Another lost opportunity

So there’s a new movie, Copying Beethoven, about the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. And in the New York Times review (by ManohlaDargis) comes the following:

Onscreen is the Kecskemet Symphony Orchestra of Hungary, but what we hear is a 1996 Decca recording of Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Purists may object to this strategy, but Ms. Holland’s filmmaking in this scene is so sensitive that only quibblers will notice if the bowing doesn’t match the sound.

Well, this non-purist has another objection, and — more fun — a suggestion he really loves.

Movies don’t do well with classical music, generally speaking. In Amadeus, we’re treated to the sight of conductors standing up in front of orchestras, waving their arms around, something that didn’t happen in the 18th century. The same thing shows up in Sofia Coppola’s intriguing Marie Antoinette. And I must say it irks me that the people who plan these films do extensive research on costumes and furniture, but don’t trouble to find out even the most basic things about how music in the eras they depict was actually performed.

So now Beethoven. He did in fact stand up in front of the orchestra when the Ninth Symphony was premiered, so if the movie shows that, it’s accurate. The proper purist objection would be the sound of the instruments — they should have used a period instrument ensemble, not a performance (however powerful) on modern instruments.

But even that is just a technicality. The most fascinating historical point is surely that the performance — by our standards today — must have been a mess. The music was new and difficult. It wouldn’t have been rehearsed enough. Performances back then (again by our standards) almost never were. And the performance took place on a monster concert, on which not just the Ninth was heard, but also movements from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, just as new, even more gigantic, and at least as difficult to play and sing. The solo singers (getting back to the Ninth) weren’t happy with their parts, and asked Beethoven to rewrite them. He refused, of course.

But he must have been an impossible conductor, as he was when, years earlier, he’d tried to conduct Fidelio. On that occasion, he caused such confusion that a friend finally spoke to him in private, and led him away. Why would the Ninth have been much different? Beethoven’s conducting motions were, by all accounts, confusing. And he couldn’t hear the music!

So surely the first performance was full of errors. But it also was a triumph, so the essence of the music must have come through. Could a movie show us this? Could anyone stage a performance full of mistakes, and not quite sure of itself, but still triumphant? That would require lots of imagination, and, maybe above all, musicians who, in their performance, would in effect be actors, pretending that they didn’t know the music as well as they really do.

This would be very hard to pull off. But wouldn’t it be wonderful?

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  1. Tom says

    There’s an irony in your comments, and your depiction of yourself as a non-purist is questionable.

    Some years ago our local Musician’s Union guy, an older jazzer and club date player, commented to me that classical musicians were perfectionists. He was referring to their mania about having every last thing spelled out in the contract.

    Your comments about the movie are consistent with that, applying a classical musician’s mania for historical accuracy … while criticising a performance for being too good !

    I wish there were more movies about classical music – period. The movie “Amadeus” was great for Mozart and the people that perform his music. Anything that takes classical music closer to the mainstream is to be applauded.

    How about Paul Giamatti as Anton Bruckner?

    Great casting!

    Sure, it’s vaguely good to have classical music out there in the media. But at what cost? I think one of classical music’s problems is a kind of sanctimony, “We’re exalted, we’re lofty, we’re perfect.” One of the things this leads to is a falsification of classical music’s history. In the present day, we give classical concerts in fancy spaces, with orchestras that (the best ones) sound luxurious. It’s all very posh.

    But back in the day, when Beethoven and Mozart were alive, it wasn’t like that at all. Things were much freer. Orchestras even improvised during performances of works written down in score. The audience clapped whenever it heard any music it liked. That happened, I’ve heard (though I haven’t read the original source for this) at the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, after the first brief timpani solo in the second movement.

    The elite, sleek air of classical music in our time turns a lot of prospective listeners off, especially younger ones. But if we showed the classical composers making music the way they actually did, the whole enterprise might appear a lot more human. And thus more interesting, and approachable.

  2. says

    I’m all for what you suggest, Greg, but not only would this be an impossibly tough sell to the director, imagine trying to persuade the musicians involved to intentionally “butcher” a warhorse like Bee9. (“You want me to do what?”) I don’t know many classical players who would be willing to even entertain the idea of the kind of acting you’ve suggested here.

    So okay, you could maybe get around this by hiring well-intentioned amateurs. Maybe. But how’s this going to go over in the press — no matter how many times the “true historical accuracy” angle was explained…

    There is a self-reinforcing cycle of musicians who are trained to give exclusively “elite, slick” performances, audiences who expect nothing less than “elite, slick” performances every time, and critics who rate performances on how closely they adhere to the platonic ideal of eliteness and slickness.

    (Unless, of course, it’s new music, in which case woeful underpreparation is the order of the day.)

    Thanks for the reality check!

    To have any chance of making this work, the film would have to take some time to show what performances were like — how quickly they were put together, how rough (but exciting) they were. I’m sure it would be possible to show Beethoven trying to rehearse some earlier piece, pointing out some noticeable mistake, and then having to endure the mistake in performance. This could even be a subtheme of the movie.

    As for the musicians, that’s harder. Someone might actually have to write out parts with mistakes in them. Or in other words, the sloppinesses of the performance would actually have to be planned in advance, and rehearsed!

    I don’t think this is impossible. But we’d certainly need an imaginative, motivated group of musicians. I’d love to meet those people, if they were ever found.

  3. sb says

    I’ve seen the movie, so I offer a couple of notes: The issue of how Beethoven could have successfully conducted the premiere of the Ninth is addressed – it is in fact the climax of the movie. Prior to that, he’s also shown in rehearsal, making a mess of the scherzo because he can’t hear what he’s conducting. Yes, the juxtaposition of the period orchestra onscreen and the big modern performance on the soundtrack is definitely absurd – but on the other hand, the music sounds great! It’s also worth noting that the film doesn’t end on a high note with the Ninth but moves on to show the composition and performance of the Grosse Fuge, with its attendant difficulties.

    Thanks for all this.

    But…”the music sounds great.” I don’t doubt it. But does it sound interesting? This is one of the problems classical music is having. Concerts do, often enough, sound great. But they’re rarely interesting. Nothing happens. The music is played, as if from on high, and the audience listens passively. Most often, the music just washes over the audience. No particiular moment stands out, and the audience doesn’t have much sense of what to listen for. Performers don’t help with that. The only stated content of the performance is likely to be what’s in the program notes, which in the past typically stressed history and analysis, and now might be chattier, with more anecdotes. But rarely, if ever, will you see anything about why we listen, how the performance could change us, or what the musicians are trying to do.

    For this reason, “the music sounds great” might not be enough. We’re in a much more intelligent age than that. Smart people demand more than that from music. They want ideas with their beauty, and they want some way to participate. Classical music, as currently performed, doesn’t give them that.

  4. Joe Nichols says

    I wonder if there exists any primary historical sources for how the premier of the Ninth Symphony went. The two movies of which I am aware, Immortal Beloved and Beethoven Lives Upstairs both depict the premier of the Ninth Symphony as an unmitigated success. Your post seems to imply that perhaps it was a messy affair. I am reasonably certain that there would be a critic’s review of the premier. It would be interesting.

    We all do know the answer to the question as to why period pieces and substandard (by today’s standards) musicianship did not show up in any movie. It is for the same reason that Tom Hulce, (Amadeus) face was not scarred by the effects of smallpox; and why all the spymasters look like Pierce Bronsan,Sean Connery, and Tom Cruise; and why only the physically beautiful need apply for the roles in movies. It’s HOLLYWOOD, BABY!!!

    Joe Nichols

  5. says

    Well, Beethoven had help in conducting the premiere of the Ninth. Michael Umlauf was listed as the official conductor (with Beethoven “taking part” in the performance)and some stories suggest that the musicians were ignoring the flailing composer. Umlauf stood either behind or to the side of Beethoven. The anecdote about Beethoven continuing to conduct after the end of the piece (or perhaps after the Scherzo) and then being turned toward the audience by a singer to see everyone applauding has not been refuted to my knowledge — though one would think that he would have noticed that the musical vibrations had stopped.

    Tim, thanks, and you beat me to this. I was going to post more details about the performance, including Umlauf. I’ll still do that — there were fascinating things, quite beyond the double conductor, which would be amazing to see in a film.

  6. chas says

    Interesting essay, and an interesting thread.

    I have not seen the film yet, but I will, even though I suspect it does not capture the Sacred Monster in all his messy humanity…nor his deep technical skill as an artist.

    The idea of trying to reproduce that premiere of the 9th warts and all is really fascinating, and it’s too bad the director didn’t try it..but, from other reviews I’ve read, she had other fish to fry..

    I’m sure the music was made and recorded solely in accord with budgetary and contract rigors. I suspect the producers did the best they could on that score.

    although, that said, there is a kind of sadness that of ALL the performances they might have used for the soundtrack, they used probably the most flawless and urbane (not to say dull) performances they could find. That’s really too bad…they shoulda talked to John Eliot Gardiner, or Bruggen… at least the sound we heard would have been a little like the real thing.

  7. says

    It surprised me recently that a major New York electronics retailer recently advertised the Season 2 Blu-ray set for a few dollars less than the regular set. As nice as these units seem to be; it seems like a lot of trouble and hardware. Somebody needs to broker a deal so DVD and Blu-Ray images can be loaded onto hard drives like the Kaleidoscope system.