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Impeccable performances of Beethoven's middle three symphonies are here presented alongside Gerald Barry's enterprising viola concerto (with soloist Lawrence Power) and the extreme cantata The Conquest of Ireland (bass Joshua Bloom and a text by the thirteenth-century Gerald of Wales, 'Giraldus Cambrensis, dicitur Giraldus de Barri').
Had Beethoven not decided to spend that summer in the company of Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, things might well have been different. Beethoven had already begun work on a new symphony—the work which we now know as his fifth—when he accepted the Prince’s invitation but he broke off work on that score to compose a new symphony for Count Franz von Oppersdorff, a relative of the Prince and a long-time admirer of Beethoven’s music. When Beethoven and Oppersdorff were treated to a performance of his second symphony at the Prince’s country estate, Beethoven appears to have taken his cue for Oppersdorff’s new commission: this would not be a symphony of vehemence and heroism, but a return to more modest, even classical, proportions. As Robert Schumann would later call it, the fourth is ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Norse Gods’.
When it gets going, there is little doubt that the fourth has more in common with the effervescence of the second than it does with the bombast of the third, its lightness shared with the other works he completed that same summer—the violin concerto and fourth piano concerto. But in symphonic terms the fourth is still far from straightforward. Most surprising of all is its mysterious, almost torturous introduction, which opens in the ‘wrong key’ of B flat minor. It takes almost three minutes before Beethoven finds his feet and, emerging from gloom with a start, announces the opening of the Allegro proper with an earth-shattering timpani roll and series of sforzando chords. This is to be a work of dynamic extremes. Even the tender Adagio that follows is not immune to the sense of unrest, the persistent accompaniment always threatening to throw the delicate lyricism of the central theme off course—at the movement’s centre, as the key darkens and the trumpets and drums re-enter, it almost does. A spirited Scherzo follows, its bucolic theme again almost overshadowed by a lurking sense of unease, but Beethoven’s real surprise here is to double the traditional tripartite design to bring the opening theme back not once but twice—and, at the last moment, to shatter the recapitulation with a surprise blast from the horns. Beethoven, it seems, cannot resist the element of surprise. Even in the light-hearted finale, one of the most joyful in his symphonic output, Beethoven repeatedly wrong-foots the listener with a stormy interjection that temporarily stops this perpetuum mobile movement in its tracks, as though a theatrical villain were waiting in the wings, ready at any moment to sabotage the drama.
Beethoven Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67
To hear the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony afresh now, more than 200 years after it was composed, takes some doing. The four ‘hammer blows’ that announce its arrival are among the most famous notes in all western music, so familiar to our ears that they have almost become a caricature of themselves. But imagine, for a moment, you are transported back to 1808, to one of the most memorable concerts of Beethoven’s life. Not only was it Beethoven’s last appearance as a soloist in public, the last time before his deafness eclipsed his performance, this epic, four-hour long concert also saw the premieres of his Fantasia in C minor for piano, orchestra and chorus, the aria Ah! Perfido, the Fantasia in G minor for solo piano, two sections of the Mass in C minor, and—to finish—both his fifth and sixth symphonies. Imagine the shock as he unleashed this torrent of new music upon the public, and the sense of surprise they must have felt at the bombardment of the fifth symphony, with its relentless repetition, sudden silences and urgent, fateful thematicism.
Sadly, despite the promising programme, it was not a particularly happy occasion. The music was greatly under-rehearsed, the hall itself cold and uncomfortable, and Beethoven’s own performance was, according to reports, close to a shambles. Beethoven’s symphonic masterpiece was not well received. But just over a year later the fifth symphony was performed again, this time to rapturous praise. Writing in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, E T A Hoffmann, one of the most revered critics of his generation, described the symphony’s extraordinary, intangible power:
It sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism … Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.
While the third had been celebrated for its searing sense of grandeur, the fifth became an icon—for the first time—of something ineffable. This was to be the beginning of ‘absolute music’, of music that could glimpse, in Hoffman’s words, ‘the realm of the infinite’. The wonderful reality is that Beethoven achieves this through the most small-scale of means, through the manipulation of a tiny thematic fragment, executed here with such finesse and exactness that there is nothing extraneous, nothing left in isolation. The glittering precision of the opening Allegro is just the start of this process, a movement in which Beethoven shatters the theme into tiny splinters and then gathers them, painstakingly, to form something that appears greater even than the whole itself. The elaborate double variations that follow in the Andante offer detail of a different kind, its two contrasting themes breathed out in sumptuous counterpoint. After the respite of the slow movement, fate returns to knock on the door with full force in the Scherzo, a movement aptly characterised in Howard’s End as ‘first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing’. Beethoven’s ‘goblins’ are a manipulated form of Mozart’s theme from the finale of his symphony in G minor, brought screaming into the future here as it meets Beethoven’s hammer blows in a clash of classical ideals. But this is all a precursor to one of the most sublime transitions in western music, a miraculous transformation of darkness into light that climaxes as the Scherzo topples head first into the finale. Beethoven’s fate motif has won out over Mozart, just as major wins over minor and the hammer blows are recast in glorious C major to see out the symphony in an exultant finale.
Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F major 'Pastoral' Op 68
If Beethoven’s audiences were shocked by the vehemence of his fifth symphony at its 1808 premiere, then they must have been confounded by the softness of the sixth symphony, which premiered alongside it in the same four-hour concert. For those who herald Beethoven as the swarthy figure presented in so many of his portraits, all doom, gloom and pessimism, the sixth symphony is difficult to reconcile. It is, in so many ways, just as radical as anything he composed either before or after, but its unmistakeably gentle nature has seen it singled out in Beethoven’s oeuvre, an anomaly in a symphonic output that is thought to be characterised by its heroic, teleological drive. The long-fêted, catchy categorisation of his symphonies—odd-numbered versus even, forward-facing versus nostalgic—has done the sixth a disservice. Beethoven not only presented the fifth and sixth to the public alongside one another, he composed them together too. As a pair, they carried the symphony further into the future than anything other work in history, drilling down into the very essence of symphonic composition.
While the fifth is built upon meticulous thematicism, examining in infinite detail the building blocks of form, the sixth explores the symphony as a piece of narrative art. Where the fifth is fuelled by transformation, the sixth dares to stand still. To our twenty-first century ears, well accustomed now to the idea of programmatic music and even to musical impressionism, the idea of rendering the outside world onto a symphonic canvas is hardly radical. But to early eighteenth-century audiences it was groundbreaking. While Beethoven was far from the first to experiment with programmatic ideas in music—think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or the 'Pastoral' in Handel’s Messiah—he did so in a way that had never before been explored in the symphony. The sixth is not just a walk through the countryside in musical form, it is—in Beethoven’s own words—‘more an expression of feeling than painting’.
What separates the sixth from mere musical storytelling is its reversal of symphonic priorities. In an age where thematic development and harmonic transformation were understood as the key tenets of symphonic structure, Beethoven composed a symphony that thrives on repetition. In the opening Sonata Allegro, usually the site of the work’s drive and ambition, Beethoven spends some 50 bars idling away on the same harmony, repeating the same motif we heard in the first two bars of the symphony over and over. Donald Tovey went so far as to call it ‘lazy’. At any rate, it becomes almost hypnotic, as though Beethoven were actively willing us to slow down and take in the symphonic world around us in all its splendour, just as he does nature. ‘No one can love the country as much as I do’, he wrote to a friend in 1810. ‘For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear.’ This, then, is Beethoven’s echo, a work that ricochets and resonates in a single, perfect sphere. From the babbling brook and birdsong of the second movement to the merry peasant dancing of the third, Beethoven offers us the perfect idyll, if only we will tarry long enough to enjoy it.
The dancing, however, is cut short by a powerful storm. ‘It is no longer merely a wind and rainstorm’, Berlioz wrote, ‘it is a frightful cataclysm, the universal deluge, the end of the world.’ But this sudden deluge abates almost as quickly as it began, the relief palpable as the sun bursts through and illuminates the world anew. As the shepherds yodel their thanks, and the shepherds’ song returns us to a state of carefree repetition, it is as though Beethoven were prefiguring the Elysium of his ninth symphony—and what could be more forward-facing than that?
Gerald Barry The Conquest of Ireland
As much as listening to Barry’s music can sometimes feel an onslaught, there is an irrepressible thrill to it too. It is a thrill that Barry clearly feels himself, injecting a sense of danger into every score, tinkering with tradition and flirting with the very fringes of possibility. His vocal settings in particular, as he has acknowledged himself, are often enormously virtuosic. ‘There is a sense of the extreme in the music’, he admitted in an interview in 2000, ‘there is a danger there … the possibility of collapse almost.’ So it is with The Conquest of Ireland where, under the already rather absurd tempo marking (quaver=192), to which he adds the direction ‘frenetic’, Barry writes in bold capital letters, underlined: NOT SLOWER. Barry means to test us: to test the limits of the performers even as he tries the patience of the listeners, challenging us to remain fixed to our seats, willing the performers to stay afloat.
Formed around a text by the twelfth century Welsh writer and cleric, Giraldus Cambrensis, The Conquest of Ireland is—as with so much of Barry’s music—a clash between the solemn and the ridiculous. Cambrensis was part of the army that invaded Ireland in the twelfth century and his book recounts the events of the invasion with a dry and surprisingly keen focus on the soldiers themselves. For Barry, the text has a ‘strange detached quality’, something that he was keen to counter in his setting, which blisters with passion and conviction even as it recounts the mundane. The score is riddled with directions to play ‘exuberantly!’ while the text is anything but. ‘Richard had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes and a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other respects he was of a tall build’, Cambrensis writes meagrely, while Barry keeps the music alert and rhythmically charged.
Typically, we are introduced to the bass soloist without ceremony. The voice enters, as though in a blast of rapid gunfire, in strict unison with the bass clarinet, the words barely audible as the two jostle to ride the seemingly endless succession of semiquavers. Eventually, this softens into a section of long, chromatic lines for wind and marimba, but any tenderness is not part of the text: here the writer imagines the reader ‘despising’ the book and ‘wrinkling his nose in disgust’ at the page.
Having excerpted his text from a source that includes plenty of action, Barry deliberately targets the trivial. We are treated to an account that flits between the banal details of the soldiers’ appearances and Cambrensis’ attempts to justify his own writing. Coupled with the visceral and at times shocking nature of Barry’s score, it presents a rather compelling form of contrast. ‘I like the tension, or almost contradiction between that matter-of-factness and the rather violent, passionate interpretation that I applied to it’, Barry has said. This is not a grand, overblown depiction of a life lived and lost in glory on the battlefield, but instead a more human account of a group of soldiers who are just people after all, weak voiced and short of neck.
Jo Kirkbride © 2020