There are some dates that stick in the mind; one such is today’s — though it’s probably more commonly retained among sometime readers of Charles M. Schulz’s wonderful ‘Peanuts’ strips than among those who’ve never encountered Charlie Brown’s piano-obsessed pal Schroeder…
Yes, today is Beethoven’s birthday — or, at least, today is the date generally considered most likely to be his birthday. All that we actually know about the date of his nativity is that the church records have an entry for his baptism on 17 December 1770; that the habit of that time and place was for this ceremony to be performed the day after a baby’s birth; and that his family celebrated 16 December as his birthday. Which is good enough for me, at any rate.
As for what I plan to do about it, I’m actually going to do two things tonight. First, I’m going to open a bottle of wine and spend a little time thinking about everything important that, in one way or another, Beethoven has brought into my life. Secondly, I’m going to use this posting to upload a work of Beethoven’s that I have adored since the moment I first encountered it, something like 36 years ago.
The work is the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 80 (1808) — and even though the video doesn’t show the most ‘perfect’ performance imaginable, I’ve chosen it for three reasons.
First, if you think this performance’s rough edges are a problem, then you clearly need to know more about what happened when the piece was first performed on a very famous evening in December 1808. In the distinctly provisional words of the work’s Wikipedia entry:
The premiere performance seems to have been a rather troubled one; according to the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, it “simply fell apart,” a result most likely attributable to insufficient rehearsal time. Because of a mistake in the execution of the piece, it was stopped half way through and restarted. In Ignaz von Seyfried‘s words:
When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: ‘Again!’ A little displeased, the violinist Anton Wranitzky asked ‘With repeats?’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer, and now the thing went straight as a string
Secondly, the fact that this performance comes from South Korea says something about the extent to which Beethoven has, in the nicest and most artistic way, conquered the world — including more than a few places and societies of which he himself would have known little or nothing.
Thirdly, allow me to use this video as an excuse to point out that if our classical music repertoire survives at all as a living performance tradition with a spontaneously receptive audience, there is a pretty substantial probability that it will do so in places like South Korea — rather than in whatever will remain of the looted and imploding European vassal states of the dying American empire. And even though Beethoven lived before the age of shamocracy, he did — as you will recall! — know a thing or two about the kind of vile tyranny that pompously regards itself as something else…
All in all then, there are reasons to take this performance seriously, even before we get to the music. And if the music itself doesn’t provoke a tear or two, then I really don’t know what you’re made of.
And if that seems to you to be a horrifyingly blunt thing to say, then all I can add in response is that you’re lucky you never met Beethoven…
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