by William Henry Curry


My Life With Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
March 29, 2012

When I became the Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra three years ago I decided that part of my mission would be to present fresh and thoughtful performances of   classical music’s “ Top 40’. These are the evergreens, the warhorses that challenge an orchestra and delight an audience no matter how many times they are played. After three years of productive work I believed that we were now ready to take on one of the most difficult and iconic of these masterpieces: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

I first heard this work when I was 14.  It excited me with its intensity and “ in-your-face” aggression.  I listened to several recordings and bought a conductors score. After studying it I thought I knew it fairly well, until one day I heard a version conducted by Otto Klemperer. I was stunned. Was this the same piece? This version seemed to be channeling the very spirit of Beethoven. Klemperer brought out a majestic and humane aspect of the piece that I didn’t know existed. For me, it was a “ light-bulb-over-the-head” moment. I decided that great orchestral music deserved the best possible interpretation and that I wanted to be a conductor who could create a definitive conception. And so, the very moment of my decision to become a conductor was based on my desire to live a life of service for the expressive content of the music.

The first time I conducted the famous opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was when I was 22 and auditioning for the post of Assistant Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This movement is one of the most technically difficult for the conductor in the standard repertoire. Which is why it the judges included it on this audition. As I began conducting I was determined to make the walls shake with Beethoven’s eruptive sounds. The result was; a week later I was hired on the basis of my rendition of this music. But in my excitement I must have broken a musical speed record!  Evidently there was some discussion after the audition that I should be hired IF someone could slow me down!  In fact, my nickname for a while with the orchestra was William Henry “ Hurry”!

Over the next 25 years I conducted performances of the complete 5th Symphony 8 times. During this time I was never fully satisfied with my interpretation. I felt as if I were trying to untie a musical Gordian knot. At the and of the 1990s I came to the realization that I had no business performing the piece until I had a deeper understanding of what Beethoven was trying to say. This lack of certainty led me to the resolution to remove Beethoven’s music for several years as I rethought my approach. During this period of reflection I questioned every aspect of my interpretations. I came to realize that the sonic palette I had adopted for this music was too redolent of the music of the romantic era and that the correct timbres and articulations should be similar to those of the Classical era, the era Beethoven’s music is rooted in. And how to make sense of the composer’s metronome markings? These indicated brisk  “space-age” tempi that left in the dust the more expansive ones I had grown up with.  This led me to ponder how much of my decision-making about the speed of the music was based on habit and conformism and how much was based on intellectual reasoning. Eventually, I decided to eschew all the musical traditions that I could not justify from my reading the score. As a result, my concept of Beethoven’s music became more literal. Gone were the tempo modifications and other rhetorical “excesses” that I now believed to be a hindrance in projecting Beethoven’s unvarnished simplicity. And I reconciled myself to the quicksilver metronome markings, seeing them as being related to Beethoven’s hypo-manic character. This I gleaned from reading about the composer’s personal life and how his personality was reflected in the music.

After several years of research and reconsideration, I gradually began adding Beethoven’s relatively short overtures back into my performing repertoire. I was guardedly optimistic and patient. I knew it would take time to adjust to this “brave new world” of Beethoven interpretation. After a time, I began doing the large-scale symphonies again. I conducted a performance of the 2nd symphony with the Durham Symphony that, because I ran out of rehearsal time, was inconclusive as to the success of my musical ideas. Then, I performed the 3rd Symphony ( “Eroica-Heroic” )  with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. I was determined to obey Beethoven’s metronome markings. The result was the fastest rendition that group had ever done! While some of the musicians were openly perplexed by my driven and sometimes breathless conception others saw merit in it. However, I myself felt conflicted. Was I indeed getting closer to the ideal? Or further away?  Two weeks later, I decided to listen to a recording of the piece conducted by one of my heroes and one of the finest German conductors of the first half of the 20th century, Hans Knappertsbusch. Hans was “all music”. His musical integrity and personal humility were legendary. As I listened to his decidedly “ old-school“ version I realized though I would not want to imitate his idiosyncratic slow-motion tempi at least these speeds allowed the music to “breathe”. And this made the music sound more human and eloquent. It was then  revealed to me what my own interpretations had recently lost. In my zeal to be rational and “correct” I had lost the feeling for the deep nobility and warm humanity of Beethoven’s music that had inspired me in the first place! I realized what I needed to do find was a common sense middle ground between academic scholarship and intuitive feeling; an approach that was mindful of both the spirit and the letter of the work.

With this in mind, I decided to program the 5th symphony for my concert with the DSO scheduled for March 2012.The five rehearsals preceding this event were very promising indeed. Because so many of us had done the work before it seemed like we were all involved in a master class. Finally, the dress rehearsal arrived. And during it I became frustrated.  Although the playing was very good, I felt that all our polishing and attention to detail had only resulted in a succession of well-manicured and meaningless sounds. Where was Beethoven’s grandiose musical MESSAGE?!  My despair at having failed to imbue these players with a sense of WHY this work is the most often performed symphony led me to deliver a spontaneous five minute lecture-tirade that was probably more sincere than concise.

I began by saying that one must be worthy of scaling this musical mountain and that the only way one could do that would be to look upon it not as a collection of notes but as a personal journey that goes from torment to triumph. When Beethoven wrote his 5th Symphony he was in his mid-30s and considered to be the worthy successor of Haydn and Beethoven. Tragically, he was also losing his hearing and would eventually become completely deaf. His reaction to this disability was extreme depression and thoughts of suicide. He revealed his state of mind about his circumstances in a document now called the Heiligenstadt Testament. In it, he outlined his desire to go forward and to continue to compose with the talent God had given him. After this declaration, in the next few years he proved to himself that he had survival skills he was not aware of. And his music attained a new level of power and poetry that it had previously lacked.

For me, the miracle of Beethoven’s regeneration proves the veracity of Nietzsches’ statement “ That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Equally applicable is something from Aeschylus; “Wisdom comes alone through suffering.”

In concluding my remarks to the orchestra I told them that if they gave 100% of themselves to the music the result would be a spiritual victory they would never forget.  We then continued the rehearsal with the 2nd movement of the symphony. As the music streamed forth, it seemed to all of us that whatever barriers had been blocking our progress in this piece were now gone. We were now one; a conduit for Beethoven’s profoundest feelings. At the concert a few days later, the orchestra played the 5th Symphony as if possessed. We were all “ in the zone”; an area where preparation and concentration meet love and dedication. These musical moments of grace are rare. They cannot be prompted or willed into existence. They are gifts from the Muse. The audience also sensed something special was unfolding. In the 1960s we called this a “happening”.  The long and vocal standing ovation we received at the end sounded almost as sweet as the sounds the orchestra had just produced. It is these magical moments of communal sharing that make concerts exciting and memorable.

As for my life-long grappling with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I still consider my interpretation to be a work-in-process. As I write these words it is now 3 weeks after the Durham Symphony scaled the heights and I am still processing that experience and trying to bring to full clarity Beethoven’s vision. It is indeed both a blessing and a burden to be a perpetual student. I often feel like the Biblical Jacob wrestling with the angel; “I will not let thee go till thou bless me!” The reward from time to time is a transcendent performance that reminds me why I wanted to become a conductor.