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 [...]
They spoke about it
THE POETRY OF FREEDOM
By Kent Nagano
We might suppose Beethoven, in his creative work, pursued a specific dramaturgical strategy. He opens brilliantly with a symphony in which a Promethean aggressiveness is released upon the established habits and preferred tastes of his contemporaries. Then he composes an “Eroica” Symphony, a work full of riddles in its substance, but so far-reaching and novel in its design and dimensions that it leaves all known aspects of the symphony far behind and sets standards that have lost none of their character and power to astonish and challenge us even today. And then comes the Fifth Symphony, also known as the “Fate” Symphony, in which the voice of Hegel’s “world spirit” takes the stage and the whole conception seems, in its development – seeking, action, overcoming, finding and triumph – to express the very historical process of humanity.
But what, then, about those peculiar retreats – his Second Symphony, and his Fourth? Where the symphonies that preceded them has each taken two or three steps forward, the Master stops, takes a step back, disengages from his boldness, risk-taking and pioneering attacks, and advances anew in an almost “classical” measure.
Robert Schumann, not coincidentally, characterized Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with the remark that it was “a slim Greek maid between two Norse Giants*”. What he meant was the exemplary and immaculate “Classical” order of its symphonic design. And in fact, where previously, in the Third Symphony, the entire orchestra spreads itself out in a massive emotional discharge, the Fourth is transparent and light-footed, sparkling and witty, as fine and delicate as chamber music. It aims less for “meaning” than for play and playful gestures.
The First and Second Symphonies also represent utterly different, even contradictory worlds. In one, a loud and clear announcement of the new, in the other a colorful luxuriance of festivity and charm – which, in turn, does not preclude persistent elements of unruliness from breaking in and sometimes making listeners shake their heads and wonder just what they are hearing.
What may have induced Beethoven to develop this dramaturgical process in his symphonic work? Was it perhaps that he realized that this was what the “new way”, of which he himself spoke, possibly meant? Namely, that the progress implied might perhaps lead into fascinating new territory – but also a land in which one wanders aimlessly in the end? Whatever thoughts may have preoccupied him, it is certain that just through this repeated pausing in the process, the fundamental progression and the subjective, individual claim to freedom of decision and action took on the highest importance.
*What Robert Schumann actually said was that Beethoven’s Fourth was “a slim Greek maid between two Norse giants” (eine griechisch schlanke Maid zwischen zwei Nordlandriesen).