LENOX – Beethoven, Beethoven and more Beethoven: It’s been as overwhelming as the rain and humidity in Tanglewood this summer. In fact, it’s ubiquitous every year. It just seems more as Tanglewood tries to grab onlookers after the year of Covid-induced silence.
Beethoven is coming back tonight, (August 7), with the Violin Concerto and the Seventh Symphony in a program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt with the star Joshua Bell as soloist. Blomstedt, 94, is a Seventh-day Adventist and a Tanglewood veteran. It would be interesting to learn how, from his religious perspective and his long experience on the catwalks, he explains the special power of Beethoven’s music. Alas, he was not available for an interview for this article. But in an interview he gave two years ago to the bachtrack site, he said:
“Music keeps me young. I have a great curiosity and in this way I am still like a child. I’ve learned a bit over the years, but mostly I’ve learned that I know far too little. And being curious can mean exploring the same job 200 times. I can get excited every time I return to a symphony like Schubert’s C major. Life is interesting. Every performance we do, even when it’s successful enough, I never think I’ve found a solution. Next time we play it, we’ll find out more.
And a deeper experience likely leads to a deeper discovery of the hidden sources of music.
Scholars filled the shelves with books of technical analysis of Beethoven’s methods. But the technique doesn’t get you far. Listening to the latest piano sonatas and string quartets, for example, is to be transported to the depths of the human psyche and to the most remote corners of the universe.
Spirituality is a mushy term, used by all kinds of sects, gurus, and future gurus. But this is the word that best sums up the power that Beethoven – over all other composers except Bach – wields. Musicians and laymen alike recognize this as a numinous force, beyond notes, beyond sound, beyond joy and sorrow. More and more deaf to human trafficking as he ages, the isolated Beethoven turns more and more towards the spiritual and the transcendent.
His Missa Solemnis is a supreme example. Written over a period of four years later in life, it defines the Roman Catholic liturgical text but is so monumental that it is virtually impossible to perform in a service – or in a concert hall, for that matter. The job does not end with an “amen”. Instead, after drumbeat echoes of war and trumpet calls, the chorus rises to a mighty “Dona nobis pacem” (“Give us peace”) and stops dead. It is as if the call is addressed to earth and sky as it resonates, seemingly unfinished, through the universe. The effect is deeply human but more than human.
Scholars have also scratched their heads to understand the spiritual quality of Beethoven’s music. In 1927, for example, JWN Sullivan published “Beethoven: His Spiritual Development”, a once classic book retracing the rise of spirituality from the earliest works to times as transcendent as the fugues that seem to hover, timeless in the air. , in the air. Late string quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131.
In some ways, the book seems dated and even quaint. To elevate Beethoven, Sullivan must demean Bach and Wagner. Bach, he writes, “got lost in the end in the arid labyrinths of pure technique.” Wagner “had nothing to express in the end but exhaustion and unnecessary desire. On the other hand, “Beethoven’s music continuously developed because it was the expression of an attitude towards life which had within it the possibility of indefinite growth.”
Another way to achieve transcendental quality is to consider Beethoven’s extensive use of the form of variations in his late works. In the last piano sonatas, he not only transforms the notes but “transfigures” them, according to Maynard Solomon in his biography of Beethoven.
“[I]It is this elusive quality of transfiguration – with its accents of sublimated and ecstatic states – that most listeners felt in Beethoven’s later variations, ”writes Solomon. Music, in other words, taps into deep human emotions to evoke spiritual states.
The Ninth Symphony, a secular counterpart to the Missa Solemnis, owes its crushing impact to two movements of variations. It opens with two movements of an almost violent character. A series of variations then gives the adagio the impression of floating in a serene and otherworldly ether. In the finale, soloists and choirs take up the universally known theme of “Ode to Joy” in variations that rise to the culminating embrace of all mankind in divine love.
What grabs us in the Ninth is the power, even momentary, which elevates us to the dignity of the gods. The audience itself is transfigured.
The Violin Concerto and Seventh Symphony that make up tonight’s program come from Beethoven’s middle or “heroic” period. Listen to the harmonics of infinity.
Andrew L. Pincus writes on classical music for The Eagle.