The release of the complete Beethoven Symphonies under the banner of ‘Beethoven for All' launches a unique recording and performance project in Daniel Barenboim's 70th birthday year. Throughout his career Barenboim has defied expectations and broken barriers, fired by a need to communicate his love of music and its power to change lives. You can hear this sense of urgency in every note he conducts. Just listen to the blazing finale of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and revel in the joy he creates. Or turn to the mad, whirling third movement of the Seventh Symphony, and feel the dance-like energy. If ever there were a conductor trying to tell us something vital, human and true, it's Barenboim.
‘Beethoven's music is universal,' says Daniel Barenboim. ‘Everywhere in the world - it speaks to all people. I think the Beethoven symphonies with the Divan orchestra is different in the sense that there is a terrific amount of energy because of the youth of the people - but there is just as much rigour. The combination of rigour with youthful energy is very strong.'
The Symphonies were recorded in August 2011 in Cologne, the glorious installment of a worldwide tour that began in August 2010 at the legendary Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and has now covered four continents. Barenboim's partnership with the remarkable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he describes as ‘a project against ignorance', continues this year with engagements including a European tour culminating in the performance of all Nine Symphonies at the BBC Proms.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded in 1999 by the late Edward Said and me as a forum for young musicians from all the
different countries of the Middle East, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, etc. to come together, to have an opportunity to make music together, and in this way to fight against the ignorance that there is of one another. We set out to do the impossible a project with Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs that was not political.
Making music together means first and last listening to each other. When two people play together, they have to listen to each other in order to be together, to be on the same degree of loudness, for the phrasing, for everything there's a permanent connection. With spoken dialogue, one speaks, the other listens, and then vice versa, but in music it is simultaneous. So if you really think seriously about the nature of music, you realise that the great lesson is that it is absolutely imperative to listen, and it is also important to know who has the main voice in other words, hierarchy not as a diminishing factor, but on the contrary as something that
helps us to communicate. Music teaches you better than anything else.
When we started WEDO in 1999, we held auditions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, to see the reaction. We weren't thinking of an orchestra; we wanted to create a forum. I thought we would have twelve, fifteen musicians, a chamber music group... But we had over two hundred applications from the Arab world alone. Sixty percent of our musicians had never played in an orchestra, yet only seven years later at the Salzburg Festspiele we played the Schoenberg Variations, one of the most difficult pieces for orchestra! This was possible only because I was given the means to control the development of the musicians strategically.
When we started out, we had young musicians who had never played in an orchestra, some had never even heard an orchestra live. So I thought in an educational way, but also about repertoire: What are the pieces, not that will make a great public impression, but that will make the orchestra grow? What will mean something for each musician educationally? And the Beethoven symphonies are really such works. Because if you really get into the Beethoven symphonies and see all the different aspects and all the different connections, you learn something important and relevant for all the music you play, be it chamber music, solo repertoire, whatever. So we learned one Beethoven symphony every year.
Many people feel or think, without really knowing, that music is somehow elitist - that it is for people who can afford the money and the time; it's something that has only to do with leisure. But music is not elitist. On the contrary. Music is not only not elitist, music is universal. Even though all the great composers of the past are European, music doesn't speak only to Europeans. (I was born in Argentina; if I were limited to "my" music, I could only play tango!) This music, although it was written by Beethoven in Bonn or in Vienna, speaks to people in Ramallah, in Australia, and everywhere else. This is why it is not elitist. Music is for all, for everybody - everybody who opens their mind and heart to it. It needs that curiosity, and it needs attentive listening, but then it's for all. And if you ask people who do not think of themselves as musically inclined: "Who do you know?", they all say "Beethoven". So if we want music for all, then it must be Beethoven.
Let's face it: the CD market does not need another Beethoven cycle, there are so many wonderful ones... some more wonderful, some less... But I think the Beethoven symphonies with the Divan orchestra is, in some ways, different. I would not be so pretentious as to say it is better, but it is certainly different. It is different in the sense that there is a terrific amount of energy (because of the youth of the people), but there is just as much rigour. And the combination of rigour with energy is very powerful. If people get one tenth of the satisfaction that we had when we played this music by listening to it, then I will be happy.
Each of Beethoven's nine symphonies is completely different in form and character, and this variety ensures that there is no easy categorisation, either historically (to what degree are they "Classical" or "Romantic" works?), or even within Beethoven's own sometimes contradictory development (where certain pieces obstinately refuse to conform to the neat categories of "early", "middle" or "late" periods). Outwardly, they generally conform to the expectations of contemporary audiences: apart from the Sixth, they all follow the four-movement pattern found in the later works of Haydn and Mozart. The first movement is always a densely argued and often dramatic sonata-allegro (preceded by a slow introduction in Nos.1, 2, 4 and 7); the slow movements may be cast in sonata or variation form, or a mixture of the two; there is a quick scherzo movement in triple time (the only exception being the third movement of the Eighth Symphony, which recalls the slower-paced minuets of Haydn and Mozart); and a quick finale in which sonata, variation and rondo forms may be found, often combined in surprising ways. Only in the Ninth Symphony does the scherzo precede the slow movement. The standard orchestra of the time consisted of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings; these forces are augmented in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth, whose finale also introduces solo and choral voices.
Apart from their outward shapes and orchestral forces, however, there is nothing at all conventional about any of the symphonies. Beethoven's earliest audiences would have heard the First, performed in 1800, against the background of the symphonies composed by Mozart and Haydn in the 1780s and 90s. To invite comparison with the works of those composers was a bold enough achievement; to do so with such an individual voice meant that there could be no doubt that Beethoven was their true heir. Certain features are very characteristic of the young Beethoven: the search for a key in the slow introduction for example, or the fast tempo of the third movement - entitled Minuet, but actually a quick one-in-a-bar scherzo of the type that Beethoven was to make very much his own - or the teasing opening of the finale.
The Second Symphony, composed in 1801-02 and performed in 1803, is one of the key works of the period that show Beethoven using his control of harmonic movement and motivic development to extend the boundaries of the Classical forms. The long slow introduction already announces that there will be more emphasis on the development of themes after their generally straightforward presentation, a tendency which is carried to great lengths, unusually, also in the finale. Its composition covers the period of Beethoven's realisation that his growing deafness was probably incurable, and that his would be a life of solitude, but nothing of the sort can be heard in the music of this joyous, invigorating work.
Longer and more complex than any previous symphony, the Third was Beethoven's biggest public statement to date, a "world-embracing" work in which he took players and listeners to the limit of what was then possible to play and to understand. In the first movement the traditional sonata form is hugely expanded, with a long, eventful development balanced at the end by a coda which is almost as long as the exposition; and this expansiveness characterises all four movements. Before the "Eroica", a variation finale usually meant a relaxation of tensions; the size and scope of Beethoven's finale, however, maintain the high level of intensity right through to the final bars.
When composing the "Eroica", Beethoven intended to dedicate it to Napoleon, whom he saw as a liberator sweeping away a corrupt old order, introducing humane reforms and enlightened laws aimed at the improvement of mankind. This view was shattered when Beethoven heard that the First Consul had declared himself Emperor, and the score was published in 1806 with the heading "Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man" - a wording which removes the hero from actuality, placing him on a historical, moral or even mythological plane.
The Fourth Symphony, completed three years after the "Eroica", has no such extra-musical associations, and its apparent avoidance of the moral or social concerns associated with the Third has occasionally led it, quite wrongly, to be undervalued. Its more modest dimensions have nothing to do with its musical value or beauty. In many aspects it can be heard as a development of the world of the Second Symphony, with its grace, wit, lyricism, energy and breathless excitement in the finale.
The Fifth, unlike the Fourth, has acquired associations which link it to the public or moral implications of the Third, and like the "Eroica" it has been heard as a revolutionary, social work, particularly on account of its march-like, populist finale. The first movement is an outstanding example of Beethoven's rhythmic thinking. There is hardly anything here one could call a tune, and the fateful four-note opening figure not only pervades the first movement but is heard throughout the work. Its passage from grim minor-key intensity to the radiant C major of the finale made it the prototype of any number of "darkness-to-light" Romantic symphonies.
Beethoven was always - and rightly - cautious about describing his works in extra-musical terms. The Sixth Symphony is something of an exception, with its overtly descriptive title, and the titles which head the individual movements. It is also the only one of the symphonies to have more than four movements, with the "Storm" movement inserted between the scherzo and the finale. Beethoven once described the Symphony as "more an expression of feeling than tone-painting", a phrase which was repeated and re-interpreted in many different ways during the later nineteenth century to justify a connection between musical forms and literary or other extra-musical concepts.
The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies had their first performances at a monster concert which Beethoven gave on 22 December 1808, and which also included the premieres of the Fourth Piano Concerto and Choral Fantasy. The concert was ill-prepared, the theatre where it took place was bitterly cold and the performance lasted over four hours - no wonder people sometimes complained that Beethoven's music was difficult to understand. The introduction to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1812, is on a huge scale, almost a movement in itself, but entirely introductory in character, a preparation for the obsessively rhythmic first movement proper. The first, third and fourth movements of this symphony exalt the possibilities of rhythmic repetition to an extraordinary degree, and it is still surprising to consider how much sheer power Beethoven draws from his modestly sized orchestra.
Like the Fourth Symphony, the Eighth is one of those works the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had difficulties with: coming between two giants, the Seventh and the Ninth, it seemed slighter and therefore less significant in a word, not sufficiently "Romantic" for later tastes. This view is a sad misunderstanding of Beethoven's music and the way he developed. If the inner movements have something of a backward-looking, "Classical" flavour, the first and last movements are miracles of concentrated musical thinking which would have been impossible without the achievements of the preceding decade. Much of Beethoven's late music shows an increasing interest in counterpoint, in variation forms, and in casting the main emphasis of a work onto the last movement. These concerns are all summed up in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, which brings the human voice into the foreground in its setting of Schiller's An die Freude.
Completed in 1824, twelve years after the Seventh and Eighth, the Ninth is a fitting culmination to Beethoven's symphonic output (though shortly before his death in 1827 he was working on the first movement of a Tenth Symphony). To call it the "Choral" Symphony is a mistake in emphasis, somehow undervaluing the weight of the three purely orchestral movements that precede the finale, but it understandably acknowledges the overwhelming effect of this movement, which was taken as a new point of departure by such later composers as Berlioz, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler in their own explorations of vocal and instrumental forms.