Beethoven’s Eroica: A Litmus

In preparation for another third symphony this week, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss for a bit something that struck me recently. I ran it by a few other friends to see if my idea was just kind of ridiculous, or also made sense when it resided in the brains of others. It seemed it did, so here it is.
I’ve seen Beethoven’s Eroica performed live at least three times (including here and here and here, in chronological order) within the past year, and listened to many more recordings: Ormandy, Szell, Karajan, Bernstein, Chailly, Harnoncourt, Kubelik, Fürtwangler, Abbado, Norrington, and others.
As you can see from this article, I did ultimately settle on a favorite performance, and it is perhaps not one of the most traditional, i.e. it isn’t Karajan or Bernstein.
Each of the individual performances I attended live was different, obviously, and each of the performances I’ve listened to at home, each with a world-famous conductor and orchestra, is unique. I won’t get into a discussion of the right vs. wrong or any of that because in many ways, it’s subjective.
We can break things down into varying levels of certainty (and please remember, this comes from an avid listener, not a performer or conductor):
  1. Stuff that’s written in the score: the notes, the most specific of metronome markings, the time signature, orchestration, dynamics, etc. These are all (in some degree or other, depending on the composer) laid out in the score. They are irrefutable, unless of course one argues about unsolicited changes to a score, typos, errors, etc.
  2. Stuff that is or ‘can be’ implied about the performance and interpretation of the piece based on knowledge of its history, style, etc. No one would take the same approach to Mahler that they would to Mozart. This, while not written out, is implied to some extent because of what would have been expected at the time. Unless your name begins with D and ends in -aniel Barenboim, these stylistic considerations are of some general significance, but will be taken and applied with varying degrees by different composers. Less certainty here, more variation.
  3. Conscious decisions made by the conductor/ensemble/soloist, etc. These more proudly qualify as interpretive or stylistic choices. As long as they violate neither of the first two points, they probably aren’t technically wrong. Much of it also comes down to how much you value ‘tradition,’ whose tradition it is, and how you apply or treat it, traditional, conservative, etc.
With these three layers of depth and decision-making involved, one might begin to be familiar with the way a certain conductor approaches a certain composer: Abbado’s Mahler, Karajan’s Brahms, Chailly’s Bruckner, Harnoncourt’s Schubert, Marriner’s Mozart, Rattle’s Schumann, Barshai’s Shostakovich, and on and on.
The business of picking one cycle that does all the symphonies of one composer justice is a tricky one even if that cycle is as ‘small’ as Brahms’ four contributions to the genre. Once we get to the ‘nine symphonies’ composers like Beethoven, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, etc. it gets even harder, and different people will pick different sets. The really picky listeners will hand-pick their performances to compile a favorite cycle.
With all that said, let’s talk for a moment about getting to know, not just the piece of music or the conductor, but his specific approach to a standard piece in the repertoire and his rapport with this or that orchestra. And for that, let’s use cards as an example. Someone was talking to me recently about bridge competitions (the card game) and how all competitors are dealt the same hand with the exact same deck of cards, and then they play it out and compare their scores, literally seeing what you can do with the cards you’ve been dealt, with everyone on an equal playing field. Luck doesn’t factor.
Is there a good candidate for a standard orchestral piece, something so common and so perfect as to be an accurate, trustworthy litmus test for an orchestra?
I say yes, and I say it’s Beethoven’s third. Why?
  • It perfectly straddles the line between the Classical and Romantic eras.
  • It has a very Beethoven-esque style, one that people know, but it’s not a piece with such idiomatic writing that it overshadows the absolutely musical aspects.
  • Beethoven is really important.
  • It’s a very standard piece in the repertoire, and shouldn’t be unfamiliar to any performer or conductor.
  • It covers a wide range of emotions, from the sorrowful second movement, to the very energetic scherzo and finale, not to mention the amazing first movement.
  • In its neutrality of Classical/Romantic and incredible depth, etc. it is open to an extremely wide range of interpretations, each one perhaps emphasizing or exploring a different side or personality of the piece.
So with those general ideas in mind, I’ve thought that if there were any piece perfectly suited to take and use as a litmus test, an “all things equal” comparison of a standard piece in the repertoire, this would be it. Bruckner, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, etc. each have their own backgrounds, styles, and individual followers. I would argue that while obviously not every conductor can do amazing things with every composer (nor would they have interest in doing so), every professional conductor should be able to pull off an Eroica. I’m sure there are conductors who don’t have it in their repertoire, but I’m speaking in huge generalizations.
I feel it’s perhaps the most neutral, universal symphony in the repertoire. While Beethoven’s fifth is perhaps more famous among the general population, for pure musical content, ground covered, etc. I’d pick the Eroica as the standard “apples to apples” symphony for comparison, but then again, I’d probably hold it as Beethoven’s greatest symphony. I just love the piece.
Let me say it this way: it has to be one of the least likely symphonies not to be in a conductor’s wheelhouse.
There’s another symphony I’ve used in a similar way when trying to learn a bit about a conductor’s approach to certain pieces or composers. The most comparing and study I’ve done with composers has probably been with Mahler, and generally speaking, my favorites for anything of his are Mehta and Abbado. They’ve never let me down. But Mahler is such a demanding composer in a very different and specific way. If I had to pick a piece of Mahler’s to be the kind of same thing for his own works as Eroica is for classical music in general, I’d probably have to pick his sixth. For one, the wide variation of tempi for the opening movement is telling, as is the overall approach to the symphony. Who are we kidding? It’s a hell of a lot of music, and it too has a wide range of variations, from the opening march, a wicked scherzo, beautiful slow movement and the nightmarish and complicated finale. I would also suggest it’s Mahler’s most traditional symphony.
Anyway, holding a piece by Mahler or Beethoven in such high regard, and paying such close attention to a composer/ensemble’s performance of any piece is obviously not necessarily indicative of how that team will perform or interpret any other piece, although it could be. I would argue that Chailly’s or Harnoncourt’s reading in their respective cycles are very indicative of the general approach to all the symphonies, but that won’t always be the case.
Anyway, this was just a thought I had. If there were ever to be any perfectly neutral ‘let’s compare’ symphony, I motion that it is Beethoven’s Eroica.
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