Beethoven's sound barrier Music: Later composers had trouble making themselves heard.

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

"Yes, indeed, and what's really remarkable is that every jackass notices it at once," Brahms replied to one of the many critics who had pointed out to him the similarity between the "Ode to Joy" theme in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the lyrical theme in the finale of Brahms' own First Symphony.

Brahms was never one to suffer fools gladly, and his irritation is particularly understandable in light of his 20-year-long struggle to write a symphony in the shadow of Beethoven. Only a few years before he finally succeeded -- in 1876 at the age of 43 -- he told conductor Hermann Levi: "You have no idea of how it feels -- always to hear the tramp of such a giant [Beethoven] behind you."

Brahms was not the only composer so intimidated. Beethoven's nine symphonies divided musical Europe between those who believed the possibilities of symphonic form had been exhausted and those who tried to add to Beethoven's legacy.

Some composers turned to purely instrumental genres, such as Liszt with his creation of the symphonic poem; others, most prominently Wagner, declared the "music drama" to be the "artwork of the future."

But any composer who refused to give up on the symphony had, in one way or another, to confront Beethoven's work, particularly the colossal Ninth. It was Mahler who said that "Beethoven wrote only one Ninth; to me, all my symphonies are Ninths."

The successful symphonists who followed Beethoven -- Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz and Bruckner, as well as Brahms and Mahler -- seemed compelled to make musical allusions to at least one of the Beethoven symphonies, usually the Ninth, or sometimes the Fifth, as is the case in Schumann's Fourth, or the Sixth, as Berlioz does in his "Symphonie Fantastique."

But each of these composers almost invariably tries to escape Beethoven's great shadow by rejecting his example. Listeners cannot escape the allusion to Beethoven's Ninth in the final movement of Brahms' First. But they less frequently notice that, midway through the movement, Brahms abandons the Beethoven-like theme and, with a reference to the finale of Mozart's purely instrumental "Jupiter" Symphony, turns in a completely different direction.

In the bridge between the third and fourth movements of his Fourth Symphony, Schumann clearly invokes the ominous transition between the same two movements of Beethoven's Fifth. But instead of proceeding to write a serious movement -- as Beethoven did -- Schumann's music grows progressively lighter.

Similar strategies are employed by Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Mahler.

These composers -- Mahler particularly -- regarded themselves as Beethoven's sons and heirs. But in order for a son to inherit his father's legacy, the father must be dead. And because Beethoven's work refused to die a natural death, one might say that symphonic history has been a succession of attempts at parricide.

'Too much of a good thing'

The program that tomorrow afternoon's Baltimore Symphony Pension Fund Concert re-creates was performed in Vienna's Theater an der Wien Dec. 22, 1808. It marked the first performances of the Fifth and Sixth ("Pastoral") symphonies, which were joined on the program by several other pieces (also premiering), including the aria "Ah perido!" and the G Major Concerto, with the composer at the piano.

This historic concert had several severe shortcomings, including lack of rehearsal time and the fact that the hall was unheated. Beethoven's friend, composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, reported that "I accepted the kind offer of Prince Lobkowitz to let me sit in his box. There we continued, in the bitterest cold, from 6: 30 until 10: 30, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing."

Making matters worse was Beethoven's insistence on completing yet another work to serve as a grand finale for the program: the Choral Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra. During the performance, Beethoven, who was leading from the keyboard, ran out of luck: The musicians got lost, and the composer was obliged to stop the orchestra and begin again.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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