The last weeks of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate will be filled with many “lasts.” Ash Wednesday was his last public Mass. February 14 was his last meeting with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Rome. February 24 will be his last Angelus. His last general audience will take place on February 27 before his final transport to Castel Gandolfo via helicopter on February 28.
February 4 also marked a “last,” perhaps one that will not go down in the annals of history as it should. Everybody knew it would be the last Vatican concert for Giorgio Napolitano, president of the Italian Republic, before he finishes his term as Head of State, but nobody imagined it would be the last concert for Benedict XVI as Supreme Pontiff.
The Italian Embassy to the Holy See offers the concert each year in commemoration of the Lateran Treaty. The orchestra Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, directed by Zubin Mehta, performed the overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It is a pity this magnificent concert will forever be overshadowed by the events that followed in its wake. Benedict and Mr. Napolitano, both avid music fans, enjoyed similar occasions in the past, most notably at Castel Gandolfo last July when Daniel Barenboim directed the West-East Divan Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
As grand as those pieces are, they simply do not match up to Beethoven’s revolutionary Third Symphony in E-flat major, also known as the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony.
The “Great Man” and what lies beyond the grave
Too often sensational tales about the composer’s life distract us from his music. For one just getting into Beethoven, it would be best to listen to his symphonies before picking up a biography. Knowing something about his life would certainly help, but if we could go back in time and sit down with him, Beethoven would be much more interested in playing his latest composition than in rattling on about himself.
In no small part, his eagerness to play rather than chat would be motivated by the increasing deafness that began to assail him at the robust age of 30. It eventually prompted him to write a letter to his brothers Karl and Johann now known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” It is Ludwig’s excruciating apologia for a reclusive lifestyle and the terrible misunderstandings it caused. Ludwig begs his brothers to have his physician publically declare his condition after his death so that the world “may become reconciled to me.”
Harmony, understanding, reconciliation: these were the ideals that compelled Beethoven to continue working in conditions wholly unfavorable to a musician and composer. Every dissonance, every awkward rhythm was ordered to these ends. Beethoven could keep silent about his struggle with deafness, but his music could not. His growing frustration with a deplorable fate nearly led to despair. “What a humiliation,” he wrote, “when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” Sensationalists would like to take the Heiligenstadt Testament as a suicide note, when in fact it proves Beethoven’s determination to continue living no matter what. He confesses that “virtue” and “art” were precisely what dissuaded him from suicide, and he begs Carl to hand these ideals on to his children.
Not long after writing the Testament, Beethoven set to work on the “Eroica.” The symphony was completed in 1804 and bore a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte while he was still First Consul. Beethoven annulled the dedication after receiving news that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, purportedly exclaiming that the general was “no different from any other man! Now he will trample on human rights, put himself ahead of everyone, and act like a tyrant!” In place of the original dedication, Beethoven decided that the symphony in E-flat would celebrate the rise of a “great man,” the ideal hero who brings liberty and equality to all mankind. In his comments after the performance on February 4, Pope Benedict noted that the music portrays a hero facing a choice between surrender and battle, death and life, defeat and victory. Each movement expresses some dominant emotion, but it does so by contrasting it with opposite emotions.
The Holy Father’s comments focused on the second movement, the famed “Funeral March,” whose mournful primary theme in C-minor eventually gives way to a hopeful oboe solo in C-major. This in turn leads into an intense double fugue in F-minor, a section of relentless, methodical expansion exploiting every color known to the 19th-century orchestra. The depth of feeling in this passage is wonderfully visible on the face of Count Dietrichstein (played by Jack Davenport) as he listens to the debut performance of the symphony in the BBC made-for-television movie entitled Eroica. This scene is all the more effective in that the horns blare slightly out of tune, heightening the music’s brutal impact.
The fugue is so emotionally charged we are almost relieved when Beethoven finally returns to the original march. But we don’t linger there for long. The violins climb to a soft, haunting A-flat that soon explodes into a blast of trumpets, warning us not to take death lightly. Pope Benedict hears in these stunning musical contrasts an invitation to reflect on what lies beyond the grave. He quoted Beethoven’s plea in the Heiligenstadt Testament for God to look into his soul to see his “love for humanity” and his “desire to do good,” the only things that will outlast his life on earth. The second movement expresses a search for meaning, the Pope continued, which is open to a firm hope in the future.
Philosophizing with rhythm
I must confess that death, love for humanity, and a desire to do good were far from my mind the first time I listened to the Eroica in college. I was aware of its reputation and therefore deliberately avoided it until I had devoured as much Mozart and Haydn as possible. The first bars of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A-major were, thankfully, my first introduction to the classical symphony. I had listened to the Romantics prior to that, though most of my time was spent lounging with friends on Saturday afternoons listening to and imitating recordings of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. We were crazy about jazz and improvisation, but most of all, we were obsessed with rhythm.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out” album began our adventure. We were eventually led back to the endless possibilities of traditional time-signatures, scooping up every be-bop vinyl we could find. We were fed up with rock and pop, but we still admired the bold but subtle use of experimental rhythm in songs like and “If 6 was 9” (Jimmy Hendrix), “Kashmir” (Led Zeppelin), and “Do It Again” (Steely Dan).
Then Beethoven stepped in. My first recording of the Eroica was of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I disagree with The New Yorker’s critic Alex Ross on many things, but I join him in placing Bernstein’s recording at the top of my list, and basically for the same reasons. I had just moved into a new dorm that September and had not even unpacked before cuing up the 33. The two opening chords and immediate introduction of the main subject were definitely a jolt. The lilt from D-natural to C-sharp was unnerving. But nothing compared to what happened at bar 23. For the next fifteen seconds, I was transported to another rhythmical stratosphere. Beethoven’s syncopation blows Beyoncé out of the water. I simply couldn’t go on. I lifted the needle, put it back at the beginning, and listened again, and again, and again, tapping along in 3/4 time until I thought I figured it out. Finally, I let myself listen to the entire symphony, scribbled down some notes, and ran to the library to find a score. I was sure Beethoven had slipped in a couple of 2/4 bars in that opening section, but I was wrong. He had superimposed double and triple times without—excuse the cliché—missing a beat. Only later did I realize that Beethoven was preparing us for a whole series of superimposed double and triple meters later the symphony, including in the funeral march.
Looking back on the episode, I now understand that what bothered me was the order and precision with which Beethoven introduced ambiguity and confusion into his music, and that he did so right off the bat. No need for an introduction, no need to wait for the development. Until that time I was convinced that if you wanted to fool around with rhythm, you had to free your spirit and improvise. You had to suppress rational thinking and give into raw emotion. Rhythm was something you danced to, not philosophized with. Beethoven proved me wrong.
I now realize that my life lacked sufficient turmoil to make sense of what Beethoven was up to. In fact, any turmoil in my life was caused by shirking my responsibility to make sense of the world. Music, for me, was a vicarious way of experiencing life rather than the means of “processing” it—as infelicitous as the term may be. That is not to say that music has no intrinsic value, but only that its ultimate value is refracted through a prism of the maturity, wisdom, and love that come with age. If I listen to Dave Brubeck (may he rest in peace), it is to take a conscious step back and unload my mind of weighty thoughts rather than to discover a higher meaning in unconventional time signatures. Dave Brubeck’s music has value, but, unlike Beethoven, Brubeck was out to entertain, not to enlighten.
The Eroica jumped light-years ahead of Haydn and Mozart even though Beethoven was using the same building blocks. The formal characteristics of the four movements clearly hang together in standard symphonic form. Within that form, however, Beethoven introduces unprecedented dissonance and explosive contrasts that would affect music for the rest of the century. He develops themes to an extent they were never developed before, giving fresh impetus to the use of “variations,” a genre he was most fond of. The thickness of his orchestration, alternating forceful tutti passages with delicate solo lines, gives breadth to the sound without sacrificing economy.
Beethoven took what he learned from Haydn and Mozart but transformed it into something so ethereal that even the untrained ear can hear the difference. He did so not only by unusual tonal combinations, but with awkward rhythms that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Since rhythm speaks to our savage side, Beethoven’s audience may have been ill at ease with his ingenuity. The piece could have sparked a riot not unlike that witnessed at the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But there is an important difference. Whereas Stravinsky’s aim was to orchestrate an orgiastic outburst, Beethoven was setting up a heroic struggle that could only be overcome through perseverance and resignation. There are moments when the superimposed double and triple meters are in conflict, and other moments when they blissfully coexist. Encroaching deafness caused Beethoven to swing from one extreme to the other, passing from tranquil solitude to terrifying isolation. The hero Beethoven had in mind seems to have been a figure of firm principles but also practical wherewithal. He not only knows what is good, right, and just, he devotes himself to bringing it about. Musically, Beethoven does not tell the story of the hero, but rather develops ideas central to the hero’s existence: struggle in the first movement, death in the second, joy in the third, and a desire to share the fruits of his travails in the fourth. The hero’s emergence as a harbinger of renewed humanity is made all the more poignant by Beethoven borrowing a theme from The Creatures of Prometheus, a ballet in which he depicts the story of the Greek hero who robs fire from the gods and gives it to men.
“Everything is different from today”
From the first notes, it was clear that Maggio Musicale Fiorentino would offer a unique but faithful interpretation. Mehta conducts the first measures not with sharp, downward gestures, but by moving his hands outward from his chest, creating a sense of space that continues throughout the symphony. The tempo is never rushed so that themes can be passed seamlessly from one instrument to another. Gentleness even pervades the development section, giving a majestic sound to the horns and a deliberate, controlled sound to the strings.
Mehta’s attention to the “classic” characteristics of the symphony highlights its anomalies. Contrasts, for example, are executed by dynamic changes rather than by punching the notes. The more relaxed tempo allows the mind to remember kernels of musical ideas later developed into full-blown themes. Devoid of pretence, the piece proceeds with a confidence and poise seldom found in contemporary performances. Mehta has worked with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino for 25 years to place them among the best of European orchestras. They have played the entire cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies several times, and it shows. They know the music backwards and forwards and leave nothing to chance, so that their intense concentration makes the emotion all the more convincing.
Mehta is convinced that, as revolutionary as Beethoven was, he did not and could not start from scratch. He had studied the symphonic form and he wished to remain within it. He certainly intended to widen the symphonic audience, but he did so by maximizing the potential of an already proven musical form. Mehta relishes in the power of absolute music to convey drama through contrasts: fullness and airiness of sound, sudden diminuendos, sforzandos followed by pianissimos, reversals of rhythm, and exasperating tonal ambiguity. Beethoven did change a lot in music, but the soil was already ripe for change by the time he arrived on the scene. The world had indeed changed. As Joseph Haydn remarks in the BBC movie, “everything is different from today.”
Such a thought is no less apt for what the Pope announced on February 11, 2013. The world has changed and, along with it, the role of the papacy. “In today’s world,” the Pontiff said, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Such strength was always necessary, but not in the way it is needed today. Any pope today must manage a grueling schedule of meetings and audiences, liturgies and voyages. Such demands would test the strength of any 60-year-old, let alone a man of 85.
It would be unfair to use Beethoven’s hero as an allegory for Benedict’s pontificate. Yet I don’t think it would be unfair to view the hero’s confrontation with life and death, with moments of struggle and resignation, as a way of understanding the discernment that led the Holy Father to make the most difficult decision of his life. We all must discern when to overcome our limitations and when to accept them. It is not a question of whether to keep on fighting, but of how to fight. When it seems the battle would be better waged by placing someone else on the front lines, a wise but weaker soldier will yield his place to a stronger comrade.
Perhaps Benedict’s decision will change the papacy forever, or maybe 600 years will pass before another pope resigns. Time will tell. But one thing is for sure. A man of Benedict XVI’s spiritual depth, theological acumen, and love for the Church would never make a decision like this without prolonged reflection, consultation, and prayer. He also would not make it if he weren’t grounded in the profound faith that the Lord is in charge—not he, not we.
After the concert, the Holy Father noted how human existence is marked by a yearning for God, for his mercy and for his love which “offer light, meaning and hope, even in the midst of darkness. Faith imparts this perspective which is not make-believe. It is real. As Saint Paul writes, ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39). This is the strength of a Christian born from the death and resurrection of Christ, from the supreme act of a God who entered human history not only with words, but by becoming incarnate.”
If Pope Benedict XVI had said only this, his last eight years on the throne of Peter would still have been an inestimable gift to the Church and to the world.
Viva il Papa!