The BBC begins its marathon Beethoven broadcast tomorrow – every note he ever wrote played over a whole week.
I’m going to dip in every now and then; I got into classical music through Beethoven and while I sometimes grow tired of his style I quite enjoy having a long break and then ‘rediscovering’ him.
If you’ve never heard the nine symphonies then the BBC is going to be making the broadcasts available for download over the next few days, so here’s you chance. (Of course you can hear the whole week on the internet via the Beeb’s great ‘listen again’ service).
If you’re new to this stuff and fancy giving it a go, I recommend the 3rd (‘Eroica’), 5th, 7th and 9th symphonies in particular (the 6th is always popular too – lots of familiar tunes you can hum along to)
The third symphony’s first two movements are powerful; the second is a long slow funeral march with a magnificent double fugue in the middle that I used to bore my neighbours by playing over and over again.
The fifth is of course the ‘de de de DUM’ symphony – well worth listening to the whole thing because it repays close attention and ends in a glorious blaze of colour.
The dot-dot-dot-dash pattern of the symphony’s motif (which recurs throughout) is Morse Code for ‘V’ (although Beethoven didn’t know that, of course!) As a result, the symphony became popular during the second world war (V for Victory, you see) and the motif was used to open BBC broadcasts to Europe, in particular those that contained codes for resistance fighters.
The seventh symphony was the one that ‘got’ me, in particular the second movement which, on the recording I first heard, was played extremely slowly. Very, very sexy music. Nowadays it’s more common that it’s played quickly and it can often lose its punch. (Again, a lot like sex…)
The ninth symphony needs no introduction… but what the hell. The first movement is some of the most dramatic music you will ever hear – until the final movement which includes a full choir singing Schiller’s ‘Ode To Joy’ to one of the most famous tunes ever written, so simple but so stirring. It’s a great symphony to hear live if you ever get the chance.
Beethoven was stone deaf by the time he wrote this piece, not long before he died, and at the first performance he had to be physically turned around to see the ecstatic reception it received. The moment’s captured quite well in the film ‘Immortal Beloved’ (although the film itself is sometimes a little self-indulgent).
Compared with Mozart’s 40-odd symphonies and Haydn’s 100+, Beethoven’s nine symphonies are few in number but enormous in impact. He took the symphony and transformed it from something of a bagatelle showcase into a powerful expression of emotion and musical form. It had a huge impact on music – and not always a good one. Brahms famously put off writing a symphony because he didn’t feel able to meet the challenge (in the end he wrote four, and his first symphony was labelled ‘Beethoven’s tenth’ by many critics). The other oddity of the nine symphonies is that the number became a bit of a curse. Schubert only wrote nine before he died (in his 30s) and so did Bruckner. So convinced was he that he would die after writing his ninth symphony that Mahler put off producing one, calling what is in effect his ninth symphony an orchestral song-cycle (‘Das Lied Von Der Erde’ or ‘Song of the Earth’). Thinking he’d beaten the curse he wrote what became his ‘ninth’ symphony – and promptly died…
Incidentally, the Eroica symphony is famous for quite often being misprinted in newspapers as ‘Erotica’. I suspect either an over-zealous spell-checker or, more likely, a proofreader’s industry in-joke.