Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Beethoven the mediocrity

I had a very disturbing experience this evening in the car.

When I flipped on the radio they were playing Beethoven. I recognized it immediately. The Leonora Overture. They were in the middle of a particularly vigorous section, and I was feeling fine, so while stopped at a red light, I did a bit of conducting. I've heard this piece enough times I'm reasonably confident that if they stuck me in front of an orchestra I could do a creditable job.

My hands called for an accent, which dutifully came out of the radio. Then a legato phrase. The recorded violinists obliged. Emboldened, I cued a crashing chord.

The orchestra suddenly got quiet. Disoriented, I thought to myself, that's weird. Did I misremember that passage? Then they got it wrong again, and the next thing I knew they were off in a completely different episode which I had never even heard before. Page after page of music that was completely new.

It was at this point that, being the music geek that I am, I recovered my mojo and began to guess what was going on. It wasn't Beethoven pranking me from the grave after all. You see, while Beethoven only wrote one opera, he wrote four overtures for it. The overture, the part the orchestra plays at the beginning before the curtain rises, has become a mainstay of symphony concerts and classical playlists everywhere. But there are three Leonora Overtures. I am most familiar with number three. I don't think I have ever even heard number two. And I began to sense that that was what I was listening to. All of the main themes were there, in the right order, but the stuff in between was quite wrong.

It was at this point that, having arrived at home, I had to stay in the car with the radio on just to hear the rest of it. And what I heard horrified me. Some of the passages were wooden, or awkward. Things a tenth-rate composer could have thought up. One phrase answered by a mechanical repetition instead of an inventive and arresting answer. The momentum kept dying out. At one point he couldn't even get the offstage trumpet call right. No wonder this was not Beethoven's final answer.

Beethoven seems to have felt that he kept not getting the overture right, so he kept trying again. I don't blame him. Eventually he even renamed the opera, which was originally going to be named for the strong female character, but ended up being named for her male lover. That's where the fourth overture comes in, the "Fidelio" overture.

You may not want to know this next part, but Beethoven is known to have labored on his scores, sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes his initial ideas are surprisingly weak. But it is as a sculptor that he excelled. The finished product, sometimes after months or years of revisions, is nearly always a masterpiece.

What is interesting is how people often react to that revelation. I remember a a fellow doctoral candidate tell me sincerely that she believed Mozart was a better composer than Beethoven because he didn't have to make so much effort and just tossed off masterpieces the first time. I think this is nonsense, in part because we now know that Mozart actually did make sketches and did have to make revisions some of the time, and also because to me it is the final product that counts, not how you got there. There have always been great artists who have to take the long way around. Is it appropriate to argue with process when you have the amazing results?

There may be some, though, for whom it is a comfort to think that even Beethoven didn't get to Olympus right away. That he could toss off a weak phrase, a poorly planned composition, and that it was often in the trying and trying again that the art happened.

Even Beethoven didn't often have to try four times, though. So what happened? Well, musicologists seem to think that the "2nd" overture is actually the first. And that the "3rd" is the 2nd. (Apparently somebody else got it wrong the first time, too!) The third is clearly a great composition for the concert hall. But apparently Beethoven felt that it didn't serve as a fitting introduction to the opera that was to follow. So, even though he'd produced a wonderful composition the second time around, he tried again. And again.

I'm going to have to listen to the other two in order and get back to you on what I think about those. I'm not particularly worried. This fellow knew what he was doing. I joked to my wife that I was going to have to cancel the class I'm teaching about Beethoven because I didn't think he was so terrific anymore, but that isn't true. And if he weren't Beethoven, nobody would have recorded his first effort. If he had been Brahms, he would have destroyed it so this would never have happened.

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