Ode to Ludwig: Beethoven's symphonies meet at the crossroads of popularity and vitality

By Dennis Polkow

I’ll never forget when I invited a friend of mine to a concert that I was conducting—he was not a musician,” Marin Alsop recalls. “He asked, ‘Well, what’s playing?’ And I said, ‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, I heard that one.’ That’s when I realized: No, no, no, you really haven’t heard it unless you can hear it with fresh ears, as though it were the first time it was ever being played! With Beethoven, if people can feel the surprise of the new in a performance, then I’m thrilled.”

Three of Beethoven’s seismic symphonies are featured on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia residency this summer, and Alsop heads up the pack on July 14 with the world-moving Ninth, featuring the Chicago Symphony Chorus and soloists soprano Tamara Wilson, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green. Gustavo Dudamel makes his eagerly awaited debut leading the Seventh on July 18 with an all-Beethoven program that also features his longtime, equally starry collaborator Yuja Wang performing the First Piano Concerto. Last, but not least, of Ravinia’s triptych is the Fifth, fated to be feted in the hands of Vasily Petrenko on August 4.

“If you read biographies,” observes Petrenko, “Beethoven was doing a lot of things which were not conventional at the time: by rumors, even running down the streets of Bonn naked! But more important, he was always looking for something new. It was also the time when, for the first time in world history, classical music went from being mainly just the business of the aristocracy and started to become almost for everyone, for large crowds and large amounts of people.

“This is a man who in many ways we are obliged to for the modern orchestra—what it is, how it looks, how many instruments there are—because he was the one who was constantly bringing new instruments into the orchestra. He was the one who moved the genre of the symphony so much forward, probably taking a lot of inspiration and novelty from late Haydn quartets. He was a very unique composer, a very unique human.”


But it took more than book learning for Alsop and Petrenko to develop their ultimate impressions of the composer. Both can cite early experiences of Beethoven that held lasting lessons.

“I grew up in a house filled with music,” Alsop recalls. “My parents were both professional musicians, so Beethoven was another member of the family. They played in a wonderful string quartet, and I remember, when I was about 12 years old, they were rehearsing a piece and I came downstairs and said, ‘Ah! I hate modern music!’ And my Dad said, ‘This is Beethoven!’ I said, ‘Come on. Don’t pull my leg.’ And he said they were rehearsing the Grosse Fuge. I thought it was new music or Bartók or something. That was so shocking to me that it got me starting to think about Beethoven in a new way. And of course, my later experience of playing Beethoven’s late quartets bore that out. So I think that it gave me a new framing to think about Beethoven as the avant garde composer that he was.”

“I sang Beethoven as a boy in a choir, the Ninth, of course,” Petrenko recalls. “Much later, when I had already started conducting, Sir Georg Solti came to the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic to conduct I think Brahms’s First Piano Concerto and one of Beethoven’s symphonies—I can’t remember which one; I think it was either the Fifth or the Seventh. The Saint Petersburg Phil is an amazing orchestra, one of the greatest in the world, but I would say that Beethoven and the First Vienna School at that time wasn’t their strongest spot. They had a lot of experience in Russian repertoire, and at that time—we’re talking about the early ’90s—they tried to play Beethoven as if you’re playing Tchaikovsky! Very heavy bowing, big long phrases, and actually it sounded quite Russian.

“Sir Georg came to them and started to suggest things which much later were common in the Western world—
about bowing, about articulation, about attention to articulation, about attention to dynamic differences, attention to tempo—practical things. And the orchestra, for the first and second days, didn’t want to change at all. I could even sense this growing arrogance in the orchestra against it because we played it in the Russian way; if someone comes and tells us what we have to do, why do it? Then came the dress rehearsal, when the orchestra for the first time really tried to do what [Solti] suggested to them, because they had no choice: they had a concert that night! So they tried it, and actually, it worked. And you could see, from the great resistance and resilience, the orchestra started to enjoy what they were doing and went with him. And this concert was probably the best I ever heard them at the time playing Beethoven.

“I went to Sir Georg and introduced myself and said I watched the rehearsals and this process and I really respect what he was doing—he was so firm with what he wanted despite such resistance from the orchestra’s side. He smiled a bit and then I asked, ‘Do you have any advice for me? I am a starting conductor. Anything, a word from God, that you can give to me?’ And he said something that I didn’t understand then, but now that I’m working more and more I think he was 100 percent right. He told me, ‘Young man, I wish for you that music will always be your hobby.’ He’s completely right. The meaning of it is that you have to love the music all the time. It should not be your business. It should be your hobby.”


With Beethoven, the question of how to interpret his music has long been open, widened even by the authenticity movement, but that’s not to suggest that it’s a question with a “correct” answer. Alsop and Petrenko have both found something to inform their approach from that movement.

“Well, many things,” admits Petrenko. “If you look at the finale of the Fifth Symphony, for instance—I wish I could take a time machine to when the strings for the first time went into this C-major outburst! Because even for modern orchestras, which are miles away by professional standards from when Beethoven was writing the music, it is challenging! I just wish to see the eyes of the musicians when they have just seen this material and this man who was very, very strict and uncompromising, and what they would have said to him.

“We should not forget that Herr Maelzel, who created the metronome, was an inventor of many things, including special ear-horns for Beethoven. They were in very close contact at the time. The invention of the metronome and music becoming clearer in terms of tempo markings, from Beethoven to nowadays—that was done, in many ways, between those two people. So, of course, you have to try to get as close as possible to Beethoven’s metronome markings. We cannot resurrect precisely how it used to be … to know exactly how it sounded 200 years ago, we have no clue … but we can imagine. We also have to adjust ourselves to the modern world. So there is this bridge between the old metronome markings and old music in a modern world and the perception of the modern audience, the modern orchestra and musicians. The truth is somewhere in between, I believe.”

“We have so much wonderful scholarship from the period instrument movement,” observes Alsop, “and I work often with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London, another thing I never expected in my career. I was kind of not much on the sound of the period instruments and the whole movement initially, but this is one of my favorite orchestras to work with because you’re getting back to basics. You talk about phrasing and line and things we sometimes get away from in our contemporary orchestras where you’re going for these different levels of technical perfection. Somehow, when you go back to the period instruments, that kind of technical perfection is almost not achievable, so you start to speak about broader trends and bigger ideas. And that’s a wonderfully authentic way to approach music in general.

“What I like about the movement in terms of its approach to the human side of Beethoven’s symphonies is the dance-like quality, the flow, the lightness of being—those kinds of things. These symphonies are so unique in that they can withstand any kind of scrutiny, any kind of interpretation. Hopefully the listeners at Ravinia will hear a wide range of approaches to these different symphonies. Everyone conducting is very, very different, and that’s exciting.

“For me, Beethoven is a way of life. My feelings about the works change every time I do them, my approach has evolved, I think, or certainly grown in different directions. The great thing about great music is that there are many, many ways it can be compelling. If I go to hear a Beethoven symphony with a huge orchestra and the tempos are more staid and held back, if it’s done with a conviction, it can come across. So for me, it’s all about conviction, commitment. I tend to like a little more of the early music approach now because I’ve been around that a lot, but I don’t feel that it’s a mandate, either.

“Think about it: I’m doing the Ninth Symphony. How avant garde can you get? Everybody thought, ‘God, what a dumb idea to add the choir,’ at the time. And you think, wow, it is now the most popular piece in the world. That is saying something a couple hundred years later! And the fact that Beethoven selected a text that really represented, I think, his life philosophy about connection and humanity and love. Beethoven’s ultimate message is that we are here to serve each other and be connected and be good people.

“I think that’s why the Beethoven symphonies are so important to Ravinia this year, because of the focus on Leonard Bernstein, who comes directly from that same philosophical viewpoint.” Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein’s and is conducting several works of his throughout Ravinia’s season-long Bernstein Centennial celebration, including his Chichester Psalms as a prelude to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “I think as a composer the themes that Bernstein is always dealing with, those existential questions, is a manifestation of him as a human being: what questions did he want answered? It’s always a question about what we can believe, what we can rely on. Can we rely on the goodness of humankind? Beethoven is one step earlier in really believing in unity and that possibility. So I think Bernstein’s music, and he as a person too, was all about this total embrace. It was a big hug.”

“In the Fifth Symphony,” adds Petrenko, “we have a symphony of fate, one of the most famous four-note themes in the beginning. This is a human who is so forceful that he can withstand fate. He already knew that his deafening was progressing, and that most likely he would completely lose his hearing. For him to overcome that and to overcome the fate of the historical happenings around him—and bringing trombones into the last movement, and combining polyphonic genres together with big symphony finale genres, that was all relative novelty. And, of course, the very first theme, nobody before was writing a main theme which contained only four notes, all that with his amazing skills of development, just developing the whole movement, a whole world, that was very new for the time. He always was moving the genre forward.

“The Fifth Symphony, of course, is one of the best-known pieces and probably recognized by a vast majority of people who have heard classical music at least once in their life. So for me this gives a bit of pressure because you will be compared with thousands of great interpreters [or even just one]. You have to find your own way of interpretation that will be very close to Beethoven—as close as I can—and also very convincing for everyone, for the orchestra and for the audience.”

“When we start the Ninth Symphony,” says Alsop, “maybe I’m naive to still want the listener to think, ‘Wait. What’s going on here? What’s happening?’ so that when we finally get to the payoff moment in the finale, the listener is like, ‘Oh yeah! I totally get it!’ That’s my job, to make those first three movements leading to the payoff moment of the ‘Ode to Joy’ be a journey. Not just a journey that the audience tolerates, but so that the audience feels the journey.” ▪


Award-winning veteran journalist, critic, columnist, broadcaster, author, and educator Dennis Polkow’s most gratifying Beethoven experience was when, in an interview with former CSO music director Sir Georg Solti, he asked the conductor if he had ever tried Beethoven’s metronome markings. He never had; he thought they were too fast and didn’t think they would work. “How do you know if you never tried?” Solti did try, first with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He loved it and recorded the piece at the “new” tempo.

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