A Revolutionary Approach To Beethoven: Period Instruments

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The conductor John Eliot Gardiner rehearses Beethoven’s symphonies with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in London, Feb. 1, 2020. Gardiner will lead the period-instrument orchestra in Beethoven’s nine symphonies in five concerts at Carnegie Hall. Kalpesh Lathigra/The New York Times.
by John Eliot Gardiner as told to Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK(NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- John Eliot Gardiner will lead his period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in Beethoven’s nine symphonies in five concerts at Carnegie Hall, from Feb. 19-24, before performances in Chicago and London. He recently spoke with Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times. These are edited excerpts.

My earliest memories of Beethoven’s symphonies are as a teenager, listening to old LPs. My parents had Furtwängler and Karajan recordings. And I remember finding the Karajan recordings brilliant and electric, but somehow a bit too slick and slightly distasteful, whereas I found the Furtwängler recordings more enlightening and a lot more profound.

I also remember feeling that this surely couldn’t be the only way of performing or interpreting this music. It felt a little gargantuan, a little inflated. I was longing for a cleaner, leaner sound, and I eventually found that in Toscanini. There was far greater visceral excitement to the interpretations, a gripping clarity, transparency and rhythmic zest.

So of the three — and I suspect I’m not alone in this — I inclined toward Toscanini.

As a violinist, I first came to them as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where I played at least three: the “Eroica,” the Second and, I think, the Eighth. And I sang in the chorus for the Ninth as well. To be part of the chorus of the Ninth Symphony, it’s incredibly exhilarating — both because the setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” is so inspiring, and because there is the sense that while these are creatures of their time, they also resonate and belong in ours, too.

It was clear right away to me that this isn’t simply entertainment for princes or aristocrats, as one feels was the case for Haydn and Mozart, wonderful though their symphonies are. From the outset, Beethoven decides to use the symphony as a vehicle for expressing his very strong convictions, urgently and publicly. He was not somebody who was content to write elegant music for easy listening. He set out to encompass philosophical themes and even political themes, however unpalatable these might have been to the authorities in the repressive Vienna of his day. And because there are no words attached to eight of his nine completed symphonies, he gets away with it, without endangering life and limb.

This is music written in one of the most exciting periods of revolution and counterrevolution in the history of Europe. The first 30 years of the 19th century are an incredibly exhilarating period. I think of Francisco Goya, the exact contemporary of Beethoven, and who also happened to go deaf. He charted the horrors of the Peninsular War that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, in graphic detail. For me, Beethoven is doing something similar in at least two of his symphonies, the Third and the Fifth, reflecting his conviction that the values of the French Revolution that had spread like wildfire throughout Europe were now under threat and needed eloquent defense.

It helps as a player and as a conductor to appreciate the impact the Revolution had on European thought. To put Beethoven in context, you need to come to terms with why a supersensitive artist like him would consider actually moving to Paris to join the movement that advocated liberty, equality and fraternity, rather than to conservative Vienna. Long before I started interpreting Beethoven on period instruments, I studied some of the French revolutionary music that Beethoven either heard or had introduced to him. This included symphonies by Méhul, overtures and marches by Gossec, the hymns of Rouget de Lisle (author of the “Marseillaise”) and, perhaps first and foremost, music by Cherubini, whom we know Beethoven admired a good deal.

These composers have a kind of godparental relationship to Beethoven’s symphonies. There is no question in my mind that in his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven is quoting from Cherubini’s “Hymne du Panthéon,” with its subversive message: “We swear, sword in hand, to die for the republic and for human rights.” Imagine the fuss that would have caused in Vienna if it had been decoded. But if you take the words out, as Beethoven was obliged to do, its message is wonderfully ambivalent. Fate knocking on the door? V for victory? Either way, nobody could accuse him of subversion because there could be nothing incriminating in a wordless piece of orchestral music. It’s similar to Shostakovich writing during the time of Stalin.

When I was in my 30s and first conducted the symphonies, I did my best to de-Wagnerize the music. Most orchestras in the 1970s tended to play Beethoven in a style that was pretty much identical to that in which they played Wagner or Strauss. Everything belonged to the same undifferentiated Romantic sound world.

I felt very strongly that that was not doing full justice to Beethoven’s radicalism, however enlightened and inspirational the interpreter. And of course there were wonderful, inspirational conductors: George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Lenny Bernstein in America. In Britain, Beecham, Boult and Colin Davis. Then along came the brilliant young Carlos Kleiber and Claudio Abbado — really wonderful, committed and insightful conductors and interpreters.

But even then I felt there was something missing: the specific sound world of Beethoven himself. And that’s when it gets quite complicated, because we have to remember that Beethoven started to lose his hearing in the 1790s, when he was in his late 20s, and by the time he started to compose his symphonies he was already on the way to being deaf. What is remarkable is that he retained such a fresh memory of how an orchestra functions, in all its detail and with a complex array of colors, from the time before his hearing went.

So in a sense Beethoven’s orchestra never really existed; it was a figment of his vivid aural imagination. The performances he attended and went through the motions of conducting were with pickup orchestras made up of rather unmotivated Viennese musicians sight-reading this new, incredibly complicated and challenging music on only one rehearsal.

It wasn’t until shortly after Beethoven’s death that his symphonies were really scrupulously prepared for performance. And that was by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris in 1828 to 1831. For the first time they were rehearsed properly, with clear phrasing, articulations and unified bowings for the string players. This was an orchestra made up of Conservatoire professors and their pupils. They approached Beethoven very seriously, and their performances seem to have made a huge impact on the musical world. Berlioz was present, Wagner for some, Chopin for some others.

When we started the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique 30 years ago, our aim was to see if we could actually reconstitute or reconfigure that imaginary orchestra that Beethoven had singing in his inner ear, but never truly heard. Our model, if we had a model at all, was this Paris orchestra. We know a good deal about them; we know, for example, they were playing on transitional instruments midway between Baroque and what we regard now as “modern,” in terms of their construction and mechanism. We know they were already using modern-style, inward-curved bows with gut strings.

Orchestras of the time were not a static phenomenon, but an evolving one, making use of the latest evolving technology as regards the woodwind and brass instruments, rather as Beethoven’s symphonies evolved. After all, it’s not as if his Ninth Symphony was written in the same style as his First. He goes through a series of incremental steps, developing his symphonic sound palette and his musical language in an incredibly ingenious and intense way. During rehearsals, my aim is always to try to ask for a style that is appropriate to each particular Beethoven symphony.

For listeners who have grown up hearing their Beethoven played by regular modern symphony orchestras, our performances will present some striking differences. They may be surprised to hear more detail and more of the content of what’s in Beethoven’s score, as the different strands of the instrumental lines emerge with an enhanced clarity. The way the instruments were formed and constructed in that period make them much more distinct from one another than their more powerful modern equivalents. What you get in a period orchestra are three things: greater individuality of timbre, more transparency of texture and an increased dynamism once all the instruments are stretched to their absolute maximum capacity of volume and expressivity.

If you attempt that with a modern symphony orchestra, there will always be a certain comfort factor, a plushness, which, I feel, doesn’t help the listener to savor all that is most original in the score. It can sound a tad too comfortable. If you push the needle up to “fff,” you’ll get excitement of course, but there’s a danger of it becoming too bombastic and hectoring. But if you ask them to pull back to compensate, it can sound half-baked. The great advantage of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is that you can push them absolutely to the nth degree, so the instruments almost get to breaking point, but there will always be clarity as well as exhilaration.

Another thing I think is important is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.

Nowadays historically informed orchestras are no longer regarded as an experimental oddity coming out of left field. There are still some naysayers and skeptics, and still a few famous conductors, pianists, violinists of my generation who think it is all a load of rubbish. They don’t give credence to the historical or interpretive validity of what we’ve been trying to do. It doesn’t particularly bother me, and overall there is much more interest and acceptance that this is a genuine and valid way of interpreting Beethoven than there was 30 years ago.

I don’t think Beethoven needs an anniversary to be played a lot. I’m sure he doesn’t. But if we are going to go with this 250th anniversary, we must be very, very sure that we have something — and that he has something — to say to us now in 2020 that is pertinent to the way we look at life, society and culture. I definitely feel this to be the case. There are clear parallels between his situation in the early 1800s and ours today, between the political agitation and rebelliousness that he felt, the discomfort that he expressed in his symphonies, and the situation in which we now find ourselves.

The danger is that these pieces become over-familiar and lose their impact if they continue to be played only in an all-purpose, generic early-to-mid-20th-century style that’s no different than Wagner or Strauss. Maybe it’s a paradox that through the attempt to reconstruct Beethoven’s own ideal, imaginary orchestra, it brings his music closer into our present world. But I firmly believe that that is the case. A listener attending our performances will, I hope, hear greater clarity, greater transparency, greater rhetoric, a greater sense of excitement, freshness and ebullience. All of those things.

Ideally, listeners will be here for the whole cycle. Performing the nine symphonies in chronological order provides a unique access to an incredibly adventurous mind, and to an organic sense of development. If you just dip in for one or two concerts, that’s fine, but you’ll be losing out on that sense of growth and development. I think ideally it’s the entire cycle. It’s the journey we are on which we want to share with you.