Symphony Programs Beethoven, Staff Critic Approves

A season preview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, simply attributed to the Staff Reports.

Richmond Symphony: On the Knees

Seems like a difficult way to perform, but whatever...on their knees it is.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has established itself as the most beloved work in the repertoire.

Ah, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, no other piece is so universally praised and loved.

I think super-duper composer Louis Spohr summed it up nicely in his autobiography:

"I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of the Beethoven's last works. Yes, I must include the among them even the much-admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller' Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could write it down. I find in it another corroboration...that Beethoven was deficient in esthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty."

Thanks in large part to its choral finale, known as the "Ode to Joy,"

"Ode to..." what now?

...it serves as the anthem for Europe...

What an oddly nonspecific way of saying that it is recognized as a European Anthem by both the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe.

...and is played during momentous occasions throughout the world.

Oh yes, the "Ode to Joy"! Quite the famous tune, indeed.

And, thanks to the music in the piece, it's the European Anthem and is used to underscore momentous occasions? Really, could it have been any other way?

But, "Ode to Joy" -- who doesn't love that tune. As Philip Hale so eloquently extolled its virtues for the
Musical Record in 1899:

"But oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, 'Freude, Freude!' Do you believe way down in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr. John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N.H., any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put in rehearsal?"

embeddence Ode: "Ode to Joy", anthem of Europe and jingle to help sell tickets!

The symphony celebrates triumph and offers consolation during times of sorrow.

And has accompanied some of the most heart-warming cinematic moments:

So, to what do you attribute to this piece's success?

Although not overtly religious -- and Beethoven himself does not seem a man of the creed -- it strikes many souls.

O...kay. That all seems fairly reasonable.

And if the Ninth resembles a secular prayer, then Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" may be a mass scored not only for believers but for doubters and perhaps even for scoffers.

...Good point?

But now that you've randomly brought it up, I should say that I love the "Missa Solemnis". As was written in the London Morning Chronicle in 1845:

"The Missa Solemnis was generally regarded as an incomprehensible production, the depths of which (if they really were depths) it was impossible to fathom."

Greatest mass ever? I think so.

In both compositions, music is the medium and the message.

So...not a secular prayer, nor mass for the believers and friends?

But why did you bring up the Missa Solemnis?

The pieces came to mind when the Richmond Symphony released its schedule for 2010-2011.

I was just wondering this. Why did these two pieces come to mind when the schedule was released? I'm going to guess it was the stirring words of John Ruskin (yes, that John Ruskin) in a letter to John Brown (in 1881), who wrote:

"Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.

Steven Smith's first season as music director will open with the Ninth and close with the "Missa Solemnis."

Ah...makes sense. But really, you've already told us sooo much about this music, I feel like I've heard them already. Why bother performing them?

Words cannot fully explain music because music would not be necessary if words sufficed.

Yeah, you're totally right -- well, as long as you don't actually think about it.

But, circular logic aside...are you really sure? How about an analogy?

Descriptions of tunes usually prove as insightful as those wine reviews that detect about 73 distinct flavors in a jug of red. Just listen.

I must say, as a classical music lover, I have been known to take part of jug of red from time to time. Words just won't suffice. Say no more.

But you've gotten to the point so quickly, surely there's a word minimum for this article. Maybe you cram in some random quotes supporting your thesis about the awesomeness of Beethoven? And maybe an odd transition while we're at it?

The finale of the Ninth may convey universals,...

To be sure. But universal what? Universal remotes? Universal Studios? Oh, I know...universal truths? I hope so, because that's how I like my truths.

...but the preceding movement is sublime.

The third movement doesn't have universals, but is sublime?

And, by the way, excellent job on the odd transition here.

So, go on, what ya got on the Adagio movement?

In his charming and rewarding The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, Harvey Sachs writes of the Ninth's third movement: "[N]othing more beautiful than this movement has ever been written for the symphony orchestra."

Well, Sachs definitely proves his objectivity on the subject by not allowing himself to become victim to hyperbole.

And Sachs is totally right, of course. As the Boston Daily Atlas put it in 1853:

"The Adagio certainly possessed much beauty, but the other movements, particularly the last, appeared to be an incomprehensible union of strange harmonies. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it."

So, what ironclad evidence does Sachs provide?

Sachs cites Arturo Toscanini's passionate comments that the movement "lifts me off the earth, removes me from the field of gravity, makes me weightless. One becomes all soul. One ought to conduct it on one's knees."

Fascinating. The laws of physics actually cease to exist while the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is being performed?

I was aware of the rumors surrounding the mystical powers of Beethoven's music, but never before had I seen it proven.

In Witness, Whittaker Chambers testifies to the transformational presence inherent in the adagio.

Wait? What?

Whittaker Chambers? The Soviet Spy who defected to the US prior to World War II?

The same Whittaker Chambers who testified against Alger Hiss in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?

That Whittaker Chambers? What did he have to say about the third movement?

Whittaker Chambers testifies to the transformational presence inherent in the adagio.

So, if I may be permitted to read between the lines a bit, not only is the Adagio the most beautiful movement ever written, with powers to break down earth's gravity, but it contains the transformational powers to turn...capitalists into...communists?

And if the third movement is, as Sachs says, the most beautiful symphonic movement ever composed,...


...then the Sanctus from the "Missa Solemnis" stakes a claim for ultimate beauty, too.

Really, how do you figure? Are you suggesting that the Missa Solemnis' beauty is directly tied to our opinion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, third movement?

That'd be pretty strange, wouldn't it? Wouldn't really expect that, but what the hell do I know? I didn't even know that there really could be a piece that was the most beautiful symphonic movement ever.

During its coming season, the Richmond Symphony will give music-lovers a chance to decide for themselves.

That the 'Sanctus' can stake a claim of ultimate beauty?

And those unfamiliar with the concert scene will find the programming an accessible introduction to the purest of the arts.

Wait, what were you saying about the communists again?


Sator Arepo said...

"And if the third movement is, as Sachs says, the most beautiful symphonic movement ever composed, then the Sanctus from the "Missa Solemnis" stakes a claim for ultimate beauty, too."

I think someone's confused about what causality is and/or does. And/Or about what conditional statements express. Oh, but that English only had a proper subjunctive!

Sator Arepo said...

Okay, perhaps I was being unkind. I went back and read it again; to sum up, the article basically argues that:

Beethoven argle bargle glarble pwee!

...with which, I think, we can all agree.

Gustav said...

Beethoven argle bargle glarble pwee!

Greatest. summary. ever.

Anonymous said...

Finding a review to criticize for The Detritus Review: $29 (2 hours)
Trying to write a clever/thoughtful/funny criticism of review: $43.50 (3 hours)
Scouring YouTube for funny "Ode to Joy" clips: $14.50 (1 hour)
Beethoven argle bargle glarble pwee!: priceless

Anonymous said...

The greatest Mass setting for many reasons (excluding current popularity) is Obrecht's Missa Maria Zart. Talk about controversial! The Church has (wisely) questioned Beethoven's Solemnis's appropriateness for liturgy.

Keep up the work, Gustav.

Sator Arepo said...

"...Obrecht's Missa Maria Zart."

Now that's just silly. There's no such thing as Obrecht, and masses don't have zees in them.