absolute blast!

I was not especially familiar with the first two symphonies, quite unfairly presuming them to be half-way points between Mozart and Haydn and what would, with Eroica, become the Beethoven we know. But the Beethoven of symphonies 3-9 is there in much more than embryonic form. At the end of the first movement of the Second Symphony, I was trying to rearrange my open mouth to utter a ‘wow’, but my neighbour beat me to it.

Rather than me trying uselessly to describe its content, have a listen. The BBC have a recording of the Barbican performance up online for 30 days: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rsr1q

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