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?