Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ode to Beethoven

The camera focuses on a large room, filled with light, the hardwood floors gleaming and the sheers on the open oversized windows blowing in the breeze. It is the great room in the home of Prince Lobkowitz, patron of Ludwig Von Beethoven. A lone violinist steps into the room and plays a few measures, and soon the room begins to fill with musicians carrying in their instruments and servants carrying music stands. They are setting up for the first performance (first practice session, actually) of Beethoven's new symphony, Bounaparte. A handful of guests join the prince as the orchestra members receive their copies of the symphony for the first time. The concertmaster raises his violin to his chin, nods his head, and the music begins.

Title page to Beethoven's Third Symphony,
with dedication to Napoleon crossed out
Music like they have never heard pours from the orchestra, music full of deep emotion, from irrepressible joy and lightness to grief and melancholy. Written to honor Napoleon, its dissonance and misplaced accents confuse some of the guests and delights others. Even the musicians are startled by the notes they are called upon to play.

It is the 2003 PBS production of Eroica, The Day That Changed Music Forever. The movie consists in part of the playing of the symphony, which is just under 50 minutes in length. Believing Napoleon to be a liberator, Beethoven has written the symphony in his honor. Now, as it is heard for the first time, it provokes political arguments among the players and guests. Indeed, when Beethoven learns that Napoleon has declared himself emperor, he is distraught and changes the name to Eroica (which means heroic.) We also know it as Beethoven's Third Symphony.

The movie is not just about the music. It is about politics and history and relationships. It is about Beethoven. He was 33 when he finished this symphony, and already he was going deaf. He was in love with a woman of higher status than he; to marry him she would lose her inheritance and the custody of her four children. We see the effect of the music upon staff of the manor, we feel the tension between the guests, we meet Beethoven's pupil Ries who will go on to write about Beethoven.

This is a wonderful movie. When it was over I thought I would like to see it again, to more fully experience the emotion of the music for myself and to try to identify with the emotions of those playing and hearing it for the first time. And I wish I had a better sense for how this symphony so profoundly differed from the Classical music of the times. The orchestra played a piece in warming up that was a contrast to the music to come, but there was a lot of activity in the room -- Beethoven fretting, looking for his beloved to arrive, the princess was greeting their guests, the servants were in and out. I didn't pay enough attention. Though I enjoy Classical music, my ear is not very trained or disciplined. (I should have paid more attention in Music Appreciation in college!) I wish I'd been better prepared for it.

You can watch the movie in nine segments on YouTube or listen to the symphony online or on CD. But you just might enjoy it best if you watch the film Eroica instead. You may even need to watch it twice. That's what I plan to do.

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