Toronto-based Tafelmusik is one of the world’s leading period performance ensembles, renowned internationally for its distinct, exhilarating, and soulful performances. Founded in 1979 by Kenneth [...]
They spoke about it
The Beethoven symphony cycle: a journey
by Bruno Weil
Von Herzen — möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen
From the heart— may it return to the heart
We find these words at the top of Beethoven’s autograph of the Missa Solemnis. Beethoven’s masterworks come from the bottom of his heart, and all musicians of Tafelmusik play and perform from the bottom of their hearts! Making music with them is an honour, a challenge, and pure joy —it is an unforgettable gift to make music with friends.
The Beethoven journey has changed our lives. The honesty, integrity, and humbleness of the musicians — my dear friend Jeanne Lamon is the best example of these values — brought us to the big human message of this great German composer: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men become brothers).
Today’s people need Beethoven’s idealism more than ever. We have performed and recorded his music: by listening to this you all can share his thoughts, emotions, and dreams with us.
Reflections on the Beethoven Cycle with Bruno Weil
by Jeanne Lamon
Although the Beethoven symphonies are familiar to many music lovers, few have had the privilege to experience them as Tafelmusik and Bruno Weil have over the past twenty years, in Germany and Canada. For my colleagues and me, our journey with Bruno Weil exploring these great works has been a profound and intensely personal one. Bruno has offered insights into the psychology and musical language of the composer in a unique way. “This is black desperation.” “Here there is hope again.” “This is a prayer.” “This pianissimo has the most tension in the world. It’s about to explode!” I feel like Bruno has a personal connection with Beethoven that few can boast (and he is far too modest to boast such a thing, which is why it bears saying here).
Having had the opportunity to perform these works over many years and several cycles, Tafelmusik, Bruno Weil, and these nine symphonies have become familiar friends. But as with all good friends, our relationships and feelings are always changing and growing. We were so lucky to be able to experience these symphonies at the Klang und Raum Festival in Irsee, Germany. Every summer for nineteen years, we were in residence at the beautiful renovated monastery turned conference centre in Irsee, where we were wonderfully spoiled. We were lodged and fed like royalty and had only to think about music and the so-called “higher” pursuits in life. Beethoven symphonies, along with a great deal of Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, were given the time and space (Raum) needed to be understood as the complex and multi-layered works that they are. Most of these symphonies were performed by us first at Irsee, and subsequently brought back to Canada for our Toronto audiences to experience as well.
A warm thank-you is owed to Dr. Rainer Jehl of Irsee, who had the vision and courage to allow the Klang und Raum Festival to be created and to flourish. And to Tritonus and Stephan Schellmann, as well as Analekta, for making us sound as good as possible, and often even a bit better! And a big hug to you, Bruno, from all of us at Tafelmusik. We are enormously grateful to you for your insights, wisdom, and humour.
by Allen Whear
Symphony No. 1
On April 2, 1800, Ludwig van Beethoven presented an Akademie in Vienna’s Burgtheater, with works by Mozart and Haydn, but also his own piano concerto and the premieres of the Septet and the First Symphony. The program seems to straddle the old and new centuries both in chronology and spirit. Beethoven’s work has many novelties, despite its position at the beginning of his great symphonic canon, starting with the quizzical opening chords of the slow introduction. Throughout, wind instruments are featured as rarely done before in a symphony. The Andante con moto begins in a quasi-fugal style, but is fulfilled in sonata form. The Menuetto is really a scherzo in tempo and spirit, and is considered by many to be the most original movement in the symphony. The Finale begins with the briefest of introductions. After an orchestral unison G, an ascending scale is frugally meted out in fragments, until, as musicologist Donald Tovey puts it, the violins launch the principal theme “as a cat from a bag.” According to anecdotal accounts, early performances of this symphony often omitted this passage, because it was feared the audience might laugh. Beethoven, however seems to encourage laughter throughout the jovial sonata-rondo movement.
Symphony No. 2
Beethoven’s Second Symphony was first heard in April,1803, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. The program is a sign of Beethoven’s increasing stature, since this time all of the works were his own. Beethoven’s Second was the “longest and most powerful symphony ever written,” before being forever overshadowed by the “Eroica,” according to musicologist Barry Cooper. A contemporary review called it: “a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.” The Adagio molto introduction is expansive in length, harmonic range, and instrumental detail. The Allegro con brio builds on a theme with stark dynamic contrasts. In the coda, Beethoven builds a harmonic sequence of almost unbearable tension from a rising chromatic scale in the bass before landing triumphantly back in D major.The Larghetto is lyrical, even pastoral, yet formally complex and fully realized in sonata form. The Scherzo is the first symphonic movement to be so titled. Smile as you fall into the traps Beethoven sets, such as in the trio, where the woodwinds begin pleasantly in D major, only to be elbowed aside by the strings and their F-sharp-major volleys. The relentless energy and invention of the finale surpasses even the first movement.
Symphony No. 3 – Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony)
Beethoven had originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, but it was the reformer and defender of French revolutionary values, not the ruthless military conqueror, who appealed to his republican ideals. Upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, Beethoven tore off the title page, angrily declaring, “Now he too will trample on all human rights and only indulge his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!” By the time of its publication in 1806, the title page was changed to Sinfonia eroica (Heroic Symphony … to celebrate the memory of a great man).
Everything here is on an unprecedented scale. The Allegro con brio is twice as long as a typical classical sonata movement. The opening theme, based on simple triads in E-flat major, dips briefly by half steps to the harmonically remote C-sharp before resolving upwards. This motive proves to be significant in the overall design. The development is loaded with powerful dissonances and a fugato, eventually introducing an entirely new theme in E minor. When at last the recapitulation nears — prepared by quietly suspenseful dominant chords —the horn enters with the principal theme in the tonic key, two bars ahead of the orchestra. Ferdinand Ries recalled, “I stood beside Beethoven, and, thinking a blunder had been made I said, ‘Can’t the damned hornist count?—it sounds infamously false!’ I think I came pretty close to receiving a box on the ear. Beethoven did not forgive the slip for a long time.” After Napoleon’s death in 1821, Beethoven said, “I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe,” obviously thinking of his Marcia funebre, where solemn march music alternates with passages of radiance, at the centre of which a double fugue in F minor reaches a climax of great drama. The quietly energetic Scherzo reaffirms life, with proportionally appropriate structural design. The trio offers the unique sound of three horns in hunting mode. Donald Tovey distilled the components of the Finale to a “Bass, a Tune, and a Fugue.” After a fiery introduction, the “bass” presents itself as a theme, plucked by the strings. After a series of variations, the real “tune” arrives —the so-called Prometheus melody from Beethoven’s ballet — retaining the opening theme as its bass line, which becomes the subject of a fugue, culminating in a grand march. Then comes another fugue, with the bass theme inverted and a counter-subject from the Prometheus tune. An extended coda begins with an eloquent Poco andante, until the opening music returns, concluding with truly heroic virtuosity.
Symphony No. 4
Robert Schumann described the Fourth Symphony as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods” because of its relatively relaxed character, its classical framework and conservative instrumentation, and its placement between two powerful, iconic siblings. It was first performed in March, 1807, at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz. The Adagio introduction begins in mystery due to its unsettled tonality. Against a sustained tonic note B-flat, various tonalities are explored, like groping in darkness, returning repeatedly to an ambiguous G-flat. A searing seventh chord on F erases the G-flat and launches the sparkling Allegro vivace. The second movement Adagio is in a serenely expansive rondo form whose broad principal theme is punctuated by a rhythmic accompaniment figure that evolves through the movement. The Allegro molto e vivace is a scherzo in an expanded formal pattern with a slightly relaxed and playful trio. The breathtaking Finale is a near perpetual motion; even the lyrical second theme seems restless. In the recapitulation the bassoon sneaks the bubbling main theme in before the orchestra can catch up. In the coda, the theme is slowed significantly, then teasingly drawn out in fragments, like a scrap held before a hungry dog. After a good joke there is always someone who laughs first. This time, it is the bassoons, violas, and cellos driving merrily to the end.
Symphony No. 5 – Symphony of destiny
In a marathon concert in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, Beethoven unveiled an astonishing number of middle-period masterpieces, including the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, each worthy of being the centerpiece of its own concert. These sibling works, although written concurrently, show two distinct sides of Beethoven’s character. The Fifth Symphony was seen by Romantics as a validation of their ideals, and has been interpreted as a manifestation of Beethoven’s personal struggles, but its novelty and undeniable power are demonstrable in purely musical terms. The Allegro con brio is a quintessential example of Beethoven’s technique of thematic development from concise germ motives. Scarcely a bar goes by in this tightly constructed sonata-form movement that does not contain the famous four-note motive or its rhythm. The motivic ideas initiated in this movement take root throughout the symphony. The Andante con moto is a theme and variations involving two distinctly different themes, one lyrical introduced by low strings, the other more martial, alternating and ultimately competing for dominance.
The Scherzo begins with basses groping through arpeggios for a sustained theme, until the horns enter with a motive rhythmically linked to the first movement. In the trio, a fugato in C major begins assertively in the basses, but on the reprise they become soft and directionless version, leading back to the mysterious opening. Bassoon and strings engage in a macabre dance, the timpani insistently taps while the strings are suspended in triple piano, and one of the most remarkable transitions in the history of music occurs. A sudden crescendo reveals the blazing finale: darkness is utterly vanquished. In the development, an ominous form of the scherzo returns, but is transcended once again. The supremacy of C major— or the “Triumph over Fate”—is furthered in the assertive coda.
Symphony No. 6 – Pastoral Symphony
The eighteenth-century ideal of the pastoral, as found in painting, literature, and music, is defined by musicologist James Webster as “the view, on the part of sophisticated persons, that country life (or ‘Arcadia’) is morally superior to the evil city and the artificial court.” Beethoven expressed his love for the countryside in his “Pastoral” Symphony, promoting the pastoral ideal within the structures of symphonic form. In “Awakening of joyous feelings upon arrival in the countryside,” soft dynamics, droning fifths, and simple harmonies create a bucolic atmosphere, enhanced by constantly repeating patterns instead of motivic development. Beethoven’s intention was “more an expression of feeling than painting,” distinguishing this from program music conjuring specific images and events. In “Scene by the brook,” a foundation of meandering currents underlies broad, unhurried melodies. A quasi-cadenza featuring woodwinds imitates a nightingale, quail, and cuckoo, all perfectly integrated into the structure. The scherzo, “Merry gathering of country folk,” is a rustic dance, complete with a village band in the trio. A heavy contredanse grows ever louder until a trumpet call restores order. Then ominous rumblings in the bass interrupt the revelry, foreshadowing the storm and tempest. The trembling grows under a raindrop motive in the violins, until full orchestral violence breaks out, augmented by piccolo, trombones, and timpani. The previously reliable patterns of nature are disrupted with sudden dynamics and dissonances. Gradually the storm subsides, and a miraculous musical rainbow emerges from the oboe. The drones return, and Alpine yodeling invokes “Shepherd’s song: happy and thankful feelings after the storm.” The leisurely pace of the earlier movements is restored in this serene rondo until the coda, where the principal theme builds to what Tovey describes as “a grand solemn tutti, glorious as the fields refreshed by the rain.”
Symphony No. 7
The premiere of the Seventh Symphony, on December 8, 1813, was part of a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven’s orchestra featured Vienna’s most esteemed musicians, including Schuppanzigh, Spohr, and Dragonetti. Rhythm is the essence of this symphony, serving as a unifying element and driving force within each movement. In the introduction, grandiose scales suggest architectural framing, and unusual key relationships are foreshadowed. The interval of the descending half-step, germane to the entire symphony, is outlined in the chromatically descending bass line, particularly between F and E. E itself becomes an obsession, tossed between woodwinds and violins. Finally, it is ignited by the dancing, dotted 6/8 rhythm that propels the entire Vivace. The Allegretto is essentially a set of variations. The dirge-like theme culminates in a fugato, but with some tranquil interludes. The Presto is an expanded five-part scherzo structure (ABABA), with the central A played as an echo. The pastoral trio features the winds with a violin drone above. A persistent horn call revives the principal motive. In the finale, sonata form and infectious rhythm conspire for a movement of unceasing exuberance.
Symphony No. 8
Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, his shortest, reverts to more classic proportions, but is full of surprises and musical jokes, ranging from subtle tongue-in-cheek to Rabelaisian. In the first movement the recapitulation arrives at the rarely used level of triple forte, with the bass instruments labouring to project the theme from below, but the movement ends with a graceful curtsy. The Allegretto scherzando replaces the customary slow movement. Mechanically ticking woodwinds accompany a coquettish dialogue in the strings. The quick crescendo and formulaic cadential pattern of the ending could be Beethoven’s parody of frivolous Italian opera. The Tempo di Menuetto mocks the conventions of the past by burdening a graceful theme with heavy accents. The bucolic trio features the horns and a solo clarinet, while the cellos sketch an intricate counterpoint in arpeggiated triplets. In the finale, Beethoven’s pranks continue, such as the fade to triple piano preceding an explosively dissonant blast, eventually succeeding in causing a wild detour to F-sharp minor until brass and timpani decisively hammer out F-naturals, guiding all to the home key.
Symphony No. 9 (including Ode to Joy)
After the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Europe saw the restoration of monarchies and a general repression of Enlightenment principles. These events reawakened Beethoven’s longstanding desire to set Friedrich Schiller’s ode “An die Freude,” whose themes of freedom and universal brotherhood appealed to Beethoven throughout his life. In the Ninth Symphony, he created an entirely new work of unprecedented length, formal complexity, technical difficulty, and massive orchestration, intended not merely to entertain but to make a sublime statement.
At the premiere on May 7, 1824, in the Kärtnertor Theatre in Vienna, the orchestra leader was violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and overall direction came from choirmaster Michael Umlauf. Beethoven stood with score in hand throughout the performance, giving tempo indications. Now almost completely deaf, his exaggerated motions were out of sync with the music; Umlauf had privately warned the musicians to ignore Beethoven’s directions. The audience frequently broke into applause during the performance (not just between movements, but at key moments such as the timpani entrance in the scherzo). In his deafness Beethoven could not hear the crowd’s reaction, so the contralto soloist had to turn him around to see the ovations.
The symphony begins with ambiguous tonality because of the open fifths, building to a powerful, tragically tinged theme in D minor. The entire work has been described as a symbolic journey, or struggle, from D minor to D major, decisively achieved in the Finale. In the coda, a chromatic, trembling ostinato in the strings underlies a funereal march growing inexorably towards a final unison statement. The scherzo combines dance and sonata forms. Its development features temporal experiments, then a transition passage accelerates to a pastoral trio, an oasis from the driving force of the scherzo. The Adagio molto has two contrasting themes, the first of which is varied or highly embellished at each recurrence, the second reappearing with only minor alterations. The principal theme in B-flat major, initially presented by the violins, is spun out in regular phrases echoed fragmentally by the woodwinds. Then a more ardent theme in D major takes flight.
A sense of serenity is abruptly ended by the cacophonous start to the Finale. The orchestral basses respond with a wordless recitative. Each of the first three movements is briefly quoted and rejected by the basses, who then wander harmonically, but soon galvanize to present the Ode to Joy theme in its entirety. The ensuing variations build to a triumphant orchestral statement. The “terror fanfare” interrupts, and the bass soloist enters with a true recitative, singing Beethoven’s own words: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (O Friends, not these sounds). Finally theme and text are joined with chorus, initiating another series of variations, including a military march, for tenor solo and male chorus with wind band and percussion in “Turkish” style, matching the heroic flavour of the text. A fugue culminates in a counterpoint-laden Ode to Joy chorus. After verses dealing primarily with mankind and brotherhood, or the earthly, “Seid umschlugen, Millionen!” (Be embraced, ye millions) looks heavenward, and new music is introduced to highlight the difference. An archaic sound is created by male voices and trombones, then instruments and voices in their highest ranges create an atmosphere of mystical wonder, whispering “Über Sternen muß er wohnen” (Above the stars he surely dwells). A double fugue, with variants of the Ode to Joy and “Seid umschlugen” themes worked out simultaneously, makes a symbolic reconciliation of the earthly and heavenly. Then the momentum pauses for an ethereal episode by the vocal quartet, savouring the words: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men become brothers). The orchestra returns for the final time to the long-sought home key of D major, and what remains is nothing less than a triumphant celebration.
|An die Freude||Ode to Joy|
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Freude trinken alle Wesen
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Ihr stürzt nieder,
O friends, not these sounds!
Joy, beautiful spark divine,
Whoever has had the great fortune
Joy all creatures drink
Joyful, as his suns fly across
Be embraced, ye millions!
Do you fall before him,
(adapted by Beethoven)