A Whole New Beethoven Experience

On Saturday, March 8, I had to get up early and only after a couple hours of sleep, but the anticipation of the event about to happen made any tiredness fade away. It was like Christmas. Today was all about Beethoven, my favorite composer. Today, the Houston Symphony offered a program of Beethoven material spanning from 10 AM to 11:30 PM. It was truly like Christmas.

I had heard about the “Beethoven Experience” a few months ago, in the program of another concert I had attended, the one featuring the also amazing Dame Glennie, and I was so happy to find out that the Houston Symphony offered a student rate for just $25. Twenty-five dollars for a day of music and information about my favorite composer… This caused months of tingling suspense.

There was also a Wavelength offer for the 7:30 PM “Beethoven’s Egmont” concert and a following after-party for $20, and I think again the organizers of Wavelenth, a program for music enthusiasts aged 18 to 29, was incredible. I had taken advantage of their offers many times before, but this time $25 for the whole day was the better deal.

I still feel indebted to Carey Kirkpatrick, who seems to be the organizer of Wavelength and whom I have finally met in person, because she let my friend and me have a Wavelength gift bag each, and she let us attend the Wavelength after-party even though this time we weren’t Wavelength participants at all. I like having taken advantage of her, because when I asked her if she had been able to enjoy the day’s program, she said she spent the day making the gift bags. Carey, the gifts were truly appreciated, and I’m sure with a doctorate degree in music, you knew everything I learned about Beethoven already anyway.

The day started at 10 AM with “Beethoven’s Missing Notes”, a program targeted at children and starring a lederhosen-wearing, strong German-accent wielding Beethoven actor. It was aimed at children, but it was just as educational for adults. It condensed the biographical information given on the first page of the program brochure and interspersed in the following pages for those adults with a short attention span. To make the story short, Beethoven had lost the first page of the sheets for his 5th symphony, and through asking him questions and having him tell us about his live, the audience was supposed to help him recreate the beginning. The final clue was that he wrote about what he heard. I’ve been told the 5th symphony is about fate knocking on one’s door; in this case, it was the landlord knocking on Beethoven’s door, duh-duh-duh-dah, reminding him that the rent was due. I was thoroughly entertained, perhaps more so than the kids.

The pieces played, mostly in part, were:

  • Beethoven, Overture to Coriolan, Opus 62
  • Beethoven, Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59 (Für Elise)
  • Haydn, Symphony No. 60 in C major (II Distratto), VI Finale: Prestissimi
  • Haydn, Symphony No. 94 in G major (Surprise), III Menuet and Trio: Allegro molto
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21, IV Adagio: Allegro molto e vivace
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68 (Pastoral), III Merry assembly of country folk: Allegro
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C major, Opus 67, I Allegro con brio
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 125 (Choral), II Molto vivace

The second part of the program, starting at 11:15 AM, featured the incredibly gifted pianist Carl R. Cunningham, who also contributed much to the program brochure. He played and commented on Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano No. 24 in F-sharp major, Opus 78. He also played one of only four polonaises composed by Beethoven, the Polonaise in C major, Opus 89, and finally the 14th Sonata for Piano in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2, to everyone better known as the “Moonlight Sonata”. His playing was simply amazing.

After a lunch break, the discussion “Beethoven’s Triumph Over Deafness”, lead by host Hans Graf, and the performance of several pieces composed by Beethoven followed. Dr, Richard Stasney, otolaryngologist and director of The Texas Voice Center, provided commentary on the progression of Beethoven’s hearing loss and his other illnesses. The pieces performed were, in order:

  • Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Opus 24 (Spring), I Allegro
  • Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Opus 47 (Kreutzer), U Adagio sostuneto-Presto-Adagio
  • Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major, Opus 96, I Allegro moderato
  • Quartet for Strings No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132 (Heiliger Dankgesang), III Canzona di ringraziamiento, molto adagio

The interesting thing here is that, of course, none of the pieces were played in full. So, rather than playing them linearly, full piece by full piece, they were played laterally, sideways. This exposed the effect Beethoven’s maturing and his deafness had on his music.

While the first piece, Opus 24, was still quite conservative and represented a learning Beethoven, the second piece, Opus 47, contains completely different, more muscular, more exhausting piano music; it was much less conservative, but much more Beethoven. Still, he had begun to struggle with hearing loss.

By the time Beethoven composed the piece Opus 96, his hearing loss was near complete. He had stopped performing the piano parts himself, and since there was no one that could replace him with his physical style at the piano found in Opus 47, Beethoven’s compositions had become quieter. At the same time, his deafness perhaps forced him to perform a deeper, inner analysis, because Opus 96 sounds quieter, yet very finely woven.

Opus 132, Beethoven’s holy chant of thanking, was composed during a period of complete deafness and horrible suffering due to other diseases. The heaviness of the molto adagio almost made my eyes water, yet towards the end of the piece, there was the distinct determination present that Beethoven would keep composing until the end of his life.

A part of Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament”, a last will written on October 6, 1802, to his brothers, Carl Casper and Nicolaus Johann, puts this force of will into writing, and it touched me personally very much:

Such circumstances brought me to the brink of despair, and had well nigh made me put an end to my life: nothing but my art was holding my hand. Ah! it seemed to me impossible to quit the world before I had produced all that I felt myself called to accomplish.

It was very important that Hans Graf decided to place this lateral, analytical session early in the afternoon, because it allowed the audience to put every piece played later into the context established by the four pieces played in this part, and to Beethoven’s style, his deafness, and his suffering.

I enjoyed this part of the day very much. I have been a Beethoven fan for pretty much my entire life as I remember it, but the pieces I liked, and thus had listend to the most, were Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and his Missa Solemnis, Opus 125 and Opus 123, respectively. I also liked the Romance for Violin No. 2 in F major, Opus 50, very much, but the Beethoven I knew was the one in the Ninth and Missa Solemnis. I knew about his by then complete deafness, I knew that when the Ninth premiered, he was conducting, but only as a secondary conductor, and he was off by a few bars at the end, but I didn’t know much about the course of Beethoven’s illnesses before and after that. This section very much broadened my horizon and my appreciation of Beethoven’s music. I was truly a student in this section, and in the following one, so I think the student tickets were very much justified.

After another break, Hans Graf returned with the entire symphony orchestra, for “Inside the Fifth”. In this session, Music Director Graf was conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, I Allegro con brio, probably one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. But it was more like a rehearsal than a concert, and this was reinforced by most of the orchestra wearing every day clothes. I think this was a great decision. Because of this, and because of the chamber music character of the previous session, I had the feeling of spending an afternoon with the musicians and the conductor, rather than attending a series of concerts.

I didn’t have pen and paper with me, and I wanted to enjoy the performance anyway, and recording devices are, as far as I know, forbidden in the Houston Symphony, so unfortunately I have forgotten most of what Mr. Graf was able to teach us about the composition, literally, of the Fifth. He let the orchestra play certain only parts, sometimes asked one part of the orchestra to remain quiet, play louder, or improvise in another key, perhaps a key that wasn’t available on the instruments in Beethoven’s time. This allowed the audience to feel the genius behind the Fifth, why it was written the way it was, and why it still probably would have been better than it would have been had it been written 100 years later by someone else.

Mr. Graf explained why the trumpets stayed on G, even though with modern instruments, they would have played a different note, but why staying on G was overall better. He numerously showed where the “stem cell” of the Fifth, the “duh-duh-duh-dah”, shows up, and how Beethoven treated the entire orchestra as one instrument: In one bar, it is played by the violins, in another by the cellos, and in another one on the drums, but it is always present. Mr. Graf explained how another related idea was coined; how often in the orchestra was divided juxtaposition; and how this was in the end resolved by the most concise ending possible. I feel I understand the Fifth a little bit more; I feel terrible for already having forgotten so much; and I know for sure that some of the recordings of Symphony No. 5 I have are garbage. Or perhaps there just is no replacement for hearing something live, and this session, more rehearsal than concert, was more alive than live.

The next two sessions were, unfortunately, for me the low points of the day. At 4 PM, a fantastic string quartet played Beethoven’s Quartet for Strings No. 7 in F major, Opus 59, No 1. (Rasumovsky No. 1), which also happens to be one of the longest string quartets ever. The musicians were very good, the interplay between the instruments was amazing, how sometimes they would all play the same theme, sometimes echo each other, other times form groups of rivaling instruments. The quartet played movements III Adagio molto e mesto and and movement IV Allegro without pause in between, as with the other movements. Maybe because of that, or perhaps because of the general length, what appeared to me as movement III, was the “movement without end”. There were three, four opportunities to bring the movement to a graceful halt, but no, the musicians kept on going. Of course, it wasn’t their fault at all, they were admirably skillful, but this quartet just seemed longer than it had to be written by Beethoven, and it also appeared to be a gap filler as there was no additional commentary on the relevance of the piece in Beethoven’s life. According to the Opus number and by the style, I can only assume that it came between the more athletic, masculine Beethoven of the Kreutzer Sonata and the time when his hearing loss was taking a strong impact. A little more context here would have helped.

The session at 5 PM had the skillful pianist Cunningham return and play Six Variations on an Original Theme for Piano in D major, Opus 76 (often called the Turkish March), and the Sonata for Piano No. 15 in D major, Opus 28 (Pastoral), which is often overlooked because it is overshadowed by the preceding Spring and Moonlight sonatas and the following piano sonatas (Opus 31), the piano variations “Prometheus” or “Eroica” (Opus 35) and Symphony No. 2 (Opus No. 6). The six variations of Opus 76 were normal, running notes in the 1st; accented leaps in the 2nd; double-notes in the 3rd; rocking chords in the 4th; arpeggios in the 5th; and a 6th variation, played very fast, summarizing the elements heard in the previous variations. While listening to those variations was entertaining and a simple exercise for the listener, it lacked the context in Beethoven’s life, and the same is true for Opus 28. From what I have gathered in the “Beethoven’s Triumph over Deafness”, I can only conclude that Opus 76 was during the already quieter time of Beethoven, when deafness had struck, and he had to work out melodies and harmonies in his head rather than hammering them out on the piano himself; while Opus 28 was still a learning Beethoven.

At 7 PM, there was a lecture that summarized and interpreted the “Egmont” play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (another one of my favorites) and the incidental music composed by Beethoven (Opus 84). Egmont is a Flamish warrior and refuses to run from or submit to the Spanish rulers, and is thus sentenced to death; attempts to free him fail, and his mistress takes her life. The play ends tragically with the death of Egmont, issuing a last call to independence and resistance. The comparison was made that in the end, the hero of Goethe’s play “Egmont” and Beethoven’s incidental music was Beethoven himself.

The concert of Beethoven’s “Egmont” was the main event of the day, and a separate concert in itself. It was interesting to see some of the musicians in the third change of wardrobe. The concert hall filled up considerably. This was also the event sponsored by Wavelength, at $8 for the concert, or $20 for the concert and an after-party. Again, I think we got the better deal, and the folks at Wavelength were very generous to give us Wavelength gift bags and access to the after-party; I hope that this generous gesture will pay off by this article and my word of mouth.

I have to comment that the choir’s accentuation of the German lyrics was quite bad. Having been a member of a choir myself, I remember that maintaining the breaks between words is almost the most important thing. A native-speaker, I could not understand what the choir was singing without glancing at the English translation on the screens at the side, which brings me to my second comment: Sometimes the written translation was way off. Perhaps it only seems to a native speaker like that, because a change in sentence order already reveals a difference, even though the meaning of the sentence was preserved; but even keeping that in mind, I thought the translation could have maintained the meaning of the sentence and been more faithful to the original.

I just wish Wavelength had considered advertising the whole day at $25 or perhaps a little more for non-students: I think the turnout for the whole day would have been much greater, and many of the Wavelength members are still students, and the whole day was very much a learning experience. The friend accompanying me afterwards mentioned how tired she was, and I immediately likened it to a day full of lectures. Unless you allowed yourself to nap, to ignore what was being said, and to not look for the connections between the pieces played, this day was very much an intellectual exercise, especially for those not particularly musically trained, like me.

The last event of the day was a screening of the movie “Immortal Beloved”, about two letters written by Beethoven but never sent, to the unknown love of Beethoven’s life. Since I had already seen this movie and the event overlapped with the Wavelength after-party, we decided to instead head one and a half blocks east to Hunan. The snacks were suave, the drinks that could be obtained with the drink coupons were extravagant, and both my friend and I were able to make some interesting connections there. I wish we could have stayed longer, but the whole Beethoven Experience was a long day, for my friend, who had to go to work for a few hours beforehand, and for me on two hours of sleep.

I can only thank the Houston Symphony who created this event, for Mr. Graf’s education, Dr. Stasney’s education, the soloist performances of Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Joh, Ms. Dulgarska, Kurt Johnson, Mr. Holshouser accompanying on the piano; the quartet of Ms. Fuller, Mr. Halen, Mr, Brooks, and Mr. Brinton; the quarted of AMs. Silivos, Ms. Owen, Ms. Porfiris, and Mr. Dvorak; the soloists for “Egmont”, and of course the entire Houston Symphony and the Houston Symphony Chorus. A special thanks goes to Carey Kirkpatrick and the organizers of Wavelength.

Thank you all so much. Beethoven has always been my favorite composer, and now even more so I know why.

Much of this information comes from the program notes by Carl R. Cunningham, Hans Graf’s oral remarks, and from “The Beethoven Compendium – A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music”, edited by Barry Cooper.


About Mathias

Software development engineer. Principal developer of DrJava. Recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University.
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