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Culture

Beethoven's Ninth Reflects Will to Live, Says Kurt Masur

The Beethovenfest in Bonn celebrated one of its high points when Kurt Masur drew 3,000 people to a public screening in the city center. Masur told Deutsche Welle about interpreting Beethoven for thousands.

Kurt Masur conducts the New York Philharmonic

Kurt Masur conducted all nine of Beethoven's symphonies

DW-TV: Why did you set yourself the task of performing all nine symphonies in four days?

Kurt Masur: Whenever they talk about Beethoven, people who think they have a musical education say: "Yes he was of course a great composer, and, umm…"

When they go into detail many often see Beethoven as an enjoyable commodity, as interpreter of the French Revolution, with a lion's mane and violent gestures -- and his humor as apparently limited. My goal is to teach people to grasp how he began his symphonies, and today I would say you need to do it as boldly as possible.

How did you plan this cycle? Is there some sort of arc?

Of course there is an arc. If you play Symphonies One, Two and Three in an evening it is already a bit extravagant. But the first two are somewhat shorter and Beethoven reached his first really personal style of symphony with the third. And that is what I want to show through this example: Someone who is sitting there that evening understands perfectly that the ease, the poetry, the humor of the First has nothing to do with the Third.

A view of thousands of spectators watching Masur conduct the ninth symphony in Bonn's Marktplatz

3,000 people gathered in Bonn's Marktplatz to watch the live public screening

There is also the humanistic statement in the Third, which, as we know, was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but Beethoven revoked the dedication in a rage because he didn't want to associate himself with an emperor or with someone who suppresses people.

The decisive question for me is to what extent do we as artists have a duty towards listeners who wants to feel the spirit of this music from the first chord? I have to say, at the moment with the Orchestre National de France I have an uplifting orchestra.

In the rehearsals, we were often on the brink of exhaustion because the symphonies are not so easy to perform. You can't play them lightly -- you have to play seriously. And you also have to take the humor seriously and master the speed at which Beethoven suddenly changes the mood. Those are things that we need to bring to the audience. Otherwise they'll just think, oh yeah, that's the good old Beethoven we already know.

Do you still discover new things in Beethoven's music today?

Again and again. We don't know anymore how the really great soloists introduced the themes in the music. And there are also few exceptions today. Yo-Yo Ma, Lisa Leonskaya or Anne-Sophie Mutter -- they feel something and prepare themselves inwardly for how they are going to play the next theme. And that is enchanting to the audience.

How can one explain Beethoven to people today? Is that even possible?

Beethoven's music is so multifaceted -- there really are no human feelings that are not expressed in his music. Whether "Wut ueber den verlorenen Groschen" or "Fuer Elise" or all of those little pieces that one knows were chance compositions just to prove his talent to a pretty girl or a beautiful woman -- he was in love throughout his life, we know that. The tragedy of his life is that he first noticed that his hearing was growing weaker as he composed his Second Symphony. He then wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament, "Oh, you people who hold me for unruly or inconvenient, I simply want to tell you that I am suffering."

The other result was the letter to the "Immortal beloved," a farewell letter to one of the two women he'd had contact with at that time in Teplitz. The letter was never sent, but it exists as a document.

Kurt Masur conducting

Kurt Masur is still going strong at 81

When I just recently performed the eighth with my orchestra in Paris, I told the musicians, Look, Beethoven wrote the first eight symphonies over a period of around ten years. And after the letter to the Immortal Beloved he did not write another big orchestra piece for about ten years. Only then did he write the Missa Solemnis and even later the Ninth. We have to imagine how the man felt when he really couldn't hear anything anymore by this time.

He had conducted the premiere, but someone stood behind him who the orchestra and the choir could follow because Beethoven himself was completely confused and no longer had control. (He was) a man who managed to write a message for humanity at the end of his life. He thought he was imported enough that God gave him that duty.

And it is no farewell symphony, like Tchaikovsky's Sixth, which is explicitly intended as a farewell. The last message that this sick, lonely and subdued man left us was "Joy, beautiful spark of the gods." That is greatness. And that also breathes life to those who only hear the music and do not know much in particular about it because they feel that, though the music is full of overcoming difficulties, melancholy and sadness, it really reflects, to the very end, the will to live.

Click on the links below to listen to or download the performances by Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France.

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