The spirit and the senses
“Music is the mediator between spiritual life and that of the senses”.
The line-up of the orchestra at the time of Beethoven.
Historically, the sound of the orchestra is the first element that has to be taken into consideration in the difficult task of approaching the musical world of Beethoven. The size and composition of orchestras of the time of the Eroica (written for the most part in 1803 and completed in early 1804) were variable, for there was no officially established orchestra in Vienna until 1840. In 1808, the orchestra of the Theater an der Wien comprised 12 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 3 double-basses, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, plus kettle-drums, i.e., a total of 35 musicians – while the first performances of the Eroica Symphony used between 30 (1804, Vienna, Palace of Prince Lobkowitz) and 56 (1808, Festsaal, Vienna University). Be that as it may, one thing is certain: the sound and balance of the orchestra were very different from those of a modern orchestra.
All in all, it may be said that the technical possibilities and the timbre of the instruments corresponded grosso modo to the slow but constant evolution of the orchestra, which had begun with the baroque ensembles, and culminated in the second half of the 19th century, in the form that is generally referred to as “classical” (e.g. that of the Theater an der Wien in 1808 – see above).
Knowing Beethoven’s ideas on perfection and his concern for progress, it may be suggested that, in many ways, he was pursuing an ideal that exceeded the possibilities of his time. Yet the instruments he knew and used were well and truly those of his time, and it was that very limitation that gave his genius and his creative power such forcefulness. The instruments he used were not very different from those that were available to Haydn or Mozart, but his imagination and willpower led him to experiment with every possible combination of colours and timbres, taking his explorations to their very limits.
“Revolution” in the “Eroica” Symphony.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the first edition of which was entitled “Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d’un grand Uomo” (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man), is much more than a personalised tribute: it is above all the explosion of an inner drama and the sublimation of mythological and revolutionary ideals (Prometheus and Bonaparte). Its impressive structure, its powerful, dramatic style and its prodigiously inventive development make it doubly revolutionary.
Revolutionary (in the sense of “bringing about a profound change in customs and opinions”) is a key word reminding us not only of the historical context of the Eroica Symphony but also of the questions it raises in the present day. But what remains of the revolutionary character of this music, which is so often transformed and deformed for aesthetic or commercial reasons, to the point of becoming something an impersonal piece of easy listening? Beethoven’s music – like all great music – is transcendent. Its message is eternal, but it is not timeless, for in its gestation it bears the implicit mark and style of its time. And in the crystallisation of any meaningful interpretation of this work, spirit and style are inseparable from instrumental, formal and historical considerations.
What – apart from a considerable increase in the number of musicians – are the consequences of the modernisation of musical instruments in the second half of the 19th century and the widespread use nowadays of metal or synthetic strings (as opposed to gut)?
It is obvious that this has brought about a radical change in conceptions of technique, sound, timbre, balance, dynamics, articulation, and so on, which, in turn, have brought about a change in our conception of the spirit of this music. It may thus be considered “revolutionary” nowadays to defend the idea of using different orchestras for Lully and Rameau, Bach and Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler, and so on. Without wishing to question or cast doubt on the importance and legitimacy of performances on modern instruments, refusing these differences and using the same type of orchestra for all composers seems to be a serious impoverishment.
Going back to the historical sources from the time of the composition.
Our project of interpretation of Beethoven’s symphonies therefore attempts to place itself in the historical context of the first performance of this work, but without sacrificing certain subjective concepts that characterise the composer and his time: we believe that the fact of taking into account the objective elements – the natural effects of period instruments and their technique on the interpretative process – can revolutionise our perception of the sound and aesthetic quality of this ineffable world.
The objective elements include the employment of a group of instruments with gut strings (pitch a = 430) (10, 8, 6, 5, 3), using the technique and phrasing of bows of that time (i.e., before the arrival of the modern Tourte bow). This permits greater flexibility and clearer contrasts, in keeping with the wealth of nuances that are to be found in Beethoven’s score. Gut strings produce a warmer, more resonant sound in the medium and low ranges and a shriller, more aggressive sound in the high notes. As gut strings are more sensitive, the various forms of vibrato are not used continuously but only occasionally, when required for expressive purposes.
Individualisation of timbre is very important in Beethoven’s works. There is a perfect contrast between the strings, the various wind instruments – woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, which were still made of wood and had one or two extra keys) and brass (horns and natural trumpets without valves) – and the timpani with calfskin heads, played with hard wooden sticks. Generally, the timbres of the wind instruments (with the exception of the transverse flute) are harsher, more direct and more brilliant: and we have not sought to modify their natural colours in any way in order to obtain a sound that is more compact, richer or softer. Conformity of articulation and volume between the strings (32) and the different wind instruments (13) favours a natural balance, greater definition in the counterpoint and clearer dynamics.
Likewise, the use of “untempered” tuning permits a better understanding of the modulations (which are so important in such eminently tonal music) as a result of the “hardening” (tension) of the chords in the remote keys and their stability (release) in the principal keys.
The essential question of tempo.
For Beethoven, tempo – a notion that is both subjective and objective – was always an essential element in interpretation. In his biography, Anton Schindler tells us that “when one of his works was presented in public, his first question was always: ‘How were the tempi?’” This explains his great enthusiasm for the metronome (patented by Maelzel in the early 19th century) and the fact that, in several of his works, he completed the usual indications of tempo (Allegro con brio, Allegro vivace, Allegro molto, etc.) with the corresponding metronomic values. In Leipzig in 1817, Die Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung published the tempi of the movements of all Beethoven’s symphonies. Although some of these values have given rise to debate, the tempi indicated in the Eroica Symphony – although quite fast – are generally possible, provided they are played with the flexibility demanded by the musical phrasing itself whilst also taking acoustic conditions into account.
Beethoven was referring to this flexibility – without which there can be no expression – when he wrote, in the autograph manuscript of the Lied Nord oder Süd (also 1817): “100 according to Mälzel. The prescribed tempo can only be applied to the first bars, for feeling has its own measure and it cannot be expressed at such a tempo.”
Where this recording is concerned, the tempi correspond – with the exception of the Poco andante in the finale, where we have opted for slightly slower values (84-88 instead of 108) – to those put forward by Beethoven, with a reasonable margin of musical flexibility:
VALUE INDICATED INTERPRETATION
- Allegro con brio h. = 60 58/60/63
- Marcia funebre – Adagio assai e = 80 72/76/80
III. Scherzo – Allegro vivace h. = 116 116/120
- Finale – Allegro molto h. = 76 69/72/76
Poco andante e = 108 84/88
Presto q = 116 116
Restoring the original nuances and the spiritual dimension of the performance.
In the totally subjective field of interpretation – particularly in its analytical form – the manner of approaching the different problems concerning the conception of articulation and phrasing, and the realisation of the different nuances and indications of dynamics and agogics is also extremely important – an approach which also takes into account the formal and tonal relations inherent in the music. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that much of the dramatic tension arises from the fact that Beethoven pushed the technical possibilities of the instruments of his time to their very limits; the use of period instruments on this recording thus results in the recreation of a similar dramatic tension.
This brings us to the spiritual dimension of the interpretation, which raises the problem that is the most transcendental and the most difficult to define: how to recreate and go into the composer’s expressive intentions and communicate the spirit of his work to the listener without distorting or betraying the objective elements defining it as such.
We all know that Beethoven was a brilliant improviser. At the same time, the extraordinary intensity of the work in his rough drafts shows the wonderful, almost obsessive efforts he made to render each of his compositions as outstanding as possible. The great difficulty in Beethoven’s music lies no doubt in that delicate balance, in the ambivalence of a Prometheus instinctively struggling to bring heavenly fire to mankind, whilst knowing that he will have to pay the price of being bound to build up the forms of an art that will only be liberating when they become “le plus beau lien des peuples plus éloignés”.
Translated by P.R. MERRY
 Beethoven, cité par Bettina Brentano, “Lettre à Goethe”, 28 mai 1810.
 “The finest link between the most distant peoples” Beethoven; letter to the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm; Vienna, 1 March 1823. (Letter 1080, written in French)