Since its founding in 1934, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal has distinguished itself as a leader in the orchestral life of Canada and Quebec. A cultural ambassador of the highest order, the [...]
Beethoven 9 Symphonies: O Mensch, gib acht! Between the Enlightenment and Revolution (6 CD)
They spoke about it
A “new path” to a new humanity
Introduction by Kent Nagano
When we speak of “classical” music nowadays, and especially when we refer to composers such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, the image easily forms of a cultural golden age. This image is all the stronger for the names of the great artists in literature and painting that spring to mind – so many as to render that age almost surpassingly brilliant. But take a closer look at those times, especially the years from about 1800 to 1830, the period when Beethoven was working on his major compositions, and the image that presents itself is anything but “golden”.
Those years were a time of intellectual, social and political upheaval. Years in which the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath of terror and bloodshed threw all Europe into turmoil. Years when the coming of Napoleon Bonaparte offered a beacon of hope to the world, only to plunge it once again into war and repression, leaving people in deep misery and confusion before the face of things to come. A new interplay of forces evolved on many different levels. The political order of Europe was again realigned, and the old relationships and interests which had seemed relegated to the past were restored. The idea of national identity was developing its own dynamics, with consequences impossible to foresee at the time. The interplay of internal social forces and the new order in Europe created significant changes in people’s experience and values, and formed a new image in the contemporary consciousness, based on themes inherited from the Enlightenment – liberty, progress, self-determination, fighting spirit and responsibility, human dignity and happiness – apprehended afresh in a new image of humanity and a new representation of society and the world.
It was for this “new humanity” that Beethoven composed his music, and in it he saw his duty as an artist and the ultimate truth of his art. The idea of this new humanity, a new society and a new way forward, inspired him and dictated the inner programmatics of his musical thoughts even as they emerged from his pen. This is especially true of his nine symphonies. When Beethoven began his First Symphony in 1799, the symphony epitomized the generic type of complex work, in which the four movements are each defined independently in character and mood, and at the same time form a whole through their complementary musical relationships. What is so striking is that Beethoven still fundamentally adheres to the traditions established by Haydn and Mozart, always takes these as his point of departure, and then distances himself from them as far as possible. He keeps up appearances with the inherited features of
his music, but the “meanings” have changed both in detail and the works as a whole.
Beethoven composed nine symphonies, each so striking individually that it is best not to attempt a general description. With them, and in them, he endows orchestral music with new dimensions and qualities, and correspondingly new demands on the audience’s habitual ways of listening. There is reflection and sensation, a dominant constructive spirit, atmosphere and emotionality – all intertwined with a perspective that was radically new at the time.