Chasing Myths on Beethoven


Working on two major chamber music works by Beethoven for upcoming concerts in Helsinki and in New York, the Quintet for Piano and Winds Op. 16 and the Eroica Symphony arranged for Piano Quartet by Ferdinand Ries, I wrote down observations from a couple paths of history opened by these works.

The Eroica Symphony, in some ways the most legendary piece of western classical music, has come to symbolize Beethoven giving the thumbs down to Napoleon Bonaparte and doing so a good decade before history itself came to the same conclusion. By withdrawing his dedication of the Symphony to the French leader, Beethoven symbolically checkmated Napoleon and claimed the victory of idealism over political power. At the other end of the spectrum, the work’s epic reputation is bizarrely evident in a funny video created for YouTube some years ago, wherein the listener is bombarded with two dozen different versions of the symphony’s feisty opening chords at the hands of famous conductors who made their mark with the piece. The video has been viewed probably more times than any single performance of the entire work.

The Symphony’s reputation as the great work in which Beethoven encapsulated in sound the entirety of the era following the French Revolution has become a crushing cross for the work to bear. The piece’s historical importance can deafen us to the truly wonderful music actually contained in the work. Ferdinand Ries’s arrangement of the work for chamber ensemble, by greatly reducing the performance machinery, manages to restore a good deal of the work’s original musical acuteness.

Perhaps paradoxically, the oft-repeated legend of Beethoven ripping up the title page of the “Sinfonia Bonaparte” in a rage when the First Consul crowned himself emperor arose from Ries himself. Once a pupil of Beethoven, Ries was one of Beethoven’s closest friends (so close that Beethoven even became wary that his pupil’s compositions were beginning to sound too much like his own). Together with Franz Wegeler, a childhood friend of Beethoven and the doctor of medicine to whom Beethoven turned when his hearing trouble first arose in his twenties, Ries wrote the first Beethoven biography which includes the story of the dedication.

The history of the Quintet opus 16 has it that Beethoven’s relations with another one of his closest friends soured after a performance of the work featuring the friend, pianist Carl Czerny. The affair is revealed in the letter of apology Beethoven wrote the following day; he states that although he holds Czerny’s artistry in the highest esteem, the pianist had a tendency to take too many liberties with his music. Poor Czerny had apparently extemporized too extensively in the performance.

A conscientious Beethovenist’s eyebrows must rise with this one. What might have upset Beethoven about his most brilliant student exhibiting a bit of artistic initiative? After all, on another occasion Beethoven was reported to have praised enthusiastically the violinist George Bridgetower for adding an apropos cadenza in the performance of the Kreutzer Sonata. What, then, were wrong with Czerny’s ornamentations? Curiously, the Quintet is a rare work of Beethoven in which the ad-libitum ornamentations of the piano part are carefully written out in the score. The take-away seems to be that when Beethoven doesn’t indicate ornamentations, it’s okay to add them, but when he does, it’s not. Hmm … Ignorance truly is bliss. Having learned about such incidents, a pianist with conscience is doomed to wonder if a performance is too much or too little in the footsteps of Czerny, possibly one which might anger the composer. For all that, it’s a risk well worth taking.

Performance of the Quintet Op. 16 together with members of the 60° Wind Quintet will take place at  the House of Nobility Helsinki on February 23, as part of Beethoven’s Story concert series

Another performance of the Quintet as well as the Eroica Symphony will take place in the series of Orchestra of St. Lukes in New York on March 24, 25 & 29. 




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2 thoughts on “Chasing Myths on Beethoven

  1. “Hmm … Ignorance truly is bliss. Having learned about such incidents, a pianist with conscience is doomed to wonder if a performance is too much or too little in the footsteps of Czerny, possibly one which might anger the composer.”

    … Yep… and this might remind us of the – at least to some extent – random nature of the composer, despite of his wish to take control of every detail.

    So, let me assume – in the best tradition of German poets and composers – that if we performers are knowledgeable and somewhat connected to Beethoven’s spirit, and if the composer is not pissed off and drunk in heaven as he hears the performance, he’ll probably be pleased by the liberties we take.

    Otherwise, we’ll have to face the music :D

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