Notes from Roaring Fork Valley Musician Nancy Thomas
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
In earlier blogs, I discussed some of the most familiar and monumental piano sonatas of the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven’s life. Now we will move on to a discussion of his symphonic writings, starting with the early period. Beethoven had moved to Vienna to establish himself as a virtuoso performer and composer. He seemed to quickly grasp the wave of the future in symphonic writing as seen in the strength of his writing for winds, brass and strings, and the overall expansion of the form through clever manipulation of harmony, texture and varied melodies. We will start with a look at Symphonies No.1 and No. 2.
To explore these compositions, I thought nothing could be more informative than to ask an orchestral performer to discuss the subject with us. I chose Nancy Thomas, violist/violinist, teacher and former Festival Orchestra member and editor for AMFS to do the honors. Nancy, a longtime Aspen resident, has contributed much to the cultural life of this valley. She will share with you her various stages of developing an appreciation and love for Beethoven, an appreciation that continues to grow even now. Enjoy!
Beethoven and Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Ever since Charlotte McLain first proposed her Basalt Library project dedicated to the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, I’ve been revisiting my sense of this giant musician and his music. My assignment is to discuss the First and Second Symphonies, and the Coronavirus has forced upon me the time to think. If I seem to ramble, perhaps it’s the quarantine.
I confess I haven’t always loved Beethoven. An appreciation of the power and beauty of his music came on only gradually. I was raised in a musical household. My mother taught piano and was an accomplished early music performer. And my father, a scientist in his working life, was a good amateur violinist and pianist. So it’s not the case that I didn’t hear Beethoven, I did. I just wasn’t drawn to his music.
An affinity for Beethoven had to come about slowly, over time, with direct experience. I’m pretty sure I played Beethoven at Interlochen National Music Camp, which I attended for two summers (1951 and ’52). Beethoven, however, couldn’t match Smetana’s Moldau, nor soon after, Britten’s Enigma Variations, with its gorgeous viola-charged variations. I was being drawn into music, to its power to move, but Beethoven still stood on the sidelines.
During my freshman year at the University of Michigan (1955), I encountered for the first time the Ninth Symphony. I sang soprano in the chorus. What can I say? I did not understand the Ninth. Beethoven took the sopranos up into the stratosphere and then just left us there to screech! Painful. What was that about? But there was drama, that’s for sure.
Next, as a music literature major I had an unforgettable yearlong seminar on the Beethoven String Quartets, with Oliver Edel, the cellist of the resident Stanley Quartet. The discussions put meat on the bones. My first two summers in Aspen, (1961 and ’62), our student quartet coached Opus 18, no. 6 and Opus 59, no. 3 with Claus Adam, cellist of the Juilliard Quartet. The detail and refinement that this master musician and inspiring teacher offered us were a revelation. I was hooked!
The Ninth Symphony came up again, with the Nashville Symphony in 1966. In rehearsal the conductor Willis Page, himself a bass player, threw a tantrum with the basses. Blustering that they were playing way too loud at their solo entrance in the last movement, he jumped off the podium and stormed back to the section, grabbed the principal’s instrument, and yelled and demonstrated. Mission accomplished! In the performance the basses played pianiss-issimo at that spot. Was it out of fear or inspiration, who knows? The ethereal effect made for a memorable moment. Beethoven was made indelible.
As for the early Symphonies, I believe I first encountered them in an unusual context. I played them with my dad in an arrangement for 4-hand piano. It was a stretch, what we could muster, with Dad on the bass and me on the treble.
I recently assembled a list of the nearly 60 conductors I’ve played under as a student, as a professional freelancer and orchestra player. I have vivid memories of performances of particular works under particular conductors. What explains then that I don’t recall when, where, or with whom I’ve played Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies? Nonetheless, the power of Beethoven must have somehow embedded itself in me. Today, I am thrilled by the beauty of these two masterful symphonies.
For two sterling interpretations of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies, give a listen to Leonard Bernstein’s performance with Vienna Philharmonic and Roger Norrington’s with Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. From Bernstein, the dramatist, and Norrington, the classicist, you may be surprised to hear how their restraint and expansion play out.
Leave a Reply.