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The young Beethoven in 1804, around the time he composed the “Eroica”: His nine symphonies are still seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music

A few days after the première of my Fourth Symphony at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall I was given an advanced copy of Lewis Lockwood’s new book Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision (W.W. Norton, £20). My purpose here is not to review the book but to flag up just how vital it turned out to be in my ongoing obsession with the idea of the symphony, past, present and future.

Lewis Lockwood is regarded as one of the major Beethoven scholars and is presently the Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of Harvard. The bulk of his new book introduces each of the composer’s nine symphonies, all individual and different in their magisterial genius, and paints a vivid picture of the creative context of each. Lockwood recalls much of the political and social upheavals of the time, ranging from revolution and war to the development of European concert life.

Beethoven’s symphonies have come to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music. The distinguished art historian Alessandra Comini described Beethoven’s music as having “revelatory dimensions”. The composer himself described his work as a divine art, and Lockwood points out that Beethoven regarded his symphonies as “not merely products of high craftsmanship, but . . . expressions of a moral vision, a deeply rooted belief that great music can move the world”.

The composer saw his life and work as a mission and a vocation, as many artists have done in centuries and generations gone by. The fact that the modern, and now post-modern, world with all its pessimism and scepticism, has nothing convincing to contradict this assessment of the high-minded inspiration behind Beethoven’s greatness points to the unique unassailability of the composer’s achievements and eternal reputation.

The idea of the symphony has had its bar set extremely high by Beethoven and he has inspired the most ambitious composers in the two centuries since. His influence can be detected in all the major composers in the genre, from his immediate contemporaries like Schubert and then through the decades — Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Even the ones who self-consciously and deliberately turned away from prevailing traditional formal patterns towards programme music and the symphonic poem display the mark of the master — Berlioz, Liszt and Richard Strauss. Wagner’s transformation of opera into “music-drama” shows the impact of a lifetime’s study of Beethoven’s instrumental music, and in particular his Ninth Symphony. Lockwood reminds us that “Wagner grew up in the 1830s under Beethoven’s spell, as he openly confessed.”

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Gerald Brennan
October 14th, 2015
4:10 PM
Is the name the thing? Is the above-cited "symphony" scored for only five players and an actor to be compared with, say, many works for full orchestra by Iannis Xenakis -- none of them called "symphony?" To most of us, pro and casual listener alike, symphony implies orchestra. Xenakis, for example, made good use of the symphony orchestra in a hugely avant-garde way, his works are (like them or not) still an enormous challenge to the finest ear and perception, but his works are rarely performed because they need monstrous rehearsal time - not cost-effective. (This is one reason why minimalism had such a long run. An orchestra can sight-read most of it.) I have observed that as the remaining orchestras struggle to stay afloat they are much constrained in what they undertake, and many of the ones that seem to be doing well are functioning more as museums (or morgues) of music instead of the exciting arenas of inspiration and creativity that they need to be to ensure their relevance. With such belt-tightening and a minimum of risk-taking in an effort to get more asses in the seats, the rare contemporary pieces selected for performance are too often unworthy (read: boring) works, featuring composers who have the power, though the academy or other connections, to oblige their appearance. Few would argue that the public has not taken kindly to contemporary orchestral music of the last few decades. This is a large part of the reason. It is not a meritocracy out there, less so now I believe than at any time in the orchestra's history.

Mark Shulgasser
September 26th, 2015
10:09 PM
You write: "I have always been heartened by Beethoven’s rejection of a tyrant and his recognition of the true nature of revolutionary fervour as destructive, divisive and corrupt." I wonder if you can corroborate this view. I would have thought that Beethoven considered Napoleon a betrayal of 'the true nature of revolutionary fervour', not the revelation of it.

Alistair Hinton
September 26th, 2015
4:09 PM
An interesting article which I hope you will find another place to expand as it deserves. The fact that the symphony remains alive today has never been a matter of great surprise to me. The notion that "all the best ones have been written already" is the nonsense that it has to be, not least because it could as easily have been alleged just after Haydn's, or Mozart's, or Beethoven's had all been written and would have carried just as little weight and credibility at the time. You mention RVW4, which was written at the same time as Shostakovich 4 (arguably his greatest symphony of all). Perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of symphonic reinvention is Carter, whose neo-classical symphony from the early 1940s was followed more than half a century later by Symphonia: sum fluxæ pretium spei, an ambitious work from the full flowering of his maturity. In Britain, Hoddinott was another composer of ten symphonies; I would be surprised if David Matthews, with eight already behind him, doesn't reach or exceed that tally. Yes, symphonies can be many things today (as your Ustvolskaya example shows); indeed, perhaps one reason why I struggled to come to terms with Shostakovich 14, for all my admiration for him, is that it took me time to accept that the work is really more song-cycle than symphony in the conventional sense. In many (though by no means all) cases, composers of symphonies tend to espouse tonality and explore tonal relationships to some degree and that's probably why some other composers who don't write symphonies tend to regard their work as "conservative", but that, to me, smacks of mere convenient over-simplified pigeon-holing; what some of the more adventurous composers from the early 1900s onwards have done, however, is expand expressive capabilities rather than supplanting particuilar means of expression; acceptance of that goes some way to explain why symphonic composition is as alive now as ever it was. That said, so-called "conservative" composers are by no means all drawn to the symphony; one has only to consider the work of our sadly recently departed compatriot Ronald Stevenson to observe a prime example of that! Anyway, thank you for the article and good luck with your own hopefully "Dah-dah-dah-dum"-free fifth!

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