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Music of a Revolution Reconsidered


Revolutions tend to date quickly and age very badly. But sometimes the music they inspire endures. Such is the case with La Marsaillaise, and so it is, too, with Beethoven’s Ninth, whose roots, in the poet Schiller’s revolutionary-era “Ode To Joy” date back to the turbulent 1790s. And while the Choral Symphony is just a few years short of its 200th birthday, and familiar enough to anyone with a sprinkling of musical knowledge, if conductor Benjamin Zander is right, we haven’t been listening to the symphony as Beethoven wrote it at all.

Zander, who has spent a lifetime studying the Ninth, in March came to London and the South Bank to lead the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra through a radical restoration of Beethoven’s original tempi, which have been largely ignored or dismissed as unplayable, and the errors of a deaf and disturbed old man since Wagner made a colossus out of the Ninth with his Bayreuth premiere of 1872. Zander’s energizing 58-minute account shaves about a quarter of an hour from an average take; his recording with the Philharmonia, which will be released this autumn, promises to change the way we respond to what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written.

The conductor’s preoccupation with Beethoven’s original tempi goes back to a 1980s project with the BBC to record a Ninth at the radically fast times indicated by the composer’s in his annotations. The project stalled when the broadcaster asked Zander to use period instruments; the conductor preferred a modern orchestra. His extensive notes and research into the world of Beethoven’s metronomic markings would later be passed to Roger Norrington for his 1987 recording, while Zander released his own account with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra five years later in 1992, with John Eliot Gardner’s excellent Philips release following in 1996. “At the time, I felt very annoyed,” says Zander of Norrington’s recording, “but subsequently I was delighted because I needed another 35 years of work.” He laughs. “At the Royal Festival Hall I got a chance put forward many different things that I didn’t know about in 1980.”

Commissioned in 1822 by the Royal Philharmonic Society for just £50 (and initially dismissed and disdained by London’s august critics’ circle), the Ninth was revolutionary then, and remains so today. Zander’s reading of the Ninth represents a vigorous raising of the symphony’s original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation. Its colors never fade: it is only our perceptions of it that change.

For us listeners, the Ninth is a deeply internal voyage, with very powerful communal effects. It gets to you; it’s in that spectrum that penetrates like an X-ray. It is music with the quality of urgent speech but from a place that is generally beyond words, if close to the inner voice, and the inner ear; it’s music that speaks inside us, and its immediacy extends from the contexts of its creation to the reception we give it today. “It was a very troubled time then, as it is for us now,” says Zander, talking a few days after his triumphant Ninth at the South Bank, that saw the audience rise for an unprecedented 15-minute ovation. “And the message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time.”

By setting Schiller’s revolutionary-era ode, Beethoven was harking back to the spirit of the revolutionary 1790s, of intellectual, cultural and political release as the European Enlightenment exploded into anti-monarchist revolution, which itself exploded into self-consuming violence, Napoleon, empire, continent-wide warfare, Waterloo and, by 1814, the Congress of Vienna, with Europe’s royal houses recalibrating power back to something they could understand – complete top-to-bottom control.

Which means that, by the 1820s, the liberation fervor of the 1790s was long gone, as far away from the middle-aged Beethoven as the optimism and fervor of the 1960s is from us. The composer’s troubled times, and ours, are coupled, if not at the hip, then at the ankle. The Ninth was created in hostile conditions, under the dystopian eyes and ears of Metternich’s secret police; they had a fat file on Beethoven, and they added to it. Like the Stasi of the 20th century, they were listening.

And we still listen. This angry, anguished and disabled man’s late testament to personal despair, resolution, acceptance and ultimate sense of shared liberation from within remains the European Union’s anthem, even as the EU project teeters and buckles under the weight of banking algorithms, Brexit, populism, and debt. The Ninth still speaks to us, and in the present tense. And how it speaks.

Under Zander’s baton, it’s as if two centuries of varnish, candlewax, and post-Romantic indulgence and mythology has been cleared from the surface to illuminate the depths. The smoky accretions of the 19th-century masters and their 20th-century successors have been simmered off by the process of patient reduction and a return to the source.

The first movement breaks open as a cosmic egg among the strings, its sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time. And then the opening descending riff, the armature around which the movement unfolds, expands, retreats and reiterates. In the grand recordings of Toscanini or Furtwangler there is something gigantic and ponderous in these moments—a great creature of great depths. With Zander and the Philharmonia the depths remain, but our attention deepens, and what we hear is more translucent, fresh, and immediate. The underlying dynamic in Zander’s account here and in the whole symphony, is of great compression, with the potential to blow the roof off, and great release, of exultation, of orgasm, of liberation and of union.

The muscular riffs and fanfares of the second movement speed along at Beethoven’s indicated tempo, with the trio section cramming in four notes to the bar instead of three, at a speed deemed impossible, until now. It is not only possible, but realized by Zander and his players in a way that no other performance has achieved, the extraordinary detail of the composition brought out with a rare clarity and sense of space. It’s the Ninth stripped of grandeur and High Romanticism’s self-regard.

Though taken at a faster pace, the extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets as lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings, losing none of that sense of timeless suspension, of infinite space and utter calm descending into musical form.

At its close, Zander barely pauses before launching in to the “Horror Fanfare” that hurls the final choral movement into being. Again, the feeling is of hearing something anew, afresh, in real time, in our time, cleared of the dirt and grease of accumulated performance traditions. For this is an “Ode to Joy” that’s bare, forked, and naked. A renewed sense of excitement rounds up and corrals signature themes from throughout the symphony to create a sense of time inverted, dispersed, eddying in the flow of music before revealing its signature tune. Beethoven drafted it painstakingly in the little sketchbooks he carried with him everywhere, his blank-paged familiars. The chorus came as a revelation, more nuanced and dynamic, no longer turned up to 11 throughout. Deep within, the Turkish March a simple, humble, haunting pervades, as around it the choir and orchestra rises, falls, turns and weaves as the dynamism of that folkish little tune unfolds itself, over and over, like the secret of perpetual motion in sound.

At the drama at Royal Festival Hall on March 18th unfolded, it was hard not to feel absolute awe before the Ninth; to hear it alive rather than in a recording is to recall all those little sketchbooks, all the mess and anguish and temper, the shabby rented rooms of the grey-haired, shock-haired, deaf-as-a-post composer, quite alone. Think of the giant who, at the Ninth’s premiere, needed to be tapped on the arm and turned to face his audience by a pretty young soprano, a woman whose mouth the composer had just filled with the most beautiful music. It takes your breath away. As Zander brought it on home in the last few bars, I imagined myself among the Viennese audience at the Ninth’s seat-of-its-pants premiere, rising to applaud the spirit of the Ninth; joining in with our own hands, we were clapping across the centuries.

Conductor and soloists bask.

“The most touching and moving thing,” says Zander, “was that this man, who was deaf, who had no connection, no woman in his life, no companion, cut off from the world in terrible conflict with his nephew, with the authorities, and having to move to a new house constantly, one of the saddest individuals and ill to boot, wrote a piece which brings the world together. That is the most extraordinary idea, the most moving idea, and there it happened in concert on that Saturday night.”

Europe today is in shabby shape, like Beethoven’s rented rooms, piss-pot under the piano, the keys out of tune, debts everywhere, shouting in the street, fears that the treaties binding us together will not last the way that Beethoven and his Ninth will last, that little tune of liberation and joy singing away in its handful of notes. But whatever our troubles, the music lets us in, brings all of us here to this place with one purpose, to realize the greatest of symphonies, to unleash the Ninth and for a moment to experience its spirit of joy.

Londoner Tim Cumming has published seven collections of poetry since 1991, most recently Rebel Angels in the Mind Shop (2015). He has written widely about music and musicians for many newspapers and magazines, and his paintings have been exhibited at the Rowley Gallery in Kensington and at Sladers Yard in Dorset.

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