Beethoven’s Symphonies: The Revolutions

Max Klinger with his statue of Beethoven, Leipzig, circa 1902

The classical music world has been saturated lately with stories about the impending demise of the orchestra and the repertory it plays. Dwindling audiences and rising costs have forced American orchestras to cut personnel, shorten concert seasons, and even cross over to the “dark side” and play popular works unthinkable a decade or two ago (as I write I see that the Louisville Orchestra is scheduled to present a program of music by Led Zeppelin in November). When the Philadelphia Orchestra, the finely tuned instrument of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, is forced to file for bankruptcy, has the time come to declare Beethoven dead and buried and consign his symphonies to eternal rest?

A tale related recently by the critic Norman Lebrecht suggests that it has not. Several years ago, Lebrecht reports, the BBC decided to make the complete Beethoven symphonies available to its listeners as free downloads for a week.1 At the launch, expectations were not high, since by all accounts interest in the works had greatly declined. In addition, the performing group was the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda—respectable musicians, to be sure, but not a star ensemble such as Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The project was given only moderate priority, and the producers anticipated several thousand downloads.

However, much to everyone’s astonishment, when the totals were counted at the end of the week they came to 1.4 million downloads of the symphonies. Forty percent of the listeners were from the United Kingdom and the United States—predictable BBC audiences. But the remaining 60 percent came from other countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan. Equally surprising was the fact that almost twice as many listeners chose Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies over the Third Symphony, the mighty and popular “Eroica,” suggesting that the participants were new to the repertory altogether.

Thus there may be an audience, after all, for the nine Beethoven symphonies, and appearing just in time to enlighten it is Lewis Lockwood’s absorbing new study of the works, which makes the case that this music is about a lot more than the notes on the page. The author of the distinguished biography Beethoven: The Music and the Life (a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist) and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Sketchbook: A Critical Edition (2013, with Alan Gosman), Lockwood has been involved with Beethoven research for more than forty years, carrying out his work first at Princeton and then, from 1980 onward, at Harvard, where he is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus. He is one of the last stalwart defenders of source studies—the evaluation of the music through the examination of the composer’s original manuscripts. That approach yields remarkable insights in his new book.

There is no shortage of writings on the Beethoven symphonies. The list begins with Hector Berlioz’s collected…

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