Thursday, 26 May 2011

Copying Beethoven

Last night, 25th May 2011, I watched a film about the last years of the life of Ludvig van Beethoven centering on the completion and performance of the 9th Symphony and his writing of the Grosse Fugue. I was reminded once more of the occasion of first hearing a live performance during my first and only season of attending promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with a half season ticket.

I was reminded that whenever I heard The Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 "Choral" (1824) my soul revels in an ecstasy of emotion and memory at the wonder of my own experiences and at the capacity of talented and inspired human beings to create for the enjoyment and betterment of everyone and anyone willing to listen.

I went to my collection to CD’s and was shocked to find that I do not posses a copy and I was immediately too lazy to transfer the record player console from next door to this room, or sit next door listening. Fortunately I live in this increasingly wondrous but also horrific technological era when it is possible within seconds to conjure a full version of the Symphony via the Internet. In this instance a Live Performance on 17th May 1956 with Otto Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The sound reproduction via the internet speakers of this 50 year old recording was not good but nevertheless brought back my reactions to the film and previous listening.

Afterwards I decided that it was stupid to keep the present location of the audio player next door because I rarely, if ever, go just to listen so the next task was reorganise which involved a dusting and move the player to the small table behind me placed against a middle wall of the building so what while the sound will fill this room it will have less of an impact on neighbours. I have a pair of large Sony speakers which have to be attached by wire to the back of the unit with patient skill but once connected they produce a rich deep enveloping sound which underlines the limitations of the Internet and TV reproductions. I am listening to the 5th Symphony - bon bon bon, and the sixth, known as the Pastoral. I did find my copy of the 9th but the crackle was such to confirm that I do need one of those Internet connect units which removes the surface noise. I have the noble intention of converting all my video film, tape recordings to the CD and DVD as part of the artwork project, as well as reading all the books and then making written notes. At present I lack the physical strength and the will to complete all the tasks I have set myself as well as continue to experience “new” experience, but listening to the great Master composer I am fired with the fresh determination.

This was also the basic theme of the fictitious films called Copying Beethoven, and MGM 2006 production with Ed Harris giving an excellent performance of the aggressively deaf Beethoven and Diane Kruger as the female composer who persuades her father to allow her to go on her own to Vienna to study at the conservatoire and live at a local convent. She is a fictional character and the convent aspect is a gesture to the reality of the times 1824 1827 when apart from courtesans and the proletariat an educated middle/upper class woman would not be allowed to travel unaccompanied. The other concession to modernity is that she has a boyfriend and although kiss is a chaste one this again would not have been permitted.

The purpose of this fictional character is to expose the temperamental genius of the Maestro who was totally deaf and could not hear the music he was creating and communicated mainly by notepads. And the theme? The nature of creative genius and the inspiration which the young woman experiences by undertake work for Beethoven and which at one point he declares “you want to me.”

In the film story the young woman knows/studies/is related to the man who acts as copyist and assistant to Beethoven who because of illness asks her to step in for a session and she grasps the opportunity and sticks with the position despite the dust and chaos in which he lives, including rats. He is attracted, in a nice way, to her individuality recognising a fellow spirit whose creative abilities need to be unlocked from the conventional upbringings of the day.

In the build up to the completion of the ninth Symphony there are two sub stories. The first is the relationship between Beethoven and a nephew who has gambling debts and comes to Beethoven for financial help. Beethoven adores the young man and wants him to become a concert pianist but the young man knows he has no talent and wants to become an officer in the military. The second story is that of the relationship between the young copyist and her engineer boyfriend who has designed a bridge for a competitive selection contest. The bridge is a great disappointment to the girl who pretends otherwise but Beethoven who attends smashes the work with his stick because it has no soul, something when pressed the young woman agrees. The boyfriend issues an ultimatum that she must have no contact with Beethoven or lose him and she chooses Beethoven because in her the creative drive dominates all others.


The highlight of the film is the first performance of the Symphony where the Director has skillfully fused the opening of the work with opening of the choral fourth movement. Beethoven officially conducted but in reality the Orchestra was required to follow the directions of another, in a less conspicuous location and ignore those of Beethoven. He had male assistants on the platform giving him the tempo so he could attempt to synchronies his hand movements with the orchestral sounds. In the film the young woman is placed among the musicians enabling him to give a perfect rendering. Her boyfriend is in the audience and responds to the situation with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. Also in the audience is the nephew who is emotionally affected and appears to be remorseful for his recent behaviour.

What is authentic is that the Viennese high society was ecstatic in their appreciation of the new work. In fact the response of the audience was such as to cause concern because it exceeded what was permitted by the conventions of the day.

This reminds of the different reactions in the USA and the UK to when Tony Blair was invited to address the joint House of the State and President Obama’s address to the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. His speech to Congress as with the Presidential State of the Union speech there are prolonged applause interruptions, up to a score of occasions. The addresses at Westminster Hall, the previous being Nelson Mandela, The Pope and Her Majesty the Queen are greeted in respectful silence with prolonged applause at the end. Yesterday there was one unscheduled interruption when he referred to the own background and becoming the President. Whether he had intended or not at the end of the speech instead of quickly departing he moved into the long hall and made a slow walk shaking the hands with as many people as he could including a surprised and joyous Nicholas Soames, the grandson to Winston Churchill to whom the President referred in his speech several times. I will comment more on the speech and the visit later.

Returning to the film there were two other aspects worth recording. The first is the reaction of Beethoven to the first musical composition presented by the young woman which ridicules. He makes amends later by commenting favourably having made generalizations about the death of female composers who have made it in the past an observations which remains valid, although this has as much to do with the musical establishment and with any lack of abilities.

This brings me to the other subject of the film, we mostly if not all, end our lives in a sense of failure, and in his instance the Grosse Fuge, the Grand Fuge, which was one the last works he created as a single work for a string quartet without a break for individual movements and is a combination of “dissonance and contrapuntal complexity.” In the film the audience walks out to a man and woman leaving him alone with the young woman who also admits she also does not understand the music. Ivor Stravinsky declared the work an absolute contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary for ever. Along with the Ninth considered by many to be one of the greatest symphonic works of all time, the Fuge is regarded as one of his greatest works, and as with all genius the work is often so ahead of its time to be unappreciated and even ridiculed in the day. I followed the Symphonies with a recording of the sound track of the film about the life if Jacqueline Du Pres which ends with a full performance of the Elgar Concerto in E Minor for Cello and Orchestra and which ended just in time for the commencement of the third day’s play at Edgbaston only to find the start was delayed because of rain.

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