Thursday, December 27, 2012

Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man

Original Facebook post here.
Today's whole-album listen-through: Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra. I can't account for the random sampling of classical records in my parents' rather small LP collection, but this was my favorite, particularly Side 2, with that whirling dervish of a Scherzo and the tender/towering Finale. Listening again today to the whole record, I'm surprised how much I know and like of the first two movements, given how little time I spent with them relative to the last two. It's impressive how boldly LVB just throws us into the middle of things, into the midst of what sounds like a pitched harmonic battle with no clear signposts--indeed how loose and structurally naked the first movement seems, then how controlled and tempered the second movement, the funeral march, seems, then onto the release of the third and the climax of the fourth--it's striking how much this music feels of a piece, but not in any clearly mapped out way. The key word is "feels": For all its brains and craft, this music is more felt than thought--a clear marker for the Romantic era that was nascent, or dawning, or whatever. All this is best encapsulated in that amazing Scherzo, which develops a simple musical phrase with classical, fugal rigor, but hones it to a fine, piercing, triumphal sheen. It's both the gleaming tower and the earthquake that would bring it down; it's a glittering and formidable musical beast.

Patrick Corcoran This is right, I think, and of a piece with Beethoven's withdrawal of the dedication to Napoleon. Great things, accompanied by great crimes, are the tension in Romanticism. The tension is unresolved, but enormously present, in the Eroica. The withdrawal signals Beethoven's discomfort, ambition, greatness and humanity - all present in the symphony.
David Tobocman The symphony's break from Classical form is even more striking when listen to it in context after the first two, which are fantastic but very conservative and sound like a perfect extension of Haydn.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Patrick and David, both right on. I've never tracked the Napoleonic angle very closely, but it's clear that LVB was working something out with this symphony, and listening to it, it's hard not to get swept up in the drama. And yes, it's easy to hear that chaotic first movement as a big fuck-you to classical form; those six jabbing C7 chords around measure 128 must have sounded to audiences of the time like a series of slaps to the head (they still kind of do).
David Tobocman My understanding is that all through the writing the Eroica, Beethoven's politics were very pro-Napoleon. The programmatic aspect is pro-Republic democratic principles. When Napoleon later became autocratic, Beethoven withdrew his dedication, but the contact of the symphony supposedly depicts the heroic aspects of democracy and "people power."

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