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String parts from Eroica opening
Opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica (string parts)
(public domain, via IMSLP)

The producer of the video clip below must really like Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – and must have quite a record collection. Here we have no fewer than 66 different approaches to the opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

It’s pretty entertaining in its own way, especially if your idea of humor is (in)variation on a theme! In fact, that may be all that its creator intended. But I wonder if it doesn’t say something, deliberately or not, about changing performance practice, and the way different conductors approach the same work.

You can’t assign a formula to it, of course. Still, as the years have gone by, prevailing ideas about Beethoven’s tempi have changed – mostly toward faster.

This is an issue that musicians have argued over for generations. Johann Maelzel’s metronome dates from 1812, eight years after Beethoven completed the Eroica, but Beethoven later added metronome markings to the score. Many conductors – and scholars – still insist that Beethoven can’t possibly have meant for his works to be played as fast as his markings indicate, that his metronome must have been inaccurate. But in more recent years, some conductors have taken Beethoven at his word, and not just those closely associated with the historically informed performance movement, either. That has resulted in some – shall we say – exciting, even breathtaking, readings.

So, are the more (dare I call them) ponderous deliveries of these chords near the beginning of this 1929 – 2011 chronology? That will be left as an exercise for the reader.

As for overall stylistic trends, those too have evolved, but interpretation remains highly individual with the conductor. Just ask anyone who has heard a work he loved on WKSU and bought a CD of it, only to find – maybe to his chagrin! – that it sounds quite different under a different baton. (I know this experience all too well from my own light-walleted early days of record buying, when I fell victim to the siren song of $2.98 bargain-table LPs.)

This is nowhere more apparent in the immense range of ways these conductors interpret the same two measures. To my ears, at least, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, and Fritz Reiner give Beethoven’s chords something akin to a gravitas. George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Osmo Vanska, and Andrew Manze pull back the slingshot with these notes, launching the orchestra into the first movement. Rene Liebowitz, Michael Gielen, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt almost breeze past them.

This clip will drive one more contrast home: the pitch difference between modern instrument and period instrument orchestras. The latter play about a half-step lower. Once you’ve heard it this way, you’ll never forget it. The producer of this video clip has no mercy.

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