Mull over Beethoven: the complete composer?
Musicians scheduled to perform his works here discuss what marks him out
Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler
Pianist Alfred Brendel. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Oliver Heath of the Heath Quartet. Photograph: Sussie Ahlburg
Helena Wood, violinist and leader of the RTÉ NSO
Pianist Paul Lewis. Photograph: Amy T Zielinski/Redferns via Getty Images
Conductor Kenneth Montgomery
Violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet
“Beethoven. Grand master of chamber music, sonata, variation and symphony. What other composer covered, within his life, such vast musical distances? We pianists are fortunate to have the chance to follow the path of his 32 piano sonatas all the way to his late quartets, supplemented by the cosmos of his Diabelli Variations, and the Bagatelles Op 126. A distillation of his development is presented by the five piano-cello sonatas.
“Who else offers the range from comedy to tragedy, from the lightness of many of his variation works to the forces of nature that he not only unleashed but held in check? And which master managed, as Beethoven did in his late music, to weld together present, past and future, the sublime and the profane?
“Some prejudices have prevailed: the image of a thoroughly heroic Beethoven, or of a Beethoven who, in his late works, has become downright esoteric. Let’s remember that he could be graceful in his own personal way, and that his dolce, his warmth and tenderness, are no less a feature of his music than vehemence and high spirits.” – from A Pianist’s A-Z (Faber & Faber)
Brendel gives a talk on A Pianist’s A-Z at Kilkenny Arts Festival on August 10, and can be heard in a public interview with Michael Berkeley at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival on August 8
Leader of the Heath Quartet
“Someone once said to me that you get the sense through his creativity that he had an understanding of the human condition and a way of communicating that understanding, which is beyond what anyone else has achieved. This really resonates with my understanding of why he is so unique, and towers above everyone else.
“Other composers have communicated different aspects: spiritual things, or beauty. But in terms of the human condition, Beethoven is the one who has really shown an understanding and an evocation of the different stages of our conflicts and emotions. He can articulate them in such a subtle and delicate way, and in an incredibly brutal and impatient way, sometimes going right from one to the other.
“When playing the quartets, this courses between the four of us and heightens everything. He spent so long writing quartets, and they were the last vehicle for his creativity. The way he uses the quartet as a tool to portray conflict, tension and resolution is very special.”
The Heath Quartet perform the complete Beethoven String Quartets at Kilkenny Arts Festival, from August 8-17. Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland perform the complete piano concertos on August 15 and 16
Violinist, rotating leader of the Emerson String Quartet
“The reason that Beethoven has had such a predominant position in the history of music is that he broke a lot of rules and was a great risk-taker. He didn’t do it in a random way. He was pursuing the best form that would allow him to develop the content of his material. The structures didn’t have to be broken, but they had to be modified, expanded, to match his ever-expanding need for a range of expression.
“There’s an extraordinary evolution in the 18 string quartets. In the middle quartets he expanded the sonic range and structural capacity to symphonic proportions. In the late quartets he is really exploring other regions of human experience, on quite a spiritual plane. The slow movement of Op 59 No 1 is marked mesto: sad.
“In the margin he jotted a note about a ‘weeping willow over my brothers’ graves’. His brothers were actually alive. I think he meant brother in a general sense. All humanity is interconnected. He was feeling very intensely the sorrow of loss.
“When I’ve played this piece at certain times, I have had tears coming in to my eyes and haven’t wanted to go on. But it does go on into a cheerful last movement. His music has allowed me to go so deeply into myself.”
Emerson String Quartet play Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat Op 130 with the Grosse Fuge at the National Concert Hall on November 19
Violinist and leader of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
“The first time I heard the Violin Concerto was from a tape in the car on holidays in the south of France. I was seven, and I remember thinking, I’ve just got to play that piece one day. I finally managed it in a competition when I was at college. It’s still my favourite, and I’m not even sure why. It’s not like the symphonies, and there’s not even a singable tune in the first movement.
“But it’s exquisite. It never gets boring. It’s very different from most violin concertos; less about the violin, more about the music. The slow movement is breathtakingly pure and, while the piece has Beethoven’s classic seriousness, you get to see his amazing sense of humour in the last movement. The style is so natural to play, and yet I know it didn’t come naturally to him. He was always editing and re-editing, struggling with his material. But you’d never know it.”
Helena Wood plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the RTÉ NSO in the National Concert Hall on February 20, 2015
“There’s a stereotype of him as outspoken, quite brutal in expression. But I think Beethoven is really everything. It’s easy to look at the obvious, the incredible force and determination, and also real tenderness, joy, and introspection. Everything on the inside as well as the outside. It’s the completeness that really appeals. There’s something that everyone can relate to. He has all the answers. When he poses questions, when there’s unrest, there’s always a resolution. That’s not the way with all composers. With him, it’s characteristic. There’s something very satisfying about that, listening to a piece that takes you on a journey and takes you to a resolution at the end. And he never repeats himself.”
Paul Lewis performs Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas at the National Concert Hall on February 25, 2015
“The thing that I find so fascinating is that everything is so different. Each symphony is a world of its own. To imagine that the Pastoral Symphony was premiered in the same concert as No 5 is quite something. There couldn’t be more of a contrast.
“The German scholar Arnold Schering thought the inspiration for No 5 was revolutionary ideas, or tyranny, and how freedom in the end wins through. The Pastoral seems to go round in wonderful, universal circles. It hardly finishes. It just simply stops at a time when you thought the horn call was going to come back again.
“Beethoven seemed to think for a long time about everything he wrote. Instead of just writing things to commission, he wrote what he felt he should write for himself. We know that from the sketches. And he was political about the whole thing, choosing sponsors carefully, so that he could make a living but not be dependent on one person.”
Kenneth Montgomery conducts the RTÉ NSO in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on March 13, 2015
YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE
“Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.” Zeitung für die Elegante Welt, Vienna, 1804
“If this symphony [The Eroica] is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.” The Harmonicon, London, 1829
“I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of Beethoven’s last works.” Composer Louis Spohr in his autobiography, 1861
“Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer.” John Ruskin, 1881
“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, NH, any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put it in rehearsal?” Philip Hale, Musical Record, Boston, 1899, on the Ninth Symphony