Beethoven’s Kapow

Illustration by Dienststelle 75Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getty Images (Beethoven); Superstock (poster nailed to wall).

If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.

Before it was a work of genius, the “Eroica” was a provocation, and I sometimes wonder how I would have reacted if I had been in the crowd on that night in 1805. I might have concurred with the critic who felt “crushed by a mass of unconnected and overloaded ideas and continuing tumult by all the instruments.” The performance probably flirted with chaos. Beethoven himself conducted, and he was a volatile man who could barely hear. The band of musicians had never grappled with a score so mountainous and rugged, and the audience hadn’t either. Someone yelled, “I’ll give another kreutzer if the thing will only stop!” It’s easy to dismiss that wag as a philistine, but the first performance, unlike most of the thousands upon thousands that followed, didn’t take admiration for granted.

This week, Lincoln Center hosts the conductor Iván Fischer leading two ensembles—one period, the other modern—in a comparative festival of Beethoven’s symphonies. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays the “Eroica,” plus Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 8, just as they purportedly sounded 200 years ago. The Budapest Festival Orchestra performs the remaining symphonies in their plusher, louder, and more modern incarnation. The difference between those styles is usually framed as a distinction between music’s authentic past and its dynamic present, between scholarship and technology, the latest framing of a 40-year movement that goes by various cumbersome and misleading titles: Original Instruments, Early Music, Authentic Performance Practice. But in truth both paths pursue the same illusion: that a certified masterpiece has just come blaring out of the composer’s brain.

Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution, when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed? Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us. As a result, the “Eroica,” which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us. His contemporaries had never experienced such wild, loud, assaultive sounds outside of combat. Our ears are attuned to a rougher sonic landscape: The construction site that edges Lincoln Center is far more raucous than whatever goes on in the hall.

If the composer flailed against the constraints of his world, today’s Beethoven performers battle the legacy he bequeathed: the whole stultifying tradition of greatness. Conductors have various strategies for making even connoisseurs forget the scriptural familiarity of those notes. They can exaggerate idiosyncrasies or whisk up an irritatingly manic sense of excitement. They can buff the playing to a technocratic gleam and engineer an interpretation so faithful to the written score that it becomes fanatically neutral. Or they might emulate the corporate approach of Herbert von Karajan, who drew from his orchestras a rich, emulsified sound and treated Beethoven’s symphonies as monuments to be gilded with fresh applications of elegance.

The most thrilling versions of the “Eroica” I’ve heard have felt like quests, crackling with desperate urgency. In the mid-nineties, John Eliot Gardiner led his private band, the Orchèstre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, in a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies that enshrined their violent defiance. He achieved that effect through scrupulous historicism and tolerance for the technical imperfections inherent in period instruments. Natural horns occasionally bobbled a difficult passage. Gut-string violins struggled to balance wooden flutes that wandered out of tune. Even with a full-arm wallop, the timpanist could only eke a muffled thud from his early-nineteenth-century Viennese kettledrums. But those challenges added to the revolutionary élan, and to the exhilarating suspicion that at any moment the whole apparatus might fall apart.

Beethoven craved that sense of imminent collapse. As a pianist, he pummeled the keyboard and tried to force it into playing lower, higher, louder, and softer than it could. The “Eroica” rattled the Theater an der Wien, a grand and modern space by 1805 standards, but an ornate little shoebox when compared with, say, Carnegie Hall. There’s a moment in the middle of the first movement, when the symphony shudders as if it were coming unglued. The pulse grinds down and the burbling theme stops short, overpowered by a chain of dissonant blasts that, in the first performance, must have ricocheted off the graceful walls and buzzed through the audience’s bones. In the early nineteenth century, listening to orchestral music was a full-body experience.

But the epic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies created a new, supersized infrastructure that gradually swallowed his music. Larger audiences and bigger orchestras required more spacious venues, where music reaches the ears only after picking up resonance and losing its edge. The most authentic, and exciting, way to hear Beethoven’s symphonies would be in cramped rooms rather than in great, flattering halls. (The Lincoln Center concerts take place in the relatively cozy Alice Tully Hall.)

We can’t unravel a history of listening, and the work can’t easily slough off its encrustations of meaning. Beethoven’s music comes to us at once impoverished by time and marinated in meanings: Wagner’s analytic raptures, Schroeder’s obsession in “Peanuts,” the Morse code V-for-victory of the Fifth during the Battle of Britain, A Clockwork Orange, Bernstein’s substitution of Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy) in the Ninth at the collapsing Berlin Wall, and so on. We also can’t recapture the heat with which the nineteenth century debated the meaning of that cryptic subtitle. Is the hero Napoleon, the composer himself, or perhaps a more archetypal figure? A moral but unconventional loner? A vessel of humanity’s most intense feelings? An artist-genius? It hardly matters now, when the whole notion of a hero-worshipping symphony seems impossibly hoary. What sort of figure would we enrobe in music of such complexity, fury, and moral struggle? Tiger Woods? David Petraeus?

For much of today’s public, even the most thoroughly tilled symphonic turf has become unexplored terrain. The orchestral Establishment treats that widespread musical illiteracy as a disaster, but it’s also a chance to give works of “Eroica”-like stature an infinite number of premieres. The fact that many audience members have never heard the piece should be a bracing thought for the players on the stage: To dispense revelation is a daunting responsibility.

Classical-music neophytes often worry that they don’t have enough background to appreciate a performance, but the opposite is often true: They’re the ones who listen without preconceptions and who are primed for danger and unpredictability. The “Eroica” was the first symphonic psychodrama, a chronicle of a character’s interior battles. Already in the opening seconds, the restless theme spins away from its expected course to go skating through patches of harmonic uncertainty, disruptive syncopations, and asymmetrical phrases. Moods change with mercurial quickness. Beethoven knits his structure out of conflict and unease, turning unpleasant states of mind into artistic virtues.

If the first movement romanticizes anxiety, the second makes misery seem celestial. It is a funeral march, but the orchestration suggests it is an imagined event, a procession unfolding in the protagonist’s mind. The sounds are softer, rounder, than a street parade. We hear no brass. Cellos and basses play the role of muffled drums. An oboe takes the place of a mournful bugle. The march coaxes intimate emotions into the public realm. If Beethoven’s music still speaks to us now, it’s because, like that roomful of startled Viennese two centuries ago, we want to hear suffering transfigured, too. Pain is ugly and joy fleeting, but each performance of the “Eroica” offers to shape everyday disorder of the mind into something luminous and sublime.

Whether the upcoming Beethoven festival does justice to Beethoven will not depend on the vintage of instruments or the historical purity of technique. Modern orchestras and period ensembles can both pluck excitement out of the past. What matters instead is whether Iván Fischer and his two groups are faithful to the intertwining of nuances and extremes. If the performers etch the contrasts between a lonesome horn and a full orchestral roar, if they savor the abyssal terror of a silence, snap off an accented chord before it becomes pillowy and fat, bring out the pleasurable sourness of dissonance, dispel complacency, and banish habit, then they just might summon the prickle and panic of that first night.

Beethoven Then and Now
Alice Tully Hall.
March 25–28.

Beethoven’s Kapow