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From the Librarian’s corner

Unbeatable Beethoven

APO Librarian Robert Johnson takes a brief look at our performance history of Beethoven’s symphonies – and what makes Beethoven 250 so special.

Back in 1989 and 1990, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra performed Beethoven’s nine symphonies over two seasons spread across thirteen months. In 2020, the APO will be playing all nine symphonies over nine days, in four concerts!

Romanian-born conductor Erich Bergel conducted the APO in the 1989/1990 cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, though not in numerical order. Among the most memorable performances of Beethoven’s symphonies during the past twenty years were those of Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 8 conducted by Roy Goodman between 2009 and 2011.

Although the APO has played a few of Beethoven’s symphonies using the Bärenreiter edition, this will be the first time that they will play all nine symphonies using that edition, which was prepared between 1995 and 2000. Before then, for more than 130 years, the edition most commonly used by orchestras throughout the world was the one published by Breitkopf & Härtel in the early 1860s.

For Bärenreiter, music editor Jonathan Del Mar compared the standard Breitkopf scores with all surviving sources of Beethoven’s original manuscripts and found numerous examples of questionable editorial decisions and misreadings that had been made by Breitkopf’s editors.

The vast majority of these corrections are unlikely to be noticed by most members of the audience, but they are significant for the musicians when preparing performances of each symphony. It is widely acknowledged by conductors and musicologists worldwide that the Bärenreiter edition has brought us much closer to Beethoven’s original intentions.

Beethoven’s symphonies are so entrenched as part of the standard orchestral repertoire that we can easily forget how startling they were to many concertgoers and critics during the half-century after they were composed and first performed.

Here are some early reviews:

Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.” – Zeitung für die Elegente Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World), Vienna, May 1804.

No.3: “If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.” – The Harmonicon, London, April 1829.

No.5 (specifically the transition from the Scherzo to the Finale): “There is a strange melody, which, combined with an even stranger harmony of a double pedal point in the bass on G and C, produced a sort of odious meowing, and discords to shatter the least sensitive ear.” – A. Oulibuicheff, within a biography of Mozart, Moscow, 1843.

No.7: “It is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. …Altogether, it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma – we had almost said a hoax.” – The Harmonicon, London, July 1825.

No.9: “The general impression it left on me is that of a concert made up of Indian war-whoops and angry wildcats.” – Quoted from a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island; The Orchestra, London, June 1868.

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