A Composer's Adventures

The New Eroica

EroicaI heard a terrific piece of new music the other night. It’s called “Symphony No 3 in Eb Major” (subtitled “Eroica”) by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was written in 1804. How could this great piece be hidden for so long from my well-tuned ears? It was performed by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra with 39 players, led by guest conductor Bruno Weil. At the end, it got a standing ovation, which is rare for a new work.

Of course you know this is tongue-in-cheek, because we have all heard robust versions of this masterpiece by many large orchestras. I had no idea that the real piece was hidden deep inside these blown-up versions, like the smallest of Russian Matryoshka dolls. In this performance the disguise came off and the real piece emerged. It was astonishing to hear.

When the exhilaration died down, I began to wonder why a symphony orchestra would add instruments, as if the composer’s vision wasn’t good enough. Especially with Beethoven! Yet it became customary throughout the world to put Beethoven’s symphonies on steroids. Also Haydn’s, Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s. Yes, some orchestras occasionally play classical music with smaller forces as originally intended, but that is rare. Today, most listeners don’t know that these masterpieces have been altered, so they don’t even get the chance to decide if bigger is really better.

Tafelmusik performed with 13 violins, four violas, six cellos and four basses, all crack musicians who played like a chamber ensemble. The transparency and playfulness was extraordinary, the pianissimos breathtaking. Part of the thrill was performing in Toronto’s Koerner Hall, which is an instrument in its own right.

The usual symphony orchestra has a minimum of at least double that number when playing Beethoven and often Mozart. Of course that has its own rewards, but the music is undoubtedly different. Romantic composers came along and developed the orchestra to a much greater size, especially adding more strings for weight and emotional power. That set the standard.

When conductors occasionally reduce their string sections for classical music, they take a risk because it requires extra rehearsal time to re-create the works to a format where every player really counts. The substance of the music shows up like an X-ray where nothing can be hidden.

As a composer I’m excited by the idea of a work having several lives. A piece can rarely be defined absolutely, because it is constantly changing, depending on the musicians, the conductor, even the acoustics of the hall.  At this moment, I’m a Beethoven enthusiast for Eroica with 39 players.

Michael Colgrass

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