Ask someone to sing the first thing that spontaneously comes to mind when you hear the words “classical music” and chances are it will be “ta-da-da-daah. The famous opening of the fifth symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The music from the last movement of his ninth symphony ‘Alle menschen werden brueder’ is more appropriate than ever at this juncture. Beethoven himself experienced the siege of Vienna by Napoleon’s troops. Information I picked up in the fantastic podcast series on Beethoven’s life by Belgian broadcaster Klara.
A tormented life
Beethoven’s life is that of a tormented man. And also an insecure perfectionist. He was unhappy in love and was stricken with deafness. Listening to his life story, it is clear that at an early age he was aware of his place in history as a composer. By the sounds of it, he was also fairly insufferable because he prided himself on that fact.
The doubting perfectionist nevertheless sought continuous confirmation from those around him. The handicap of his increasing deafness made that difficult, which was a personal tragedy. His deafness did not so much interfere with his life as a composer as isolate him from his social environment.
Beethoven’s work highlighted
The podcast prompted me to search through his rich body of work and once again put Beethoven in the deserved spotlight. The podcast places him well in context of the times he worked in as a composer and you can’t help but have enormous admiration for the great innovator he was. To his contemporaries what an avant-gardist with the status of a pop star.
Beethoven certainly did not write easy listening. He did a lot of routine work; being a composer was as common a profession as being a baker or a carpenter in his day. The works he really put his mind to have become great classics for good reason.
It is incredible how many recordings of his work are available, so where do you start? It becomes a lot clearer with a restriction that the performers are from the Netherlands. In addition, a choice has been made in the three most important categories of his work: the symphonies, his piano works and his chamber music.
The symphony as a vehicle for a vision
Prior to Beethoven, symphonies were a kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise. The template was fixed, the audience knew what to expect, and it was up to the composer to show how well he or she mastered the form of the symphony. Just listen to the works of Mozart and Haydn. As musical and wonderful as they are, they are interchangeable. Beethoven went further and further off the beaten path and made the symphony the expression of a personal idea, something that composers still fill out that way to this day.
There is no composer who has been able to paint with the timbres of the instruments in an orchestra as well as Beethoven. There is no orchestra that does this as well as The Orchestra of the 18th Century.
The orchestra plays on replicas of instruments as they were built at the end of the 18th century. Instruments from that period sound different, they are often softer in sound, their mutual relationships are different than with modern instruments.
This amazing series of live performances conducted by Frans Brüggen in De Doelen are all gems. For your author also a pleasant memory, I have often seen Frans Brüggen in this concert hall, either with his own orchestra or with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. These were never routine performances. The fine sound balance of the renovated Great Hall of the Doelen is clearly audible; the recordings were made in 2011 after the renovation. They are pleasant recordings to listen to, the dynamics are true to nature, the applied details in the orchestra’s music come across beautifully.
Brüggen and his musicians know how to handle Beethoven’s music. The enthusiasm and love for this music shines through. Nowhere does it sound forced, the performances are logical, the music surprising and fresh.
Ludwig van Beethoven: The Symphonies (Live from Rotterdam, 2011) – Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Glossa, 2012