Last Sunday I spent most of the day playing for a conducting workshop run by Peter Fender (a last minute dep job for a sometime La Folie colleague – confusingly, I was replacing him here on viola, which is not an instrument either of us plays in the consort!).
(An aside: yes, I have nearly caught up to writing current blog posts. I’m skipping over a couple of band gigs, and a couple of engagements which should lead to forthcoming media releases and/or about which I have signed non-disclosure agreements … )
Regular readers will know I’m not new to playing for conducting workshops, and rather enjoyed my last experience of it (perhaps more than most people enjoyed my mammoth blog post on the subject). This one, too, was very interesting – though at something like 6 hours’ actual playing, decidedly tiring. The more so as the repertoire for the day was Beethoven’s second symphony.
Now the ‘lesser’ Beethoven symphonies – numbers 1, 2, 4 and 8 – form a curious group. They’re often described as more classical than the ground-breaking 3, 5, 7 and 9 and programmatic 6 (Pastoral) – though a programmatic symphony was not new when Beethoven wrote the latter, its predecessors are simply generally (and understandably!) not played; it is much more distinctive for being a viable, well-written and thoroughly structured symphony than for being programmatic as such. This is true as far as orchestration is concerned, and to some extent duration; but not otherwise. The structural extensions, wild dynamic contrasts, extended development and modulation considered characteristically Beethovian are just as present. Even the instrumentation needs to be seen in context. The symphony we were playing calls for strings (with cellos and basses sharing a part), pairs of the usual four woodwinds, pairs of horns and trumpets, and timpani. Now that is, yes, a smaller orchestra than the famous Beethoven symphonies, with their additions of extra horns, piccolo, trombones, and singers. But conversely it is more or less the maximum standard orchestra of the time – trumpets and timpani were optional extras, normally used only in particularly bombastic pieces, and the clarinet had only just established itself as a standard orchestral instrument. A single flute instead of a pair was still not unusual. So a tutti fortissimo for those forces was not a restrained gesture for Beethoven at the time – it was already, to the ears listening to it, tumultuous (and in a rather high-ceiling and hard-surfaced church hall, it sounded it on Sunday. My desk partner had earplugs in the whole time we were playing, despite a string section appropriate to the era bringing the total number of players to just 30). It was turning the volume to 10, if the Eroica’s third horn and the Fifth’s trombones and piccolo were ways of turning it up to 11.
No chance of sitting back and taking things easy then – this is no Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Especially as one of Beethoven’s distinctive (surely deliberately disruptive) devices in this symphony is melodic material in octaves in the violas, celli and basses, with the violins accompanying (a three-part texture with violas doubling celli is not unusual in Classical orchestration; tune in the bottom of it is). One way to keep your violists awake, and given the low status of the instrument at the time a rather risky choice.
If the ‘even numbered symphonies’ (scare quotes because this category never includes no. 6!) are often hived off from the rest of Beethoven’s symphonic output, there was evidence enough in the specifics the half-dozen learner conductors were working through of, conversely, the tendency (not necessarily wrong, but surely noteworthy) to treat Beethoven as unique. What is the meaning of a Beethoven fortissimo? Sforzando? Fortepiano? My partner recounted an experience of being told a Beethoven forte is something quite unique (it sounded more like a fortissimo to me from the description, but perhaps I missed something). What does Larghetto mean as the speed of a movement that could easily become very long and boring (responses to this question varied between conductors by around 50%, which is significantly unusual)? There is a balance of (at least) three things here – composer’s personal artistic outlook (which may perhaps be fairly unwavering), composer’s development or at least change over time, understanding of terminology of the time (no sane composer uses a term to mean one thing when every player around them will reliably interpret it as something else). If there is a fourth, it raises that oft-feared spectre of ‘period performance’ – the fourth aspect being what filters modern players and audiences may apply by default that need compensating for when dealing with anything from a different cultural context to when our ‘classical’ norms were set. And there is a good argument that they were set around Mahler’s time – the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. In which case almost everything in the repertoire requires ‘historically informed performance’.
All of this sits on my mind as I continue to study a Bach cello suite on viola (consulting with a Royal Academy professor next week, using that as one of my main vehicles, of which more anon) and to play with La Folie – whose next outing is in north-east London, illustrating the six (or many less) degrees of separation effect by being hosted by one Anita Datta – musical director of St Mary’s Woodford and my accompanist for my ATCL exam back in July. Musicians, like music, turn out to all be ultimately interconnected …