So there’s a new movie, Copying
Beethoven, about the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. And in the
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>New York Times review (by
class=SpellE>ManohlaDargis) comes the
Onscreen is the Kecskemet Symphony
Orchestra of Hungary, but what we hear is a 1996 Decca recording of Bernard
class=SpellE>Haitinkconducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of
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
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
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>MissaSolemnis, 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
class=GramE>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