Welser-Möst set to explore Beethoven-Shostakovich nexus with Cleveland Orchestra

By David Fleshler

Franz Welser-Most will conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Shostakovich Feb. 27 and 28 at the Arsht Center. Photo: Satoshi Aoyagi

Franz Welser-Most will conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Shostakovich Feb. 27 and 28 at the Arsht Center. Photo: Satoshi Aoyagi

Hiking in the Himalayan Mountains, where others might contemplate icy vistas or the possibility of glimpsing a snow leopard, Franz Welser-Möst found himself thinking of Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich.

As music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst had conducted their works many times. But he began musing on the similarities and differences between these two great musical spirits, both masters of the symphony, whose works the orchestra will perform February 27 and 28 at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Both were deeply unhappy men, Beethoven because of his deafness, Shostakovich for composing under the cold eyes of one of history’s most murderous dictators, a man who took, unfortunately, a lively interest in classical music. Although both cared about human freedom, they worked in sharply different political and social circumstances, with Beethoven producing optimistic, heroic affirmations of the human spirit and Shostakovich composing craggy, twisted works full of riddles and hidden meanings.

“Beethoven lived when there was an atmosphere of things changing for the better,” Welser-Möst said in a recent phone interview. “There was Napoleon and a hope of getting rid of the aristocracy in France. There was an atmosphere that something was moving in a direction where there would be more freedom.

“For Shostakovich, of course he wanted freedom, and he knew there was really no chance of freedom in his lifetime – World War I, World War II, Stalin, who was as much a tyrant and dictator as Hitler was and killed as many people as Hitler did. Shostakovich, who was forced to write to praise the Soviet regime, found a way to get his political message across in a less obvious way because otherwise they would have just executed him.”

The hike in the Himalayas took place a few years ago, but Welser-Möst is finally fulfilling his plan to pair works by the two composers in concerts with his orchestra. He will lead a pair of programs entitled “Fate and Freedom,” with the Feb. 27 concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica,” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, and the Feb. 28 concert devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.

In Beethoven’s world of political optimism, the ancien regime appeared to be crumbling, with the French Revolution, American Revolution and dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. In music, opera buffa mocked an out-of-touch aristocracy often manipulated by their more resourceful social inferiors. Beethoven himself had no doubt of his own worth, realizing that his work would persist long after the departure of the Cognac-sipping aristocrats who commissioned his compositions. And where Haydn and Mozart (to a lesser extent) accepted their inferior status, Beethoven is credited (and blamed) with creating the persona of the Artist – the creative genius, not simply the successful craftsman, an egomaniacal, self-absorbed figure that was to reach its awful climax with Richard Wagner.

The Symphony No. 3 was Beethoven’s own contribution to the world-changing activities swirling around turn- of-the-century Europe. He originally dedicated the work to Napoleon, a man busy smashing the old European order. But when, in a manner that would be unsurprising to any observer of revolutionary leaders, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, Beethoven to angrily struck his name from the symphony and rededicated the work “to the memory of a great man.” The removal of the dedication did nothing to alter the work’s revolutionary nature, its heroic tone – and equally heroic length – its grand sweep and drama, which did more than virtually any other work to wrest music from the Classical Era and open the way to what would follow.

“Beethoven’s middle symphonies, numbers 3, 4 and 5, were written during a period where there was a movement amongst the Middle European intellectuals, the fight for the Good, they called it, Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven,” Welser-Möst said. “Even though nobody really defined what it meant, just coming out of the age of Enlightenment.”

The major cause of Beethoven’s unhappiness was deafness. By his late 20s, he was losing his hearing, a deprivation that led to social isolation and struck at the core of his life’s purpose. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, a deeply personal will and letter to his two brothers that he wrote in 1802 from the Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, he wrote, “For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands.”

As for music, he wrote, “What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”

In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, an orchestral journey from the fire and thunder of the famous first movement to shining, affirmative triumph in the last, many hear the victory of Beethoven’s resolution to live and give meaning to his life, a victory of the spirit over a physical malady.

“Beethoven made a very strong statement in the Fifth, saying in Latin, which was very much quoted in that time Per aspera ad astra, Through the fire to the stars,” Welser-Möst said. “That is very much the Fifth Symphony.”

Hard-won as the triumph of the Fifth Symphony may have been, no one doubts its genuineness. This is not the case for the equally noisy endings of Shostakovich’s Sixth and Tenth symphonies, both of which append loud, major-key conclusions to works wreathed in darkness, mystery and pain. With their brooding passages in the lower strings, bleak and lonely wind solos, crescendos that proceed with the grinding relentlessness of a tank assault, these symphonies emerged from a very different environment than that of upper-class Vienna.

Beethoven may have been irritated by the occasional snub of social superiors, but he did not live in fear of the 2 a.m. knock on the door. Shostakovich, who endured the Russian Revolution and the worst years of Stalin’s oppression, saw colleagues condemned to imprisonment, torture and death. He saw his own status called into question on a single chilling night in 1936, when Stalin attended a performance of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and appeared visibly displeased with the music. A denunciation of the opera quickly followed in Pravda, and Shostakovich found himself struggling to fight his way out of disfavor just as Stalin’s Great Terror settled over the country.

Forced to compose with Stalin watching over his shoulder, Shostakovich found ways to work his true feelings into his music in a manner that would escape the notice of the dictator and his henchmen. Soviet music authorities demanded affirmative music that would appeal to the common people, music that would glorify the revolution and vilify its enemies. Among the results were the strange, manic endings to his symphonies, endings that may sound superficially like the triumph over adversity of Beethoven’s Fifth but that were in reality very different.

“These loud endings are somewhat empty,” Welser-Möst said. “They have a shallow feeling to them. Later on, as a conductor, you learn how he does it. He writes extremes, like with piccolos and the low brass and so on, and in between he doesn’t fill it up. That gives you that feeling it’s hollow. In the Sixth Symphony at the end, with this too-fast march, it’s actually a march which is at the edge of craziness. There are people who would say it’s a Rossini-inspired ending . No, it’s a happiness forced onto people. It gets very clear at the end that he makes that marching meter really vulgar, and he sort of takes away the mask of it and says what you got excited about is actually really vulgar, brutal and cruel.”

The Cleveland Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 at 8 p.m. Feb. 27; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 at 8 p.m. Feb. 28. Both concerts are at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. arshtcenter.org; 305-949-6722

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Thu Feb 19, 2015
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