Beethoven by Numbers

On Sunday I played my viola in a chamber orchestra concert in front of a real live audience.  What a treat.  All Beethoven; we played the third piano concerto and the fifth symphony.  Both in C minor.  Beethoven can be a bit grumpy.  Well, he had a lot to put up with.  All these sforzandi in unusual places.  People used to think they were misprints – clearly the stress should be at the beginning of the bar and not suddenly in the middle.  I wonder if this is how Beethoven heard the world, as a series of unpredictable and excruciating bangs and crashes.  No wonder he had a temper. Yet he could leave C minor and compose, in E major, the sublime passage for unaccompanied piano at the start of the slow movement of the third piano concerto.  There is something magical about sitting silently in a crowded hall and hearing, from within the body of the orchestra, the solo piano iterate that theme.  I almost felt as if Beethoven were in the room.    

I wonder if he minded my taking part, with my aged, crumbling technique, trying not to pollute the soundscape.  I think he might have admired the resolve to take up the outworn, buried tools and make the effort, after the fashion of Tennyson’s Ulysses –

Made weak my time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

Yes, I think Beethoven would have admired that.  And if you are going to be an impostor, why not join in what is arguably the most famous orchestral opening in the entire repertoire?  Beethoven 5 seems to haunt all subsequent symphonic writing.  Vaughan Williams 4, for example, is closely modelled on Beethoven 5: the same four movement structure, a recurring four note motif, a haunting bridge passage between scherzo and finale, and the finale itself a grotesque parody of the culminating exultation of the Beethoven.       

The last time I played Beethoven 5 was in 1974.  It was with the (then) Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson.  I recall we did it in City Halls Glasgow, the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, and the town hall in Ayr.  People used to complain about Sir Alex’s beat, though I don’t recall any difficulty following it.  Just as well.  The opening to Beethoven 5 has potential for catastrophe.  You must attack it.  Like going in for a rugby tackle, if you are lily-livered, you will get hurt.  I remember Gibson wanted us to play the minim, fourth note of the piece, with two lengths of the bow, down and up, to give added power.  The string players of the orchestra moaned, “He’s changing the bowing again!”  It is the lot of the orchestral musician to moan.  I had to smile yesterday when, in our pre-concert rehearsal, we changed the bowing in exactly the same way.    

Anyway, yesterday I thought the orchestra sounded good, the soloist magnificent, and the conductor was clear as a bell.  Each time I play a gig, I think, let this be my schwanengesang.  And yet…  I was a bit flat afterwards, but a post-concert dinner with friends lifted my spirits.  As they were mathematicians, the conversation drifted in the direction of number theory.  Did you know, I said by way of light badinage, that every integer can be expressed as the sum of 1, 2, 3, or 4 squares?  The conversation switched to Beethoven, but I could see the professor had become deeply preoccupied, looking for a proof, or a disproof, an exception to the rule.

And by strange coincidence, when I got home and flicked on the telly, there was a biopic about the Cambridge mathematicians Hardy and Ramanujan.  They enacted the famous scene of Hardy visiting Ramanujan when he was in hospital with advanced TB.  Trying to make light conversation, Hardy remarked that the registration number of his taxi – 1729 I think – wasn’t very interesting.  “On the contrary Hardy!  It is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”  Or something like that; don’t quote me.  Embarking on an anecdote about number theory is akin to telling a joke when you can’t quite remember the punch line.           

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