Guerrero on a Roll over Beethoven

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), November 17, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Guerrero on a Roll over Beethoven

Byline: FRED CRAFTS The Register-Guard

WHEN EUGENE Symphony conductor Giancarlo Guerrero contemplates composers, one man stands head and shoulders above all the others - Ludwig van Beethoven.

"Beethoven represents the lightning rod in classical music history," Guerrero says, his voice rising in pitch and volume. `You have pre-Beethoven and post-Beethoven.

"He alone took the symphony form to the next level. He did the same thing with the piano sonatas, the string quartets and so many other things. He did this within a span of 30 years.

"He grabbed us by the neck and took us from the Classical period into the Romantic period and beyond. The orchestra with him became bigger. Instruments like the contrabassoon and piccolo became standard in the orchestra. The percussion - bass drum, cymbals and triangle - were added.

`The idea of a symphony having a story (like the Sixth, or ``Pastorale,' Symphony) was unheard of at the time. The idea of putting a chorus with an orchestra and calling it a symphony (Ninth Symphony) was also unheard of.

"He made it easier for other composers to be really creative. And to let other geniuses - like Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky - to liberate themselves from the `rules.'

"He changed everything. Everything."

Guerrero, who will conduct Beethoven's Third and Eighth symphonies on Thursday, cannot find enough superlatives for the temperamental German composer (1770-1827) who, amazingly enough, lived half his life without being able to hear the music he was writing.

Although Beethoven was no wunderkind, his talent impressed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Josef Haydn. Both composers tutored him briefly in his teens and early 20s in Vienna, where he eventually became one of its most prominent musicians and favored piano teachers.

Beethoven's March 1795 debut as a piano soloist drew thunderous acclaim. The premiere of his First Symphony five years later turned heads.

However, coinciding with this moment of triumph was Beethoven's realization that he was going deaf. Despair led to frustration and to anger. Yet somehow, he was able to tap into deep spiritual resources that enriched his compositions.

Nowhere is Beethoven's musical development more apparent than in his nine symphonies, in which he threw aside the practices of the past and reworked the form.

Guerrero charts the development this way.

`To hear his First and Second symphonies, you say, `That could easily be Haydn. That could easily be Mozart.' Most of them have a slow introduction because that was the way you're supposed to write symphonies. A symphony was supposed to be 20 minutes per movement.

`Then along comes the `Eroica' (Third Symphony). No slow introduction. Key of E-flat major. Three horns. Bigger orchestra. Forty-eight minutes long.

`Then he gets to the Fourth and says, `OK, that may have been too much,' and he goes backwards. But the Fifth! Again, no slow introduction. You could also say he gave up melody. What kind of a melody is that?

"With the Sixth, the `Pastorale' Symphony, all of a sudden the second movement is not called Andante. It's `By the Brook.' All of a sudden, a symphony can tell a story.

`Then there's the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth, with the introduction of voices in a symphony, which 20 years earlier would not have been the way to do symphonies. If he had done that as a graduating thesis, he would have been kicked out of school.

`But by now he was Herr Beethoven."

Troubled genius

What was Beethoven like? The opinions of his contemporaries are as varied as his moods.

Often, he was described as bad-tempered, sullen, unsociable and slovenly. But others saw him as friendly, cheery and well-kept.

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