Beethoven’s Beef with Napoleon

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“A rascal like all the others.”

-Beethoven on Napoleon

Aptly subtitled, the “Eroica” marks one of the first pieces in Beethoven’s heroic period, and the longest, grandest symphony to be heard up to that point. The E-flat major work is revolutionary in every way, profiling the world of the French Revolution while offering autobiographical insight into the composer’s innermost self.

Initially, Beethoven dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte as the bearer of their supposedly shared Enlightenment ideals. Later, the conqueror dubbed himself “emperor” and Beethoven heard “despot”, scratching out his name from the title-page as vociferously as he could. Listening now, it’s clear that the 3rd is about a lot more than a little dictator with delusions of grandeur.

As with the reactions to his later op. 111 sonata and the Grosse Fuge, conservative critics, raised on Haydn and Mozart, were exasperated by Beethoven’s complexly structured orchestration and epic Romanticism.

Columbia put out this album in 1949, bearing a crown, a nondescript (not Napoleon!) soldier on horseback, and period headgear of some kind. Bruno Walter, conducting the P-SONY is, as usual, the opposite of bombastic with his interpretation.

“Real Cannons Are Used”

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Don’t be fooled by half-assed recordings: this pressing makes it very clear that “real cannons are used in the finale”. Commissioned to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat by the Motherland, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one big orgasmic burst of patriotism, which is one sure way to get a lot of fans. It’s crammed full of national airs and folk-songs, and even includes a rendition of the Marseillaise before it is quickly blown apart by the fusillade. One Russian composer called it “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit”, and that was the opinion of Tchaikovsky himself. For a symphonist and composer of ballets with Tchaikovsky’s sensibilities, the worldwide popularity of his blustering rah-rah overture must have seemed downright insulting.

Soviet Invasion

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Emil Gilels, part of the Russian import of great musicians that included Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh, performs Beethoven. Known for his powerfully convincing and convincingly powerful playing, Gilels was ideally suited for Ludwig van’s muscular concerto. Fellow Russian Yakov Zak joins him for Mozart’s spritely Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra, and Kiril Kondrashin conducts both. The Period Records album (c. 1955) has the look of a billboard, with the pianist’s name in huge font looking as if it’s advertising a newfangled appliance called a Gilels, while a piano sits off in the background.

Lenny and Gustave

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Symphonically, no one does it like Gustave Mahler. Leonard Bernstein, an early advocate of Mahler’s difficult scores, was one of the first conductors, along with Bruno Walter in Europe, to record the complete symphonies, and bring the composer out of near neglect and into the concert hall. Probably his most accessible work after the 1st Symphony, the Fifth’s polyphonous orchestration is astounding, with each instrument given a distinctive part. To paraphrase gossipy musicologist Norman Lebrecht, Mahler was the greatest composer of operas who never composed operas. The Adagietto, occasionally (and perversely) performed without the surrounding movements, is an achingly ponderous elegy and one of the most sublime things ever to come out of Western civilization. For this double LP from Lenny and the NYP, Barbara Hatch did a collagist cover that’s as hypnotic as it is indecipherable.

Moogs and Droogs

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Kubrick’s 1971 film is as much about music as it is about shocking imagery. The director’s genius of knitting classical works with unforgettable scenes is unsurpassed, breaking the rule that a soundtrack should be mere background filler. There’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Penderecki in the Shining, and orchestral version of Handel’s Sarabande as the soundscape of Barry Lyndon (the best most boring movie ever), and Ligeti’s Musica ricercata II in Eyes Wide Shut (the second best most boring movie ever). In A Clockwork Orange, it’s all about Beethoven as retro-fitted for a gang of Victorian/dystopian droogs. Walter (now Wendy) Carlos redid sections of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the Moog synthesizer, and the effect is pure kitsch and absolutely terrifying. Giant phallic sculptures won’t ever look the same again.

Glenn Gould and the Russians

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Iconic sleeve from the great Henrietta Condak, showing Gould, Scriabin and Prokofiev in silhouette. Certainly not one of my favorite Gould recordings, but an interesting listen nonetheless. The pianist, a real fugaholic, was at his finest when deconstructing the complexities of Bach, and his playing of Scriabin lacks the ponderous occultism of the composer’s work. His Prokofiev is much more alive, highlighting the piece’s jittery wartime uncertainty and uneasy balance between neoclassicism and atonality. Besides the fact that both composers were from Russia, these sonatas could not be more different.

Dark and Stormy Nights

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Moodiness and the sublime duke it out in these Beethoven sonatas. The Appassionata was begun around 1804, and its roiling turbulence crescendoes into emotional fury. Similarly, the Op. 13 “Pathetique”, with a languorous Andante cantabile (used to great effect in the Cohn Brothers’ under-appreciated noir The Man Who Wasn’t There), conjures big “R” Romantic volatility. A storm-tossed cover gets the point across.