‘Beethoven Unleashed’ (BBC Radio 3’s title for their year-long Beethoven fest to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth) is now under way. This morning in ‘This Week’s Composer’ I heard a broadcast of the ‘Grosse Fuge’ for string quartet, Op 133. Talk about unleashed! It almost made me forget my need for lunch. This is music of a determined striving, emotionally and intellectually. It doesn’t steal upon you like, say, Schubert’s music or Mozart’s; it wrests your consciousness away from mundane matters and into its obsessive-compulsive vortex. You have to listen whether you want to or not.
It has made me think what a silly title ‘Beethoven Unleashed’ is. Neither Beethoven nor his music were ever leashed, from beginning to end. Beethoven’s 9th must be some of the most unleashed music ever written (along with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the jazz of Thelonius Monk, and others) – it just needs some unleashed musicians to make it pounce live off the score. I guess this is what the Unleashed title is saying.
At the very beginning of Op 59 No 1, which we are rehearsing in readiness for our concert series, the cello is certainly unleashed, being given a delightful flowing solo to launch the music on its way. The musicians who first played this work thought the idea of giving the cello such prominence at the beginning was barmy and it caused considerable consternation – even hilarity. To us now it feels like a gift, as does so much fine music.
There are curious passages in Op 59 No 1 that seem to be like snapshots into Beethoven’s mind-at-work as he strives onwards and upwards compositionally. The second movement in particular is decidedly curious, but also very catchy. It is like dreaming of dancing – sometimes elfin and sometimes grotesque, with the occasional ‘Now give us some figgy pudding’ theme thrown in to remind us of recent festivities.
We sometimes sing our parts together in rehearsals as part of getting to know the music. It’s like the Three Tenors with a difference – well, several differences, especially when we split them. We haven’t tried expressing ourselves in dance yet, but we might get there, who knows? Roll on our open rehearsal. We will be charging a lot if there’s dance.
To follow…. Thoughts on Mozart and Webern