Robert Siegel On Why He Still Loves Beethoven's Symphony No. 7

Dec 25, 2017
Originally published on December 25, 2017 7:42 pm
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(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel. And as I prepare to leave ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in a couple of weeks, I've been asked to replay an old favorite story. Well, this one is from 2003. It's about an old piece of music and some contemporary takes on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: I love this piece of music. It's the second movement, the allegretto, from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: This version is from a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle. I'm no music critic - not even a musician, but this music means something special to me - the theme of struggle and progress, of adversity and ultimate triumph.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: One year, I kept this piece queued up in my car cassette machine. At eight minutes, its duration coincided with a repeat segment of the morning news that I had no desire to hear again.

So I would drive across the Potomac, inching through rush hour traffic, amused by the contrast between the high, heroic early 19th-century drama of Beethoven and the low banality of my late 20th-century commute.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: On one occasion, this music was a perfect soundtrack to life at its most exceptional. The Berlin Wall had come down. I was flown to Germany to cover the story. When I awoke in a hotel on the Kurfurstendamm, I turned on a television set and saw the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim playing precisely this movement of the Seventh. Outside my window, the Berlin sidewalks were packed with East Berliners. They were walking freely in family groups, unafraid, through the suddenly accessible western part of the city.

For eight minutes, life and art were in perfect sync - mutual imitation, mutual validation.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: The liner notes that accompanied Simon Rattle's boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies speak of the heroic pathos of the allegretto. And they mention that Franz Schubert was haunted by this movement for his whole working life.

No kidding.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard a radio broadcast of Schubert's Variations in A-Flat Major for Four Hands, played by two pianists called Duo Crommelynck.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

SIEGEL: This piece was written in 1824, just over a decade after Beethoven's Seventh was composed. And in the fifth variation, Schubert did what exactly? Quoted, paid tribute, ripped off? In any case, he acknowledged the spirit that haunted him, Beethoven's marvelous allegretto from the Seventh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT'S EIGHT VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME, D. 813)

SIEGEL: This music always inspires. When I originally did this story, there were two recordings that drew on this theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh. First, there was a CD of "Allegretto Theme & Variations" by the Jacques Loussier jazz trio.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUES LOUSSIER TRIO'S "THEME OF SYMPHONY NO. 7 - ALLEGRETTO (ARR. FOR JAZ TRIO)")

SIEGEL: Jacques Loussier, the pianist, says he, too, has long been haunted by this piece.

JACQUES LOUSSIER: This theme is so great and so special. And for so many years, I've been listening to that theme. And it's more than an attraction. That's - the word haunted is really there because many, many times during a month, during a week, I whistle this theme. And I remember the theme because this is one of the most beautiful and important themes of Beethoven.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUES LOUSSIER TRIO'S "THEME OF SYMPHONY NO. 7 - ALLEGRETTO (ARR. FOR JAZ TRIO)")

SIEGEL: What is it about this allegretto from the Seventh Symphony that seems to be so important to so many people?

LOUSSIER: Personally, I love the way the theme is conducted, with the change of harmonies and with the rhythm, which still all the way through the theme. It's an attraction.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUES LOUSSIER TRIO'S "THEME OF SYMPHONY NO. 7 - ALLEGRETTO (ARR. FOR JAZ TRIO)")

SIEGEL: Did making this album satisfy that sense of being haunted by this theme? Or do you still find yourself thinking about it or whistling it all the time?

LOUSSIER: Yes. Yes, because this is a sort of a definite inclination for some beauty, musical thing like that. And I think I will keep that feeling forever. I don't feel to change my rapport to the music of Beethoven, especially this beautiful theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUES LOUSSIER TRIO'S "THEME OF SYMPHONY NO. 7 - ALLEGRETTO (ARR. FOR JAZ TRIO)")

SIEGEL: Jacques Loussier's CD is called "Theme And Variations, Beethoven Allegretto From Symphony No. 7" (ph).

The allegretto plays a more subtle role in a stunningly eclectic CD by the classical pianist Helene Grimaud and the Swedish Radio Orchestra & Choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENE GRIMAUD, SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR, AND ESA-PEKKA SALONEN'S "CORIGLIANO: FANTASIA ON AN OSTINATO")

SIEGEL: The CD is called "Credo," the name of a choral work by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Grimaud and the orchestra also play a Beethoven choral work - she plays Beethoven's sonata "The Tempest" - and she plays this 1985 composition by John Corigliano. It's called "Fantasia On An Ostinato," and its foundation is the same theme from Beethoven's Seventh.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENE GRIMAUD, SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR, AND ESA-PEKKA SALONEN'S "CORIGLIANO: FANTASIA ON AN OSTINATO")

SIEGEL: Helene Grimaud speaks of the trance-inducing powers of this piece, which is haunted by Beethoven but minimalist in style.

HELENE GRIMAUD: I think it's a beautiful homage to this aesthetic and particularly to the hypnotic textures that it can achieve.

SIEGEL: And at the core of it - at the heart of it - is that theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

GRIMAUD: Exactly, which of course is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written - totally transcendent and exhilarating and poignant all at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENE GRIMAUD, SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR, AND ESA-PEKKA SALONEN'S "CORIGLIANO: FANTASIA ON AN OSTINATO")

GRIMAUD: When that theme finally appears, unveiled, it gives you the sense of something that was already there, a sort of memory of the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENE GRIMAUD, SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR, AND ESA-PEKKA SALONEN'S "CORIGLIANO: FANTASIA ON AN OSTINATO")

SIEGEL: Corigliano, in this piece that you play - and you as you perform it - make a connection between the music of the early 19th century and the music of the late 20th century. And somehow, in this piece, they don't seem all that far apart.

GRIMAUD: That's exactly right. And that's why I really wanted the piece to be on this "Credo" album because - well, for me the album was a way to illustrate the concept of universalism. One of the only hopes that we have is to never lose sight of how we're connected to something bigger than ourselves and how all disciplines of life have their roots in a global intuition that really shows how time is abolished through that concept in all of us. And it doesn't matter what came before, what is yet to come. What was there is actually - you know, it holds our future.

SIEGEL: Do you remember when you first heard Beethoven's Seventh, when you first connected with that second movement?

GRIMAUD: Yes. And as a matter of fact, it is, in great part, the reason why I wanted to invest myself in music, if I could put it this way. My father brought a recording of - you know, he bought the complete set of Beethoven's symphonies by Karajan when I was - I think - 8, 8 a half years old. And it was really the Seventh that somehow did it. And after that, I knew I was going to have to express myself in this way. So it is - you know, it's a very important piece because it is the beginning of my relationship to music, truly.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

GRIMAUD: It is a totally organic piece of music. It's not really fast, and it's not really slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO)

GRIMAUD: It has a pulsation that, to me, is very close to that of, you know, the heartbeat. And - again, it grows in that sort of inevitable manner - something that, you know, cannot be stopped. It sort of unfolds and sweeps you away with it. And it's a movement that I can never listen to while doing something else. Whatever it is I'm doing, I stop when that piece is playing.

SIEGEL: Pianist Helene Grimaud - I spoke with her in 2003, when her album "Credo" was about to be released. The album includes her playing John Corigliano's "Fantasia On An Ostinato," a piece based on this theme, the allegretto, the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN A MAJOR, OP. 92: II. ALLEGRETTO) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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