Is there a true sound of Beethoven?by Ivan Hewett / January 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Could there be anything new to say about Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the most performed and analysed works in orchestral literature? Two recent recordings, by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, suggest there can be. They are based on a new edition of the symphonies by Jonathan Del Mar, which purports to take us closer to Beethoven’s true intentions than any previous edition. It has been a labour of love for Del Mar, who spent ten years researching the different versions of each symphony (there are 20 for the ninth alone). The changes from the familiar 19th-century Breitkopf and H??rtel edition-still in use by many orchestras-run into the hundreds and most are small. But such is Del Mar’s enthusiasm, that when he tells you an addition of mutes to the violins in the slow movement of the sixth symphony is “pretty earth-shattering” you almost believe him. There are genuinely striking changes too, especially in the last movement of the ninth. (Several conductors, including John Eliot Gardiner and Simon Rattle, have taken up Del Mar’s interpretation.) Del Mar’s new edition pays tribute to the bewitching power of musical scores. The power comes from their paradoxical nature. They have an immense authority, akin to the “aura” Walter Benjamin said attached to the unique work of art, and yet they are not equivalent to the work itself. You can’t point to Beethoven’s fifth, as you can at the Mantegna Crucifixion in the National Gallery. Like a novel, a symphony exists as a set of written symbols, which can be endlessly reproduced. Unlike a novel, a symphony is not identical with its written form. A copy of Pere Goriot actually is the work as Balzac conceived it; whereas my miniature score of Beethoven’s fifth is only a set of instructions. It is no more Beethoven’s symphony than a recipe for cr?me br?l?e is a cr?me br?l?e. Only when actualised in performance do those symbols turn into the musical work that resounded in Beethoven’s inner ear. Or do they? When a pianist plays a Bach Partita, many in the audience will know the piece, and some of them may even bring the score. The pianist can interpret it, he can distort it, he can get it plain wrong. The one thing he cannot do is realise it. This is what makes the performance of classical music a sado-masochistic “extreme occasion,” as Edward Said has put it. The text hovers behind every performance. Yet every performance is unique. The musicians are different, the conductor chooses to play it in a particular way. Moreover, as Del Mar shows, the text itself is open to interpretation. Over the years and centuries, a Handel Concerto Grosso accretes errors the way an old painting acquires a patina of grime and discolouration. Misprints and misreadings creep in to each new edition, and then become canonical. The most bizarre mistakes become accepted through habit. One example is the slow harmonic flourish that begins Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata. Most pianists omit this when repeating the first part of the opening movement-which makes no harmonic sense-because it was left out of an early edition and the error has been repeated since. It was not until the early 18th century that the notion of a fixed canon of masterworks began to emerge, most strongly in northern Europe. Before that time composers were constantly re-writing pieces for different contexts, the notion of a fixed work of music barely existed; a score was like a recipe to be adapted at will, much as a Broadway musical score is today. But as a new bourgeois concert-going public emerged, so did a taste for “ancient music.” An Academy of Ancient Music was formed in London in 1726; after Bach’s death, his keyboard scores, by now out of fashion, were carefully preserved by a handful of enthusiasts, who passed the flame on to Mozart and Beethoven. At first a fragile unity was maintained between music of the present and this slowly emerging canon. The fact that Bach was still felt to be part of living musical culture in the 19th century is shown by the unselfconscious way his music was adapted to modern taste. When Mendelssohn performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the score was heavily cut, rearranged and romanticised, by a choir of 158 and a large orchestra. To us this seems a travesty, but from Mendelssohn’s point of view we are mistaking the music’s outmoded stylistic clothes for its essence. Half a century later, when D’Indy revived Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, it was still possible-just-to treat a 300-year-old score with creative freedom. He omitted the first and last acts as “undramatic” and made cuts to the remaining three, saying that opera was “a work of art, not archaeology.” By the end of the 19th century the era of musical archaeology had dawned. In Arnold Dolmetsch’s 1915 book on 17th and 18th-century music, he wrote “we can no longer allow anyone to stand between us and the composer.” It led to huge scholarly effort to retrieve vast tracts of the musical repertoire from oblivion. The Holy Grail sought by these patient retrievers of the past was to bring to the ears of modern listeners “what the composer really wanted.” The assumption was that if a musician armed himself with the authentic text and the instruments of the period, the real sound of Bach would be conjured. With Beethoven the score became more important than ever before-perhaps because towards the end of his life he could no longer perform or conduct, and also because of the novelty and difficulty of his pieces. It may also have something to do with the rise of the romantic cult of the individual artist. Great musicians were no longer seen as working in a tradition but as individual geniuses. And because no Beethoven decision could be trivial, the text assumes a talismanic significance. It is the guarantor of the work, even if it can never be finally realised itself. Even Del Mar admits his edition will not be the last word. Indeed, in the next few weeks the London Philharmonic will give the world premier of a new B??renreiter edition of the ninth symphony. With Beethoven, the musical work becomes the pot of gold at the end of rainbow-always pursued, but never captured.