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.