Beethoven Must Be Rolling Over

What follows is drawn from a letter to my friend CM, who (as a result of a complex inheritance and estate sale) has just come into Symphonies 3-9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

I don’t have the first two symphonies because Beethoven didn’t start out as a genius. In fact, that’s partly why I don’t like his music. When I was growing up, life for me was Mozart and Mendelssohn. I was a joyous, nihilistic, brusque little thing, living in an enchanted forest, beside a very cold (but still most likely enchanted) sea. But, at the time, I didn’t know much Mozart. (This was 1991, so Mendelssohn was impossible to find.) When you listen to the Ashkenazy recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, you are actually listening to the second CD I ever owned. I remember holding the gigantic CD boombox on my lap during the long drive home, blasting the Moonlight Sonata.

The Ninth Symphony sits by itself atop a very tall mountain. I have nothing to say about the Ninth Symphony, especially since (along with several other Beethoven symphonies) the best version is conducted by Herbert von Karajan. When you listen to Karajan, you are hearing the music of the Nazi era. Karajan is absurd in ways only a depressed Fascist can manage. He douses everything with too many strings, like a kid pouring the whole bottle of syrup on the pancakes. Karajan overstates the emotion in everything, and feels nothing. (Naturally, the best single track he ever recorded was a version of “Pachelbel’s Canon.”) He is so dignified that even “starchy” would be too kind — he often reminds me of those coachmen who sell horse-and-carriage rides to modern-day tourists in Central Park. The only reason he beats out other conductors is that, for all of his tedious sentimentality, he at least recognizes that these symphonies are about beauty, and not about Herbert von Karajan. Everybody else turns the “Ode to Joy” into an open letter: “DEAR WORLD, even though suffering and loss are our constant companions in this life, I believe that what Beethoven is trying to say is that we must nonetheless…” blah blah blah.

I never tire of the Fifth Symphony, which is probably the most awe-inspiring tantrum ever performed. The other five symphonies are terrible, and each one is terrible in a different, unforgettable way. The Third Symphony is just sound and fury. Whenever I listen to the first movement, I want to sing “Here I am / My name is Mighty Mouse!” I have no idea what “The Funeral March” is supposed to be, but it sounds like one of those things young composers write, on the assumption that they will soon die.

The Fourth Symphony is believed by many people not to contain any actual melodies, not even one, despite the fact that it is fairly long.

The Sixth Symphony, “Pastorale,” is an elegant proof that Beethoven did not understand Nature. His idea of Nature is drawn from city parks: here is a lawn, and over there are some birds. (My, how they chirp!)

The Seventh and Eighth symphonies are fretful and, from a formal perspective, unfinished. The long months he labored on them, unfortunately, could not make them cohere: they are the casualties of the composer’s anguished personal life, his poor health and hearing loss, and the Ninth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony forced Beethoven to invent all kinds of idioms that had never been done before — impressionist stuff, atonal sections — and here, in the two earlier symphonies, are the jumbled notes he was making in anticipation of his last one.