Showing posts with label Andris Nelsons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andris Nelsons. Show all posts

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rosenkavalier rising: an opera for our times too



Farewell? Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

When Der Rosenkavalier turns into a piece for our own times, you know two things: first, the director has a classic production in the making; secondly, we ourselves are in a lot of trouble.

Robert Carsen's staging at the Royal Opera House sets the action in the year Strauss composed the work, 1911. The empire is imploding in slow motion. Arms dealers are the moneyed arrivistes. Violence simmers under the surface, sometimes explodes. The Field Marshall's palace boasts crimson walls and giant, imperial-era paintings. Outwardly, all is elegance, beauty and shiny show, the Marschallin choosing Klimtesque gowns from a fashion parade and a troupe of "house-trained dogs" drawing oohs and ahhs (especially the bulldog and the borzois); and the silver rose is massive, not only a ton of silver but full of crystal sparkles. It's an artificial rose of the future, set against the living, delicate but doomed red ones the Marschallin cradles and sniffs. For underneath there lurks "degeneracy": a brothel-load of prostitutes in Schiele-like revelations, an Octavian who knows a lot more than he lets on, and sexual danger looming around Sophie from Ochs's troops (Sophie nevertheless startles her father and the importunate Ochs with new-found defiance). The palace reveals doors within doors within doors; every level conceals another.


Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs and Sophie Bevan as Sophie
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore


But this is a world on the brink. As the Marschallin delivers her reflections on the passage of time, a shudder of recognition goes through us. She is talking not only about ageing, but about the world itself, about everything that surrounds her. Yes, this is Renée Fleming's likely farewell to London's operatic stage, and yes, the Marschallin is no spring chicken, however fabulous she looks and sounds. The implications are much wider, though. At the end the place disintegrates, showing us the battlefield horrors of World War I - and soldiers aim a gun at a drunken child named Mohammed. The veracity of this imagery hits home so hard that one becomes fearful in earnest for where we are all going now. Remember, historical fiction isn't only about the past; its task is to be about today.

Fleming: glamour itself
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore
Big plaudits, then, to Carsen and his designers Paul Steinberg (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes). The lighting is by Carsen and Peter von Praet.  Musically, too, this performance couldn't be much more memorable if it tried; even if not every singer precisely matches every listener's ideal, the quality of insight, the excellence of the singers and the chemistry between them could scarcely be bettered.

Fleming's Marschallin is the incarnation of olde-worlde glamour. Her voice still has its amber-mellow beauty, if perhaps scaled down from its full glory, and her singing communicates with profundity accentuated by its directness and poise. As Octavian, Alice Coote brings oodles of character to her tone as well as her acting; this lad is awkward and stiff in army uniform, yet abrupt liberation follows in Act III when, dazzling in drag in a brothel, he/she displays a startling understanding of how to tantalise and torment the justifiably muddled Ochs - and whether Octavian has learned all this from the Marschallin or acquired it elsewhere is perhaps a moot point. Sophie Bevan as her namesake sounds warm and golden rather than cool and silver, yet her high notes at the presentation of the rose seem to reach heaven itself.

Matthew Rose's Ochs is no mere bumpkiny boor, but a powerful man out for a good time that doesn't please those around him and tramples - Trumples? - over societal norms with disruptive relish. It's almost impossible not to feel vaguely sorry for him as "Mariandel" delivers him her nasty dose of over-worldly Viennoiserie. Luxury casting for Annina and Valzacchi in the shape of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Helene Schneiderman, as well as Faninal - the many-dimensional voice of Jochen Schmeckenbecher.

The greatest magic of all: Andris Nelsons, red-shirted, open-armed and open-hearted, unleashing the music and letting it fly out of the orchestra's players, hushing the levels for Fleming and allowing  the visual marvels to be cradled in a sensual richesse of sound.

It's hard to believe that this could be Fleming's farewell - but then, there's a lot that's hard to comprehend right now. She may be departing together with our golden age of opera. That's a topic for another time, but reinforces an important message: let's never forget we were lucky enough to have and hear this.

On a lighter note, a special little plaudit for a startling appearance in the onstage band of two characters that apparently reference "Geraldine" and "Josephine" from Some Like It Hot. A very endearing anachronism.

Meanwhile I may get up in the night and stop the clocks.

If you can find a ticket, go and see it. 


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Everything's coming up Matthew Rose's...

I am running a new occasional series of exclusive star interviews on JDCMB. Here is the first...

Matthew Rose takes centre stage, appropriately enough, in the Royal Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier - and it's not going to be a pink, fluffy one. The British bass talks to me about Baron Ochs, Bottom and Brexit...


Matthew Rose rehearsing for Der Rosenkavalier, with Helene Schneiderman as Annina. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

If I’ve arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door expecting the kindly, bearded presence of a King Marke, I’m in for a surprise. The new version of Matthew Rose instead boasts sideburns, a hefty moustache and a military demeanour. The British bass may be as imposing as the Wagnerian monarch he sang last summer at ENO, but today he is still virtually in character from ongoing intense rehearsals for Covent Garden's new Der Rosenkavalier. Singing Baron Ochs, he remarks, settling into the tallest chair we can find, is “like doing seven operas at once”.

“Robert Carsen, our director, said just now that Baron Ochs is probably the most brilliant character ever invented in opera, with such bravado and such belief in himself,” Rose declares. People often see Ochs as a bit of a buffoon, he adds, but it’s not necessarily so: “He speaks French and Italian, he knows about the world, he’s very educated – but he happens to act in a way that is very different from everyone else in Vienna. He’s from a house in the middle of nowhere where he can behave as he wants, so that’s what he does and he comes to Vienna thinking he can get away with it there too: meeting his bride-to-be, with the Marschallin, who’s his cousin, he just says exactly what he wants to say. This staging has him as a soldier as well, though, so there must be some kind of discipline there. And he’s very entertained by himself. He’s a very entertaining character.”

Matthew Rose, with the former look
Entertaining the opera may be, and Ochs with it, but this time we can expect something a little edgier on stage. “I’ve done the role just once before, in Chicago, so I was trying to get all the words into my head,” Rose says. “That was a very traditional Rosenkavalier, very fluffy. Many of the productions you see are fluffy, very pink and lovely. This isn’t like that. This is definitely not fluffy.”

Carsen has set the production in 1911, the year of the opera’s composition, rather than the Mozartian era envisaged by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. “It’s pre World War I, pre change of everything, Austria before everything went tits-up there: a very important time both historically and artistically,” says Rose. “It fits in very well with how things are here.”

Indeed, the primary purpose of historical fiction is arguably not only to explore a bygone era, but to reflect back crucial elements of our own through its prism – and this opera is no exception. Rose has little doubt that “things here” are about to go very tits-up indeed. On the morning the Brexit decision was announced, he made for Westminster with a takeaway coffee, expecting a demonstration in protest to materialise. He was astonished when it didn’t. “Why are we allowing this to happen?” he growls. “Brexit is going to ruin this country in a way I think people don’t understand. I don’t see how anybody could think any good could come out of it.”

Rose as Sparafucile in the ROH's Rigoletto
Photo: Johan Persson/ROH
At a recent press event Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, explained that Brexit has already hit the organisation hard because of the fall in value of the pound: the cost of paying many people in other currencies has risen 20 per cent. “It’s obvious how it’s going to affect us in the arts – it puts everything in peril that we do,” says Rose. “Our industry is in a terrible situation. This opera house thrives on people coming in and out internationally, very freely and easily, and doing things often on a very ad-hoc basis. Who knows what’s going to happen to that, and who knows what the pound is going to do? All these knock-on effects… In the US Trump can be voted out after four years, but I think the UK is in worse shape, as we’re stuck with the referendum result forever.”


Rose has a foot in both countries: he has been living more or less in mid-Atlantic, between New York and Blackheath, south-east London, for some years. Though he grew up in Seaford, five miles down the road from Glyndebourne, he came to the idea of professional singing relatively late.

“Singing has always been part of my life, though I didn’t take it seriously at first,” he says. “In my last year at school I was singing in the choir, but there were lots of other people doing things seriously and I wasn’t one of them. A new music teacher arrived at the school and he was the first person who suggested to me that I might consider becoming a professional opera singer. I’d never even thought about it before. Then I went to university at Canterbury and Benjamin Luxon and his wife were there and they took me to the next step.”

As Bottom in Glyndebourne's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Robert Workman
Attending a summer course in Italy, he met Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Curtis Institute, who invited him to Philadelphia to audition. He spent five years there, though at first, he remarks, “it was quite embarrassing. I think I went in the same year as Lang Lang. He went in being already this world-class star and I was starting from scratch, so it was quite an intimidating situation.”

The department was relatively small, with around 25 singers, yet put on five operas a year, Rose recounts – a preparation for stage life more hands-on and intensive than most. His teacher was Marlena Malas, who was based at the Juilliard School in New York, and whom he still consults. “I had my lessons every Monday at five o’clock, looking straight across to the Met,” he remembers, “and whenever I did something wrong, she’d say: ‘Do you wanna sing there or not?’

He certainly did, especially after he started attending performances every week after his lesson. “The Met has always been a shrine to me,” he remarks. “Now I do two or three operas there a season and it’s a wonderful family to be part of. There are lots of friends around, people in the orchestra with whom I went to college, and I feel very at home there.”

His most recent Met stint was as Leporello in Don Giovanni: “Leporello is my favourite role in the world,” he declares. “He’s an amazing character. Da Ponte wrote some of the greatest librettos in history – as did Hofmannsthal – and Leporello’s journey through the opera, especially the second half, is just miraculous.”

After five years at Curtis, Rose felt “ready to go out and have a career”. Back in London he auditioned, and was accepted, for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. Next thing he knew, he was on stage with Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel in David McVicar’s production of Faust. “At that point you have to up your game,” he considers, “and there’s no better way to do it than standing on stage with these people.”

Rehearsing the ROH's La Bohème. Photo: Yuri Vorobiev
Coming back to Covent Garden some 14 years later, he notes, it is hard to shake off the association – “up to a point I’m still ‘Matthew Rose who was on the Young Artists’ Programme…’” But now he has travelled full circle and himself coaches the young singers on the scheme: “It’s a nice role reversal. I feel so grateful for things that have been passed to me. We all absorb these things that we distill within ourselves and hopefully can pass them on again. I’ve done lots of teaching these past few years and I really enjoy that.”

To various teaching activities, Rose adds a strong commitment to the Blackheath Concert Halls near his London home: “I’ve been heavily involved in activities there for ten years – we’ve done wonderful community projects, started a children’s choir and have a new children’s opera commissioned for next year from Kate Whitley. I’d love to be part of making it into a really wonderful centre for the arts in south-east London, though of course it’s easier said than done…”

Another favourite London location is the Wigmore Hall: here he sings Schubert’s Winterreise in February 2017. And then there’s Schwanengesang a few months later at Carnegie Hall, New York. “How lucky am I to do that!” he remarks. “Schubert was my first great passion that really got me into singing, when I went to a Schubert Day at the Royal College of Music in his bicentenary year, 1997.


“I love Lieder, making music with one pianist, being in control of what one wants to do – whereas in opera one is told by many people what to do. And I love orchestral concerts. Of course I also love being on stage, but you’re compromising so much when you sing opera: you’re trying to do 17 different things at once and you’re rarely going to be satisfied. But I love standing there with an orchestra, making music. At the end of the day, I’m a musician and I love to make music. And if there’s a bit of acting or being a bit silly involved,” he adds, “that’s OK.”

Rose certainly has risen to fame with in roles that are comic, yet with an undertow of complexity: “I’m quite a silly person, so being on stage being silly comes quite naturally,” he suggests. Besides Leporello, he has been particularly lauded as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Glyndebourne and beyond; he will be singing the role at a new Aldeburgh Festival staging by Netia Jones in summer 2017. He is a long-standing devotee of Aldeburgh, having attended many courses there as a student and nursing a passion for the musicality and dramatic excellence of Britten’s operas. “Bottom in particular has been very good to me,” he notes.


One does sense, though, that underneath there is little about this perceptive and down-to-earth artist that is remotely silly. Even golf is a serious matter for him: “It’s not for unwinding,” he says. “It’s something I love to do well and in many ways it is like singing: concentrating hard, switching that concentration on and off.”

As for his dream roles that remain, those aren’t so silly either. “I’d love to have a crack at Philip II,” he says. “Gurnemanz in Parsifal will hopefully happen next year, and certain other Wagnery things would be nice… But I’m having the most incredible year at the moment, doing Leporello, Bottom and Baron Ochs, and the song recitals. I probably ought to retire after it! What I’ve done so far has far surpassed everything I ever dreamed of and I’m so lucky to have done what I’ve done. If I stop now, I’ve had a very nice time and a very nice career and maybe it’s time to go and have a very nice sleep.”

Now he really is being silly, or so one hopes. There is the whole of Der Rosenkavalier to look forward to, with a dream cast and Andris Nelsons in the pit: “There’s no one classier in the world than Renée Fleming,” Rose enthuses. “Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan I know very well, and it’s nice to be reunited with Jochen Schmeckenbecher [singing Faninal], who was in the first opera I ever did as a student in Philadelphia – it was The Magic Flute, I was a priest and he was Papageno.” As for Nelsons, “The orchestra sounds unbelievable with him. He’s got it all. This is the hardest role I’ll ever do,” he adds, “and everyone’s being so nice to me. It’s a huge honour and I’m very grateful for this situation.”

Curtain up is this Saturday at 6pm: and the appropriately-named Rose is set to be a cavalier of a whole new kind. Beg, borrow, or ninja a ticket.


Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, from 17 December. Book here.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Bryn Plus

I had a wonderful interview with Bryn Terfel last week and it is in today's Independent, here. Bryn sings the lead in Der fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden, opening tonight.

Here are a few bonus bits of the interview.


Bryn on...Andris Nelsons (who conducts the Wagner tonight):

"The first time I met him was in Birmingham - and then I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra had snapped him up. He’s married to Kristine Opolais,of course, which will only make him an even better conductor of singers – but he can sing! Goodness gracious, you should hear his voice. He's a stunning bass-baritone and he loves to sing from the pit- and he laughs and winks at you. From what I hear, the orchestra loves him as well. Isn’t that a great formula already? Who knows where he’ll go?"

Bryn on...his foundation to help student musicians:


"Whatever I do concertwise now, the money I get for that goes to the foundation. I need to work a little bit harder, maybe, on getting people to invest some of their money into the youth of my chosen career, so I’ve given some nmoney to young Welsh singers, I’ve given some mopney to a young accordionist who's doing really well at the moment, Ksenija Sidorova, I gave her a little foundation money – I’m sure that any student coming out of college would like some help. So that’s something for the future. In the next 10 years I’m going to home in on my foundation. I started it because I heard from students that they were coming out of university with debts and that made me think that maybe they need the money now, while they’re still in college. So the money I’ve given to students, they’re in college now, spending it. And there’s no stipulation about what they can spend it on – they can buy shoes, a car, a dress – and these are things you need as a performer. I’ll never forget Sir Geraint Evans telling me: 'Buy a new suit.' And he was right. Because that generation, thety’d come to rehearsal in a three-piece suit! I’ll never forget who I got money from. Capital Radio gave me £500 once. The Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship I won was £5000 and that was really important for extra coaching and extra language coaching."

Bryn on...the great pianists:

"I’ll never forget going to hear Martha Argerich play with the young Verbier Symphony, full of kids under 25 years old. I sat there with Peter Gelb and he said 'It’ll be brilliant tonight.' I can guess a pianist will be brilliant by the names, but to hear piano music being played I need to study a little more, I think, on the difference between brilliant and mediocre, because I think they’re all fantastic. And Peter said that at the end of Horowitz’s career he was his agent and filmed him playing in Moscow for the last time. He said they didn’t want to film him from the front of the audience, so he had the camera on Horowitz from behind - and looking through into the audience, all these Russian people were sobbing. But he said Horowitz had said to him: 'Only one pianist will take over what I’ve started, and it’s Argerich'. So I was about to listen to this woman – I listen to a lot of Horowitz anyway on Youtube - his White House soirées with presidents are recorded on video. So that was one of the most exciting evenings I’d ever had, having heard that story."

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution!


There've been a few enquiries about my pre-concert talk for the CBSO & Andris Nelsons's Beethoven cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 20 and 21 March. Here's the complete text, plus a recording of the movement I took apart via a surprise analogy that worked even better than I'd expected when I started preparing it...


BEETHOVEN, MUSIC AND REVOLUTION


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to Symphony Hall for the continuation of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO’s Beethoven cycle. 

We’ve got to symphonies numbers 6 and 7 today and it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here to introduce them, as they happen to be my personal favourites of the nine. The sixth is, of course, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the seventh was once described by Wagner as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – though the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to put his own slant on that. He said, “well, what can you do with it, it’s like a load of yaks jumping about.” 

As Elvis Costello once said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s essentially intangible - but what I’d like to do today is to try to burrow into some of those intangible connections to consider how Beethoven can seem to convey to us the deepest associations between the processes of music and the processes of life and of living. And this might help to show why we think of him as a revolutionary, producing music that inspires idealism the way few others could dream of. 

Daniel Barenboim often says that music is like God because you can’t describe it – you can only describe the effect that it has. There’s no music more associated with Barenboim than Beethoven. Last year you might have caught the series he performed at the Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of the complete Beethoven symphonies. At the end of the Ninth Symphony he zipped off to the Olympic Stadium and took part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games – he was one of eight great humanitarians who carried in the Olympic flag together (pictured). They were dressed all in white, and shortly afterwards I interviewed him and he said he’d felt like a carnation. Barenboim has written and spoken extensively on the links between musical expression and life itself, and of music’s role in society as an art that can encapsulate the deepest and most universal of human processes. His book Everything is Connected is all about this. 

Barenboim says that “Beethoven’s music is universal – it speaks to all people”. The question is, why? How can it be that pieces written for a western classical orchestra some two hundred years ago can communicate so vividly with such a range of people today? And this music really does. 

A few years ago I went to the West Bank to report on some music education projects. Together with some musician friends, I had lunch in Hebron [pictured right - a snap of Hebron from the trip] with an amazing Palestinian lady named Sharifa, who showed us around the historic mosque where the tomb of the Patriarchs is located. Sharifa is an absolute indomitable battle-axe. She has to struggle daily with many very difficult situations. But she has extraordinary spirit and an irrepressible sparkle. Her English was good, but not perfect, and at one point we were trying to explain to her the word “inspiration”. And when she understood, she straight away asked the violinist who was with us to play some Beethoven. She loves Beethoven: she says he gives her strength. She was born and raised far from the music of the western classical tradition in a terribly troubled spot of the Middle East – but to her, Beethoven was the absolute definition of the word ‘inspiration’.

We hear frequently that Beethoven is “revolutionary”. But I wonder why he strikes us that way. His inner strength, of course, is unmistakeable. We know that in 1802 he went through a tremendous personal crisis while he was living in Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. He had to face the fact that he was losing his hearing, and for a man who lives body, heart and soul for music, this was the worst thing that life could do to him. In his most famous document, the Heiligenstadt Testament – part will, part explanation, that he wrote for his two brothers – he said: “Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”. 

But Beethoven’s essential strength, the revolutionary quality, if you like, is not really biographical, at least not solely. Yes, he had huge personal battles to overcome and much tragedy in his life. His ideals are certainly reflected in his works, in some more directly than others. His only opera, Fidelio, for instance, is about a devoted wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate a political prison and save her husband from its dungeon. But Beethoven doesn’t ever seem to have been involved with politics beyond his intellectual interest. And of course his deafness, which set in when he was only about 28, would probably have prevented him getting involved even if he had wished to. He had great social and political ideals, though, and he certainly felt the injustices of the world: he was a cantankerous, troubled individual, yet one who, under that facade, felt an enormous compassion towards humanity. 

I heard a theory recently – from the great pianist Murray Perahia – that the real meaning of the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata may be something beyond our usual assumption that the publisher added the title for effect. Instead, it’s possible that this heading refers to the so-called ‘children of moonlight’, a term that described the spirits of the unfortunate, the outcasts, people who were denied the sunlight of the Enlightenment – hence the polarity of sun and moon. These spirits would sing of their suffering to the world through the medium of the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind. Apparently there is good circumstantial evidence to support the theory and it is much in tune with Beethoven’s spirit, to say nothing of the concept fitting the music to perfection. 

So perhaps there Beethoven could consciously have matched image to musical content. But what about the subconsciously revolutionary qualities in the music of his symphonies? And why can they seem revolutionary even to us today? In Beethoven’s time, this music would have sounded not just new, but shockingly new. The overt sense of conflict, the struggle between primal, motivic themes vying for supremacy, sparks flying through the extremities of his contrasts, all that would have sounded incredibly radical around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. Beethoven was not remotely easy listening for those accustomed to graceful minuets in the background to accompany their dinner. And especially not just after the French Revolution.

But now? We’ve had Mahler, we’ve had Schoenberg, we’ve had Stravinsky, we’ve had, for goodness sake, Stockhausen and Boulez and John Cage. Why does Beethoven still inspire feelings of idealism, and even of political idealism, to ears and minds that have been exposed to so much else?

There are several levels to this. For a start, tonight’s two symphonies are totally different from one another; each is unique. But then, so is every other Beethoven symphony. And so is every single one of his 32 piano sonatas and each of his string quartets. And so on. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself – the structures of no two works are exactly the same, and each one has not only an individual form but an individual soundworld, an atmosphere that is entirely its own.  

For instance, No.6 is the only Beethoven symphony in five movements and the only one in which three of the movements run through without a break. As for the individual soundworld, the spread-out, lyrical, tranquil melodies of the Sixth Symphony could scarcely be further away from the elemental punch and drive of the Seventh. This sense of constant reinvention, the need to push the boundaries further and further, is just one reason to consider Beethoven not only an innovator but, beyond that, a revolutionary. (And luckily we don't need Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony animation, pictured right, to push its own boundaries any further in this case...)

Now, there wasn’t so much that was new about the idea of a Pastoral Symphony by 1808. Or so you might think. Yet the way Beethoven approaches the idea is entirely new. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the work’s most famous forerunner. Vivaldi gave us an extremely pictorial set of concertos with direct sonic depictions of birds twittering in spring, the rain driving down in the summer storm, the skaters weaving around on the ice in winter. Then there was Haydn, with his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons; yet he largely serves his texts: the musical pictures are developed to match the images that the singers evoke.

Beethoven’s difference is that although the symphony may sound pictorial, that isn’t the point of it. Beethoven wanted to evoke not images, but the feelings associated with them.  He provided a brief guide for the programme at the world premiere, with the words: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” This puts him in a musically pioneering strand with the world of romanticism, where feeling was at the forefront. Yet it’s almost as if he looks forward by about a hundred years towards the symbolist movement, in which emotion and image are completely fused and nothing can be taken at face value. 

I think this was true, in a different way, for Beethoven. For instance, he used to take long walks on which he’d jot down themes he thought of, some inspired by nature - and in 1803, scribbling a melody suggested by the sight of a river, he wrote "The greater the river, the more grave the tone." Those words could suggest that he’s not thinking of what he sees, but of what more that image suggests to him in terms of association, and metaphor, and his emotional response to that.

But there are processes inside the fabric of the music itself that while entirely abstract can still produce some startling results when you look at them in detail. To me, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony represents a special summit of achievement. I’d like to draw on Barenboim’s idea that the processes of life and music are connected to show you why I think this music strikes us as revolutionary, at that deep, abstract level. As Barenboim says, we can’t describe music itself; we can only describe the effect that it has, and what I’d like to describe is the effect on us of Beethoven’s music’s inner processes and how they can well be said to mirror the processes of human thought, interaction and society.

So I’m going to talk us through the second movement of Beethoven Seven with a few images in mind suggested by a story that obviously has nothing to do with its creation - but that mirrors something about the way its extraordinary structure operates and the impression it makes on us. 

On 1 December 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The town buses practised racial segregation. The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks refused. This one simple gesture against an enormous human injustice snowballed and eventually led to her becoming an icon of resistance to racial segregation and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. 

 It started as one person making one small gesture. But it sprang out of a situation of bleak injustice, and one basic, fundamental thought. A situation as bleak as Beethoven’s first chord and a thought about human rights – segregation is wrong - that is as primal as the rhythm Beethoven sets up for his main theme.


The very first chord progression when those low strings come in is tonic to dominant, dominant to tonic. It’s the most fundamental harmonic progression you can get. The theme is scarcely a melody – it is a motif, a rhythm, strong and memorable and simple, and it is fundamental to the whole movement. 

Next, Beethoven begins to bring in the other sections of the orchestra one by one: voice after voice takes up the motif. The voices that have already sung it move on to a counter-melody, a more elaborate thought that illuminates the basic thought by the way it sounds together with it. Others are taking notice, recognising, adding their voices, joining in. The idea is growing in sophistication.

The movement – a good word for it - continues to grow. The thoughts become more elaborate, further voices are drawn in from different parts of the orchestra, or different parts of society if you like, and the rhythm begins to move on too: to the basic pulse we now add a doubling of pace in the lower instruments and gradually the woodwind sidle in almost without us noticing. And, of course, a big crescendo, a great groundswell of support, is beginning.

Now triplets come into the accompaniment so you get a two against three rhythmic effect that sets up a sense of differing forces in friction against one another, adding even more to the tension. The woodwind and brass are making their presences felt, so the central motif assumes the character of a fanfare, and the drums come in as well, but not always at the obvious moments – this adds to the unsettling effect of this growth. It is unpredictable, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Yet still, the entire orchestra is united in proclaiming a fundamental truth and its consequences, with everyone pulling together, which is the only way people can rise up and effect a revolution...

Ah – what happened? The movement ran out of steam. A decrescendo and it’s come to a halt. What now? An idealist is needed, with a new sense of direction. A Martin Luther King, perhaps, with a dream of a better world, powered by the underlying motif that segregation is wrong. Beethoven’s motif, the essential idea, is very much present now as a pulse, a heartbeat, underneath the lyrical melody that now begins. Other voices echo the song of the clarinet – and all the time there’s that tension in the background of that three against two rhythm.

It should be as simple as a major scale down and up. But it isn’t. There’s an interruption, an obstacle, and now what happens? Back comes the melody that started as counterpoint to the first idea; now there’s a new counterpoint against this one, and faster still than triplets, as if to say it’s going to be more complicated than we thought. And the fundamental theme is almost buried in the form of quiet pizzicato under the complication of what it’s spawned, as the strings keep on discussing and bickering, as strings tend to, while the woodwind try to preserve a trajectory of eloquence.

Of course someone has to come along and explore the small print. The legalities, the intellectualisation of the nature of that injustice. In music, that means we have to have a fugue. New motifs and counterpoints and off-beat rhythms complicate matters considerably...as we know, the lawyers always win.

...Now the original idea returns in a strong statement, together with its ideal-world dream and an argument – a tug-of-war between major and minor – that presents a continuing struggle, a perpetuated situation with nobody ready to give in. "We can change this!" "No you can’t!" In human terms it’s at this point that sometimes people get shot for their ideas.

So what’s happened to our basic idea? It seems to be pushed out into a corner – on upper woodwind, surreptitious, then passed down, whispered along from section to section, suppressed, through the lower woodwind until it reaches pizzicato. It’s going underground. The theme seems to have lost the battle. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. And in the last bars a resurgence is promised and left hanging in mid air: it will return. The human condition is the same, injustice remains injustice, and likewise, the final chord is the same as the one at the start.
 
This is the most extraordinary structure. Beethoven builds up a great climax near the beginning, then deconstructs it, suppresses it, yet proves that those ideas must ferment and rise again. 

You can take this idea or leave it - I offer it to you as one possible way of looking at the matter, and just one of many different ways. But to me, it seems to work. 

And this, I believe, is how Beethoven helps us all to change the world.