An Ode To Joy In Record Time

02/27/2017 11:09 am ET

Ever notice how Beethoven, in portraits or busts, is always frowning?

All that’s about to change.

Brace yourself, London.

Benjamin Zander will lead the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus on March 18th at the Royal Festival Hall in a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th that will be the talk of the music world.

That’s because Maestro Zander has the temerity to follow the original tempi, or speed marks, that the great composer actually established for his score.

The resulting performance will take only 58 minutes, instead of the 70 to 82 that most conductors require. (The 80 minute length of the Compact Disc was specifically designed to accommodate Beethoven's Ninth).

“The metronome came into existence late in Beethoven’s career,” Zander explains. “Beethoven loved it. This way, he said, he could determine precisely at what tempo he wanted his pieces played. His precise quote was ‘I look upon the invention of the metronome as a welcome means of assuring the performance of my compositions everywhere in the tempi conceived by me, which to my regret have so often been misunderstood.’”

Not that anyone cared. Conductors have always considered the pace of a piece to be their business, not the composer’s—sort of like the auteur theory of movie directing.

Zander says “My goal is to examine the best musicological evidence of what Beethoven actually wrote, and then try to make sense of it, rather that tossing it out as rubbish because it doesn’t seem to fit the mold. Through this process, I strive to determine the original intent of the composer and play that.”

Zander has been analyzing the score, over the past 35 years, doing research, and identifying places where, either through transcription errors or other reasons, orchestras have been playing Beethoven’s 9th slower (and in one crucial section faster) than the composer indicated. “There are at least 10 places in the score” Zander says “where we have misunderstood his intent all these years and 5 or 6 of them are really major errors. If Beethoven were to hear what we are doing to his greatest masterpiece he would explode in fury. Do you think he didn’t care? His pupil Ferdinand Ries tells how Beethoven made him go over a section of one of his pieces 17 times and still wasn’t satisfied! I imagine that Beethoven is always listening to what we are doing”.

The choices that Zander makes, which will be preserved in a recording he and the Philharmonia will make early in March, are certain to ignite massive controversy in the music world. You don’t take an iconic piece like the 9th, with its breathtaking Ode To Joy finale, speed it up, and expect that everybody’s going to fall in line and say thank you.

“This is my personal homage to Beethoven,” says Zander, a youthful 78. “It is my passionate determination to play the piece the way the composer meant it to be performed. Apart from the tempi, you will hear viola lines that you can never hear. Parts in the slow movement that can seem dull and labored suddenly flow and soar. And in one of the most climactic moments of the Finale, you’ll hear a great diminuendo that Beethoven clearly marked but which I think probably hasn’t been heard since the performance he himself conducted at the premiere. I have absolutely no doubt that we will be performing the piece the way that Beethoven conceived it. I feel with every fiber of my body that this is what he would have wanted.”

So keep an eye, London, and the rest of the music world, on those scowling Beethoven portraits and busts. After March 18th, the great composer may well be smiling.

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