Thursday, November 3rd, 8:00 pm
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55 (Eroica)
Heroes and Myths
According to an old and very possibly unreliable story, Beethoven angrily ripped the dedicatory page from his Eroica Symphony and threw it to the ground when he learned Napoleon Bonaparte had just crowned himself emperor in Paris. “To the memory of a great man,” he hastily scribbled in place of the missing moniker. This is a well-known bit of folklore, of course, and hardly bears repeating here.
What does call for careful examination, on the other hand, is the very authentic question we should ask ourselves about why the Philharmonic has chosen to weave a Beethoven thread through its already diverse season in Brooklyn this year? Because the Eroica Symphony was the first work played at our inaugural concert in 1857? Well yes, of course that gives us an excuse to include it, at least a tenuous one. But it hardly constitutes a raison d’être.
Let us begin instead then with what we do not like about Beethoven, which by process of elimination may provide some evidence for why we do want so badly to deliver this particular work to our fellow Brooklynites this year. Beethoven it seems, for all his revolutionary fervor, has become something of a commodity in the world of classical music — so timeless, so commanding, so perfect in every way that the employment of his music often displays not greatness anymore, but (we are sad to report) only “packaged greatness.” Smugness, dullness, an over abundance of ritualism … everything, in fact, that Beethoven hated.
Music, however, was never meant to become a stagnant pond, nor should concerts serve as a reliquaries into which we deposit our greatest hits for safe keeping. It may be, of course, dangerous to say this amongst classical music lovers. But it is the truth. Too much undiscovered country lies ahead of us still waiting to be learned from works like the Third that broke so many barriers with its unprecedented scale in every dimension: size of orchestra, sheer duration, tonal drama, rhetorical vehemence, and as one writer described, its “sense of overriding dynamic purpose.”
But before we begin ascribing meanings to things willy-nilly in a sort of mindless reaction, let’s observe with some caution what Beethoven’s own contemporaries reported about the Third Symphony. Perhaps with this context, we can begin to unlock our composer from the cultural prison into which he has so lately been relegated. To begin with, like many living composers today, Beethoven was not universally understood or even particularly well liked. Of his Third Symphony, critics who attended the 1805 premier wrote, “If Beethoven continues on this path, both he and the public will come off badly. Music could quickly come to such a point that everyone will leave the concert hall with only unpleasant feelings of exhaustion.”
To his contemporaries, the sheer primal suspense in the Third was deliberately jacked up to such an unbearable degree that by measure 394 the second horn famously goes berserk, acting out the listener’s agony of expectation by breaking in on the violins prematurely. So unprecedented was this bold psychological stroke that it was at first mistaken, even by the composer’s close associates, for a sort of prank. His pupil Ferdinand Ries, thinking a blunder had been made, cried out, “Can’t the damned horn player count?!” for which he came pretty close to receiving a sharp box on the ear. So much for contemporary sensibilities and criticism.
Beethoven, it turns out, was no mere follower of musical traditions. His innovations included expanding our conception of how big (or small) a movement could be; creating greater continuity between adjacent movements; and using musical chunks to create larger compositions, to name just a few. He routinely modified his orchestra’s composition depending on the size of the hall and the amount of money he had to produce a performance. And he continually re-wrote passages within his own pieces with a furor that could easily be called Hemingwayesque if only such a word existed. Even more dramatically, the music of Beethoven, beginning with the Eroica Symphony which we will carry with us through our season this year, transformed instrumental music into an art that was about the expression of the artist: Beethoven’s symphonies were long, musically complex, dramatic, and demanded audience attention in a way that instrumental music hadn’t before.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone had to like it. And many didn’t. And that singular finding leads us to a fundamental (and I might add very Brooklyn) moment of practical realization: it is difficult, in fact, impossible for curators, whether professional or amateur, to determine with any degree of certainty which pieces of music written in their own lifespans will ultimately stand the test of time. Certainly many of Beethoven’s contemporaries did not expect the Eroica to last longer than its premier or perhaps a couple more performances at best. It can easily take generations before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and “gets it.” That’s why the Philharmonic feels compelled to examine all forms of music vigorously, to reinvent and reinvent then reinvent again, because only the passage of time will reveal what remains to engage future generations.
About our Time
So we are inspired by Beethoven’s heroic Third Symphony. You will find it played in many different ways this season, all deliberate, all exploratory. But what we promise not to do is to deliver just another hackneyed repackaging of the master’s well-known greatness in Brooklyn this year, for that is already in gross oversupply. Instead we will do our best to unpack what Beethoven has to say to the many broad and diverse communities that weave their ways through all our lives in this time and this place.
That is the real reason that drew us to choose the Eroica: to find the heroes within us all by moving closer than ever to the flame of creativity, rebirth and connection. Will we discover something important this year by playing the Third? Only time will tell. Let’s find out together.