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He stand up on stage, his back to the audience, raises his arms, flicks a thin shaft of wood and the orchestra sounds. As he beats time, the musicians keep up. He slows his arms, they slow the music; he speeds up, they race forward.

What is the magic of a symphony conductor?

The single most-often asked question I got as a classical music critic by a non-musician is: Just what does a conductor do? Is he necessary? Could I do it?

And this is a difficult question to answer, because orchestras differ, conductors differ and the music they play varies. No single answer is quite right. conductor 3 Lenny

For instance, when a Leonard Bernstein stands up in front of the venerable Vienna Philharmonic and gives a tiny wiggle of his wrist, the music stirs, just as if the baton were a swizzle stick; if a journeyman conductor stands in front of, say, an orchestra in Muncie, Indiana, and waves his arms like a madman, the players likely puzzle what the dickens he is trying to accomplish, or worse, are forced to ignore him.

(Or her — there are finally a growing number of women maestros, or maestras).

We say the conductor “leads” the orchestra, but what that means can vary quite a bit.

conductor 11 eduardo marturetIn current times, many conductors find themselves primarily in the position of traffic cops, keeping the music running on time, slowing the aggressiveness of the brass, or encouraging the timid violas to speak up.

In past times, the podium-master was a magician, drawing from the orchestra a singular and personal reinterpretation of the score.

But, you say, aren’t the musicians professionals? Don’t they know how to play the music? And, of course, in a good orchestra, they are. If it is an “old hand” group, with a long history of playing together, the orchestra may decide they know better than the tyro conductor how that Mozart symphony should go, and then, no matter what the minimaestro signals from the stand, they ignore him and go their own way. This often improves the performance; old hands often DO know what they’re doing.james de preist

It also depends on whether the conductor is attempting a “standard model” performance, matching the so-called Platonic ideal performance that almost every classical music fan has in his head — in such cases, the orchestra can run on auto pilot quite well — or whether he is an idiosyncratic baton waver, who will be asking the musicians to rethink the warhorse, in which case, if they are a conscientious orchestra, they will attempt to follow the baton.

Some famous conductors were notorious for changing their interpretations during performance. Wilhelm Furtwangler, most notoriously, could ask them to do the opposite of what they had rehearsed. He often defended this by saying he doesn’t know what will happen in the hall, where acoustics can change with the audience, how full it is, or how much wool overcoat the crowd — and the reverberant sound — may be buried under. He also depended on momentary inspiration for his performances: This gave the Berlin Phil under his stick a presence and vitality rare in the industry: Every moment was alive with possibility, and never a routine run through.

Or Sir Thomas Beecham, who famously hated to rehearse, and would spend the time running quickly through each piece and then announce, “That sounds about right,” and then, during performance, ask them all kinds of somersaults and bounce from the podium.conductor 2

Needless to say, not everyone can get an orchestra to turn on a dime, follow the baton like a setter on a leash, and roll over the interpretive cliff with the arch of an eyebrow. The major maestros can and could do this. The itinerant guest conductor is not often in that league (make that “almost never” and then cross out the “almost”).

There are those who decry an overly demonstrative baton-waver (Bernstein used to alarm an army of critics, who found him frantic on the podium, only later to change their initial opinions of him when they discovered he could draw life-altering performances from his charges). And there are those who praise the Laconian reserve of others, believing that there is some virtue in not hamming it up.

The truth is, either approach can create great music.abbado conducting

A symphony conductor has several jobs, not all apparent to the audience.

Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the major part of his work is done in rehearsal, not in performance. While working with the musicians, the conductor lays down the outlines of what he wants in the performance, things such as how fast they should play, how loud, and when the oboe should play louder to be heard over the horns, and when the horns should tone it down, so the oboe can be heard.

They work over phrasings, over such arcane things as the bowings to be used by the string players, the amount of vibrato, or when to alter the scorings (there are times when the parts must be gently rewritten for better effect — each conductor has his own conscience on such matters, but even the score-fanatic Arturo Toscanini regularly touched up his Beethoven).

conductor 4 kentThey also decide when to take marked repeats and when to ignore them. (Failure to make such things clear can create disaster, as when Beethoven screwed up a repeat during the premiere of his Choral Fantasy and had to stop the music altogether and restart the band.)

In rehearsal, the conductor’s personality and approach can make a difference. In the past, some conductors were absolute dictators, brooking no backtalk from the galley slaves. Others were more collegial, asking in conversation with the musicians what might work best. (Sometimes the orchestra, for instance, knowing the hall better than the visiting conductor, can help him understand the idiosyncrasies of the performance space).

Nowadays, dictators are rare. Musicians unions and simple common-sense have toned town the tyrants. A conductor cannot easily get away treating his subordinates like dogs. This is better for the poor musicians, but not always better for the music.conductor 7

Second, during the actual performance, the conductor tries to keep the music running on the schedule he has set during rehearsals, and tries to keep the musicians from straying too far from the plan. He beats time with his baton and uses his free hand to give hints, such as “more vibrato, please,” or “you, up there with the trombones, a little humility, please, we’re trying to listen to the cellos.”

But there is a third job the conductor has, and it is sometimes overlooked, indeed, oftentimes derided. That is the conductor’s duty to the audience. And I mean his visual duty, not merely his sonic one.

That is, the conductor, who knows the music well, can help the unsuspecting public understand what is going on in the music. Regular concertgoers don’t need much help with Beethoven’s Fifth, but especially in less familiar music, the body language of the conductor can point the listener in the right direction. The motions of the conductor can be theatrical for the audience, not merely technical for the players.

Certainly, there is a level of puritanism rampant in the classical music world that frowns on conductorial theatrics with the same disapproving hauteur that it reserves for those neophytes who applaud between movements, or leave the hall before the encores in what is sometimes called a “standing evacuation.” But a certain amount of theater can be a great help for the audience, who are often in the process of falling into a “confused slumber” while the music is droning on, and they can wake up for those moments when the conductor is hovering mid-air like an apache helicopter.bugs bunny conducting

The magic a great conductor can create is one of those things, like charisma, that we have all experienced but can never explain. Some got it, some don’t. The pretenders are embarrassing.

There are fashions in classical music, just as there are with everything else. Currently, there is a widespread prejudice that a good conductor shouldn’t “interpret” the music, but should let the music speak for itself. This sounds nice, but it is rather like telling an actor playing Hamlet, just speak the words clearly, don’t “interpret” them. There is a reverence for the score that would do a hardshell Baptist proud speaking about holy writ.

Yet, some of the greatest recordings to come down to us demonstrate that the personal vision of the conductor can make the music, not only come alive, but provide for the audience such a profound and moving experience that they are willing to shell out the price, often dear, of a ticket for the next concert, in hopes of something equally thrilling, even life-changing.

And anyone who actually looks at a score will know, there are hundreds of details that need interpreting. A score is by necessity a rather vague document. It tells us the notes, but not the music.opening two pages

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Let us take a well-known example: the first page and a half of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We can point out a few of the puzzles a conductor must deal with. Sure, he can rely on his memory of a thousand other performances, but a conductor should always start with the score, and this one has lots and lots of questions for him.

Right from the get-go, there are those four opening notes: “Dah-dah-dah-Dum.” Then repeated a step lower. opening motif

They are usually played as a triplet and a downbeat: “ONE-2-3-ONE.” But notice that the score actually begins with a rest. This is in 2/4 time and there are four eighth-note beats before the bar line. It is “(rest) 1-2-3-ONE.” Which throws the rhythm slightly off and turns it from a triplet to a pair of iambs. The first and third beats of a bar are accented; the second and fourth are recessive. The first note is on the second beat, so, the first bars go like: “I CAME to PLAY; I’m HERE to STAY.”

OK, but that creates a problem. As the symphony progresses, we hear that four note motif hundreds of times, and often so fast, piled one on the other that keeping the fine point of the rhythm is very difficult, especially for lesser orchestras. And when we hear it so often as a pattern, we tend to hear it as a triplet and downbeat.

Further, if we look deeper into the symphony, we find that the four note motif is repeated in all four movements, and in the third, it comes in a triple meter: It actually becomes ONE-2-3-ONE.scherzo

So, perhaps Beethoven always intended it to sound like three-and-one. Here is a decision that has to be made in rehearsal: The orchestra has to all agree, or at least the conductor has to decide which way he’s going to play it.

You can hear different recordings of the symphony and in some, you can hear the triplet-and-downbeat and in others you hear the pair of iambs.

The next decision you have to make concerns those two prominent fermatas (the “eyebrows”) over the second bar and the fifth bar.opening bar with fermata pointed

They indicate Beethoven want you to lengthen those notes and hold them longer than their measured length. But how long should you hold them? This will depend on how you see the rest of the symphony, or at least the rest of the movement.

Look at the first page and a half and notice how often there are rests and fermatas. This is a very odd symphony. It begins with a lot of ambiguities. Not only the issue of triplet or iamb, but what key is the damn thing in? The first four pitches are G to E-flat and F to D. There is no bass note to tell us whether we are in the key of E-flat major or in C-minor. It could be either. And with all those pauses and fermatas, we can’t initially tell whether the movement will be fast or slow.

As Professor Peter Schickele says in his sportscast of the Fifth Symphony, “I can’t tell if it’s fast or slow, because it keeps stopping.”
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This brings up a major interpretive choice the conductor has to make. Should he try to smooth things out to make a continuous movement with a propulsive sense of drive, or should he emphasize the herky-jerky stop and go? After all, Beethoven intentionally put all those stop signs along the road.

You can get an immediate idea of what your conductor thinks with how he handles those two first fermatas.
If he wants to drive the thing forward, he will barely hold the E-flat and D under the eyebrows, and keep the rhythm as propulsive as possible. Otherwise, he may tend to  hold those notes a very, very long time, breaking up any sense of forward motion.

Listen to two extremes: First, conductor Benjamin Zander, with a student orchestra plays the first movement like a bat out of hell, running through the stop signs. It is exciting and propulsive. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gXdWELSgEQ

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01Then, listen to Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947, in the first performance the conductor was allowed to lead, after being finally cleared of Nazi leanings. The emotions, not just the thrill, are deep and profound. The world has just survived the worst war in history and the man who loved music and Beethoven above all else is finally allowed back with his beloved musicians. What a deeply moving performance, but how utterly different from Zander’s.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qMwGeb6SfY

Some will say that it is Furtwangler’s emotions we are hearing, not Beethoven’s, but perhaps they need to be reminded that what we’re really talking about is emotions we all share. The audience had just been through a great conflagration. Their nerves were shot, emotions were near the surface. The performance acknowledges that: It is music for the NOW of the moment, and not a recreation of some 19th century moment. Surely this is the true purpose of the concert. If Furtwangler makes the undercurrent all the more palpable, he is truly giving us the heart of the music.conductor 9 mahler

This may seem like a lot of fuss to be made over four lousy bars of music, but they are essential to understand the music.

Now, if you look at the succeeding bars, you will see that the four-note motif gets tossed around the string section, from second violin to viola to first violin, and then repeats, as if it is piling the motif up on itself.

Taking approach No. 1, you want the motif to build into a theme, and you want the pattern to play as if it were performed by a single instrument, in a single singing line. If you take approach No. 2, you want to phrase the thing so that there is just a little hitch between violin 2, viola, and violin 1, so they can be heard as separate voices.

That phrase repeats, and then the four-note motif goes through its first metamorphosis, and becomes not three repeated notes, but in the treble, two repeated notes, and descending eighth note and then the downbeat note. It is a slide downhill. It is answered by the bass notes doing two repeats and a rising eighth note before the downbeat. Going uphill. with sine wave overlappedApproach No. 1 is to play these patterns almost as a sine-wave down-up, down-up, again as if it were a single singing voice. Approach No. 2 plays treble against bass, as if they were arguing, “I’m going downhill!” “NO! I want to go UP!” Back and forth.

Again, you accomplish this by phrasing the notes with a little hitch between the parts. That hitch is too short to be notated, and in fact, doesn’t necessarily alter the beat at all, but rather you simply hesitate a microsecond before each entry, creating a minuscule gap between the phraselets. Disintegration, not the through-line, is the guiding metaphor for this version of a performance.

You might notice in the score that underlying this sine-wave/argument the cellos and bassoons are playing an alternating C and B, which are the home note and leading tone of the key of C-minor. The conductor has to decide how prominent to make this counter-melody. Is it merely background, or is it something paying auditory attention to?

You might also notice that until this point, the double bass has had nothing to play, outside underlining the opening motif notes. Since then, they have been silent. But now, the whole orchestra lights up in a tutti cadence, and we come to a natural “joint” in the structure of the symphony, a big gesture rounding off a section of the musical argument. (You don’t need to understand this, but the cadence uses a D-major chord, technically the dominant of the dominant, to end the cadence on a G-major chord, the dominant chord of C-minor — for the first time, Beethoven has used a chord outside the key of the symphony).

But wait, as Ron Popeil might say. That cadential G-major chord includes a whole note with fermata on the first violin section, which seems to have taken it upon itself to play “outside the box,” as it were, refusing to punch out that G-major with the same brusk hit that the rest of the orchestra uses, it holds on, as if it were a misbehaving child.

violin fermata 2

Again: How long should the violins hold that fermata? Approach No. 1 says, not long, we don’t want to slow things down. Approach No. 2 says “But we’re trying to interrupt the flow as often as we can.”

While we are on that half-note G that the violins hold, a decision has to be made whether the note should be played at a constant dynamic level, and a constant intensity, or whether it should include a bit of a climax: Should they slightly increase the volume as they hold the note, or slide the bow lower on the string to change the intensity and timbre of the tone as they hold it; should they do a slight decrescendo on that note, letting it die away; should they do a slight increase and then decrease in volume or intensity, making a kind of whoooOOOOooo out of the note; and should they just end the note, or let it die away, or should they punctuate the end with a kind of plosive end, as if they ended in a “T” or “P” sound? The choice will depend on what the conductor believes the symphony is trying to accomplish.

So, with that fermata, does the conductor hold up the next series of notes a bit, or does he dive ahead as strictly as he can? Of course, the next notes are the four-note motif again, and another fermata and another stutter and hold. conductor 5 bert hulselmans

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the basic tempo. Beethoven gives us a metronome marking for the movement, where a half-note beat registers 108 on the Maelzel metronome. This is very fast, indeed. There is a  problem — or at least a question — about Beethoven’s metronome markings. They are all rather fast, compared to the way the symphonies have been traditionally performed. The HIPP (“historically informed performance practice”) crowd believes the metronome markings should be taken seriously and biblically. The traditional crowd notes that Beethoven didn’t come up with these metronome markings until late in his career — they are retrofit to the scores — and that when he came up with them, he was stone deaf. They point out that the early metronome Beethoven had may have been malfunctioning. And that if you hear music only in your head, it is likely to be heard faster than you would experience it in a working ear.

When he actually tried to perform the allegro of his Ninth Symphony at the tempo marking he originally indicated, he realized it was off by a third, and reduced it from a metronome marking of 120 to 88. We should keep that in mind when we proscribe any variations from the printed metronome numbers.

Either way, Beethoven made clear that he wanted the tempo indicated to refer to the beginning tempo only, and that he expected his musicians to alter the tempo as the music progressed to further its expressivity.

The quote: “My tempo markings are valid only for the first bars, as feeling and expression must have their own tempi,” he wrote.

Beethoven was no fan of metronomic performance.

And, how can you have a meaningful metronome marking when the music keeps stopping and notes are asked to be held against the prevailing metronome beat?

A lot of decision have to be made even in this first page and a half. Many of them have to be hashed out in rehearsal, so the orchestra is on the same page with the conductor.

But others can change during performance. Orchestra overhead shot copy

The phrasing has to be agreed on before the performance, but things like how long to hold the fermatas may change during performance depending on many factors.

You know in theater, how the audience can affect the actors’ performance. A good audience brings out a better performance; a bad audience can turn the actors into automatons or can make them exaggerate their performances to try to force a reaction from a recalcitrant audience.

The same in music, and the conductor may alter his tempo, the length of holds and rests, in order to underline some interpretive detail that he believes the audience is not paying attention to, or conversely, is so in tune with the music, that he can risk some interpretive byways he would not attempt with a less attentive group.conductor 14 muslim

Or, it could be the occasion: Some national figure has just been assassinated, or some city has been bombed: the ritual significance of the music may make for a deliberately more emotional performance.

Furtwangler recorded the Fifth at least 12 times over the course of his career, from 1926 to 1954, and anyone who cares about the music deeply wants to have as many as possible, because they are each different. There’s one from before the war, during the war, the one just after the war when the conductor was first freed to perform again, and then recordings from the 1950s, in better sound, but as the conductor was aging. In 1943 in Berlin, the war was in everyones’ hearts and minds, and Furtwangler brings greater intensity to the music, with longer fermatas and more intense phrasing. Other recordings he made at different times are quite different. The particular way he plays the music was most likely spur of the moment, created during performance and not in rehearsal, as he asked the orchestra to “feel” along with him what he was attempting to do.

I hope I haven’t bored you with too much detail, or patronized you by saying things you already know quite well. I just want to help you enjoy classical music as much as I do. I cannot imagine life without it: As Nietzsche said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Ludwig van Beethoven would have turned 244 this week. belushi beethoven

Everyone knows Beethoven. He wrote “Da-da-da-dum” and “Ode to Joy.” He’s the scowling visage parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. He’s the plaster bust on Schroeder’s toy piano.

Ask anyone to name a classical music composer and nine out of 10 will utter his name. Even those with no familiarity with classical music know he’s the one who rolls over to tell Tchaikovsky the news.

So it’s not surprising that symphonies program his music more than anyone else’s, and often devote entire festivals to the music. schroeder 2

It would be silly to call anyone the “greatest” composer, but Beethoven — along with only Bach — is the one most often given that honor. Such is his power as a producer of human emotion through the ear canal, that his only real rivals in European art music are Bach and perhaps Mozart. That doesn’t mean he is everyone’s favorite composer. There are many who cannot stand his relentless pounding and drive. And surely among “great” composers, Beethoven probably has the third-most detractors, after Schoenberg and Wagner.

But it would be hard to find anyone who has altered Western music history more directly and obviously than the scowling master from Bonn. michael christie

“There are many reasons one could say Beethoven’s music is the greatest. His music speaks to the listener from the first note,” says conductor Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera.

It isn’t just that the music is familiar, it’s overpowering. It’s big, loud, sublime and of an intensity unheard before him.

“Just take the opening of the ‘Eroica’ symphony,” conductor Joel Revzen says. “The first two chords. Haydn or Mozart used a slow introduction to prepare us for what is to come. Beethoven takes a hammer and hits you over the head with it.”

Two crisp E-flat chords, and we’re off to the races.steve moeckel

“You can listen to one chord and know it’s Beethoven,” conductor James Sedares says. “He had a voice that was completely unique for his time and always.”

Violinist Steven Moeckel has given wonderfully insightful performances of Beethoven’s violin concerto.

“This may sound cheesy, but it feels, when you play it, Beethoven got a glimpse of heaven. Audiences are taken on this journey, so epic. Beethoven is on a heroic scale — and he means to be.”

Difficult to appreciate

But why does Moeckel qualify it? “It may sound cheesy … . ”

There are several things that stand between us and Beethoven, and make both the performance and appreciation of his music difficult.

Beethoven’s music is about big ideas, such as heroism, nobility, struggle, brotherhood. He believed in them; the question is, do we? Or have such ideas been rendered into toothless bromides and platitudes?

Can we still understand Beethoven’s music after the trenches of World War I, after Auschwitz, after all the dehumanizing misery of the 20th century?

Music historian Richard Taruskin has written about the difficulty of accepting the grand vision of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its paean to universal brotherhood.

“Why? Because it is at once incomprehensible and irresistible, and because it is at once awesome and naive,” he wrote.

“We have our problems with demagogues who preached to us about the brotherhood of man. We have been too badly burned by those who have promised Elysium and given us gulags and gas chambers.”

You can hear the problem in many modern performances of Beethoven. The conductor no longer believes in the grand ideas and falls back instead on the music’s obvious rhythm and drive. There’s a great divide between the conductors who performed before World War II and those who came after.james de preist

“I look for the old depth and breadth of expression that was there and can be retrieved if we listen to the right master,” the late conductor James DePreist said. “And most of the right masters are dead.”

You listen to recordings by Wilhelm Furtwangler or Willem Mengelberg and you hear a Beethoven different from that of Roger Norrington or David Zinman.

To many modern ears, the older performances seem melodramatic and overwrought. The modern performances seem cleaner and less fussy. The older conductors interpreted the music and massaged its rhythms. They conducted by phrase length, not by bar length, and they knew the rhetoric of performance and often spoke to their orchestras about the philosophy and meaning of the music. Modern conductors speak of the notes.

But Beethoven was clear about this. In the same way a great actor interprets Shakespeare when performing as Hamlet, and makes pauses and emphases, the musician was asked by Beethoven to do the same.

“The poet writes his monologue or dialogue in a certain continuous rhythm, but the elocutionist, in order to ensure an understanding of the sense of the lines, must make pauses and interruptions at places where the poet was not permitted to indicate it by punctuation,” Beethoven told his friend Anton Schindler. “The same manner of declamation must be applied to music.”

‘Writing for history’

But ours is an unheroic age. We reserve the word for firemen and soldiers, who certainly perform courageous acts. But a hero is more than that. Mythologically speaking, a hero is the individual who translates the will of the gods into history.

This is no small claim: A hero changes the world. Beethoven certainly did.

There is good reason to be suspicious of such things now. Too many have changed the world for the worse.lawrence golan

But Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, clearly saw himself as a hero. He knew he was changing the world. He championed freedom and democracy in a restricted and aristocratic age.

“He changed the world of music,” conductor Lawrence Golan says. “Right off the bat, with the first chord of his first symphony. It was revolutionary at the time.”

He performed for the aristocracy and slummed with the nobility, but he told Schindler, “My nobility is here,” pointing to his heart, “and here,” pointing to his head.

“We’re clearly looking at big ideas in Beethoven’s music,” conductor Timothy Russell says. “Mozart wrote for an audience, but Beethoven knows he’s writing for history.”

History, however, has moved on.

Disposable music

For the 21st century, music has mostly become entertainment. Music written to be pondered and meditated upon does not fit into the jigsaw puzzle of a niche-market audience, where music is used and discarded in months.beethoven bust

“Beethoven wrote Velcro music and this is a Teflon Age,” DePreist says.

“We have deconstructed the 19th century and have an initial impulse to jettison so much of it. But the idea that the 20th century — or the 21st century — would simply supplant the 19th was absurd,” he says. “But we have much to learn from every century.”

The difficulty has been to separate the desire to be free from the past — which is an honest desire — from the tendency to ignore the past and refuse to look at what the past teaches us.

“It teaches us more than the notes of the stylistic things,” DePreist says.

Art has a responsibility to challenge people, says Moeckel.

“To broaden their horizons, and, so, if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but let’s talk.”

And what he confronts us with is the struggle of being alive.Joel Revzen 1

“Beethoven was a man who struggled every day of his life, a man shaking his fist at the heavens constantly,” says Revzen. “It is the human condition to struggle against adversity, whether socially, politically or one’s physical limitations. It is the struggle of the human condition through eternity.”

If you want to relate it to the contemporary world, he says, just think of what the people in in Syria or Afghanistan are going through just to survive, “or the people who struggle against oppression every day around the world, or the people who struggle in this recession.”

“How can I survive until tomorrow in hopes maybe my life will change?”

It is that engagement with the big things that drives Beethoven’s music and gives it such power to move us, even when we are suspicious of its meaning. The problem is ours, not Beethoven’s.

“There is still a message in the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Ode to Joy,’ ” conductor Benjamin Rous says.

“Our time is broken in a way Beethoven’s music isn’t. Maybe a broken era needs an art that is whole.”

Three creative periods

Critics, biographers and historians divide Beethoven’s life and work into three periods: early, middle and late.

Since Beethoven, the tripartite division has come to fit the careers of many artists, but it began with the composer.beethoven young man

His Early Period features music that imitates the style of Haydn and Mozart, and although the music sometimes strains to escape the bonds of that style, it’s thoroughly Classical.

His Middle Period contains most of the music for which he’s best loved: the “Eroica” symphony, the “Emperor” concerto, the “Archduke” trio, the “Appassionata” sonata. It is big, brawny, heroic music that strains to escape not just the style but the very limits of the musical instruments of his time, the philosophical and religious conventions of his era, and sometimes the very heart in his breast. It is loud, pounding music.

“He grabs you by the collar and says, ‘I’m Beethoven, and I have something to say!’ ” says Revzen.

There are a lot of musical exclamation points in this very publicly aimed music.beethoven primary portrait

It is in the Middle Period that Beethoven staked his claim to being the first Romantic composer, emphasizing emotion over formal restraint. But, as conductor Benjamin Rous puts it, “He started out as Classical and ended up as Romantic, but in reality, he was Classical and Romantic at every moment in his life.”

Finally, Beethoven’s Late Period defines the term for all others: The music becomes more inward and searching, it has left behind the formal constraints of the time and experiments with new form, new meaning and expression. His late quartets bewildered not only the audiences of his time but the musicians who played them.schuppanzigh

“Do you imagine, when the spirit speaks to me, I have your wretched fiddle in mind?” he asked violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose string quartet premiered most of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Beethoven’s late music remains a challenge for many listeners. The “Grosse Fuge,” was his final movement to the string quartet op. 130, but was a movement so difficult for both listeners and performers that when Beethoven originally submitted it for publication, his publisher requested he substitute something easier. It is still work to listen to, albeit work with a tremendous payoff to those willing to dive in.

The rondo he wrote in its place as the quartet’s finale turned out to be the last piece of music Beethoven wrote before his death.

A gut reaction

Ludwig van Beethoven was probably history’s most famous sufferer of irritable-bowel syndrome. It made the composer’s life miserable and likely accounts for the scowl he wears in almost every portrait.

“The cause of this must be the condition of my belly which, as you know, has always been wretched and has been getting worse, since I am always troubled with diarrhea, which causes extraordinary weakness,” the composer wrote a friend in 1801.beethoven death mask

It was a problem that plagued him his entire life, and its likely cause is what killed him.

This may seem an undignified way to introduce “the greatest composer in history,” but you have to do something to clear away the idolatry that accumulates around a world-changing figure, to see him as a man rather than a demigod.

Otherwise, when we spin panegyrics about the man’s greatness, our eyes will glaze over, reading it as conventional boilerplate.

So, it must be said that this colossus who changed music and directed its course for more than a century was in reality a short, stocky German with a provincial accent, boorish manners, who wrote in bad grammar and frequently uttered banal platitudes as if they were earth-shaking profundities.

He was born in Bonn in 1770, and his drunken father tried to pass the child off as a prodigy, like Mozart. But Beethoven’s virtues were not Mozart’s: He had none of the grace and felicity of Mozart; his music grew from hard work and infinite rewriting.

Beethoven went to Vienna to make his fortune as a piano virtuoso and found many aristocratic patrons. He frequently insulted the hand that fed him.

He told one of his patrons, “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!”beethoven ear trumpet

But just as he began to achieve fame, his hearing started to fail. In later years, he was completely deaf: At the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, a soprano had to turn him around onstage so he could see the applause he could not hear.

Each new piece found both acclaim and criticism: Conservatives disliked the profusion of ideas in the music, finding them confusing and the works too long and difficult; admirers recognized in his work overwhelming emotional power.

By the time of his death, in 1827 at the mere age of 56, he was generally acclaimed as the greatest composer in the world. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral.

It is only in recent years, after scientific analysis of a few strands of his hair, that we know how the composer died: It was lead poisoning, probably by drinking wine from a lead-lined cup, that slowly killed the composer and probably caused his lifetime of colic.

The ‘Mighty Nine’

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are the cornerstone of classical music. Every conductor cuts his teeth on them; every audience expects them.

Their monumentality influenced every composer who came after him for at least a century, and even now, it’s impossible to dip into classical music without addressing “The Nine,” as they’re known.

But the symphonies are very distinct; each has its own personality. Collectively, they are probably the best entry point for discovering the music of the titan, Beethoven.

There are many sets of them on CD, spanning nearly the entire history of recorded music. The first complete set of symphonies was recorded in 1920 and since then there have been at least 100 traversals. There have been 60 full sets sold since 1960. Herbert von Karajan recorded them all four times, Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum each did it three times. Any conductor worth his salt wants to prove his mettle by tackling the nine.

There is no one “best” set — pretty much everyone is agreed on that point — but if you want them all in one package, you could hardly to better than the set with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin recorded on Teldec. Both the performance and engineering are tops. Teldec makes the orchestra sound like it’s in your room with you. Barenboim has a unified and coherent view of the cycle which is intelligent and emotionally persuasive.

But for some, it will feel old-style. It is. If you want the modern huff-and-puff race to the finish, then you should look to John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique on so-called original instruments.

You could hardly find two more different views of the music, but both are played with commitment and musicality. (Avoid the Norrington sets, which are dreadful and downright unmusical).

One-by-one

There are many who insist the best way to acquire the best of them is to get them individually and not in complete sets. Different orchestras and different conductors respond to certain symphonies better than others. David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, for instance, cannot be beat for discovering the wit and verve in Beethoven’s first symphony, but they don’t really believe in the nobility and heroism inherent in the bigger, odd-number symphonies, like the Fifth. For that, you have to go to an old-order conductor, such as Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic, which recorded the most harrowing and emotionally wrought versions of the Fifth Symphony.

Any choices among the symphonies will be idiosyncratic: As listeners we are just a variable in our sympathies as the conductors themselves. You may want the bounce and beat of a modern performance, or you may be more moved by the old tradition.

These are a few of my suggestions, along with some information about each of the Nine.

Please note that modern critics aren’t the only ones who are idiots.

Symphony No. 1 in C

First performed: 1801.

david zinmanBeethoven’s first is his lightest, brightest and funniest, an obvious imitation of the spirit of his teacher, Joseph Haydn. Its jokes begin with the very first notes: a dissonance in the wrong key!

Initial critical response: One critic called it “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”

Suggested recording: No one has captured the wit of this symphony better than David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Symphony No. 2 in D

First performed: 1803.

bernard haitinkNow considered one of Beethoven’s “shorter, lighter” symphonies, it was a large symphony by the standards of the time and a challenge for its first audience.

Initial critical response: The Leipzig critic called it “a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and (in the finale) bleeding to death.”

Suggested recording: Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

First performed: 1805.

bernstein youngThis immense symphony single-handedly changed the course of music history; twice as long as the standard Haydn symphony and built on ideas of heroism, with a great funeral march as a slow movement.

Initial critical response: The leading music journal of the day described it as “a daring wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution. … There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but, on the other hand, the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion.”

Suggested recording: Many modern performances are too tame. For the needed heroism and grandeur, and the sheer visceral excitement, try Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat

First performed: 1807.

claudio abbado 2Robert Schumann called it a “graceful Grecian maiden between two Norse giants.” It seems like a retreat after the furious charge of the “Eroica,” but if it is less noisy, it is subtly subversive, with an introduction in the “wrong” key.

Initial critical response: Carl Maria von Weber wrote a review in which the orchestra instruments all bitterly complain about having to play this symphony and then are threatened with being forced to play the “Eroica” if they don’t shut up.

Suggested recording: Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic are as elegant as it gets.

Symphony No. 5 in C-minor

First performed: 1808.

wilhelm furtwanglerFor two centuries, this has been Beethoven’s calling card, the primal symphony, restless, turbulent, an epic struggle to wrest a triumphant C-major out of an obsessive C-minor, and with more than 700 relentless iterations of the iconic rhythm: “Da-da-da-dum.”

Initial critical response: French critic Jean Lesueur said it was such exciting music that it shouldn’t even exist.

Suggested recording: The music is so familiar, and so emotional, it’s hard to play now without irony, but when attacked with conviction, it still packs a wallop. Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic are still the champs in a pre-stereo recording, but in modern sound, Carlos Kleiber and the same orchestra come very close.

Symphony No. 6 in F, “Pastoral”

First performed: 1808.

bruno walter 2This is Beethoven’s musical picture of nature, complete with birdcalls and thunderstorm. But it’s also one of the composer’s most tightly argued pieces musically, with much of the symphony drawn from the first two bars: It’s a miracle of concision, even when most discursive.

Initial critical response: Berlioz agreed with critics, “as far as the nightingale is concerned: the imitation of its song is no more successful here than in M. Lebrun’s well-known flute solo, for the very simple reason that since the nightingale only emits indistinct sounds of indeterminate pitch it cannot be imitated by instruments with a fixed and precise pitch.”

Suggested recording: Every critic’s choice in this seems to be Bruno Walter and the pickup Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony No. 7 in A

First performed: 1813.

arturo toscanini 1Richard Wagner called this the “apotheosis of the dance,” and it is the most rhythmically driven of all symphonies; the second movement hardly contains anything but its rhythm. It all comes together in a Dionysian paean to the spirit of life.

Initial critical response: Weber expressed the opinion that Beethoven “was now ripe for the madhouse.”

Suggested recording: Even though it’s a pre-stereo recording, you have to hear Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in a driven performance that wrests every ounce of power out of the score.

Symphony No. 8 in F

First performed: 1814.

georg solti 1The composer looks backward with a smaller, almost Haydnish symphony, full of Haydnesque “jokes,” such as the metronome tick-tick of the second movement.

Initial critical response: One critic wrote that “the applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short — as the Italians say — it did not create a furor.”

Suggested recording: Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony give a brawny performance of this work and include a really fine Symphony No. 7 as well.

Symphony No. 9 in D-minor, “Choral”

First performed: 1824.

bernstein oldBeethoven’s magnum opus, which adds singers and chorus to the symphony and expresses the composer’s view of universal brotherhood and the joy of the cosmos. At more than an hour long, it is immense and usually performed for ceremonial occasions.

Initial critical response: “Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.”

Suggested recording: Despite mangling the finale by changing Beethoven’s “Freude” (“joy”) to “Freiheit” (“freedom”), there is no more committed performance than the one given by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with an orchestra composed of musicians from many orchestras in both East and West Germany.