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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 8

Norrington versus Furtwängler: Two Versions of the Ninth

by Ewelina Boczkowska / May 1, 2002

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"Deflecting the attention from meaning to structure [as Norrington does] has been the primary means of resisting the Ninth," is the central idea of Taruskin's critique.

The very first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony took place on May 7, 1824, at the Kärnthnerthor Theatre, as the last feature of a heroic program. Beethoven, who was completely deaf by that time, conducted the piece with the original score in front of him. The orchestra, however, followed the conductor, Mr. Schuppanzig. The overflowing concert hall was an attestation to the audience's admiration, but was that admiration in recognition of the music heard during one of the finest of premieres, or was it simply the result of curiosity about the great man himself? In any case, the applause was thunderous. Critics commented about the innovative finale that "it requires to be heard frequently in order to be duly appreciated." Today, almost 180 years later, we still have not heard enough of the last movement or of the entire symphony.

Although the Symphony has been thoroughly analysed, the question of how to perform it still remains pertinent. The symphony is a demanding enterprise when one wishes to understand the composer's intentions. It raises even more questions as it constitutes the breaking point between Classicism and Romanticism--fitting both categories yet not entirely appropriate to either one. Consequently it allows enough room for such different interpretations as those of Roger Norrington and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Norrington's interpretation at the Hoffnung Music Festival is considered "classical." The conductor wants to "restore" the Ninth as the "quicksilver" of the Classical Period, "not according to recent interpretative tradition" but instead, to that of the past. His musicians even play on period instruments. However, the very way Norrington pictures the beginning of the nineteenth century, in terms of "wit and humour," is the way one interprets that period nowadays. His "restorative element" suits our contemporary idea of Classicism.

To remain loyal to what he believes was Beethoven's unquestionable will, Norrington follows with exemplary rigour all the tempi and expression marks indicated in the score. The overall result sounds, as Richard Taruskin puts it in his critique Resisting the Ninth, like an "advancing army." The surface effect is clearly detectable in the third movement: where one is supposed to hear an explicit dialogue between the strings and brass, as indicated in the score, Norrington goes so fast that the moment is easily missed. One might as well conclude that Norrington has to complete the symphony within 62:23 minutes because he has an important rendez-vous afterwards! Moreover, he transforms most of the rhythmic motifs into "sound-analog" distinctively perceptible motifs. The listener can recognise them each time they appear in the work. Yet, by getting too close to the work, the conductor may lose the sense of the entire piece. By taking refuge in the "pack of notes," Norrington is a prime example of someone resisting the Ninth as he fails to bring alive the internal meanings, the "brotherhood," the "Elysian desirum," or whatever one finds in the Symphony for oneself.

From a completely different standpoint, Furtwängler seems to have seized those meanings. His Wagnerian romantic influence echoes in the tone, in the frequent changes of tempi, as well as in the bright dynamics throughout the interpretation. Furtwängler's orchestra sounds more lyrical than Norrington's. His performance was recorded live at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival. If the conductor had lived longer (he died in 1954), he might have registered a studio version of the Ninth. While Norrigton's performance is neat and clear--certainly the choral part is without comparison--Furtwängler's has to cope with people coughing in the background.

Furtwängler's tempi seem to follow the conductor's élan, influenced by the emotions emanating from the score. This choice is also based on the dialogues between different instrumental layers. A clear example is a passage at the beginning of the Adagio, which might seems very slow but brings out the discussion between the strings and brass. The conductor plays with the dynamic indications as well: his crescendos are very pronounced. The forte in measure 24 of the first movement is anything but subtle. Furthermore, Furtwängler's reading is characteristic for its use of pauses between the movements. While Norrington never seems to stop, the German conductor's silences suspend the listener, making him anxious to hear what follows; the Ninth sounds like an auditory thriller in series – after hearing one part, we listen intensely for more. Those suspensions contribute to bringing out the "sublime" that Furtwängler builds up from the beginning, to finally let it explode in the fourth movement. Indeed, when Furtwängler brings about changes in interpretation, it is to transmit an accentuated message. He transmits Beethoven's hope for a better tomorrow; this is where Norrington fails.

The delivery of the fourth movement by both conductors is different in nearly all respects. Norrington's Ode To Joy is a metric ecstasy that leaves one feeling at ease and happy. The bass moves on; the melismas are executed at a steady tempo. The choir joins in with an impeccable elocution (the words of the ode can be understood). On the other hand, Furtwängler announces the theme of joy suspiciously: there is a sudden break after the blissful Vivace so that the entrance of the basses at Tempo 1 sounds astonishingly dramatic. There is indeed a dual meaning to Furtwängler's idea of joy: it is joy with an afterthought. When the bass soloist sings for the first time and is interrupted by a clear chromatic short passage in the strings (a detail not worth a comment by Norrington), it promises the joy to come. The melismas go on forever. In Allegro assai, the instruments gradually join each other and when the choir enters, everything becomes not just victorious but joyful. It sounds like a demonic party joined by a gang of people who sing words, whatever their clarity may be.

"Deflecting the attention from meaning to structure [as Norrington does] has been the primary means of resisting the Ninth ," is the central idea of Taruskin's critique. One could argue that respective social contexts influenced the two conductors' interpretations. Furtwängler's performance took place in 1952, Norrington's in the 1980s. The meaning of the Ninth for Furtwängler is the salvation, the brotherhood and the freedom that come after difficult times. The way he conducted it was likely to have been inspired by the War and could have been a result of the nation's need for a burst of hope and rebirth. Perhaps, by appealing to Beethoven's "humanism" and "universal spirit," he wanted to gloss over his own questionable activities during the Nazi period. To us, however, his rendition could seem almost naïve in its greatness. We, the children of the second half of the twentieth century, have become more materialistic, better informed. Ideals seem gone, and so, apparently, is the Ninth. What Norrington leaves is a skeleton of notes.

Perhaps the choices guiding the resurrections of the Ninth are rooted in the ways the conductors perceive Beethoven as a man and composer. Beethoven's place in music history is debatable, and it influences the manner in which one plays his works. In contrast to Furtwängler, Norrington pretends that Beethoven's school is the eighteenth century; the composer wrote while Mozart and Haydn were still alive. Taking as credo that "Beethoven is Haydn gone mad!" Norrington concentrates on the entertaining "wit and humour" cliché of Classicism as seen through twentieth-century glasses. As much as Norrington may be a revolutionary in his interpretation of "earlier music" on period instruments, a trademark of the London Classical Players, Beethoven's Ninth is not an early music piece. His performance is an anachronism.

The Ninth should be set in context as part of the evolution of the symphonic form. It belongs to Beethoven's last period, which is seen as the apex of Classicism, and, at the same time, the starting point of the subsequent period--Romanticism. In his own time, Beethoven was viewed as a romantic figure for both his music and his life. He envisioned himself as not "merely a composer (Tonesetzer) but a tone-poet (Tondichter)," and the Ninth reflects that. One might go on enumerating the musical characteristics of the Ninth : the impressive instrumentation, the inversion of the second and third movements, the Scherzo slowly developing into a fugue that precedes the calm Adagio molto e cantabile. Moreover, the fourth movement (theme and variations) embraces the essence of different motifs until the bass voice introduces the joy theme, followed by a choir that finally resolves all the harmonic tensions. Although he still remains attached to tradition--the names of the movements, and the forms remain traditional--Beethoven stretches the limits of the genre.

If Beethoven also sets Schiller, the "German theorist of the Sublime and of individual creative freedom," to music, he still identifies with the Romantic movement or is at least conscious that such a phenomenon is taking place. "Great and sublime," that is, vastness gaining over smallness, obscurity over lightness, painfulness over pleasure, greatness over Mozartian beauty; this is understood by the composer's contemporaries. E.T.A. Hoffmann summarises in 1813 that while in Haydn "the expression of the serene prevails" and Mozart leads us into the heart of the spirit realm, it is Beethoven who opens up the sphere of the monstrous and the immeasurable. He thus becomes a myth during his lifetime and is proclaimed a hero by the Romantics. He represents the tortured artist, independent and strong-willed, struggling with his deafness and his failures in love, devoted to his art, and in the end, overcoming all this in his music. He is, by this definition, a Romantic figure. Should his music be interpreted that way?

To sum up, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a work that despite its many possible interpretations will always stand on its own. Critics and scholars will continue to analyse it. Composers, performers, and casual listeners will continue to delve more deeply into its meaning, trying to imagine the splendour and the glory that Beethoven wished to hear through his unhearing ears.

This paper won second prize in the 2001 Student Writing Contest (English Category). The deadline for the 2002 Student Writing Contest is May 15, 2002.

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