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Sir John Eliot Gardiner Discusses His Approach to Beethoven’s Symphonies

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Classic Arts Features  

Sir John Eliot Gardiner Discusses His Approach to Beethoven’s Symphonies

The conductor leads his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall beginning February 18.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is a conductor, author, and visionary leader of historically informed performance. Along with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), he channels the grandeur and passion of Beethoven in a Perspectives series that encompasses the master’s complete symphonies, along with several of his other symphonic works. Grounded in Gardiner’s exacting study of Beethoven’s original manuscripts, ORR performs the nine immortal symphonies as the composer would have experienced them: played on valveless brass, woodwinds without additional keys and levers, gut strings, and hide-covered timpani struck with hard sticks. In advance of the cycle, Gardiner discussed his approach to Beethoven and why ORR is the perfect vehicle to interpret the composer’s masterworks.

Apart from this year’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, what makes him such a pivotal figure in Western classical music?

You know, he was an allusive man. He was an allusive composer, and that’s what’s so amazing. And you have to remember with Beethoven that he was really the first composer who became monumentalized, who from the moment of his death and even before was part of history. That was his extraordinary achievement. And probably the very first time his symphonies were performed really with a scrupulous attention to detail was in Paris in the late 1820s, early 1830s, when Conservatoire professors got together and decided they were going to unify the bowings, unify the articulation, and present these pieces to the French audience. And it had an enormous impact. Lots of people heard these Beethoven symphonies and were inspired. And that led directly to his successors, particularly Berlioz and Schumann.

When one hears the nine symphonies over the course of a complete cycle, what insights does that grant?

There’s definitely a progress you can hear in Beethoven’s daring, in the way he writes for individual instruments in the orchestra over the course of the nine symphonies. I’m not saying that the first symphony is a cozy, easy-on-the-ear piece. It isn’t. I mean look at the opening chord, which just startles. But the distance, for example, between the Fifth Symphony (which is a powerhouse) to the “Pastoral” Symphony (which is so chamber-like and beautiful) shows him gaining confidence in exploiting the color contrasts of his orchestra. I think Beethoven’s symphonies are also inextricably bound up with the political events of the first 20 years of the 19th century—that you understand really early on in his symphonic work that he was deeply impressed and influenced by the music that came out of the French Revolution: the military marches, the hymns, the pagan hymns of praise. He was brought up in a very humanistic and intellectually stimulating environment in Bonn. He had a constant need to use music as a tool, as a weapon, as a vehicle for the transmission of revolutionary thoughts.

Was there a model for something like the Ninth Symphony, particularly its final movement—not just the incorporation of various musical styles, but the use of human voices in a symphonic context and the way he presents and then rejects all the ideas from previous movements?

Well, the Ninth Symphony is in every way a one-off, isn’t it? I mean it’s prodigiously intense, prodigiously compact, and prodigiously ambitious. And in a way it’s a strange piece because up until that point, Beethoven was saying instrumental music was capable of doing everything poetry tries to do, everything a novel tries to do, everything a drama tries to do, but in an even more intense and more graphic way. And he didn’t need voices. He was writing very theatrical, very dramatic pieces without singers. And then, near the end of his life with the Ninth Symphony, he said, “Well, actually they’d be quite useful.” And the writing was somewhat awkward, challenging, gawky, ungrateful, and yet in its very kind of crudity, it was very inspiring. And if you can get over the gawkiness and the acrobatics that he asks of the singers and respect the speed at which he requires you to deliver those lines, it’s an incredibly exhilarating experience.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Sim Canetty-Clarke

How did the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR) become so closely associated with Beethoven?

When the orchestra was founded 30 years ago, our mission statement included trying to recover the world of the Beethoven sound, which is a tricky thing to do because, of course, Beethoven was largely deaf for the last part of his life. But he had such an acute inner ear that he could reconstruct the sounds he’d learned when he was growing up in Bonn and was a viola player. And he had such an extraordinary ability to retain that when he couldn’t actually hear the sounds of his own orchestra. And yet he expanded the expressive range and the color spectrum of an orchestra in the most amazing and joyous way.

What first drew you to embrace period instruments?

I just love the sounds they make, and I love their capacity to emulate the human voice. I think it’s like a conversation between a different group of people sitting down to have a political argument. Sometimes they’re strident, and sometimes they’re caressing and trying to persuade in a more gentle way, but there is this sense—which is so essential to Beethoven—of conflict and struggle, of pulling and pushing all the time, elasticity of dialogue and dialectic. And these instruments can do that.

What makes the cycle different when it is performed by a modern orchestra compared to ORR?

It’s partly in the very nature of the instruments they’re playing, which are more secure and less varied than the instruments of Beethoven’s life and time—more dense, but less differentiated than the sounds we cultivate in the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. And the sense of struggle with the material—the actual symphonic writing—is more audible, I think, when you hear the symphonies played on the instruments for which Beethoven wrote them. Today’s instruments are capable of playing Mahler, of playing Bruckner, of playing much bigger scores and much bigger, powerful organisms. With Beethoven, you need to have an edge all the time. That’s really the critical thing. It’s much harder to do with a modern orchestra. My own choice—and it’s a very subjective thing—is to perform the cycle with the musicians of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique because I know with them, they will invest every single phrase with colossal energy and commitment. And the result is that you get an energized performance, but also an incredibly translucent, transparent series of textures because of the individual instruments—it’s a bit like looking at a geological fault line, as it were, or going to an archaeological dig and seeing the different layers. They’re much more palpable with period instruments than they are with a modern symphony orchestra, which tends to blend them together.

For those who are intimately familiar with Beethoven’s symphonies, what differentiates your interpretation?

I think for somebody coming to our cycle of Beethoven symphonies, if you’re hearing the works performed by a period-instrument orchestra like ours for the first time, you’ll be struck by a number of things. I think first of all, you’ll notice how every instrument seems to be speaking. It seems to be as if there’s an unwritten text that each instrument is delivering. It’s the consonants that the woodwind players put on their embouchure. If you’re a string player, it’s in the way that the bow hits the string. There is a pronouncing of thoughts and a pronouncing of phrasing, which is very different from the kind of cultivated smoothness that you find very often with a modern orchestra. That’s one thing. The second thing is this layered transparency of the sounds. You can hear the individual characteristics of a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, and how they have different textures and different ranges—differing densities of sound from each other. It’s like a conversation between the different woodwind principles and their sub-principles. Then you’ll hear the stop sounds that you get from the natural horns, which you won’t get from horns in a modern symphony orchestra where everything is beautifully regulated and smooth. Here you’ll get a much more visceral type of sound, which is sometimes searing, sometimes really kind of pained and then incredibly beautiful in the next moment, with a purity that is difficult to emulate on the modern-day French horn. Then I think you’ll find that the actual dynamic range is greater. The decibel level will never rise to the heights that a modern symphony orchestra achieves, but within the pianissimo to the fortissimo range, there is a bigger stretch on period instruments.

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