[ Issue 8 ]

Beethoven is a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil celebrates Beethoven


In this essay of tribute Bet Briggs is moved to tell us of her unbounded enthusiasm for the music of Beethoven.

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"The Most Sublime Noise" Bet Briggs



These words in E.M. Forster's novel Howards End described Beethoven's 5th Symphony: ". . . the most sublime noise that ever penetrated the ear of man." That could be said of all his symphonies and other works. We've just had a good chance to assess. Throughout June we've been served a banquet of Beethoven: all nine symphonies and the five piano concertos, the first complete cycle of these magnificent works played by an Australian orchestra since 1944. In a series of concerts at the Sydney Opera House to celebrate its 25th anniversary, we have heard the world premiere of a new edition of Beethoven's symphonies by Jonathan Del Mar, performed superbly by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart with German pianist, Christian Zacharias, the soloist in the five concertos.

The Beethoven Festival, broadcast by the ABC, has been a huge success. If thunderous applause another sublime noise is any indication, it has been an extraordinary experience for audiences at the concerts and for listeners at home. It would be true to say everybody's talking about the event and will go on talking about the music, the performances by the orchestra and soloists and, of course, Beethoven, for a long time.

Much has been said about Beethoven for over 200 years. Back in 1787 when he and Mozart first met, four years before Mozart's death, Mozart, who really knew his man or boy (for Beethoven, being about 16 or 17 then was half Mozart's age) was much impressed with the young man. After their meeting he predicted in words now well known: "Keep your eyes on him; he'll make the world talk of him some day."

In 1823 Franz Liszt, likewise, was a young prodigy of 14 when he visited Beethoven four years before his death. Beethoven, like Mozart was sceptical of the young performer at first but was soon won over by his brilliant playing. Years later in 1852 Liszt wrote of his debt to Beethoven in a letter to Wilhelm von Lenz:

To us musicians of the work of Beethoven parallels the pillars of smoke and fire which led the Israelites through the desert, a pillar of smoke to lead us by day, and a pillar of fire to light the night, so that we march ahead both day and night. His darkness and his light equally trace for us the road we must follow; both the one and the other are a perpetual commandment, an infallible revelation.

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950) wrote a moving sonnet "On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven". I love these lines:

This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.

Black writer, Ralph Ellison in Harper's Magazine, March 1967, wrote: "Anyone who listens to a Beethoven quartet or symphony and can't hear soul is in trouble. Maybe they can hear the sound of blackness, but they're deaf to the soul."

Even Walt Disney, having adapted Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastoral, for his animated film, Fantasia (1940), is said to have commented: "Gee! This'll make Beethoven." (Marshall McLuhan, Culture is Our Business, 1970)

Beethoven, of course, was already made through his own genius.

This festival will surely continue to enhance his genius. It has been such a joy for performers and listeners, what better way to end now with lines from Schiller's Ode to Joy (1785) which Beethoven set for Chorus and Orchestra to end brilliantly his 9th Symphony, the Choral.

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium.
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

. . .

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek him in the heavens!
Above the stars must He dwell.


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