I didn’t actually finish this one today (in fact, I’ve read it a couple of times, the last being last October). But I might as well review it, while I’m on the subject of Beethoven books, because this is a much better book than the Berlioz book (well, much better if your goal is to really understand Beethoven symphonies).
This one was still written a long time ago – in 1898 in England, to be precise, but it’s really never gone out of print. I discovered my copy in a second-hand bookstore in Brisbane. It was $20 (because they said it was brand new), which is another example of the things I hate about second-hand bookstores (honestly, you’re almost better buying brand new sometimes).
However, in this case, it was money well-spent. I can honestly say that this is one of those books which have changed my life. This book was probably the last step in a Beethoven purchasing chain. As I mentioned right back in my first post, I was quite a fan of the Immortal Beloved soundtrack. In fact, I even went so far as to buy the follow-up album, More Immortal Beloved, which goes to show something.
Having enjoyed those two CDs, I decided to splurge out, and bought myself a copy of the complete Beethoven symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, which is, I believe, still one of the cheapest CD box sets you can buy in Australia. (It doesn’t seem to be so cheap in America, though, for some reason.)
The problem I found, though, was that while I enjoyed listening to the CDs when the famous bits came on, the rest of the symphonies (and there’s a lot of “the rest of the symphonies” once you move outside the famous bits, believe me) tended to sound exactly the same. I couldn’t really hear any subtle difference.
So when I came across this book by Grove, which was promising to take me almost bar by bar through the symphonies and explain them all, I was intrigued. To my utter delight, the book delivered all of that. I struggled a bit at first, because even though Grove is writing for laypeople of his time, he assumes that a layperson can read music (which I could, so that was all right) and also that they know the structure of a classical symphony, especially sonata form (which I did not). I finally managed to piece together what he was talking about, and how sonata form works (and I’ll explain that in another post some day).
Once I got that out of the way, I was able to sit back and enjoy his book. And it was amazing. All of a sudden, the music just came alive. For instance, one of the most memorable passages in the book concerns the slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which is commonly known as the “Heroic” (or Eroica symphony, because it describes a great hero in the music). Very briefly, it contains a big fugue (which is kind of like a round, if you remember those – where one voice starts a little bit after another, but when all the voices are singing, they all combine together), followed by a loud passage for the brass. Grove describes it as follows:
“In this noble and expressive passage of fugal music we might be assisting at the actual funeral of the hero, with all that is good and great in the nation looking on as he was lowered into his tomb; and the motto might well be Tennyson’s words on Wellington–
In the vast cathedral leave him,
God accept him, Christ receive him.
“Then occurs a passage as of stout resistance and determination, the trumpets and horns appealing against Fate in their loudest tones, and the basses adding a substratum of stern resolution. But it cannot last; the old grief is too strong, the original wail returns, even more hopless than before; the basses again walk in darkness, the violins and flutes echo their vague tones so as to aggravate them tenfold, and the whole forms a long and terrible picture of gloomy distress.”
I remember reading this and thinking, That really all happens in the music? I’ve never heard that before. But then I’d play the symphony, and lo and behold – there it was! The fugue did sound like a vast funeral, the trumpets and horns were appealing against Fate, and when the music does get quet again and the violins and flutes come in, it is a gloomy, gloomy picture. It was incredible. (When I wrote my own, I more or less followed a similar pattern to Grove, except that I kept things a bit more simple, because I assumed that my readers wouldn’t be able read music or know what sonata form is.)
So really, if you can cope with the technical difficulties, I highly recommend this book. Some of his descriptions and the things he gets enthusiastic about have changed with the years, and obviously a lot of his opinions are subjective, but it is still a good book to get an introduction to the Beethoven symphonies.
4 1/2 out of 5.