Personal Beethoven

A conductor  Gary Panetta, arts critic of the Peoria newspaper, made a comment on my previous

post, about orchestras as museums. He put himself in the role of a conductor, about to embark on Beethoven’s Fifth. I replied, and both the comment and

reply seem worth promoting to a full post of their own.

Here’s the conductor’s Gary’s comment (and thanks to Lisa Hirsch for telling me that I’d misunderstood Gary’s comment, and for telling me who he is):

The comments here all sound intriguing, but I’m confused

about one thing.

Suppose I’m going to program Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on

my orchestral season next year. I gather from the comments above that I should

make sure I have “a distinct, notable, worth paying attention to”

ideas about performing this very standard piece of classical music. Other than

just really trying to do a good job of it (and making sure audiences haven’t

just heard the piece recently with the same orchestra) what is a conductor

supposed to do? What constitutes a distinctive performance of Beethoven’s

Fifth? I mean, are the musicians supposed to use kazoos or something? I realize

that a certain amount of subjectivity enters into performing a classical piece

— but this freedom doesn’t compare with the freedom musicians have in other

kinds of music.

Here’s another (related thought): As a lay listener at

classical concerts, I’m often annoyed with the program notes. Why don’t

conductors write their own program notes explaining why they have chosen these

particular pieces and this particular order? I’ve been told that the music

speaks for itself. But in the dramatic arts, where people actually do speak

instead of mutely playing violins, the director never hesitates to tell me her

thoughts about “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or whatever theatrical

warhorse is being staged.

And my reply:

Very good thought about the program notes.. I think you

should go with it — really make the notes something like what you’re talking

about here. You could also involve the musicians, have them say what they think

about the piece.

But, speaking very honestly, your comments on Beethoven’s

5th bother me. If this is all you can offer — a professional rendition of a

work whose meaning and contours seem, if we’re to believe you, thoroughly known

— then why play it? I’d rather you didn’t.

 So let me give you some suggestions, if not about how to

perform the piece, then about what differences between performances might

exist. First, and most obviously, you might look at some performances that are

very different from the current norm. Maybe Stokowski, from generations ago,

lingering (as I remember) over phrases in the slow movement, giving each an

individual, highly personal treatment.

Or Mikhail Pletnev, from his recent

recording of all the Beethoven symphonies. I’ll get in a minute to the most

remarkable thing (at least for me) about the way he does the Fifth, but you

might listen to how flexible his tempi are in the first movement of the Eroica,

and how strong a narrative he creates from the music. I gather, listening to

him, that one thing very personal about his understanding of the piece is a

sense of uncertainty at the end of the exposition, at the end of the

development, and just before the coda. That uncertainty pays off wonderfully

the first and second times, by which I mean the uncertainty at the end of the

exposition, leading the first time into the exposition repeat, and the second

time — and somehow it sounds like a great surprise, a great expansion of

what’s gone before — leading into the further uncertainties of the


Or, in the Ninth, listen to the unabashed joy Pletnev and

his musicians bring to the first statements of the Ode to Joy tune. Could you

do anything like htat in the Fifth? Maybe, most obviously, when the sunburst of

the finale bursts out. Can you get beyond the routine of even the best normal

performances, and make it glow from within?

Or listen to what Pletnev does with the opening of the

second theme in the recapitulation in the first movement. The opening notes, so

decisive in the horn in the version of the passage that shows up in the

exposition, normally sound feeble in the recapitulation, now played on the

bassoon. I’ve never heard a satisfying solution to that. Doubling the bassoon,

or even using four of them (as I believe Carlos Kleiber does) only makes the

sound more awkward (at least for me).

Pletnev’s solution is wonderfully radical. He lets the

bassoon statement be different from the horn statement in the exposition —

quieter, far less decisive, just as the nature of the instruments should

dictate. And to make that work, he builds a nest of quiet both before and after

the bassoon comes in.

Another moment to think about: the oboe cadenza in the first

movement. How should that sound? (And a related question, rather radical in

today’s climate, but not in Beethoven’s time: Should the oboist play the

cadenza strictly as written, or should she ornament it?) There’s a video called Beethoven Alive! about

a New World Symphony performance of it, filmed by my friends Janet Shapiro and

Philip Byrd. The principal oboist is interviewed in the first part of the film,

and she talks about the cadenza. We see her practicing it alone. The film then

ends with the full performance of the piece, and when that cadenza comes,

instead of seeing the oboist in the middle of the orchestra, we see her alone

in her studio, as she was when she practiced the passage. That suggests one

interpretation of the cadenza, that it’s meditative, even lonely. Would you

want it to sound that way in your performance? And if not, how should it sound?

Or is that something you’d want to work out with the oboist, the only goal

being to get something personal, that spoke for both of you?

Or consider the famous set-piece in E. M. Forster’s

novel Howard’s End, in which members of a family (all young) and their

friends are at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. One of them tells herself a

story about goblins. That the goblins, evil little things, show up in the third

movement, and then are banished in the fourth. But then — in the famous

passage where, in the middle of the last movement, music from the third

movement returns — they come back again! The moral drawn from this is that you

can banish goblins, or evil, but it might always return — and that this shows

how powerful Beethoven is, and how deep his understanding of life can be. Would

you want to play these passages with Forster’s goblins in mind, or else thinking

of your own image of trouble or dismay? This might mean making the return of

the music very stark and shocking — something you might want to do in any

case, to convey what the passage must have meant to Beethoven and his audience,

since in those days disrupting the normal texture of a symphony was practically


Finally, you might find your own meaning — or your own

narrative — for the symphony. What if you thought the triumph in the final

movement was unconvincing? Or the coda of the first movement too insistent, as

if Beethoven was protesting too much?

To give you an example of how someone else thought about a

Beethoven piece, I’ll paraphrase what one of my Juilliard students said last

week about Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2 string quartet. I ask my students to make

presentations about pieces they play, presentations that should be entirely

personal, and full of feeling. This violinist picked this quartet, which he’d

played a number of times, and came up with the following scenario. First

movement: Beethoven emerges, for the first time in his oeuvre, as a

full-fledged neurotic, a man torn by trouble. Second movement: state of grace,

transcending any trouble. Third movement: cynicism, Beethoven answering his

patron’s request for a Russian folktune, by turning the tune almost into a

parody, making it sound absolutely trivial. Finale: Beethoven in an uninspired

mood, just churning out the notes. I don’t say everyone has to agree with this,

but it’s a very personal description of the piece, which could generate a very

personal performance. (And I should add that this violinist went into far more

detail than I’ve tried to render here.)


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  1. says

    Greg – are you sure he’s a conductor? How do you reconcile that with “as a lay listener at a classical concert…”? I can’t imagine any professional conductor describing himself that way. I’m going to hazard a guess that the Gary Panetta who commented is the Gary Panetta who is the arts critic at the Peoria Journal Star, in fact.

    Your responses are thoughtful and interesting but you also sound like you’re scolding a professional, publicly, about how he thinks about music he’s planning to perform, and I can’t imagine that would go over well with anyone.

    Thanks for the correction, Lisa, and also for the warning. I wondered, afterwards, if i might sound scolding. But I’m not sure it’s wrong to sound that way. Why not scold someone who goes into a performance without a single idea in his head? I’d make an exception for people (Mariss Jansons, maybe) who might not be t articulate about ideas, but whose performances radiate a strong personal point of view. But if someone considered having some ideas, and then couldn’t find any — I don’t mind scolding that. I’ll take your warning seriously in any case, though. Thanks for caring enough to write it.

  2. Fred Lomenzo says

    I have often read comments such as those in your piece about the emotions and other manifistations of the great masters such as Beethoven while composing.It makes great copy, however the reality of what takes place, the time and effort that goes into a piece, especially a major work, is probably closer to the true picture. With all our modern tools the task of creating a major work is still daunting. Beethoven used pen and paper!!! Most musical ideas I create in an emotional moment wind up in the trash. To get the best possible results from a piece takes a good idea and alot of effort. Reworking a piece and not settling for inferior work usually takes time. Beethoven probably had a great work ethic. I believe this work ethic, along with his many musical gifts , was an important factor in his creation of so many great works.

  3. says

    Greg, I think you and the conductor are probably seeking the same thing, it’s just a question of terminology and a concern for authenticity on his part—no, not “performance practice” authenticity!–but being authentic in the sense that one is not seeking to be different or novel merely for the sake of doing so.

    All of your observations and suggestions are things that, I think, any conscientious interpreter of Beethoven (or any other “standard classic composer”) would seek to follow. Currently a colleague and I are in the middle of doing the Beethoven violin sonata cycle in several cities culminating in a recording project…and I think for us just trying to look afresh at the score, eliminating all the “tics” and so-called “traditions” that have crept into performances over the years, and inevitably bringing our own perspectives (the way we hear, our respective sense of “time”) is the road map to making the music our own. The emotional implications of certain passages, where they happen and why, can be very different for different interpreters.

    That being said, I am bothered with the conductor’s comment about “just really trying to do a good job” (it’s not a task to be accomplished, Maestro…it’s a journey to be undertaken) and while in a certain dimension I would agree with his comment about performers’ “freedom,” I think it’s still fundamentally a misapprehension that equates freedom with the choice in notes one plays. For me, the endless “insolubility” of certain choices in Beethoven is a kind of freedom beyond anything I can imagine in any other kind of music. Or, as Schnabel referred to it, we’re talking about “music greater than it can be played.”

    For me playing Beethoven always boils down to making sure you are playing it as if you did not know all the music that followed it, and as if nobody had ever heard the piece you are playing, whether Beethoven 5 or the Waldstein Sonata.

    Thanks, Philip. “Music greater than it can be played” — I love that. I felt that way, many years ago, when I was singing Iago in substantial excerpts from Verdi’s “Otello.” I’d also sung Scarpia, in “Tosca,” and felt that the role was lots of fun, and there were many things that I could do with it. “Otello” felt very different. The more I sang it, the more I felt that Verdi had written into the music a performance better than anything I could give, and that my first job would be to make myself equal to what he’d put in the music. Only then could I begin to find room for personal interpretation. I didn’t feel in the least enslaved by this — I felt humbled. One moment that I thought a lot about was the place where Iago, telling Otello about Desdemona’s handkerchief, gives a final, killer thrust: “Lo vidi in man di Cassio.” Verdi writes considerable emphasis on “Cassio” — B going down to E, a V – I cadence in E, but with accent marks on each note. How should this be sung? It’s clear that the emphasis should be striking, but I didn’t think Verdi wanted the shallow shout of triumph, with no attention to the notes, that many baritones deliver. But then what kind of emphasis should I use? It’s something in the tone of voice, I think, and the pronunciation of the name. But it’s hard — though so rewarding — to figure out. Do you even have to sing or declaim loudly at that point?

    I wonder — moving to a different thought — if it’s realistic to perform a standard work as if it’s never been heard before. I understand the instinct there, which is to make the music spontaneous and fresh. But the fact is that you do know the piece, and so do many people in your audience. So maybe another approach would be to take this for granted, and to build on the understanding that’s already there. That’s very general, very vague, what i’ve just written, but I think there’s something to it.

  4. Greg Sandow says

    Gary Panetta graciously responded, in a personal e-mail I’m posting here with his permission:

    I see much more clearly what you’re getting at, though. Your comments make me think of Furtwangler, one of my favorite Beethoven interpreters, whose so-called “subjective readings” have always struck me as profound and penetrating, really close to how I imagined the music ought to sound given what I had always read about Beethoven.

    Unfortunately, for many years I felt embarrassed about liking Furtwangler’s recordings — a music director I used to know poked fun at his approach, and I decided (as a mere layperson, after all) to say nothing. I wonder now, though, whether musicians for a time were simply counseled against “subjective,” emotional readings of a score; hence my friend’s disdain. Frankly, I don’t how performing music can be anything other than subjective — even sticking to what’s literally on the page is a subjective, emotional choice.

    Music needs to speak to our situation; it needs to reflect the times but also be a little ahead of the times and urge everyone to move forward.

    Popular music has always done exactly this in the United States; classical music much less so in recent years, though I think things are changing. What’s fascinating to me about European art music is how it signaled subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in people’s sensibilities — how these changes quietly or noisily reshaped the overall culture. I love listening to classical music, but sometimes I’m disappointed because I don’t get the sense that the music is caught up in questions and debates people have today. T.S. Eliot, for instance, stood up and applauded a Stravinsky concert because he heard in the music something he thought he was trying to do in his own poetry; it’s hard to imagine this sort of thing happening today.

    But I don’t want to be gloomy at all: Things are changing. Our local symphony orchestra of late has done a good job at avoiding “same old, same old” programming choices, which is a sign of health, since our community is located well within “flyover country.” People on the coasts shouldn’t despair about the state of classical music: Concerts are better attended and better conducted than you might think in the hinterland. Just ask Henry Fogel.

    Henry is the president of the League of American Orchestras. He spends a lot of time visiting orchestras around the country, and tells us what he’s found on his ArtsJournal blog.

  5. Steve says

    Maybe you’d like to riff on this a bit:

    “[D]o we really return to experience the music we value in the hope and expectation of hearing something new each time? On the contrary, I believe we return because we hear nearly the same thing each time.” (Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 1995, p.164)

  6. says

    I read your comments as making a case for strong interpretation – you (or I) can do that in a persuasive way with no sense of scolding. Even in a review where I thought the performer punted on having a point of view, my preference is not to scold. I admit to being extremely cranky sometime on my blog, though I tend to direct that at institutions rather than individuals.

    In private, and in cases where I have a teacher relationship with the person, sure, scolding is sometimes in order, and can be effective, if you know the right way to scold someone. Different people respond to different approaches.

    I think that if you look at Gary’s response, you’ll see that he didn’t feel scolded. There’s a difference, I also think, between expressing a strong opinion and scolding someone.

  7. says

    P. S. I agree with your point that strong interpretations are important and worth trying for. Not everyone will be super-original! Novelty value has its limits.

  8. Bill says

    I’d go a lot farther and say don’t repeat a work unless you have something ‘substantially’ different to say with it. No one outside the classical music world will care about a phrase played differently, but play a whole work in a new way (Rite of Spring at half speed!) then people will notice. The same rules apply to popular music. If someone did a new version of Rubber Soul, for example, and just mimicked what was already on record it would be embarrassing. But if they take it on in a whole new way, and it succeeds…

    Why is the classical musical world so slow to see this?