After my stint of writing yesterday morning I spent the rest of the day holed up in the Royal College of Music, working with a choir of young singers on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, in preparation for tomorrow evening’s Prom. Going to work with that strange and inconclusive first movement in your ears is quite a thrill, even if the close listening allowed by headphones does show up one or two edits in this particular recording I had not noticed before.
The 9th was written for London, of course, arrived eleven months late, and the irascible composer then headed off and got somebody else to give the premiere anyway. Whatever, when “O Freunde…” rings out I always feel that something has changed forever and that the whole of that previous orchestral recitative is the final blurring of the boundaries between instrumental and vocal before those boundaries are finally cast away.
I was also troubled for some time about where the melody for the choral finale originated, for this is late Beethoven and, at this stage, everything is seeded somewhere. Eventually I found the seed, over half an hour previously in the work, and am convinced that it is a musical representation of the trivial becoming the important, something which could apply to many of Beethoven’s later themes, I would guess.
Beethoven’s writing, especially for the choir, is – how shall we put this? – unusual. It is famously difficult, naturally, but it is also hard to reconcile with ideas about line, harmony, voice leading and so on, hard also to reconcile with the Beethoven who completed so many counterpoint exercises dutifully for Albrechtsberger. Getting between the lines, as yesterday allowed me to do, gave me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with what is going on, but it remains as strange a piece of choral writing as it always was. Maybe he decided to treat the voices as instruments just as, earlier in that movement, he had treated the instruments as voices in that most conversational of styles, the recitative.
It is a thrilling sound, though, and the singers yesterday sounded fantastic. I mused at times what it might be like to write something for a choir that strong and intent, and must admit that I took away several ideas to inflict on my own groups. The great irony is that Beethoven never heard this piece, at least not in the flesh, for he must have been deeply conversant with it in his head over the vast span it took to write. He was renowned in his day and recognised as a great writer, but I think it is fair to say that his music was not, and in many cases still is not, truly understood by those who hear it.
Verdi opined that “it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement”, and, at face value, that seems a fair statement. I prefer to see it another way, though, that Beethoven has all performers, players, soloists and singers, straining at the edge of what it is possible to do. We see it in his other late works, so why not here? It represents music dancing at the very boundaries of music and, like the ending of the Gloria of the Missa Solemnis, I think I shall go to my grave still aghast at the wonder of it all and the imagination behind it.
After the opportunity of a day like yesterday it is pretty sobering to go back to my own music, but it is hard to come away from detailed work on a piece like that symphony without having learned many, many things, and I was always bemused by the attitudes of those young composers I once taught who could not understand why we had to study the music of “these dead people”. Ideas are everywhere and why would you not want to experience as many as possible, even if only to know that they are not quite for you? At least I know that my string piece will not have a choral finale, but beyond that, who knows?