The analysis of Klemperer’s Interpretation
of Beethoven’s "Eroica"
Changshu Institute of Technology, China
Citation: Wang, Xingxing and Richard Pohl. 2020. "The analysis of Klemperer’s Interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica." Accelerando: Belgrade Journal of Music and Dance 5:1.
This article discusses the interpretative approach of the German conductor Otto Klemperer towards Beethoven’s Third Symphony Eroica. It attempts to analyze the distinctive features of his interpretation in relation to the concepts of Classicism and Romanticism. These are further elaborated by comparisons with several other interpretations. It concludes with acknowledgment, that the overall continuity flow is what makes this interpretation aesthetically coherent and appealing to the listener.
Keywords: Klemperer, analysis, symphony, Eroica, aesthetics, interpretation, classical form
The discovery and realization of a composer’s intention for a performer has been a broadly debated issue over the last century. Different conductors could convey a very different musical image with the same composer’s work, which could vary widely in length. It is important to study how conductors combine their own aesthetics with the composers’ aesthetics, and how they treat different aesthetics in their performances, so that performers can learn subtleties of works and be free and flexible in their own interpretations. This essay will discuss the first movement Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 Eroica and the famous German conductor Klemperer’s interpretation (Philharmonia Orchestra 1955/56) of it
Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 Eroica, composed in 1804, was a revolutionary work in the history of symphony, with significance both in its content and form. The vast and intense range of expressive power gives this work distinctiveness. Its overwhelming emotional impact and the bold use of dominant seventh chords and syncopation were unprecedented in contemporary symphonic literature. Beethoven condensed the texture and expanded musical forms and the scale of each movement to allow for larger symphonic proportions. The symphony extended the scope of expression that a symphony could produce and pointed towards Romanticism. As such, it has been often subject to different interpretations by conductors, which all had to find a way how to deal with the prevailing “heroic myth”.
'The strongest generative musical material is a simple idea'(Sell 1978, 23). Simplicity is a strong characteristic of Beethoven’s aesthetic. He likes to start with the most fundamental and essential musical elements, and develop them into a complicated sonic world which expresses the facets of human nature. This is seen in the four-note motif in his later composition of Symphony No.5. The simpler the musical material, the more possibilities there are for development. This aesthetic is influenced by Haydn who was also an expert on expanding simple musical ideas.
Beethoven uses unexpected gestures in his compositions which gives the element of surprise. His bold use of dominant chords, and the famous ‘barbaric dissonance’ (Bernstein 2007, 206) in Eroica were unknown to his audience and created a sense of tearing. Tonal ambiguity at times in his symphonies gave mysterious shades. For example, the C sharp in measure 7 is completely foreign to E flat major which shows the drama to follow. It has been called 'possibly the most famous single note in the entire symphonic literature' by Richard Taruskin in The Oxford History of Western Music (2019). There are dramatic moments in dynamics too. A crescendo followed by a sudden drop to piano is heard frequently.
The classical symphony which evolved in the eighteenth century usually consisted of four separate movements: a sonata, a slow movement, a minuet and a rondo. Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 Eroica follows this classical symphony form, however it substitutes a funeral march for the slow movement, and a Scherzo for the minuet. In the first movement, Beethoven extended the Development and the Coda on an ‘heroic’ scale. It was the period when he embarked on a “new path”, and was never to turn back.
The first movement Allegro con brio begins without an introduction, unlike in Beethoven’s first two symphonies, and with a strong direct statement of two E flat major tonic chords. In Beethoven’s early sketches, the opening consisted of two dominant seventh chords (Sell op. cit., 23). In comparison, a major tonic chord is a more positive, assured statement rather than one of questioning nature. Then the rest of the movement grows from this E flat major chord, which showed Beethoven’s ideal of developing simple materials organically.
Formal symmetry and cadential rearticulation are typical of the Classical sonata form. However, the Exposition in this movement ends without a periodic closing theme and instead a primitive dominant-minor ninth chord to the tonic. He depicted the form as ‘overpowering syntactic necessity’ with a sense of ‘narrative interpretation’ (Sipe 1998, 101) to the following Development section.
The harmonic and rhythmic intensity in the Development section reached the highest level of the historical context while the full dynamic range of the orchestra is being explored. The violent syncopation from measure 248 builds up tension to measure 279 and drives the upcoming theme, where the flute ends up playing a dissonant minor second supported by an E minor chord in the rest of the orchestra. This trembling tension is left unresolved. There is a quarter rest followed by a diminuendo of the dominant seventh and this leads to a new theme in the Development in E minor.
In a comparison of the recapitulation and exposition, the main difference is the beginning. The preparation of the main theme travels from F major and D flat major before returning to E flat major in Recapitulation. This reflects the journey of the hero during the Development as he becomes more mature (Sell op. cit., 103).
The interpretation of a work can strongly influence what the end product is presented to the audience. Otto Klemperer was one of the leading conductors in the twentieth century. He was famous for his grasp of the structure of works. Solidly rooted in German Romantic ideology, he also had an extensive authoritative repertoire of expressionistic and neoclassical music by Janáček, Weill, Hindemith and Stravinsky during the 1920s and early 1930s. With the unique combination of aesthetics, his performance style was intense, and the level of structure was more about large scales rather than small moments or tone colours.
He was a conductor who could at his best provide interpretations filled with grip and exciting drive. Occasionally, he could provide performances which were lacking balance. But in general, he did not favour the Romantic exaggerated rubato or emotional indulgence as some conductors in his era. His performance of Eroica with the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra in 1955 (one of his three available recordings of the piece) gave it stylistic features which differentiated him from others. In the following analysis, we will try to point out some interesting points in his reading of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. We will also try to compare some of Klemperer’s interpretative choices with those of his well-esteemed peers, carefully choosing from several hundred commercially released recordings of this masterpiece.
It was common performance practice in Beethoven’s music to vary the tempo within a movement to achieve certain emotional expression. This underlines the changing character of music in the early twentieth century (Philip 1994, 196). In Klemperer’s performance of allegro con brio, the tempo starts at approximately 132 beats per minute in both the first theme (heroic theme: mm.1-43) and transition (mm.44-82) within the Exposition. The tempo then starts to slow down with the entrance of the lyrical second theme (m.83). This is only until the big ritard. he placed in measures 92-94 where it is only marked crescendo, sf and dim. The moment is quickly reversed with his stylistic accelerando from m.105 and the marked cresc. to the return of the first theme with the full orchestra. This section reaches the climax of the Exposition after the second theme. In other words, he performs the second theme at a slower tempo with some rubato. The tempo then pulls back with a mysterious decrescendo of the distorted heroic theme before the Development.
The tempo in the Development is similar to the original tempo of the Exposition. However, Klemperer slows down between measure 272 and measure 279 with intensity and weight and this is the legendary climax in the Development. Beethoven’s genius composition here reaches the symphonic expressive power to a new level. The tempo then picks up through the modulating chords of measures 280 - 283 for the lamenting new theme which is not much slower than the original tempo. The original tempo returns once again as the heroic theme enters in measure 300.
Klemperer’s skilful grasp of structure is shown in his unique manipulation of tempo. “Few people are familiar with Beethoven’s informative metronome markings, though they sometimes appear to be very fast and provide only a rough indication of the tempo at which his music should be played."(Klemperer 1986, 98) Overall, there is not a great deal of indulgence in tempo as seen in Furtwängler (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 1947/49)’s performance, with the exception of a few crucial moments of structural transition. This reflects Klemperer’s Classicism style focusing on structures and forms. While matching Beethoven’s Classicism aesthetics here, Beethoven’s compositional style here is moving towards open ended Exposition and Coda.
Performances of the early twentieth century display a more ‘casual attitude’ to rhythm with tendencies to ‘over-dot’ dotted rhythms and shorten short notes (Philip op. cit., 198-199). The flexibility in tempo and rhythm could be interpreted as a characteristic of the late-Romanticism ideal. However, even comes from the Romantic tradition, Klemperer’s performance does not subscribe to the concept of lengthening long notes and shortening short notes. Klemperer once commented about the image of Beethoven: ‘Most people think of Beethoven as a melancholy, tragic, gloomy character, but this is a crude distortion. He was, particularly in his youthful years, a happy-natured, cheerful person.’ (Ibid., 99) A brave and joyful Beethoven is vivid in his performance. In the end, Beethoven himself set a rather fast tempo for his pieces, including this symphony and the first movement, especially.
While the syncopations of this movement are usually marked sforzando, Klemperer places even more stresses on them than Furtwängler, who is constantly after a Romantic warmer sound. The aggressive approach to syncopation gives a Modernist taste of Klemperer’s performance, which also endorses Beethoven’s pointing towards a new era.
The articulation of the string section is not very clear, for example, the syncopated notes from measures 7 - 8, and the fortissimo tutti of measures 364-65 are blurred into a single legato line. This is similar to Furtwängler’s (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performance. In contrast, Müller-Brühl (Kölner Kammerorchester 2005) has a very clear articulation on the syncopation of these measures.
In comparison to Müller-Brühl’s performance, Klemperer placed more articulation on each bar, so each gesture is on the intensity for each bar. In the tutti return of the heroic theme in measures 37-42, Klemperer has a downbeat on each measure, whereas Furtwängler is heavier and beaty. The proportion for dynamics in Klemperer’s interpretation is not rigid, and he aims for more sound quality. This could be seen in the slight tenuto he placed in measure 147 on the ‘barbaric dissonance’ (Bernstein op. cit., 206). He slows down between measures 272 - 79 to create an extremely intensive climax in the Development. Also, in the material of the second theme of the Recapitulation (mm. 488-89), Klemperer uses distinctive rubato for the rising chromatic figures which was not heard when it was first introduced in the Exposition. This emphasis on gestures displays the sentimental and expressionistic side of Klemperer, adding a sad, fragile flavour to this work. It makes a strong contrast to the naïve and hard-edge heroic style. These moments are precisely what is needed if the performance of an often-heard work should not turn in a predictable stream of tension-release clichés.
The Classical side of Klemperer’s performance can be seen in the organic contrapuntal new theme of the Development. The contrapuntal voices from the woodwinds and strings can be heard vividly. They are interdependent with individualized sonorities and instrument combinations.
Klemperer came from a Romantic tradition. He was a pupil of nobody less than the great Gustav Mahler himself. Even though his style developed to be very controlled and more towards Classical compared to his contemporaries, he still maintained some expressive nuances in the symphony. The tone colour change in the woodwinds from forte to pianissimo between measure 367 and measure 381 is a good manifestation of his expressionistic ideal. Their changes made between forte and piano were more of a sound quality change rather than volume change.
Some aspects of his performance are inspired by Neoclassicism. His focus on structure is seen in his performance that each individual rhythmic gesture does not break down phrases, and he moves forward large phrases. This is a common feature of both Neoclassicism and Classicism. Another aspect is that he maintains a driving tempo even in the lamenting new theme in the Development (mm. 284-99). In comparison to Furtwängler’s performance, this new theme section is considerably slower. Klemperer’s desire to turn away from the extreme is also of neoclassical characteristic. For example, there are several places marked from sforzando to piano (mm.10-11; mm.165-166), he takes them not as big change as Furtwängler. Moreover, there is little exaggeration of dynamics in Klemperer’s performance and his style is at times almost reserved. In measure 362, there is little difference between the fortissimo and the preceding sforzando, whereas Müller-Brühl brings out the fortissimo which makes this section similar to the climax of the Development. However, there is an intense climax from mm. 274 to mm. 279 in Klemperer’s performance. This is caused by his manipulation of tempo and strong use of instrumentation on both the strong downbeats and upbeats.
Klemperer’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 Eroica with Philharmonia Orchestra in 1955 is very intense and well-structured and is created without exaggerating the tempo or dynamics. Even though he is influenced by Romanticism, he has a desire to reproduce the sense of harmony, both technically and spiritually. He turns away from the Romantic tradition by avoiding over gesture, high drama and romantic nuances. However, there are still some traits of Romanticism left in his interpretation. There is still pondering and repose, tamed flame under the surface. Eroica is a revolutionary Classical symphony with its dramatic expression characteristics pointing towards Romanticism. While both the ideas of Classicism and Romanticism can be seen in Klemperer’s performance, his intense outburst in the climax of the Development; moments of deep thoughts in the lyrical second theme have an expressionistic feature. In other places, his favour of the ideal of restrained overindulging and keeps moving forward large phrases adds a Neoclassicism flavour to his performance.
All the different aesthetics of Klemperer and his respect to maintaining an untouched score made his interpretation a stylistic one among the huge amount of interpretations available. One of the most significant impacts of the listening to his reading of Eroica is that the piece manages to convey an impression of the work as a whole. The first movement is not dragging, but also not too con brio, serving as an introduction of the heroic theme and managing to make the listener engaged in its unfolding. The second movement is tragic and serious, but not sentimental. The steadiness of it makes more than enough for the rather slower tempo. When we continued listening through the third and fourth movements, we found ourselves perfectly emerged in the story. And then we realize how organically all movements follow each other. As Klemperer’s great rival Bruno Walter once stated:
By meticulous adhering to the continuity principle, in this Klemperer’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica, the elusive Aristotelian unity within complexity has been thoroughly achieved.