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Author: Jordi Savall 
Bellaterra, 20th April 2020

Beethoven’s symphonic genius

The role of Beethoven’s symphonies in the history of music has been extensively studied and amply demonstrated over the last two centuries. As we reflected and prepared for this new performance of Beethoven’s complete nine symphonies, we considered a number of essential elements which not only inspired us, but also influenced our final choices.

First of all, we started with the basic idea of returning to the original sound and line-up of the orchestra as envisaged by Beethoven, constituted by the ensemble of instruments available in his day. Moreover, as we needed to discover the original sources for the existing manuscripts, we studied and compared not only the autograph sources and the extant parts used in the first concert performances, but also modern editions based on those same sources, with the aim of verifying all the indications concerning dynamics and articulation. In terms of major performance decisions, there were of course essential questions concerning the tempo required by Beethoven, of which we are aware thanks to the metronome marks left by the composer himself “to assure the performance of my compositions everywhere in accordance with the tempi conceived by me, which, I regret to say, have so often been misunderstood.” Sadly, despite Beethoven’s own very precise indications, even today many musicians and conductors either do not consider his indications to be workable in practice, or disregard them, considering them to be “unartistic”! This matter is addressed by Rudolf Kolisch[i], when he affirms that “all the tempi required by Beethoven of stringed instruments, at least, are perfectly playable on the basis of the average technique of today.”

All our orchestral work was done using instruments corresponding to those used in Beethoven’s day and with a similar number of musicians to those deployed by the composer for the first performances of his symphonies; in other words, about 55 to 60 musicians, depending on the symphonies. We have chosen 35 instrumentalists from the professional musicians of the Concert des Nations, including many who have been part of the ensemble since 1989, the remaining 20 instrumentalists being young musicians from different European countries and around the world who were selected from among the best of their generation at in-person auditions.

From the outset it was obvious to us that the other key issue for our project would be the study period necessary to embark upon and bring to fruition such a major and complex task. Sufficient, ample time was one of the essential conditions necessary for a successful in-depth study of this collection of nine symphonies.

To ensure the success of the work plan as well as a coherent distribution of the complete symphonies, we divided the 9 symphonies into four major programmes with a view to preparing them over a period of two years. Each programme is studied and rehearsed, respectively, in the course of two separate 6-day intensive Academies: the first academy of each pair, which we refer to as the “preparation Academy” is devoted to reflection, experimentation and definition dealing with all the essential elements of a successful performance. In the second “enhancement Academy”, the orchestra as a whole and each instrumentalist individually focus in on all aspects that are crucial to achieving a performance that is faithful to the spirit of each work.

Symphonies 1, 2 & 4, which were scheduled and prepared in the spring of 2019, and Symphonies 3 & 5, which we worked on in the autumn of the same year, are those that we now have the pleasure of presenting to you in this first album.

It was our intention to finish our version of the complete Symphonies in 2020, concentrating on Symphonies 6 and 7 in the spring and Symphonies 8 and 9 during the months of August and October. Of course, all these plans are now on hold because of the social consequences of the tragic pandemic currently affecting the world, and nobody can predict what will be possible in this uncertain future. Depending on the evolution of the pandemic, therefore, we shall see what we are able to do regarding the second part of our Complete Beethoven Symphonies project.

On 4th July, 1810, E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: “Beethoven’s instrumental music opens up to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become aware of giant shadows rising and falling, steadily engulfing us and annihilating everything that is in us, and not only the pain of unending desire in which each pleasure is eclipsed and disappears no sooner than it emerges in joyful notes; and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, and seeks to burst our breasts with a unanimous accord of all the passions, that we live on as enchanted beholders of the vision.”

In the introductory text accompanying the recording of Mozart’s last three symphonies, we referred to the difficulty experienced by Mozart’s audiences in understanding his new masterpieces. Those last symphonies, which Mozart possibly never heard performed, were not readily understood in his own day or even by later generations. At the end of 1790, Gerber published in his Historisch-Biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler the following entry on Mozart, referring to his isolation and the difficulty of his contemporaries in understanding his work:

“Thanks to his precocious knowledge of harmony, the great master acquired such a profound and intimate familiarity with this science that it is difficult for an untrained ear to follow his compositions. Even the most seasoned audiences need to listen to his compositions several times.”

Berlioz writes of Mozart’s last symphonies that they contain “too many pointless developments to no effect, too many technical gimmicks.” In 1788, at the age of 32, Mozart attained the maturity and peak of symphonic writing in his day. Eleven years later, in 1799, a 29-year-old composer called Ludwig van Beethoven succeeded him in that feat when he composed his Symphony No. 1 in C major, which received its first concert performance on 2nd April, 1800, at Vienna. On 26th March of that year, the Wiener Zeitung had announced that “the management of the Imperial Court Theatre, having placed the concert hall at the disposal of Herr Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer has the honour of informing the public that the date of his concert has been set for 2nd April […] Tickets may be obtained on the day, and on the eve of the performance reserved tickets may be obtained from Herr van Beethoven at the following address: Tiefen Graben No. 241, 3rd floor…”

The concert playbill consisted of the following:

    Symphony by Mozart

    Aria from Haydn’s Creation

    Grand concerto for pianoforte composed by Beethoven

    A septet by Beethoven

    Duet from The Creation

    Impromptu by Beethoven on Haydn’s Kaiserhymne (Emperor’s Hymn)

    Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1

The review of the concert, published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (15th October 1800), quoted by J.-G. Prod’homme[ii], is a unique document which gives insight into the first impression made by this new, more centre-stage use of the wind instruments of the orchestra.

The famous Gazette’s Viennese correspondent wrote: “Mr Beethoven managed to secure the theatre for a concert for his benefit which has certainly been one of the most interesting that we have seen in a long time. He played a new concerto of his own composition containing numerous beautiful features, especially in the first two movements. After this piece, we heard a septet, also of his own composition, displaying great taste and feeling. He improvised magnificently, and the concert concluded with one of his symphonies in which we observed a great deal of art, originality and a great wealth of ideas. Having said that, however, we draw attention to his too frequent of the wind instruments: the result is that the symphony is more like a piece of harmony than a truly orchestral work.”

“This new balance of the instrumental groups”, observes André Boucourechliev[iii], “far from being highlighted by today’s performances, is often neglected. The hypertrophy of the strings is one of the most persistent tendencies of “symphonism”, and for many the term symphony translates into an ‘orchestra of 120 musicians’. Ignaz Moscheles reports that what Beethoven feared above all was confusion and that he did not want more than about sixty musicians for his symphonies.” In our opinion, this new balance is a core question; indeed, it is the main reason why we chose a number of musicians similar to those Beethoven might have had at his disposal at the first performance of his symphonies: 18 wind instruments and 32 string instruments ( corresponding to the instruments and tuning (Concert A at 430) used at that time. “Beethoven’s orchestra is not the power instrument, the megaphone or the outer casing of his “orchestrated” musical thought: it is one and the same thing, it is that thought.”

In our own time, numerous commentators, musicologists and music critics have voiced their opinions on Beethoven’s works and, in particular, his nine symphonies, but the fact is that the sheer mystery of his genius stems from the assurance of the act of creation, as revealed in his work. This energy, which so astonished his successors, has never been transferrable – except to those who, like Bartok, belong to the same category of musicians – because in Beethoven’s case the act of creation frequently takes the form of a combat. Beethoven often struggled with himself in order to create, and his work is the result of a creative process which bears witness to a new conception of art. Let us not forget that, coming immediately after Haydn and Mozart, who had refined the sonata, the string quartet and above all the symphony to a level of absolute quality, Beethoven was at a point of musical development when the Classical style had reached unparalleled heights. As Bernard Fournier[iv] so aptly remarks, “To compose in the wake of the two great Viennese composers, each of whom in his way created a new musical universe of such perfection, was a challenge the magnitude of which would long be overlooked by commentators because of the challenge that Beethoven’s own shadow cast over those who followed him.”

The paradox confronting us in the 21st century was discussed more than 40 years ago by René Leibowitz in his book Le compositeur et son double[v], in which he referred to “the absolutely preeminent place occupied by Beethoven’s work in the musical life of our time (according to the results of a recent survey on the varying degrees of great composers’ “popularity” with music lovers).” In an endeavour to explain this, he continues: “One is tempted to conclude that audiences and performers display a genuinely profound awareness of authentic musical values, as these values have undoubtedly found in Beethoven’s music one of their highest and most prestigious expressions. To be sure, such a deduction is not altogether without foundation, and we can see that the well-known theory, according to which a work of genius will always unquestionably triumph in the end, contains an element of truth. One might also add that ultimately, whether they are fully aware of it or not, public and performers inevitably choose as their favourite works those which are the most deserving of the honour. And yet, if we apply these theories to Beethoven, one can’t help thinking that his case is one of the most disconcerting. In fact, there is perhaps no other composer who has been so constantly subjected to misguided and incongruous performance traditions, traditions which actually deform and obscure the very meaning of those works which enjoy such immense popularity… Indeed, we have here an extraordinary paradox in that we apparently love something that we know only in its deformed state, and we systematically deform something that we love.”

In our research and performance, we have taken all these considerations into account in pursuit of a genuine return to the sources and the original conception. Our principal aim of projecting in our 21st century the full richness and beauty of these well-known symphonies –all too often presented in an oversized, over-elaborate form, is to restore to these works their essential energy through a proper natural balance between the colours and the quality of the orchestra’s natural sound. In Beethoven’s day, that sound was produced by the stringed instruments (catgut strings and historic bows), woodwind instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoons; brass instruments: sackbuts, trumpets and natural trumpets and the period timpani played with wooden drumsticks. The resulting brilliance, articulation, balance and revolutionary dynamics form the basis of a dynamism based on a respect for Beethoven’s intended tempi (barring a few rare exceptions) and the phrasing to which they give rise, in accordance with the mood indications and the dramatic narrative sustained by the spiritual power of its own message.

In his groundbreaking book on the composer[vi], André Boucourechliev wrote: “Thanks to its new spiritual potential as well as its sound structure, Beethoven’s symphonic music transcends any pre-established character and context, departs on its own voyage of discovery, and finds – or even creates – a new audience. Beethoven would give to his mutable society with its sights set on the future, to its unpredictable desires and its unformulated demands, indeed to all those unknown variables, the object of their aspirations before they even knew what they aspired or wanted. New relationships and hazardous trials of force in which reluctance and misunderstanding jostle with collective elation […] Today’s music perilously continues to experience this perpetual adventure of unbridled confrontation. But it is above all Beethoven who must take the credit for having initiated it.” In this inherent revolutionary vigour of Beethoven’s symphonies, the powerful multiple voice of the orchestra generates a perpetual alertness of the creative spirit which will never exhaust their youthfulness.

Translated by Jacqueline Minett


[i] Kolisch, Rudolf. (April, 1943), “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music”. New York, The Musical Quarterly, Oxford University Press.


[ii] Prod’homme, J.-G. (1905), Les Symphonies de Beethoven, Paris.


[iii] Boucourechliev, André. (1963), Beethoven. Collection « Solfèges », Paris, Éd. du Seuil.


[iv] Fournier, Bernard. (2016), Le génie de Beethoven. Paris, Éd. Fayard.


[v] Leibowitz, René. (1971), Le compositeur et son double, Paris, Éditions Gallimard.


[vi] Boucourechliev, André. op. cit.


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