So Beethoven, how do you like my new house?

Welcome to the 77th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

The Consecration of the House, Overture opus 124

 

In between the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony – which is like saying between climbing Mount Everest and K2 – Beethoven dashed off an overture for the inauguration of the Theater in der Josefstadt in October 1822.

He had immersed himself in Handel and Bach while writing his Mass and he was left with all sorts of ideas as to how the two early classical styles might be merged and adapted for contemporary use. He even toyed with an idea for composing a fugue on the notes B-A-C-H (B-flat). Unusually, he got blocked. So he went off for a walk in the autumnal woods near Baden with his nephew Karl and companion Anton Schindler, who reports: ‘Beethoven told us to go on in advance and join him at an appointed place. It was not long before he overtook us, remarking that he had written down two motifs for an overture…. He expressed himself also in the manner in which he purposed treating them – one in the free style and one in the strict and, indeed, in Handel’s. As well as his voice permitted he sang the two motifs and then asked us which we liked the better… The nephew decided in favour of both.’ 

This is a rare, marvellous and (Schindler’s word) roseate insight into Beethoven’s mind in the best of moods, when he was willing to engage others in the actual process of composition. What emerged from the day out was a solemn, Bach-like opening, followed by a great Handelian fugue, both developed by Beethoven with a Rossinian lightness appropriate to a new theatre and a ceremonial flourish for the great occasion. Midway in the overture you can hear him dissolve and resolve a theme as he was about to do ahead of the choral finale of the coming ninth symphony. For this reason, if no other, the overture demands to be heard.

It had a further significance in the development music. Richard Wagner endowed it with almost sacramental dimensions, taking the word ‘Weihe’ (consecration) from the title and attaching it to his last opera, the Bühnenweihfestpiel also known as Parsifal. From the late 19th century on, it became  obligatory at the opening ceremony of any German concert hall or opera house.

Beethoven regarded its first performance as a success, albeit in chaotic circumstances. The newly organised orchestra of the Josefstadt theatre did not receive it til the afternoon before the opening, and with innumerable mistakes in every part. The rehearsal which took place in the presence of an almost-filled parterre scarcely sufficed for the correction of the worst of the copyist’s errors. Among other novelties, we discover, Cherubini’s overture to Medea was played by a musical clock that was the star attraction of a neighbouring restaurant. Music in Vienna was not taken as seriously as we are sometimes given to understand.

On the night of October 3, 1822 Beethoven conducted the overture while seated at a piano with his left ear to the stage, trying to absorbe the vibrations with what little hearing he had left. Eighteen months later, he repeated it as a curtain raiser to the world premiere of his ninth symphony.

Among some three-dozen recordings, the oldest commands attention if only for its terrifying entries and utterly Germanic march. The conductor, at Abbey Road in 1938, was the 75 year-od Felix Weingartner who had known both Liszt and Brahms and was the last surviving contact with people who had met Beethoven himself. A player in the London Philharmonic Orchestra told me that if they lagged behind his beat Weingartner would stop them and say ‘you know, Doctor Brahms told me it went like this.’ You must hear this. It knocks all pretensions to ‘authentic’ performance into a fairground stall.

Igor Markevitch, whom Diaghilev once hailed as ‘the next Stravinsky’, takes a Parisian orchestra on a cross-cultural fusion of German dignity and precision and pastel-coloured French elegance with brightly shining horns. Truly well worth hearing.

Lorin Maazel was born to conduct this sort of thing, music full of incident and no underlying complexity. Antal Dorati does it even noisier. Claudio Abbado directs the Berlin Philharmonic with tremendous grace and awesome solemnity. But the best performance I have heard is Riccardo Muti’s in 1988, a reading that draws in the fripperies of Cherubini, the fun of Rossini and the theatricality of Handel into a short appetiser that is fundamentally Neapolitan and spicy – a ribald contra to the hevy German diet. Muti was midway in his music directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the mutual understanding is audible in every hair-raising risk they take. A tremendous achievement.

 

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  • Max Raimi says:

    When I play this underrated work, I recall that Beethoven began his career as a teenager in Bonn doing what I do–playing viola in an orchestra. I always felt this piece shows how completely Beethoven “gets it” from the musician’s point of view.
    When we are confronted with an unfamiliar hall (such as the newly renovated Josefstadt that was the venue for the premiere of this overture), musicians inevitably are first trying to figure out the acoustics. Is there an echo? Can I hear across the stage? How resonant is it? How hard am I gonna have to work to sound good in this place?
    Beethoven, God bless him, constructed the opening bars of this piece to be an absolutely perfect test of the hall’s acoustics, with a series of short, loud chords, each followed by silence. You hear how the sound reverberates and how resonant the stage feels.
    Oh…and the double fugue is fantastic.

  • SK says:

    It would behoove you to hear the Klemperer Philharmonia rec. It is broadly paced, as one might expect from him, and probably not at the tempos Beethoven heard in his mind. But as we may discover over time, a “right” tempo is found not in the metronome mark but in experiencing and feeling music itself. At his pacing and with his intensity, Klemp performs the work with a granitic power, nobility, and majesty — sweeping all before it — that are beyond the literal, more “faithful” performances. A grand consecration for a grand house (perhaps even Downton Abbey)!

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Klemperer great recording must surely be mentioned as well…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTNnRnEb0ts

  • Edgar Self says:

    Hermann Scherchen and the “Vienna Staet Opera Orchestra” had a way with this music in a collecion of Beethoven’s overtures. I like their Leonore No. 2 better than Furtwaengler’s’. Norman mentions Weingartner, who had a noble Egmont Overture with the Vienna Philharmonic from fhf time Vienna’s low trings always count and add much to their sound, which indeed is built upon them.

    “Consecration of the House” is a bustling trumpet overture perfect for hall-testing as Max Raimi.says He also possesses a composer’s ear. I’m always glad to ee his comments here and learn something from them.

    I think I see and hear the influence of Bach an Handel in Beethoven’s concerto grosso,-derived triple concerto; the E-flat trio Op. 70/2; and his only chaconne called 32 Variations in C minor on an original Theme, WoO 44, for piano, probably based on Handel’s keyboard Chaconne in G recorded by Fou Ts’ong and Edwin Fischer. I hear the first movement of the Pathetique sonata as a French overture very similar to the prelude of Bach’s second partita in the same key, each sharing four notes of a theme, with a likely misplaced repeat in the sonata.

    I expect Klemperer to be good in this overture als. I intend to hear it. It’s one of the stronger occasional overtures, with Egmont and Coriolan, but Scherchen also generates a charge even with King Stephen, Namensfeier, and especially Ruins of Athens.

  • John says:

    “But the best performance I have heard is Riccardo Muti’s in 1988, a reading that draws in the fripperies of Cherubini, the fun of Rossini and the theatricality of Handel into a short appetiser that is fundamentally Neapolitan and spicy – a ribald contra to the heavy German diet.”

    In other words, it”s a stereo version of the Toscanini.

  • REGERFAN says:

    It’s opus 124, not opus 114.

  • Jonathan Lautman says:

    Lovely article and thank you. You should add that Anton Schindler made a career out of “I was Beethoven’s Buddy,” and much of his stuff has been found less than perfectly reliable.

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