BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Xian Zhang with BBC National Chorus of Wales and the CBSO Chorus
This evening 30th July 2017 performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One of the most remarkable pieces of music from one of the most remarkable of composers.
Since having first listened to a recorded version back in the 1970s (Rudolf Kempe) I have felt that here was music which goes beyond music; if you like a kind of StarTrek music which ‘boldly goes where no man has gone before’.
I recall being spellbound by the sounds and the architectural harmonics that Beethoven creates; always half- wondering to my self – ‘how’s it done’ – and not merely technically, but as with more of Beethoven’s music than anyone elses, the question arises again and again -’how did he ever imagine it in the first place?’
Particularly, and maybe because it being the First Movement and so it begins the piece, how did Beethoven ‘dream up’ that initial almost fragmented music which seems to be struggling to knit itself together until at its close some sort of resolution of continuity seems to have been achieved.
Of course this is my own understanding fo the First Movement; how it struck and still strikes me; as if of a man, a composer, struggling, not to find ‘musical language’ to write his conceptions, but with the conceptions themselves as they wrestle to be expressed adequately. Certainly when I first heard the music it was like nothing I’d come across before; and how it might have been received by listeners two hundred years ago when it was fresh off the pen of the Maestro, Lord knows?
Yet to say this, is to imply, and to imply wrongly, that Beethoven’s music is staler now than it was when he was alive and working. Particularly this Ninth, and a good few other of his pieces, in the symphonies and in the sonatas and in the quartets for example, there lives in it a freshness which I expect will be perpetual for as long as his music is extant.
It is a freshness which bears with it an enigma; and the enigma is; ‘one is not able fully to ‘grasp it’ and its grandeur, majesty, and its unfathomable depths of rich and serious feeling and expression. No matter how many times one hears the music, like the wise and practiced standup comic, Beethoven manages to leave you wanting more, more not of quantity or of quality, but of more ‘data to be mined’ out of his wealth of riches.
Of course there are interpretations by the different conductors of orchestras who play the Ninth, such as this remarkable woman Xian Zhang who tonight produced a vivid and a stirring and a remarkably coherent performance from her orchestra and from the choirmasters and choirs under her baton. Get to BBC website if you are reading this early August 2017 and listen to the band playing!
Like the olde worlde parsons who were incumbents in their parishes and who were ajudged by their hearers on their first ‘performance’ in the pulpit on the initial Sunday of their terms of appointment; their first sermon being that which was to set the tone with their parishioners for the rest of their time in that post; so too conductors who take up their batons to try to wrestle with this Ninth and so to make it a succinct success as a sound revelation, and a string of conductors are making one attempt after another, then perhaps this Ninth is one of those pieces which are the determinators of these conductors’ standing with music lovers and so of their presumed ability?
This Xian Zhang this evening for myself showed marvellous musical understanding and orchestral choral rendition; she behaved much like that good householder whom Our Lord Jesus says ; ‘bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old’. One always makes this compromise between new things and old whenever one is listening to a new-to-oneself rendition of a piece of music one knows fairly well; say a new-to-you rendition by an orchestra under a conductor whom one has not heard play the piece before.
The old things are the legacy treasure in one’s audio experience, those landmarks and milestones which are much loved and a comfort and joy to behold again sometimes unexpectedly, whenever memory has played a trick or else a former low- appreciation has been overturned for a phrase or a key change etc.
The new things are more risky – sometimes one feels they work; sometimes one is unsure; and sometimes they are a disappointment; all of course being one’s subjective judgements on the music; but myself having lived 50 or more years with classical music, and I therefore having seen a generation or two of musicians pass and new generations step into their places, the stylistic and acoustic changes of mood and appreciation in rising generations, and hence of their penchants in interpretation, are often radical and to an old timer like me sometimes unsettling.
Nonetheless, the day one stops allowing new things into one’s life, and one’s heart, is they day one ought to be considering one’s end as being the next and final great earthly adventure. (I have seen some fine musicians come to the fore, composers, and players and choirmasters and conductors; and I have seen a world arise in which women are now being sen to be excelling in all these areas of music)
Xian Zhang had her own strong views on this Ninth, and on how she would perform it; many fine revelations come out of a listen to her and her superb Welsh orchestra and choruses.
As for Beethoven, I do suspect, not very revealing this my observation, that the poem text of Schiller’s inspired his music greatly; since even in translation (check it out, Google ‘Schiller’s Ode to Joy English translation) Schiller’s words are heady stuff. Yet for all the firing-up of Beethoven by Schiller’s words and lyrics; Beethoven himself had to have had the fire and ignition very much within himself; and the Schiller poem was the fortuitous way of expression that he made us eof to express these things.
Of course the final movement is the Schiller poem set to music; and the former three movement are orchestral pieces only as was customary for symphonic writing. This fire and ignition was possibly a living experience for Beethoven; not so uncommon for him to enjoy as Shelley’s famous verses might have implied (Shelly wrote: ‘Rarely cometh thou spirit of delight’). I say so because it appears Beethoven was at work on this Ninth Symphony over a space of decades (somewhere between 1810 and 1824 I believe he worked on it) – and so his staying power as a composer matched his staying power as a celebrant of that spirit of joy which Schiller hymned.
Schiller uses the words ‘feuer trunken’ which can be said to mean ‘drunk with fire’ the fire of animated joy and vitality for life. To be drunken with it – to be in a drunken state by way of contemplation of the beauty and the awesomeness of being and existence. Schiller calls upon his readers to acknowledge this spirit of joy in life and a prime and primal gift of God to humanity.
And is not this same vigour and vitality, its awesome and exotic appreciation of ‘things’ and of finding oneself being in the world of things; is not this the definitive spirit of the music Beethoven set to the words and wrote for the preceding three movements?
That First Movement which has such powerful and strenuous shifts of massed chords and musical phrases; and which conjures up great upheavals of mind or in the natural world, and as I have said, some Titanic struggle going on somewhere to get to grips with these upheavals and to either assimilate or to manage them – or both?
One does not listen to the music of Beethoven in these cases of powerful strenuous upheaval and in these cases of ‘drunken joy’ being played to one’s ears; instead one as it were follows the music like as if one has been and is being captured and brought along on a revelatory ‘total immersion’ emotional ‘joy-ride’. There is little space left – for myself anyway – in which to analyse the sounds or their configurations as one might do whilst one is listening to some other pieces by other composers; no space for trying to grasp how that sound was made or how that theme arises again here as this shape etc; one is sort of ‘gobsmacked’ in the sense that a musical speechlessness of mind occurs because the massed effects have you totally and soundly rapt.
I do think music here in the Ninth is revelatory. There is in the music, and this is there despite it being a massive intellectual and architectural edifice, there is a primitiveness of expression which is reminiscent of that edge or rawness which the best American blues singers draw their inspiration out of; or else there is the symphony of loud and starling noises one hears whilst camped at night in a rain forest, as it were added into the weave and warp of this Ninth.
Stravinski was adept at using this sound palette; I do think Beethoven had much of his colours to hand before him.
The nature of music itself is half-exposed to view in Beethoven’s (and Stravinski’s) works. That which is the heart of music exists regardless of the instruments and the arrangements and the voices etc, which are all incidental to the music itself; which is a set of blocks, of quanta of some strange form of human activity and communication which overleaps boundaries, As Nietzsche said music ‘is listened to by one’s feet’ or as T S Eliot remarked ‘you become the music, you are the music’.
That admired attunement to rhythm and to almost ecstatic dance which receive a prized homage by people generally; as these being the qualities proper to the indigenous peoples of the world to whom the global economy and consumerism are more or less unknown; and it is an admiration which is able, were it to be allowed to, to be recognised in one listening to the very same fierce and deep ecstatic engagement in the primeval demiurge which this Beethoven’s Ninth achieves.
The versatility is wondrous. Three prefatory Movements – each a masterpiece – each integrated with one another, but yet displaying three very broadly varied styles; an allegro, a scherzo, an adagio, yet all are of an equal quality of exceptional merit. One hears talk of Albinoni excelling in his slow movements; or of Bruch being a one-hit-wonder with his Violin Concerto; and other suchlike judgements on a number of deservedly famous composers; but it would be very hard for a person of any authority to maintain that Beethoven here ‘nodded’ in any way, and so lost the plot, here or there, in the course of his composing the Ninth.
The Third Movement is largely sedate and serene; it carries along with it want seem to be long lines of melody weaving in and out of one another like some mesmeric kaleidoscope throws up its patterns to view. It is intensely lyrics in mood and has a smooth but sudden alteration of melody, into a variation of the former one about halfway into its course. It is peaceful and delightful; as if an interlude, a pause for breath for us listeners before the serious storms and mighty vigours of the Fourth Movement are thundered upon us.
Those final gentle three notes of equal length which close the Third Movement were given no time to echo or resound by Xian Zhang in here rendering of this evening. Almost immediately upon the gentle exit of this Third Movement did the dramatic jolt of ‘awakening by shaking’ from the final Choral Movement begin. Sort of what geologists call ‘an unconformity.’
I believe that another very well known musical work of magnitude shows similarly this underpinning, this bedrock, on which music, in the real, actually stands. This work is Handel’s Messiah; a work which also when heard raises for a listener questions of ‘What might this music be?’ ‘How does it do what its does?’
Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth are two art creations which create their own edifices upon which to mount themselves for their performance. On the one hand they appear to be no more than ‘smokes and mists’, loose and amorphous manifestations, a continuum of ever-changing phantasms. On the other they carry such impact on a listener that the concreteness of this impact belies wholly their apparent nebulousness, and their inability to be captured, their majesties laid bare to analysis and to common view.
Like the conjurer, except in their nobility and in their power and in their sheer depth, composers of works like The Ninth, those few of whom one cannot reasonably ask ‘how was it done?’ they appear to do magic; by way of them tapping into deep veins of human experience which lie often beyond orthodox human expression.