Entertainment Music

Monday 20 May 2019

From Budapest to Berlin with Beethoven

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


George Hamilton

Almost exactly 30 years ago, in Budapest, I had a concert experience the like of which I'd never had before, and there's been nothing remotely similar since.

Monday evening, seven o'clock. One work. No interval.

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In 90 minutes, we were back out on the street, the dim glow of the street lights losing their battle against the dark.

In 1989, the Hungarian capital was behind the Iron Curtain, the red star still on top of the dome of the riverside parliament building.

Looking back, it's almost as if the concert that night was part of a giant geopolitical jigsaw.

Before that year was out, the Iron Curtain would be swept aside.

Within a decade and a half, Hungarians would hear the music as the anthem of the European Union their nation had just joined.

Yes, it was Beethoven's Ninth we'd gone to experience that evening on the banks of the blue Danube.

Among the major symphonies, it ranks as the greatest, the composer's finest achievement, part orchestral masterpiece, part oratorio.

It stands on a summit, the last great Classical showpiece, already pointing towards the Romantic horizon.

What is truly remarkable is that when Beethoven completed the symphony, he was profoundly deaf.

He stood on the podium when it was first performed in Vienna in 1824, but he wouldn't have heard a single note. The principal violinist was actually doing the conducting.

The stories about that premiere on a Friday evening in May have become the stuff of musical legend. The most famous centres on the conclusion of one of the movements of the symphony. Beethoven, lost in concentration and unable to hear, had got a bit behind, and was still gesticulating - throwing himself around like a madman, as one of the players recalled - unaware that the orchestra had stopped.

Behind him, the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. He had eyes only for the score on his stand.

One of the singers had to turn him around so that he could enjoy the hugely positive response to his music.

But the evening ended on a sour note. When the takings were totted, the profits were slim.

Worse was to follow. Two weekends later, the symphony was reprised at an afternoon concert.

That Sunday in Vienna was a gorgeous day. The hall was only half full. They came out in the red.

Amazing to think that what has come to be recognised as the pinnacle of symphonic achievement got off to such a chequered start.

It is truly an amazing creation, open to interpretation as an autobiographical statement about life's struggles.

The deaf composer's opening bars seem to reflect a stressful battle to create sound from silence before the strength of the music takes hold.

And that music inexorably leads, through three movements, to the triumphant finale, which is all about the victory of sound over silence.

The chorus of voices delivers the words of the German playwright and poet, Friedrich Schiller, celebrating the brotherhood of man - his Ode to Joy.

They played the symphony in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leonard Bernstein conducted musicians from both sides of the divide, first in the West, then, on Christmas Day 1989, in East Berlin.

Nine months before, in Budapest, little did we know where Beethoven's Ninth was going to lead.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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