The Guide To Giving Beethoven

Black Friday is a day best kept close to home, I think, especially considering the possibility of a Zombie menace, always lurking at the edge of large, frenetic, monomaniacal crowds. And so a hearty congratulations on your continued survival!

I understand the need to shop for holiday gifts, I just think most of the time spent on it should be from home, with all the contemporary conveniences. For example, where it used to be something of a guessing game, buying music, now via the magic of the ‘tubes’ it’s easy enough to hear a good example of what it is you’re thinking of, giving music fans almost the same opportunity that book browsers have had. If you know what you want, then you’ll get it, but when trying to choose between what seems to be an equally good set of options, this audio browsing is invaluable.

For example, how to decide which set of complete Beethoven Symphonies to give as a gift? Of course you were considering this, because what better gift to give to anyone, especially the proverbial person who has everything. The Beethoven Symphonies are at the core of Western art music, the place from which a listener can explore the past that preceded the composer and the future (and present) he presaged. They gather together aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, philosophical and moral values that are at the core of our individual experience of contemporary civilization and represent not only the ideals that we hold and strive to follow but their realization, in exhilarating and frustratingly fleeting moments.

This is particular to and special about Beethoven. There are other composers, like Bach and Mozart, who made music that expressed all sorts of ideas about God, the self in society, the values of wisdom and maturity. Their works are masterpieces of artifice, of the artificial creation that is the history of Western art music. Fugue does not exist as a means or experience of human life, it is a puzzle, a set of rules to guide the creation of a piece of music that is about how it fits into, and works against, those same rules. That it can be extraordinarily beautiful, intellectually fulfilling and emotionally and spiritually moving is testimony to the triumph of the human imagination, of man as the creating species, propagating ideas as well as children, and is the insoluble mystery of consciousness, which we can explain mechanically (how it works) but not essentially (why it works). The fugue and other abstract forms, even when bent to the service of specific liturgical expression, are outside our experience, invisible shapes which touch us in the moment but pass by, lost in time. When we hear Bach, we hear his brilliance in solving the puzzle. And when we hear Mozart at his most social and humane, in his operas, we hear what he thinks of his characters, and he is always sympathetic. But the characters themselves are abstractions. In Le Nozze di Figaro, the greatest achievement in opera composition, we hear his good humor, his implicit caring for those without love, but primarily we hear how he reconciles character, deed and drama through music. It is music that brings the figures together, not only in the astonishing quartet where the characters sing about their own interpretation of the moment and each interpretation accompanies the others, no matter how far apart their ideas may be, but literally in the end, when the Countessa and Count are reconciled through music, where the music ensures that Figaro and Susanna remain in Almaviva’s employ. The music is meant to salve, and solve, what in real life would be enduring pain and bitterness. It is beautiful, it is genius, but it is not us, our experience, our life. This is the problem with Don Giovanni, with the strange lightheartedness during and at the end that constantly argues against the pain and tragedy of the Don’s violations. A murderer and sex criminal in real life becomes, on the stage, a transgressor of social boundaries, something that does not truly exist. It is the artifice of it all . . .

There is something different about Beethoven which makes him the greatest of all composers. Not necessarily the most important (though he may be), and certainly not the most influential, at least in terms of how the music that followed him was made, although he did single-handedly create the possibility of a century and more of Romantic music. Beethoven appeals to anyone and everyone, his music is passionately exciting and fulfilling to people who have no interest in classical music. His art is sophisticated, challenging, fulfilling the artifice of art music in the deepest ways, but it is not subtle. It doesn’t need to be. Beethoven is always sincere and direct, he expresses exactly what he is thinking, even if what he is thinking is ambiguous or confused, and without the neurotic drama of Mahler. His mastery of the artificial rules of music is so total and complete that he ignores them with confidence and impunity. Although he is the greatest master of harmonic structure, of laying out a journey that, as maze-like as it can be, unerringly brings us home – we hear that assured inevitability in every moment and so eagerly allow him to lead us forward – he casually flouts the rules of Classical harmonic organization, modulating to new keys by decree rather than by design. It’s as if he tells us to take it or leave it, and we take it because it is so powerful and moving. He moves us through his passion and tenderness, not for abstract notions or characters, but for us. He is the democrat of music, unconcerned with bourgeois rank and status, with how a piece or a form is supposed to go.

As a maker of forms, a builder, Beethoven is unequalled. As listeners, we have no need to identify what he’s working with, whether it’s sonata-allegro form, fugue, rondo, et. al. We can hear how he has shaped something, he makes every piece of the edifice clear just as he never hides the outline of his design, so we always feel the connection between what we hear in the moment and how the music began, we always know that what we are hearing makes sense in an overall plan. Hearing his symphonies, even for the first time, is like walking through a building that has a structure based around such a firmly logical design that we can anticipate the size, shape and purpose of each room before we enter. Even in his late works, in the Ninth Symphony, what seems wild and willful is always assuredly there for a reason. The amazing late structures, heroic acts of imagination for a man who was almost entirely deaf, have forms and shapes only tenuously related to those of the past, yet they still come from what we know of the past. During the riotous first movement of the Ninth the hunting horns that sound from the distance in a peaceful moment seem perfectly in place, perfectly right, a connection to a clear and purposeful reality, even as we, and Beethoven, hear this churning, obsessive music around us and wonder what it’s for and about. We know it’s about something, more likely it’s about many, many things, too many to sort out in the moment or in a single hearing. But it unmistakably has a purpose. It recognizes that the abstract artifice of music is as fine for conveying the messy vulgarity of life as a shout or laugh in the street. It is weird, forceful, upfront and sincere.

That’s why we listen to Beethoven, and that’s why it’s such a good gift. But, which one? There are hundreds of complete sets, either in print or easily available on the after market. How to choose? I have a dozen different sets myself, and have heard at least another dozen in detail. It’s not anywhere near a redundant or excessive amount, there is so much for musicians to say about this music that a dozen, each of them fine, each of which sounds like the very best one when it’s playing, is rather a modest amount. This is especially true since so many excellent Beethoven collections are available at budget level prices.

There are two general divides amidst what is available, having to do with modern or older ways of approaching the music, the modern way being Period Performance Practice, an attempt to recreate the sound and style of the music as it was played in the time it was new, and the older way being the legacy of large scale orchestral playing that comes out of the tail end of the Romantic era and the beginnings of recorded sound. Personal tastes may dictate preference, but neither way is objectively right or wrong, and there are excellent examples of each.

In Period Performance style, the patriarch is Roger Norrington’s set currently on Virgin. This was a historic and controversial undertaking, and one of the reasons it wears its age well is that it, thirty years later, it still sounds jarring. The orchestral sound is leaner and sharper than standard playing, the tempos are very fast, and Norrington does make decisions that at times seem brilliant and at others seem misguided. In comparison to other such recordings, though, Norrington seems almost grandfatherly; his orchestra sound is closer to the norm than those who followed him, like Christopher Hogwood and Roy Goodman, he’s warmer and more human than John Elliot Gardiner’s highly praised by slightly cold and didactic set. He also includes some important overtures and the price is reasonable. My personal favorite Period Performance set is the one with conductor Jos van Immerseel leading Anima Eterna, which is more expensive but might be had for a reasonable price. But Norrington is really a foundational set, exciting, full of ideas, often revelatory and brilliant and a welcome gift to give and receive.

There are more choices in the standard sets, and many bargains. The most famous one, and perhaps the consensus pick, is the 1963 version of the four cycles that Herbert von Karajan recorded, his first one with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rich and powerful and sympathetic in conception, von Karajan did place greater emphasis on Apollonian beauty than Dionysian expression, though nothing is short-changed, everything sounds right and satisfying. You can’t go wrong with this choice . . . although there may be better ones, including an excellent, exciting cycle he recorded in 1950s. The sound is mono and somewhat limited for that, but the playing is intense, leaner and faster than what the conductor would later favor. It’s inexpensive too, but may be a bit specialized. A set I always recommend is an under-appreciated alternative, the symphonies recorded by the excellent Belgian conductor André Cluytens with the same Berlin Philharmonic von Karajan would take over shortly. Exceptionally warm, brilliant and straightforward playing, Cluytens lays out the music clearly and with a very light touch. Although he was expressing his own contemporary thoughts about the composer, the feeling is of the music speaking entirely for itself.

These are analog recordings, though, and if there is value in more up to date sound, there are again excellent and inexpensive digital sets of the music. Leonard Bernstein’s is terrific, as is the great German conductor Günter Wand. Daniel Barenboim’s set is beautifully played, but he favors a deeply Romantic view of the music and may be a bit specialized. Osmo Vänska’s doesn’t break new ground but it does everything wonderfully. There are two fascinating and truly superb sets that combine both modern and older ideas, those from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and David Zinman. Harnoncourt is one of the original Period Performance conductors, but for his Beethoven cycle he used the standard sound of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, changing only the horns to the natural, pre-valve, kind. This is Period Practice applied to modern instruments, and the recordings, all live, are fiery. On disc, the symphonies are only available on a substantial and expensive box set, but the digital download of the symphony cycle alone is at a bargain price. The Zinman set is even better. This was the first using newly revised scores and is one of the most exciting on disc. Zinman’s tempos are at the edge of reckless, but his Zurich Tönhalle Orchestra handles them with ease and brilliance. For those familiar with the music already, the revised scores will have some noticeable revelations, especially in the Ninth Symphony, and some moments, like the oboe improvisation in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, send chills down the spine and make the music sound completely new. Slightly specialized, and not the last word, but pound for pound probably the best single Beethoven set available. Give with confidence.

I think it’s important to include one special, incomplete, unusual set. On the Music & Arts label, there is a collection of most of the symphonies, numbers 3-9, as well as a couple overtures, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Fürtwangler. The sound is fairly rough, as these were radio broadcasts, recorded for the archives and never intended for records and distribution (the digital restoration and mastering is deeply skillful). The playing is greater than any you will ever hear, the ideas preserved within difficult, even frightening. These were recordings made in the Third Reich from March of 1942, the Ninth, to December of 1944, the Third. It’s hard to tell what is going on here because there are so many things going on here. One of them is that Fürtwangler is conducting Beethoven in front of audiences that assuredly contained Nazis and at times (perhaps even these recordings), the likes of Goebbels, Göring and Hitler.


Though never a Nazi himself, the conductor choose to stay in Germany prior to the start of World War II, appeared at concerts to benefit the Hitler Youth and to celebrate the Führer’s birthday, and led concerts in occupied countries. He also helped spare Jewish musicians from extermination. And he made this music . . . as a musician, Fürtwangler had a rare ability to discern and express what he felt was real poetry in every piece of music he led, and to do so with an intensity that burned, though never harmed, no matter the tempo or dynamic. Beethoven’s music has an inherent, physical power to it, and these performances are intense beyond description, almost to the point of madness. One of the things that is in this Beethoven that cannot be heard anywhere else is a sense of anger, even fury. The music never loses control, but it seems to be telling us, even in the midst of the proclamation of universal brotherhood in the Ninth, or the scene by the babbling brook in the Sixth, that something is very wrong. And why shouldn’t it say this? Beethoven, this deeply moral music and the greatest achievement in German culture is being played in front of people who have set out, through direct effort and indirect support, to exterminate a vast swath of other human beings. Beethoven, who inherently felt what he had to say in music could be heard by all men because all men shared a sense of humanity, is being played in front of people who see those who belong to certain races and nationalities as not even human beings. Fürtwangler, who decided to stay because, rightly or wrongly, he felt that German audiences needed to hear what Beethoven had to say about love and freedom and that it might influence them for the good, is leading that music in front of people enjoying victories in their war of extermination against Slavs, and waiting to be crushed between the pincers of the Allies and the Red Army, is on these recordings burning with a fury that is indescribable, unsurpassed and perhaps directed at himself. And so the music burns. It’s exhilarating and unnerving. It is so because the message in the Ninth Symphony is so clear and so firmly and clearly believed by these musicians and singers as the Wermacht prepares its drive on the Caucasus, it is so because the Fifth Symphony represented hope, humanity and victory to the allies even as Nazi audiences listened to it as the tide permanently turned against them in June, 1943, it is so because the funeral march for the hero in the Third Symphony is played as the Battle of The Bulge rages to the west and everyone knows, even if they cannot say, that their ‘hero’ has lead them to death and destruction. Music matters, but in the grand scheme of things, and even in daily life, it never actually matters, it never changes the world, it hopefully changes our mood. This set matters, however. There is nothing in the history of civilization that so clearly and deeply captures the ideals we hold for ourselves and the monstrous things that come so easily to societies. It matters because American ‘Exceptionalism’ has spread to the exceptional quality of American torture. It matters because nothing is so beautiful as what we could be, and nothing produces so much bitterness as what we become. And Beethoven, via Fürtwangler, bears witness. This recording is almost impossibly difficult and absolutely essential.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One comment

  • Thanks for writing this essay – brilliant writing and I agree with you all the way. My personal favs of the 2 “kinds” of sets are the Karajan 63 and the Zinman set. No, the Paavo Jarvi…well – don’t forget Liebowitz. Then there’s Solti. And of course Toscanini! Well you get the idea….

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