Immortal Spirit A truly soaring, searing Beethoven performance is not for the meek, but for those who brave the tempest for a glimpse of heaven.

October 10, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven's music is about heroism -- the composer's, the performer's and the audience's.

The second and third kinds of heroism will be found tomorrow afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall when the Baltimore Symphony performs its annual pension fund concert. Under the baton of guest conductor Alan Gilbert, the 97 musicians of the Baltimore Symphony will re-create the 1808 concert in Vienna that introduced -- among other works -- the composer's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy and the Mass in C. This is a huge effort: more than four hours of demanding music.

But to listen to so many unique works, each of which probes ever more deeply into what it means to be human, also requires a heroic commitment from the listener. There should be no sissies in tomorrow's audience.

Yet there is no other composer we are willing to listen to so much. That his contemporaries were prepared to digest so much Beethoven at once suggests his privileged position in his lifetime; that we are willing to repeat the experience almost two centuries later declares how privileged his position remains.

This year, the Baltimore Symphony is calling the current season a "Beethoven festival." But that's business as usual. Every orchestra celebrates Beethoven every season. He remains the dominant composer in the symphonic repertory.

Ever since 1804, when he destroyed the dedication to Napoleon of the "Eroica" Symphony, Beethoven has been regarded as the hero of Western music. With the "Eroica," Beethoven is said to have loosened the restraints of 18th-century conventions, singlehandedly giving music a transcendent voice that expressed Western civilization's most cherished values.

About this estimation of his heroic status, no one was more certain than the composer himself. His image -- that of the tempest-tossed figure, the deaf musician shaking his fist at fate -- was one he helped to create.

"We mortals with immortal spirits are born only to suffering and joy, and one could almost say that the most distinguished among us obtain joy through suffering," Beethoven wrote to one of the many countesses who adored him and his music.

It is not the facts of Beethoven's life that led to his reputation. There have always been (and always will be) plenty of embattled artists. But no composer before (and few after) had ever called attention to himself in his own music as Beethoven does.

Not only is the music much more difficult than any that preceded it, but the composer also left his fin-

gerprints on almost every piece he wrote. This is as true of the first piano sonatas, with their heretofore unimaginably huge time scales and muscularity, as it is of the last ones, with their aspirations to leave the Earth behind.

No one had ever written such varied works. Mozart's piano concertos, for example, are wonderful, but except for the two in minor keys, it is sometimes easy to mistake one for another. But no listener can confuse Beethoven's poetic and intimate Fourth Concerto with his heroically militant Fifth Concerto.

In the 1920s, when Robert Haven Schauffler decided to call his biography of Beethoven "The Man Who Freed Music," he meant that his music expressed the freedom of the individual. Individual freedom -- its blandishments and its consequences -- is fundamental to the Greco-Judeo-Christian origins of Western civilization. And the great revolutions in America and France that took place in Beethoven's youth signified that the importance of such freedom (and the quest for it) had acquired renewed force. It is to this force that Beethoven's music gives unforgettable expression.

Musical jolts

Fundamental to the Romantic age that Beethoven's music helped usher in was an all-embracing and ennobling concept of the self. Even if the individual could not triumph over his circumstances or his own limitations, his struggle was deemed heroic and a proper subject for poetry -- or for music.

It is easy to understand why Beethoven's music is so compelling. His music is filled with heart-stopping pauses, crashes, register shifts and startling harmonies. The listener is so affected by sudden jolts and hair-pin turns that he feels as if he is swept along with the current of the music, forced to share what it (and its creator) feels. This creates an immediacy that the music of Mozart, for example, never achieves.

Mozart's music is described as a form of perfection, which means it's apprehended from a distance. There is no such distance in Beethoven's music. It is visceral, often disturbing and even invasive -- and it compels interaction with the listener. If Mozart's music offers listeners a view of heaven, Beethoven's makes them feel as if they're in a flight-simulator. The experience demands the right stuff.

Look no further than the famous opening of the Fifth Symphony.

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