Bach partisans, put down your pitchforks. Yes, the press material for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Spring Festival does claim that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor is “the greatest music ever written”, but you can’t blame Bramwell Tovey for that.
“Sometimes the language of publicity gets a little carried away,” the VSO’s music director says drolly, checking in with the Georgia Straight from New York City, where he’s guesting with the New York Philharmonic. But Tovey isn’t about to hang his PR underlings out to dry. While he’s wary of calling any piece of music “the greatest”, he’s sympathetic to those who’d place Beethoven’s choral symphony at the very peak of the canonical pyramid.
“I can understand perfectly that viewpoint,” he notes. “I think it’s the most universal music of all time. It just reaches out beyond religion, beyond all kinds of barriers. It’s very much about the human experience, and I think the ‘Ode to Joy’, in particular, has that reach.”
Beethoven’s score for the Ninth, Tovey points out, features in the mural that decorates the VSO’s School of Music in downtown Vancouver. The epochal work, in Gustav Mahler’s expanded arrangement, is also part of the VSO’s upcoming Spring Festival, and in fact you could say that it’s central to Tovey’s programming. This year, the festival is being billed as a War of the Romantics, with the bulk of the concerts divided between the conservative forces of the 19th century, as epitomized by Johannes Brahms, and that more radical adventurer, Richard Wagner. But both Brahms and Wagner, Tovey points out, took their cue from Beethoven’s final venture into symphonic form.
“Beethoven provided that sort of kickoff point where the voice was brought into the symphony and romanticism took off—and it just happened to take off in two disparate directions,” he says.
From the pluralistic viewpoint of today’s music scene, which is singularly lacking in orthodoxy, questions about whose approach was more true to the romantic ethos might just be irrelevant, however.
“Back in the 1970s, we used to have heated arguments about who was correct, Brahms or Wagner,” Tovey recalls. “We must have been such pseuds, because looking at the arguments now, they all look rather silly. This festival that we’ve put together starts at the beginning of that great divide, but now we’re at a place where all sources are coming back to one river.”
Both Brahms, whose German Requiem will be heard during the Spring Festival, and Wagner, represented by Lorin Maazel’s instrumental arrangement of themes from the Ring operas, epitomize the core principle of romanticism, which Tovey identifies as the power of human ingenuity.
“Up until Beethoven and Haydn, music was about skill: the skill of the performer, the skill of the improviser, the skill of the composer,” the conductor says. “Whereas once the romantic world hit us, it was about the potential of realizing individual power. And of course there’s the whole question of the Nietzschean superman, and definitely a correlation with industrial power. There were the great upheavals during the Industrial Revolution, where people came off the land where they had worked as agricultural labourers or farmers or whatever, and came into the towns to work in factories. Most of those people wouldn’t have had access to orchestra concerts, of course, but the composers would have been well aware of this happening. It was a time of great growth, only paralleled in history by our present time, where the microchip has changed everything.”
Still, one thing that will never be successfully digitized is the experience of hearing great music in a great venue—as the VSO’s Spring Festival is sure to confirm.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Spring Festival: War of the Romantics at the Orpheum from Thursday (April 7) to April 18.