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To give a work a title as bold as Beethoven suggests a form of adulation, an attempt to follow on Beethoven’s legacy nearly two centuries after his death, but don’t be fooled. Gerald Barry is not your average composer. Barry grew up in County Clare in Ireland and went on to study with Stockhausen and Kagel in Cologne, from whom he learned to explore and revel in his long-held desire for flouting conventions. ‘Barry is always sober, but might as well always be drunk’, Kagel later said of his pupil. This is not to be dismissive of Barry’s music—quite the reverse: Barry’s contrariness is precisely what makes it so unique and so compelling. Having grown up in rural Ireland, with no immediate access to the concert hall, Barry attributes his wide-ranging influences to the radio, where the great classics were played alongside the banal and Barry was too young to recognise the difference. As a result, there are no borders in Barry’s music, no ‘no go’ areas; his music careers between the sublime and the ridiculous with carefree abandon.

Beethoven was composed for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 2008 and even its premise demonstrates Barry’s disregard for the rules. Composed for bass soloist and orchestral ensemble, Beethoven is a setting, a mini-opera perhaps, of Beethoven’s infamous letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved’, a passionate outpouring of love and regret to an unnamed woman, in which Beethoven laments the fact that ‘you are not entirely mine, and I am not entirely yours’. In Barry’s setting, the bass soloist narrates Beethoven’s letter, word for word, in an English translation by Anderson. But while the bass voice could very well be Beethoven’s, Barry makes no attempt to carry this verisimilitude through to the music, which is a far cry from the late classicism of Beethoven’s Vienna. Barry’s music is highly contemporary, hard-edged and flies between extremes. It is also stubbornly defiant (perhaps there are similarities with Beethoven here after all), so that where we expect softness we are met with a barrage of noise, where we expect melancholy we hear seemingly ill-placed comedy. For Barry, this is all about laying bare the conventions and mechanics of composition, and drawing the listener’s attention to gap between the two. As the letter opens, Beethoven’s tone is sombre: ‘My angel, my all, my own self. Only a few words today … what a useless waste of time, why this deep sorrow?’ but Barry’s music is almost comically jaunty. In the soloist’s voice we hear anger and resentment but the accompaniment marches forwards regardless, seemingly indifferent to his melancholy. ‘Can our love endure except through sacrifices?’ Beethoven asks, almost matter-of-factly, without any musical signs of the agony of his predicament. Later, Beethoven changes tack to describe his long and arduous journey to Teplitz (from where he writes), describing in detail the various logistics overcome. Here, Barry too alters the mood, though here he grants far more anguish and chromaticism to the details of the horses, the coach breakdown and their muddy route than that afforded to Beethoven’s words of desperate love and longing. But if Barry’s setting seems to lack empathy, this detachment also makes Beethoven’s words somehow more real. This is not music to idolise and romanticise Beethoven, but music to humanise him, to capture the plain and ugly reality of life made all the more truthful through its banality.

from notes by Jo Kirkbride © 2020


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1, 2 & 3
Studio Master: SIGCD616Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 9 on SIGCD616 CD1 [17'35] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD616 disc 1 track 9

Recording date
2 June 2017
Recording venue
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Lindsay Kemp
Recording engineer
Andrew Friedhoff
Hyperion usage
  1. Hyperion sampler - April 2020 Vol. 2 (HYP202004B)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: April 2020
    Download-only sampler
  2. Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1, 2 & 3 (SIGCD616)
    Disc 1 Track 9
    Release date: April 2020
    Download only
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