Sounds of Beethoven to fill Meyerhoff Hall Music: Composer's works form the backbone of the BSO season.

September 17, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven is the central figure in the Baltimore Symphony's programming this season, which begins tonight with the composer's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") and concludes in June with his Symphony No. 9. By the time the season ends, concertgoers will have heard a total of 19 works by Beethoven.

This is not a Beethoven "year" -- no anniversary is being celebrated. The occasion of Beethoven's prominence this season is the absence of a music director to attract audiences and to give them the feeling that the orchestra's repertory has a theme.

That real theme is simply that classical music audiences respond to Beethoven's music as they do to that of no other composer. Beethoven has become not only the supreme image of a composer in the Western (or, more properly, Westernized) world, but the very symbol, even more than such competitors as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Einstein or Homer, of creative genius itself.

Beethoven may not be any greater than Haydn or Mozart, his immediate predecessors in the classical era. And he is less the musical revolutionary than is popularly supposed. But what makes him different is that he calls attention to himself as a creator in ways that Haydn or Mozart could not have countenanced.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, "with Beethoven, music first began to find the speech of pathos, of the impassioned will, of the dramatic vicissitudes in the soul of man." In other words, Beethoven's works represent a psychological record of a single man's struggle with destiny. That sense of individuality makes works by Beethoven as distinct from each other as those by Mozart and Haydn rarely are.

But this individuality makes the music all the more universal. If Beethoven's music speaks to the predicament of a particular hero -- the composer himself -- it also speaks to the hero within all of us. To use one of our age's most abused buzzwords, Beethoven and his music empower us. That is why we cannot seem to do without him.

Here are thumbnail sketches of most of the works the symphony will perform this season.

Symphonies

The Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") is Beethoven's "big bang" -- the single work that created the ever-expanding universe of the Beethoven mythos. As its Italian subtitle tells us, it is a heroic symphony. It begins without the spacious introductions beloved by Haydn and Mozart and used by Beethoven in his first two symphonies.

Two abrupt chords launch the first movement. That movement, with its roller-coaster emotional twists and turns, has a psychological trajectory that altered the course of Western music, becoming a template for all the symphonic music that followed. The second-movement funeral march ratchets up the expressive intensity. If the lighter scherzo and more conventional final movement fail to live up to the challenge of the the first two movements, it scarcely matters.

It is characteristic of Beethoven that he rarely repeats himself. If his Symphony No. 4 seems a return to symphonic form as it was practiced by Haydn, Symphony No. 5 is another explosion that takes the listener beyond the boundaries established by the "Eroica." If the listener experiences a letdown in the last two movements of the latter, the Fifth Symphony is a successfully unified four-movement work that grows more triumphant from movement to movement. In his Symphony No. 45 ("Farewell"), Haydn achieved a similar sense of continuous musical narrative, but what is unprecedented in Beethoven is the weight, directness and seriousness with which the discourse unfolds.

The Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") is less emotionally turbulent than either its predecessor, the Fifth, or its successor, the Seventh, and hence somewhat less valued, if no less popular. But its depiction of a green world, operating on timeless cycles dictated by nature, makes it the most relaxing of the composer's great symphonic works.

The Seventh is just the opposite. It's an invitation to the dance -- a driven, Dionysian revel that leads to a final movement, a nonstop roiling boil that concludes the work in pagan delirium. The joy in the Seventh is civilized by the ideals of the Enlightenment and articulated by the human voice in the Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth's unprecedented use of singers for the last movement precipitated a controversy that has never been settled. But this symphony is another of those Beethovian watersheds, dividing symphonic composers such as Mahler and Shostakovich, who followed Beethoven's lead unhesitatingly, from those like Brahms or Bruckner, who, while unalterably influenced by the Ninth, could not bring themselves to dispense so completely with symphonic conventions.

Concertos

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