Score Questioning- How the old school got to “how”

What then of someone like Furtwangler, who’s Beethoven tempi tend to be quite uninhibited by the metronome? Many leading modern Beethoven interpreters and commentators, including John Elliot Gardiner, Gunther Schuller and Benjamin Zander have all held up Furtwangler’s performance of the first movement of Beethoven 5 as an example of how not to do it in our times.

What they all point out is that he does a lot of things that are not in the score- most notably changing tempo often and rather drastically, especially slowing down for big statements of the main theme. He also doesn’t do things that are in the score, like taking a basic tempo which is quite a bit slower than Beethoven marks (although not always- plenty of his Beethoven tempi are actually not too far from the marking- at least plausibly in the same meter as Beethoven has marked, which is not always true for conductors like Klemperer and Celibidache).

Naughty boy, Furtwangler.

What if, just as an exercise, we assume for a moment that, as a musician, Furtwangler was not a moron and was not being intentionally self-indulgent….

Why would he have done this piece the way he did? Did he not realize how it actually sounded? No- he lived in the recording era and recorded the piece more than once and would have had ample opportunity to hear the results of his work and correct any unintended eccentricities.

Did he not respect Beethoven wrote and take seriously his instructions? Are you kidding? Why spend your life studying and performing music you don’t respect?

Maybe he was asking different questions? Different, but VALID, questions?

So, here’s one question I think he might have been asking…. “These Beethoven symphonies, especially this one, are full of things that are new to the symphony. They’re longer, more compositionally free, and use new instruments and colors like the trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon in this piece. What were his influences, or did he just pull these ideas out of the sky?”

Take instrumentation. Beethoven was not the first composer to use trombones in the orchestra, just the first to use them in a symphony. They were often used in opera, notably by Mozart. Might opera have been an influence on the Beethoven symphonies? Well, we know that the Eroica is full of touches taken from the world of Italian opera- melodic formulae, accompanimental patterns and so on. What in the 5th might be operatic? How about that very opening gesture? Get your scores out kids and look at it- doesn’t it remind you just a bit of, say, the opening of Don Giovanni or the Magic Flute?  It’s similarly iconic, similarly dramatic. I would suggest that a lot of what looks most radical in Beethoven 5 has it’s origins in opera, and that it is perfectly reasonable that an operatic conductor, like Furtwangler, might find reason to treat those aspects of the music dramatically. Look at the famous oboe cadenza at the end of the first movement- in Furtwangler’s performance it plays like a real operatic recitative instead of a joke (one recent, and very famous recording, does, to my ear, treat that very moment as a joke).

Of course, in opera, especially in recits but elsewhere, performers are expected and required to go beyond the notes, tempi and dynamics. Not to ignore them, but to go beyond them, adding appogaturas, embellishments or shaping the flow of the music to suit the rhythm of the words. In this spirit, Furtwangler’s take could be closer to Beethoven’s original idea than we know, maybe just as close as the modern conductor with all his research into performance practice.

We can’t go back to that manner of performance because we’ve found lots of new and interesting questions to ask, but we shouldn’t forget the old questions either.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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