The other weekend, we went to Wolf Trap for a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Ninth Symphony and also of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (from Peter Grimes).
The pieces by Britten were pretty Britten-y. Not to knock him, because, I mean, c’mon – he wrote The War Requiem which is an amazing, mindblowing work. But he’s a sentimental sort of composer and these were small, sentimental works.
The Egmont Overture was new to me. It was composed for a production of a tragedy by Goethe named… Egmont. A political play about resistance to oppressive authority, it was right up the alley of the man who composed the Eroica Symphony. And what a great piece. So absolutely moving. And yes, it was very, very political. You didn’t need to know anything about the play or the background to know that this work was making a political statement.
Maybe it was because I was reading Geoffrey Hill’s A Treatise on Civil Power that I wondered if the best lens through which to view Beethoven’s works was political. Is Beethoven a primarily political artist?
Also, I thought about a line from a movie starring the late River Phoenix, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, entitled Running on Empty. It’s a good movie, blah, blah. But what came to me was a line where River Phoenix’s character, to answer his music teacher’s question as to the difference between Beethoven and some piece of popular music (the Beatles or someone like that). ‘You can’t dance to Beethoven,’ he said.
But that’s not really true is it? Because you can’t help but dance to Beethoven. Yes, yes, I understand the whole issue of rhythm, but when Beethoven is played, watch your body and watch the bodies around you. Everyone will start attempting to tap and sway with the music. They’ll fail, of course, but they will try. And so will you. Beethoven makes you want to dance!
During the Ninth, everyone tries to become a conductor, gesticulating in the air because it impels you towards motion, towards action! (political action?) It is more than merely hopeful. It is a rejection of hopelessness in the face of valid reason for despair, and in that, it is inherently religious.