Sunday, March 25, 2007

Beethoven's Fifth or A Musician's March Madness

I went all out for last night's symphony concert and now I am all in. We played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that most popular but much abused piece of classical music. It is considered by some to be "an old warhorse" but in its day it was very avant-guarde and even revolutionary. It had a powerful impact on the music world of the 19th century and the effects are still being felt. Beethoven was the right person at the right time who propelled us into the modern world musically speaking.

We play and hear this work so often that we have become jaded and don't realize what a powerful work it was and is anymore. The first four notes have become almost a parody for "fate." As it happens I have been listening to Robert Greenberg's lectures (from the Teaching Company) on various musical topics and have been surprised by how often Beethoven's Fifth comes up. Recently I was listening to what I thought would be four lectures on Strauss's Death and Transfiguration when to my surprise, the first two of the four were on Beethoven's Fifth and Beethoven's mastery of thematic development. Greenberg does a wonderful job of making you hear this work with fresh ears, with the ears of a 1808 concert goer, a person who would have been very comfortable with Sonata Form, Minuet Form, and the Viennese Classical Style in general, and would therefore have been truly shaken up by Beethoven's innovations to these forms, especially in this symphony.

We had a guest conductor last night, Michael Hall (remember that name—he is a man with a mission), who in my opinion fully understood the depth of this work. For one thing he took all the repeats. (At least all the ones in our version of the printed music. See the Wikipedia article for a discussion of the Scherzo repeats.) He tried very hard to get us to make the contrasts between forte (loud) themes and chords to piano (soft) lyrical lines more dramatic, one of the things that makes Beethoven so difficult to play. You are always being jolted out of your comfort zone. And then there were his tempi...

I realized from those very first four notes we played that this was not to be a business-as-usual performance. Hall is a young and very intense guy, almost driven as I imagine Beethoven himself must have been. Rehearsals have been packed full of comments, ideas, and suggestions. Hall talks as fast as he asked us to play. Too fast, I thought at first, but when I checked the music with my metronome I discovered that he wasn't too far off from Beethoven's own metronome markings in the score. If anything he was slower, but only a tad. A lot of musicians feel that Beethoven, who added these metronome markings soon after the metronome was invented, but sometimes long after he had composed a piece, are way off the mark and they tend to ignore them totally. Not Hall.

Which brings me to why this is all madness. Along with the evening rehearsals—a pitiful three which lasted until 10:30 pm, we were also rehearsing and playing children's concerts in the morning (9:30 am) which in Los Angeles means a lot of freeway driving back and forth. This came for many of us after another series of rehearsals and concerts the previous week (and the one before that) with totally different programs. In the life of a free-lance musician there is just no time to work on anything in great detail, to savor the moment and reflect on what we are doing. The music flies by so fast, that when I encounter a piece again I sometimes ask myself, "Did I really play this before? I don't remember it."

Most of my colleagues are probably already at work on the next program, but I will be taking a short break to get my taxes done (and maybe get caught up on my knitting). Next up—Schumann's Spring Symphony.


  1. Glad to read that you survived without falling asleep at the wheel on the freeway.

    When I finish the reports on my to do pile, let's go see the Ruth Asawa show downtown.