Have you ever head Franz Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of Beethoven’s symphonies? They are considered (according to a Wikipedia entry) to be “among the most technically demanding piano music ever written.”
Anyway, from the point of view of a listener, I agree fully with what New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini says (“Beethoven, Now and Forever,” New York Times, March 1, 1996): “… I can’t stop listening to recordings of the Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for piano by Liszt. These are not pianistic stunts but serious, amazingly detailed reconsiderations; and without the orchestrations you hear every detail.”
The “Eroica” was the high point of the program for me.
Though the performance of the “William Tell Overture” demonstrated how great it can be to hear such a war horse performed live and in its entirety.
Why do Beethoven’s works — e.g., the “Eroica,” which is, has been played repeatedly, innumerable times (it would be pointless to try and enumerate how many times) — continue to sound fresh?
There is almost no such thing as an inferior Beethoven work, meaning inferior to the rest of his oeuvre (with perhaps one or two exceptions).
All nine symphonies are unique and can “hold their own,” so to speak, each of them, with respect to the other eight.
The “Eroica” draws the listener in and transfixes you from the very first bar.
Beethoven wrote some of the most complex music imaginable in terms of structural depth and layers of meaning. Yet the listener never feels “lost” or adrift. Beethoven is admirably clear. Like all great artists, he has done the work, so that the listener (this is also true of literature) is made one with the piece; a fusion occurs between the artist’s intent, his subconscious, and what the listener or reader grasps, understands, takes in, experiences. The imagination is stimulated, the mind is stretched and energized, but made more rather than less whole. One experiences a sense of completion and wholeness rather than confusion/disorientation leading to frustration.
It’s okay for the mind to wander even with such great music because music both fixes the attention and engages you (and provides a relief by so doing) while, at the same time, stirring up thought in all directions and energizing the mind, so that at one moment I am totally focused on “musical ideas” and my mind seems fused with the piece, its “inner logic,” and then, seconds later, I am thinking, as happened as I was listening to the “Eroica,” of a dear departed friend whom there was no particular reason for me to associate with the piece.
There is a famous passage in Act 5, Scene 3 of King Lear, where Lear is holding his daughter, the dead Cordelia, in his arms. He says:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
The repetition of the words “howl” and “dead” was remarked upon by my professor at Brandeis University, Aileen Ward, with whom I took a course on Shakespeare’s plays in my freshman year. She made an allusion to the repeated crashing chords in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.
Professor Ward was a great teacher and critic/lover of literature and, from what I could observe, a beautiful, gracious person. I did not fully appreciate the wonderful teachers I had in college.
“… in much commentary, there is a tendency to look at every work in a given form, such as sonata form, as just one more example of that form, perhaps with a few quirks. From a composer’s perspective, that is a backward view of the matter. For a composer of Beethoven’s era, the idea of a work comes first, and then it is mapped into a familiar form that has to be cut and measured to fit the idea. The ‘quirks’ in a given piece are clues to the distinctive nature of that piece. Sometimes for the composer the fundamental idea is such that a new, ad hoc form has to be invented.”
— Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph; A Biography