From music scholar and biographer Lockwood (Emeritus, Music/Harvard Univ.; Beethoven: The Music and the Life, 2002, etc.), a close examination of nine works at the heart of the Western classical tradition.
“For Beethoven, the symphony was a lifetime preoccupation,” writes the author, who draws on the composer’s detailed and comprehensive sketchbooks to trace the evolution of this preoccupation from the “supremely competent” First Symphony through “Ode to Joy,” the stunning choral finale to the Ninth. Acknowledging the profound musical influence of Haydn, Mozart, and (in later years) Bach, Lockwood also points to the wildly popular plays of Friedrich Schiller as inspirations for what Beethoven wished to achieve in his symphonies: “the ability to stir large audiences to emotional depths they had not experienced before.” The author’s technical analyses of such factors as key, tempo, and instrumentation are likely to daunt casual music lovers, but each chapter also contains eloquent summaries of each symphony’s impact on listeners, both at the time of its premiere and over the centuries, and of its place within Beethoven’s overall artistic development. The titanic nature of his ambitions, and the centrality of the symphony to them, is evident from the time of the Third Symphony, with which, Lockwood writes, Beethoven “lifted the genre of the symphony onto a new plane of expression and grandeur.” While the composer is perhaps best known for that grandeur and for such forceful moments as the famous four-note opening of the Fifth Symphony (“Thus Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven is said to have remarked), the author also evinces and elicits appreciation for the quieter pleasures of the Fourth and the Sixth, or “Pastoral,” displaying the composer’s profound love for nature. The epilogue movingly affirms Beethoven’s symphonies as “exemplars of what great music can still mean in our fragmented and pessimistic age.”
Of particular interest to specialists but written with an authority and passion that will appeal to general readers as well.