A Beethoven a Day: He could have been a film composer

A Beethoven a Day: He could have been a film composer


norman lebrecht

January 20, 2020

Welcome to the 17th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

The Ruins of Athens, opus 113-4, King Stephen, opus 117
This is as close as Beethoven comes to a film score, and he’s pretty good at it. The music was needed for scene changes in a play by August von Kotzbue that inaugurated a theatre in Pest in 1811. The play is a classical pastiche in which Greek gods complain about the Turkish occupation of their land.

There are between 10 and 13 movements in extant manuscripts and, while many maestros have recorded three or four movements, very few have encompassed the lot. Of these, I’d go to Bernhard Klee with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the RIAS chorus (1970). It’s played with immense vigour and joie de vivre, as if the musicians are feeling liberated by the absence of their usual Beethoven ringmaster, Herbert von Karajan. The highlight is the Turkish march, marcia alla turca, which is one of Beethoven’s jolliest tunes, taken from his Variations for piano opus 76.

Do not, however, ignore a partial recording of just six movements by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic in 1957. It positively fizzes with fun, wit and malice.

And you won’t want to miss Jascha Heifetz in a violin-piano arrangement of the Turkish march.

Not yet on Idagio, there’s a historic Dutch recording by Walter Goehr and another recent one, soon to be released, from the uncontainable Finn, Leif Segerstam.

King Stephen, opus 117, was for another Kotzbue play for the new theatre at Pest, another set of incidental music, indisputably Beethoven in every phrase and turn. The overture, which is mostly all we get to hear nowadays, is dazzlingly well done by Rome’s Santa Cecilia orchestra under the direction of Myung Whun Chung, with a scintillating flute solo that is worth the price of admission on its own. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau features in the remaining movements, which prove increasingly tedious. A sacred march, Hail to the King, rings very loud and rather hollow.

A 1975 recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra feels more like a sporting feat than an artistic endeavour, first past the post and all that.



  • Martin Hildrew says:

    I feel dizzy with this random trawl through the whole output. Please , a bit of structure

    • Bruce says:

      Funny, I actually appreciate the randomness. If it progressed logically, by genre or opus number, I would probably lose interest, or only click on the pieces I already knew I liked.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      >>random trawl through the whole output.

      Yes, I’m still trying to work out if there’s any order to these works being selected. Is it totally random ? Do we have to be patient to see some master pattern ?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Although it is perhaps even more removed from being “real” Beethoven than is the Liszt Fantasy on the Ruins of Athens, thank you for mentioning Jascha Heifetz’s glorious 1917 recording of the Turkish March (arranged by his teacher, Leopold Auer).

    Even more remarkable is his 1917 recording of the Chorus of Dervishes, also made by Auer. I am tempted to say it has to be heard to be believed, but in point of fact hearing it only causes the disbelief to grow, and repeated hearings force you to dismiss the recording as a mere dream, something that clearly could never have been actually made.

    Both arrangements were part of the program of Heifetz’s famous Carnegie Hall debut in October of 1917 – and the Chorus of Dervishes was waxed at his first recording session for Victor.

    I blush to admit that I have actually attempted to learn the Beethoven/Auer Turkish March and worked on it with my late teacher, but I never even bothered to purchase the sheet music for the Chorus of Dervishes, or for that matter, Joseph Szigeti’s arrangement of the Scriabin Etude in Thirds. Why waste my money? My fingers don’t do those things.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    ‘Hingegeben wilden Horden,
    Tiefgebeugt in ihrer Hand –
    Ach, wa sist aus dir geworden,
    Armes, armes Vaterland!’

    The verses by CarlMeisl, set in music by Beethoven, sound rather like a political manifesto these days…

  • Carlos Solare says:

    To be exact, the Turkish March was not taken from the theme of the Variations op. 76: it was actually the other way round. Only that he published the variations immediately, and the original piece some years later, hence the higher opus number. But he wrote both in 1811.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I agree. Master of variation, as Barnum and Baily were the master of intimacy.

    The raisins in your bread, the sparkles on your ice cream, the reason adolescence resembles the chicken pox.

    The nurse that keeps you well informed, and when he failed to tell the world that the woman he refused to be intimate with, because she was too close to what turned out to be his immortal beloved, I’m sure that you’ll find remains of his escapades with his immortal one, petrified and for sale in can form, just to make sure no one doubts his mastery or form, variation, and composition.