Conductor Benjamin Zander on His Interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Ahead of his concert with the Boston Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 26, we caught up with the conductor to gain insight into this powerful work
Conductor Benjamin Zander returns to Carnegie Hall on Friday, February 26 to lead the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in what he describes as a “newly liberated interpretation” of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Soloists will include multi-Grammy nominated tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Alfred Walker, soprano Liv Redpath, and the Chorus Pro Musica.
Audiences unable to attend in person can watch the live-stream of this event here on The Violin Channel!
We sat down with Zander to discuss how his interpretation of the work has changed throughout the years, the message behind it, the need for individual interpretation, and more.
You first presented your original idea of Beethoven's Ninth in Carnegie Hall in 1983 with the Boston Philharmonic and the Chorus Pro Musica. Can you tell us about this interpretation?
In 1983, I presented the Ninth Symphony as best I could, representing Beethoven's intentions as accurately as possible in terms of tempo. I was a very, very loyal follower and student, so I simply followed the metronome markings on the score. However, I made two howling errors because Beethoven made two mistakes.
Actually, it wasn’t him, it was his nephew, Carl. The scene was this: Beethoven was sitting at the piano banging out the music, and his nephew Carl (who was not a professional musician) was sitting at the table across from him, taking down the metronome marks. On two occasions, Carl made very serious errors upon sending the scores to the publisher. The errors are famous to everyone who knows this piece well.
One was in the trio of the second movement, which is marked Presto, yet has a very, very slow metronome mark — so clearly that can't be right. When I performed it in 1983, I was literal-minded, so I did it slowly. The other, similar mistake was in the march in the last movement, which is marked Allegro Molto Vivace. However, he wrote a dotted quarter note = 84, where it should have been a dotted half note = 84.
Today, we've made these errors right in most modern editions, as we all agree that these sections should be faster tempi. When they put in these metronome marks today, editors usually put them in brackets with a question or asterisk.
When I played the piece according to the original metronome markings and the performance ended, it caused enormous upset, excitement, and reaction. The critic of The New Yorker, Andrew Porters wrote “If Mr. Zander is right, we have been listening to the music of the greatest composer only in misrepresentation.”
Forty years later you’re coming back to Carnegie Hall with the same ensembles plus four renowned soloists, to share a new way of experiencing the Ninth symphony. How will this performance differ from the previous one?
When I did the performance 40 years ago, I assumed Beethoven meant the tempo of the whole movement was to be played at that tempo. Now I've let go, instead of holding on tight with my knuckles white. I'm going to play this piece the way I feel it and I'm not going to be driven by any obligation.
It's a little bit like a priest in a church who has to follow the rules versus somebody who sets up a church of his own. But we’re still praying to the same God. Beethoven is still the God in this scenario. We're still following the master, but I'm doing it in a very, much more relaxed and enjoyable way now.
Plus, I'm following my instincts and responding to the music from my heart. I'm no longer using my intellect to tell me what to do. I think that’s very important because the human intellect has managed to dominate the whole world. What we've forgotten in all of that is the human heart. What Beethoven is teaching us is that the heart is what's leading, not the intellect. That's a beautiful discovery. It's liberating. It's life-giving. It’s making us smile.
I'm seeing this performance as a kind of liberation of the human spirit for Beethoven. I think that's what Beethoven would have wanted and I feel that he's my friend now, instead of my master who I have to follow.
What drew you to Beethoven’s music? What makes it so special?
It's very complicated music. It's like Hamlet. First of all, they're both very, very, very famous works. They speak to everyone. Just like most know “To be or not to be,” most people have heard the theme of "Ode to Joy." It's the language of humanity. Beethoven's genius was that he could do that in such a way that was extraordinarily complex and subtle, but in a way that everybody could understand.
The amazingly moving aspect of that is that he was stone-cold deaf, alone, ill, cut off without a companion, and living in a police state. If he'd ended up as a cynic and a mean-spirited, angry old man, it would've been understandable given his circumstances. Instead, he wrote a piece that has given love to the whole world. Isn't that amazing? To me, it's the most incredibly beautiful thing.
How would you describe the power of Beethoven's music?
I’ll tell you a story. Yesterday I was playing the slow movement of the piece on the piano and I was in a trance of heaven when the telephone rang. I picked up the telephone and it was a telemarketer talking about buying silver. Instead of making up an excuse to get off the phone, I went on playing. Eventually, he stopped talking and started listening, and he became completely entranced with this music. I then learned he lives in New York and has never been to Carnegie Hall. I told him about the concert and now he and his mother are coming to the performance! Now to me, that is a very beautiful story because when the world is concerned about silver, Beethoven is trying to teach us that it's not about silver, it's about the human heart. This story pleases me more than I can say because now that's two more people that will get to experience it.
What specific examples can audiences expect to hear differently in this upcoming performance?
There are a few examples audiences can listen out for. Firstly, between the scherzo and trio, there is an accelerando. The Scherzo is already fast at 116. Once you hit the accelerando, however, it gets even faster, so most conductors pull the tempo back to be able to play the trio more slowly. I think they're all wrong, including me, because I used to do it at half tempo. But now, it will be very surprising for people because I will not be pulling the tempo back. This speed has never been heard in Carnegie Hall. Nobody's ever done it.
There’s another moment in the piece where there’s a fanfare. Every instrument on the stage is playing, except for one, the timpani. It would make sense that the timpani would also be playing, but in Beethoven’s day, he was only working with two timpani that were tuned in such a way that it didn’t fit that moment. So, in our performance, the timpani will get to play the whole phrase!
Another example is a passage in the last movement for the violas which is always buried. It's never, never, never heard because when Beethoven was deaf he not surprisingly, made an occasional mistake of balance. It's a wonderful, very rhythmical passage, and what I’ve done is I’ve added two horns to the part so that it can be heard. Did Beethoven want that to be heard? Of course, he did, he composed it for God's sake!
With this freer approach, I'm making these changes because I feel them. Pianists play freely, and not as much by the metronome as orchestras tend to do. I was playing it for Emanuel Ax, and he said, “that's exactly the way we play the piano.”
Also, it'll never be the same twice, because once you take this open road, you are not in a tunnel anymore. When you're on the open road, you can go on little excursions off to the side.
How important do you think it is to encourage individual interpretations of these most well-known classical works?
I'm a great believer that the great composers knew what they wanted. I think of myself as a good vicar. My job is to get people into the church and give them as clear a picture of the composer as possible.
In the romantic era, it seemed people didn't take much care for what the composers wanted. My teacher was a very, very great cellist called Gaspar Cassadó. He was one of the most imaginative musicians and when you play a tape of his playing it is very free. He was one of those players from that romantic era of Kreisler and Casals. Although they were geniuses, they might have, for some music, gone a little bit too much in the direction of romantic self-indulgence.
However, we should not lose what they've taught us. I think it would be a big mistake to throw away the value of this freeness, but still do it with a devotion to the particulars of what a composer like Beethoven wrote.
Beethoven himself was so rigorous and demanding. When he was told about the success of a performance of the Beethoven Ninth in Berlin, he said that was because they followed the metronome markings. So don't disregard the composers, take account of it, and then let’s be as free with it as we feel we need to be in order to bring home the message.
And what do you think Beethoven’s message was when composing this?
Beethoven’s message is a great one. What Beethoven is saying in the Ninth Symphony is: "Your magic binds together what habit and fashion have torn apart."
While this phrase refers to God, it's another way of saying that most of the world's conflicts stem from bad habits and assumptions. Or because people in different parts of the world have to be right and make other people wrong. You can look at Russia and Ukraine, for example.
Beethoven's sentiment is that all human beings can be brothers and sisters and that we must not be stopped in our life by assumptions, habits, fashion, and the things that limit us. Instead, let’s think past that to that which brings us all together. It's a philosophical political statement as well as a great piece of music
But one shouldn't forget that this music on its own, without the message, without the words, could appeal to a 10-year-old who doesn't care about the brotherhood of man, but just listens to the power and incredible energy of this music. The cataclysmic emotion of the first movement, the relentless bounding energy of the second movement, and the absolutely ineffable spirit and love of the third movement. And then the last is a world in itself. Just in musical terms, it's an overwhelming experience for anybody.
And my friend who sells silver and his mother are going to be moved out of their minds by the music, even if they’re not able to follow all the intellectual musical discussions. But who cares, right? All I care about is if people’s eyes are shining — because then it’s working.
In 2008, you talked about the transformative power of classical music in your TED Talk. Why do you think it's so important to reach a wider and more diverse audience with classical music?
As you probably can tell, I'm interested in more than just the notes. I'm interested in storytelling, passion, and engagement. The reason why the Ted Talk is so popular is that I'm always pointing to the beauty of the music instead of the downward spiral of competition, of winning and losing, of fear, etc. Most people spend their professional lives in this downward spiral.
And I think, when 2000 or more people gather together in a beautiful space like Carnegie Hall and listen together in silence to this great music, it makes a profound and miraculous effect on them.
Leon Fleischer, one of the great American musicians, said classical music is an act of anti-gravity. It lifts the spirit, and so I'm a great believer in it. It's one of the great healing forces in the world.
How do you think the classical music industry has changed since the start of your career? What do you hope to see in the future?
Well, I'm not a guru, so I don't know, but what I've noticed is that many, many more people are listening to classical music than they ever have before. Vastly more, because of the accessibility of the internet.
There are signs that things are not going well, orchestras folding, and so on, but my belief is that classical music is going to grow and grow. Partly because I see the passion of the kids in my youth orchestra. My god, they love that music. And when we go on tour, the audiences are wildly enthusiastic. It's indestructible.
Also, it's interesting to notice that when people want to sell something on television that is very high-end, like an expensive car, they use classical music in the background of the ad. They associate classical music with the best that human beings have to offer. And I think they'll do that more and more when they realize that classical music is really a universal language.
For the audiences coming to the performances and for the people watching on the live stream, what's the one thing you want them to take away from the concert?
Again, I want Beethoven to speak to them in a way that makes their eyes shine — because there's nothing worse than indifference. The world is full of indifferent people and indifferent things. A person's shining eyes are only the outward manifestation of an inner state of being moved, being touched, being impressed, and being fully engaged, which is what great music can do for us, and it's a privilege to be part of that.
But we have to be mindful. We cannot be careless about the music we play. We cannot be casual about it. The performance on the 26th will not be played mindlessly. Every single person on that stage will be putting 100% of their passion, feeling, and understanding into the performance of this great work.
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