Overthinking a platter of Beethoven
March 14, 2008 11:00 PM   Subscribe

An analysis of 376 recorded performances of Beethoven's Eroica (Symphony #3), broken down by such variables as the age of the conductor, length of the recording, and tempo variations.

I thought this is worth a FPP and was surprised that the datahounds here do not appear to have posted it before. Even Celibidache is represented. (Paging matteo)
posted by pjern (24 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I found the best bit to be the propaganda poster, especially the part where it details how 'authorities' recommend certain ages at which to be listening to certain genres.

"Jimmy, aren't you a little bit too old to be listening to Nu Metal?"
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 11:44 PM on March 14, 2008

This Furtwängler has too many feelings.
posted by user92371 at 11:57 PM on March 14, 2008

posted by Rumple at 12:02 AM on March 15, 2008

I found the opinions section fascinating:

Mengelberg conducts Beethoven as if it were Mahler, but the results are often interesting when they're not insane.
posted by pjern at 1:17 AM on March 15, 2008

"Jimmy, aren't you a little bit too old to be listening to Nu Metal?"

Five-year-olds are too old for "nu metal." Now get off my lawn!
posted by grouse at 2:37 AM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

pjern—I enjoyed looking through this, even though I've no special fondness for the Eroica. Mr. Grunin has an enjoyably pithy turn of phrase: I particularly liked this comment of his on Max von Schillings: A fine musician but an ardent Nazi, his timely death (in 1933) saved him from gross infamy, relegating him instead to general obscurity.
posted by misteraitch at 4:15 AM on March 15, 2008

I'm sorry, and, you know, to each their own, but I don't find any of these performances to be particularly erotic.

What's that you say?
posted by kcds at 5:55 AM on March 15, 2008

kcds: You're thinking of the Erotica Variations by this guy.
posted by pjern at 6:08 AM on March 15, 2008

Hey, my husband's grandfather is on the conductor list, I'll have to share this with him. Thanks!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:03 AM on March 15, 2008

I was thinking this was a double, but on reading his "What's new" section, it must have been Memepool where I saw this last year. It's quite interesting.

On a related subject ... years ago, I actually had to turn off a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony playing on the radio because it was so painfully slow. It was led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, who is revered by many (Wikipedia: "Many commentators and critics regard him as the one of the greatest conductors in history."). I don't think I've ever had to do that before or since.

Scanning the Wikipedia page, I suspect it was this recording:

Beethoven, Ninth Symphony, live performance at the re-opening of Bayreuther Festspiele with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Höngen, Hans Hopf and Otto Edelmann. (EMI 1951). This recording is very slow; it takes 74 minutes and 40 seconds, and was taken as the playing time of the Compact Disc. The first single CD release was introduced in 1988.

Call me a heretic if you want, but I found it unlistenable.

"[Furtwängler] was also an important influence on the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim ..."

Which would explain something that made my eyes bug out, back in the days of LPs: DG managed to cram 37 minutes of music onto a single LP side. I thought, How can they do that? And how it it possibly take Barenboim 37 minutes to get through the first two movements of the Eroica? Sure enough, this guy's site lists a Barenboim recording as one of the slowest in recent decades.
posted by pmurray63 at 7:12 AM on March 15, 2008

Why doesn't anyone play the first movement at 180 bpm, as LVB directed? What does it sound like at that speed? I found a fast one on Amazon, should I buy it?

The linked site and the wikipedia article mention repeating part (?) of the first movement, but I don't understand what they mean. Repeat certain parts? Play the whole thing twice? The discography doesn't indicate which ones repeat and which ones don't.

The only weird performance of the 3d I've been to was at the Austin SO in the early 90s. I guess they thought the Eroica was too long for Texan attention spans, because they put the intermission right between the second and third movements. It was pretty jarring.
posted by popechunk at 8:58 AM on March 15, 2008

some of his data would benefit from statistical verification of his conclusions...which especially for some things like "age" do not seem to match. it's fun but he needs to learn some math.
posted by wantwit at 10:34 AM on March 15, 2008

Why doesn't anyone play the first movement at 180 bpm, as LVB directed? What does it sound like at that speed? I found a fast one on Amazon, should I buy it?

There is a long standing controversy surrounding Beethoven's tempo markings, around which conductors have historically made some very bad musical judgments (I totally agree with pmurray63 that most of Furtwangler's recordings are so slow as to be unlistenable). Much of that comes from the fact that Maelzel's metronome was a new invention, and there have been assertions that Beethoven's metronome must have been inaccurate (many of his tempi are fast), or that he was unaccustomed to using such a tool and failed to account for the difference between a tempo in one's imagination when composing, and the reality of sound from a large ensemble in a hall, etc. Some info can be found here:
Oct. 13, 1813: "Herr Beethoven looks upon this invention as a welcome means with which to secure the performance of his brilliant compositions in all places in the tempos conceived by him, which to his regret have so often been misunderstood."

As Kolisch states, the fact that Beethoven was prepared to adopt metronome indications for important works confirms that tempo is an essential part of the musical idea (1943, pg. 174), as does Beethoven’s letter of 1826 to Schott’s: ‘The metronome markings will be sent to you very soon. Do wait for them. In our century such indications are certainly necessary. Moreover, I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the symphony [No. 9] was received with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings. We can scarcely have tempi ordinary any longer, since one must fall into line with the idea of unfettered genius.’

There is plenty of evidence both in Beethoven’s music and from contemporary reports to suggest that Beethoven favored an underlying strict tempo into which a certain amount of flexibility could be introduced. These points must call into question the literalism which has been applied to some modern ‘authentic’ performances.

The whole position with regard to Beethoven’s metronome markings has been bedeviled by the composer himself, the shortcomings of whose mathematics made it hard for him in the first place to express his wishes with regard to tempo in the mechanical-numerical formulae devised by Maelzel.
Regarding that last point in particular, recent scholarship (most especially by Jonathan Del Mar in these fantastic editions, which supersede any other published version) has shown that there was indeed quite a bit of confusion from Beethoven himself, as well as those taking dictation from him in his later years, with regard to the relationship between tempo marking and unit of pulsation. The most glaring example is in the last movement of the Ninth, in the Turkish march variation featuring the tenor soloist: his nephew Karl misunderstood Beethoven's direction and wrote his tempo marking at 2 beats per bar (measured by the dotted half, as the written meter is 6/4), when Beethoven intended the tempo marking to be at one beat per bar (measured by the dotted whole note); thus, the tempo that made it into published versions, and was followed by most conductors all the way until the 1990s, was exactly half the speed that Beethoven intended. It's a revelation to hear it at the correct tempo, and I can't believe no one questioned the ploddingly slow marking previously.

As a conductor, I know that tempo markings are never absolute, and have even had tempi changed quite a bit when in rehearsal with the composer present ('why did I mark it that slow? that's not right' etc.), because the reality of sound from a symphonic ensemble in a concert space is often unpredictable; also, I've changed tempi choices within multiple performances of the same repertoire when on tours, as the acoustic space and other variables change. However, Beethoven's symphonies in particular have suffered a great deal through the 20th century because of terrible choices of tempo. Many of those recordings are unlistenable to me, most especially the abominable Karajan recordings where he uses a huge string section and doubles or triples the winds, creating an astonishingly self-indulgent behemoth of sound that has very little to do with the actual music created by Beethoven and much more to do with Karajan's ego. IMO, YMMV of course, but Beethoven was composing for an orchestra of 60 or fewer players total, and modern symphony orchestras are of course much larger. Most performances of Beethoven today use a smaller ensemble--I heard Abbado conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in concert about 10 years ago, playing Beethoven 4, and there were maybe 45 players on stage total. It was magnificent.

For myself, I most love more recent recordings conducted John Eliot Gardiner (with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, on period instruments), Simon Rattle (with the Vienna Philharmonic), and Benjamin Zander (with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and I don't think he's recorded a full set). These feature mostly faster tempo choices, much much closer to what Beethoven marked, though not blindly loyal to them.

The linked site and the wikipedia article mention repeating part (?) of the first movement, but I don't understand what they mean. Repeat certain parts? Play the whole thing twice?

They're referring to repeating the exposition--the first movements of Beethoven's symphonies are in sonata form, which has three main sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The sections do what the names imply: the exposition clearly establishes the key of the piece and presents any other primary ideas (themes, motives); the development then modulates to other key areas, creating tension as it moves away from the primary tonal center (for instance, from E-flat major to B-flat major with episodes in other related key areas), and also introduces secondary themes, motivic development, etc.; the recapitulation resolves the large scale harmonic tension by modulating back into the original key (coming back 'home'), and reintroducing primary material. (This sketch is in no way intended to be a thorough description of this delightful and much used form, and in no way accounts for the very clever ways different composers approached and innovated within it.) The exposition is repeated in sonata form primarily for a very practical reason: to be sure listeners remember all of the primary material and have a very solid sense of key, so that when that material is developed in the next section, one can follow what's happening. (Most music in sonata form was written well prior to anything like recording or broadcast technology being invented, so that first hearing was often all you got.) Conductors who don't repeat expositions are heretics and should be appropriately shunned. Form matters, and when one truncates sonata form so severely it feels terribly unbalanced, even in this age of ubiquitous musical availability.

Hey, my husband's grandfather is on the conductor list

Your husband's grandfather also conducted the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and for that alone will always be considered a total bad-ass in the conducting world. (Reluctantly, though--I remember reading years ago an interview with Monteux where he related this, seeing 'that crazy Russian' playing his score at the piano, and thinking 'I really have to conduct this?' Of course, he came around.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:22 AM on March 15, 2008 [79 favorites]

Awesome comment, Loosefilter, thank you very much. I second the notion that skipping the repeats is heresy :)

And Marie, your husband's grandfather was one of my favorite conductors, back in the day.
posted by pjern at 12:26 PM on March 15, 2008

Thank for you for the excellent comment, Loosefilter.

I find it amazing that there is so much variation permitted within the confines of a musical score, which I guess is more like a map than a computer program.
posted by popechunk at 12:37 PM on March 15, 2008

This is me bowing to loosefilter. As much as I love classical music, I'm not a musician myself and could never provide such a thorough explanation. I'm just happy he agreed with me. ;)

For myself, I most love more recent recordings conducted John Eliot Gardiner (with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, on period instruments) ...

Seconding this recommendation for people such as popechunk. If you're allergic to original instruments, you won't like them (personally, I enjoy both modern and original). I love this set, though of course YMMV. Some of the tempos are breathtakingly fast (e.g., the last movement of the Eighth). Not coincidentally, the ORR is a smaller ensemble, similar to what Beethoven was writing for, as loosefilter explained. The set includes (or did when I bought it) a roughly 20-minute long talk by Gardiner, with some excerpts to illustrate his points.
posted by pmurray63 at 1:59 PM on March 15, 2008

This site is fascinating. I generally pay a lot more attention to the score than the performance, so it's really interesting to have all these examples of how much they really can differ. Thanks!
posted by dfan at 4:41 PM on March 15, 2008

Glad you guys liked my last comment, and thanks for the post, pjern. It's quite interesting--for more along these lines, check out Gunther Schuller's The Compleat Conductor, an interesting polemic that includes a whole bunch of data on marked tempi vs. actual tempi in performances, etc.

I find it amazing that there is so much variation permitted within the confines of a musical score, which I guess is more like a map than a computer program.

I do too, and even though I study scores almost every day it still amazes me. Musical notation is a truly brilliant thing, but for all its specificity there is so much in music that just can't ever be written down. (I'll even change my own decisions from one performance to the next.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:22 PM on March 15, 2008

Okay, I just ordered this from Amazon. I'm very curious what it will sound like.
posted by popechunk at 8:22 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

popechunk, I think you will absolutely love it. Hearing Gardiner's cycle for the first time was a revelation to me, I think it clears many decades' worth of historical baggage away from this incredible music. (It was also the first cycle recorded using the Barenreiter editions by Del Mar that I linked to earlier.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:56 PM on March 15, 2008

I wholeheartedly second the recommendations of Gardiner. When I listen to Gardiner, I feel like none of the other interpretations are giving you the real thing. I don't even agree that "If you're allergic to original instruments, you won't like them" -- I know someone who hates period instruments but makes an exception for Gardiner's Beethoven. It doesn't have that usual "period instrument" sound. It sounds fresher and newer than modern instruments.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:07 PM on March 15, 2008

(measured by the dotted half, as the written meter is 6/4)

[pedant] Now that this has been sidebarred, I should correct myself: the written meter is 6/8, not 6/4, and the confusion was between marking the tempo at the dotted quarter vs. dotted half. [/pedant]
posted by LooseFilter at 11:12 PM on March 15, 2008

I am inordinately pleased with all this. Danke.
posted by aramaic at 1:32 PM on March 17, 2008

How to mark a post as a favorite-favorite is eluding me, If I could do it, this would take it. Thanks.
posted by horseblind at 8:56 AM on March 18, 2008

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