Sunday, August 03, 2008

PBS plays historic Bernstein concert of Beethoven's Ninth


Tonight, Maryland Public Television (MPT) of PBS aired a DVD of Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony #9 in D Minor, the Choral, on Christmas Day 1989 from East Berlin. This was the concert that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall that year on November 9. The concert took place in the Schauspielhaus, which looked immaculate for the concert, whatever condition it might have been in under Communism. PBS points out that Bernstein substituted “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for “Freude” (“Joy”) in Schiller’s text in the Finale. Conductor Herbert von Karajan arranged the famous hymn theme (often used in churches) into the official anthem for the European Union. It's curious that a 1993 film "Trois Coleurs: Bleu" directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski build a plot around a deceased composer who was writing a work called "The Unity of Europe" and whose ex-wife tries to destroy the manuscript out of grief.

The performance has long been available on a CD from Deutsch Grammophone. The New York Times has a query copy of the original 1989 AP story here.

Bernstein tends to like slow tempos, and the performance is a bit like the Klemperer recording made in 1957 for Angel, which I received as one of my first stereo records for Christmas in 1962. In those days, the Ninth usually took three LP sides, particularly with early stereo records.

The opening descending fourths in the first movement inspired the opening of Mahler’s own symphonic voyage. The slow movement (as well of the slow movement of the Eroica) seems to have inspired the great Adagios of Bruckner, Mahler and even Shostakovich. Bernstein draws out this movement more than Klemperer did, and varies the tempos more during the exploratory “variations”.

Like Haydn and Mozart with “classicism”, Beethoven and Schubert were complementary, in transitioning to romanticism. I think of Beethoven as generating Brahms and Schumann, and Schubert as generating Bruckner and Mahler and even Viennese expressionism. I was thinking, though, about what makes all these works tick. The Ninth is only Beethoven’s second symphony in a minor key, and D minor sounds so very different from C Minor. I thought about how Schubert’s comparable work (the “pre-Bruckner” Great C Major) has an “allegretto”-like “slow movement” in A minor that recalls Beethoven’s Seventh, but no Adagio.. (What makes the “Great” really work would be a whole discussion on its own; there’s nothing else like it other than Schubert’s own Quintet.) Schubert liked to use song material for his slow movements; it seems as if Beethoven really did invent the concept of the modern “Adagio” in romantic symphonic music.

Wikipedia explains the Finale as a “symphony within a symphony” gives detailed analysis of the “sub-movements.” In the slow introduction, Beethoven reviews thematic material from the first three movements, introducing for the first time the idea of “connected” movements. In both reviewing earlier themes and then segmenting his form for the Finale, Beethoven sets an example leading to the segmented one-movement works by composers like Franz Liszt. Actually, two of Schubert’s big piano fantasies are segmented into quasi-movements this way. Eventually, the idea of a sonata structure within an opera act would be tried by Alban Berg in “Wozzeck.”

To me, however, the Finale has always sounded more like a rondo. The big hymn theme repeatedly seems to be trying to transition to a sonata-like “second subject” when the transition will turn into an episode, and then the theme returns with some variation, at least once as a fugato. Beethoven continuously treats us to strettos and elliptical dissonances, with all their harmonic tension, necessary to great music. At the end, the music is swept into its own vortex.

Personally, I remember that Christmas well. I was in the Cleveland area with relatives for Christmas (bitterly cold that year). I don’t recall that the broadcast was shown live in the U,S. Christmas Night that year, one major network carried the film Rogers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews, the Trapp Family escaping to freedom, yes, at the end with “climb every mountain” after a stunning climax where Trapp deals with the soldier that tries to capture him back into fascism. It’s still fitting.

The fall of the Berlin Wall would indeed lead to the “dominoes in reverse.” In Romania, protests against Nicolae Ceauşescu would lead to his eviction from power and execution Christmas day that year. The Wikipedia article is interesting.

During that time, I was moving to a new job in mid January 1990, a development that would eventually set up some of my circumstances today. But at the old job (a health care consulting company Lewin), at a Christmas luncheon, we took a poll on the “person of the year” and the employees chose “the People of Eastern Europe,” right as Ceausescu fell.

Two years later, Christmas 1991, the entire Soviet Union would fall. We know the history since then. It’s interesting how so many events, public and less public, link up.

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