Transcendent Humanity 

The NSO to spotlight Beethoven's sublime Eroica

The NSO to spotlight Beethoven's sublime Eroica

A Mozart piano concerto and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony comprise the bulk of the Nashville Symphony's Jan. 21-22 program, and they pretty well define the word war-horse. But there's a reason for it. These pieces are what all the fuss is about with classical music. Eroica is one of the works in which Beethoven lays out a vision of a secular, humanist spirituality, showing humanity achieving a transcendent state without the intervention of Jehovah or religion. When someone says "secular humanism," they mean Beethoven, even if they don't realize it.

Beethoven originally titled his Third Symphony "Bonaparte," seeing in the French leader the realization of ideals of liberty and reason that characterized progressive movements of the time; however, he stripped that reference when Napoleon declared himself emperor. The change left the work better off, standing alone as an embodiment of enlightenment and humanism, not beholden to the actions of one man.

In this piece, Beethoven works sound in an extremely focused way, sometimes using little more than an interval or a gesture, like the two-note statement that opens the first movement and recurs as climaxes and boundaries throughout it. His handling of musical material focuses attention on the concrete characteristics of the music as sound, which then becomes the building material for a structure of monumental proportions. All of the parts integrate tightly through their own internal logic, as in the final movement, where melody becomes harmony when Beethoven slows down a theme and converts it into a cantus firmus that carries along traceries of improvisatory writing. The self-sufficient grandeur of the work, which is not dependent on tunes that sit on top of the compositional fabric or on liturgical forms, is a triumph in which the imagination, corralling chaos, creates something new and stunning. This achievement and our ability to enter its universe elevates all of us.

If you want to protect society from the forces of secular humanism, don't go to this concert. If you think humanity has an inherent dignity and beauty that we need to connect with more thoroughly, Beethoven's music puts you into the presence of that potential.

None of this is to slight Mozart and the Piano Concerto No. 23, to be played by Angela Hewitt (a major artist known for her comprehensive recordings of Bach's keyboard works on Hyperion, as well as releases of pieces by Couperin, Chopin, Ravel and Messiaen). You can make the case that Mozart was a forerunner to Beethoven in forging a newly dignified human self-image freed from the shackles of feudalism, but he did not break as thoroughly with the structures of the past. After all, Mozart composed a Requiem and church music, genres that are more alien to Beethoven.

—David Maddox


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