INTERVIEW WITH HANNU LINTU REGARDING THE FRSO’S PROGRAMME ON THE 10TH OF FEBRUARY 2017
Hannu Lintu: “Each movement of the Eroica is a picture of Bonaparte”
Hannu Lintu – Igor Stravinsky chose a subject from ancient mythology for his ballet Orpheus. How does he handle it?
Orpheus gives a very laconic account of the main points in the story. Yet it already comes close to the Stravinskyan world in which the connection between the music and the events is beginning to blur. This is not objective, descriptive ballet music in the manner of, say, Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. It does not overly, noisily imitate emotions; rather, the music of the ballet seems to turn inwards in its expression.
Orpheus was not a particularly heroic figure; he was the musician who was given a lyre by his father, Apollo to pass the time away. The lad had a natural flair for music and became a troubadour who charmed humans and animals with his playing. It’s said that he often moved his listeners and colleagues to tears. Nowadays he’d be going great guns in Vain elämää [The Best Singers].
Stravinsky’s musical style reminds me of a story about Konstantin Stanislavski coaching an actor who was supposed to be in great pain. First the actor wrung his hands and tore his hair out, but Stanislavski said it would be much more convincing if he just walked round whistling quietly to himself with his hands in his pockets. Stravinsky beautifully describes little movements of the subconscious. His evocations of physical events are likewise minimalist: in the scene, for example, where Orpheus and the Angel of Death descend into Hades, the music is really peculiar and wobbly, just like someone cautiously stepping down a slippery staircase. Whereas Tchaikovsky would have brought on a deluge of chromatic scales, string tremolos and brass, Stravinsky writes very thinly. This does, however, have its own musical logic.
Orpheus belongs to Stravinsky’s middle period, customarily known as his Neoclassical. But does ‘Neoclassicism’ describe Stravinsky’s 1940s style very well, would you say?
Neoclassicism is a problematic concept in the sense that people tend to lazily lump together all sorts of things with it. It may mean the recycling of some specific, recognisable material (in the way that Stravinsky used, say, works by Pergolesi), or that the music sounds like a stylistic distortion of Baroque or Classical. It may also mean sonorous or structural clarity in general. Then again, ‘Neoclassical’ tends to be attached to something that is clearly behind the times, such as a composer who writes triads in the 1960s. At its broadest, anything not derived from the tradition created by Arnold Schönberg is bundled up with it.
Orpheus really does have certain Baroque gestures and Baroque-like rhythms even though it does not use works by any particular composer as its material. For example, the scene with two oboes and a harp describing Orpheus playing in the Underworld could be from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; so could the scene in which the furies beg Orpheus to go on playing. Stravinsky invented an interesting concept for this work: the air de danse that imitates the Baroque da capo aria in form.
In this concert we’ll be hearing the concerto for harp and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho for the first time in Finland. How does Saariaho use the harp in her music?
It’s difficult to imagine music by Saariaho without a harp. It’s like a stream running right through her orchestral music, either as a timbre or as an audible element. A pattern that passes up and down is one of Kaija’s trademarks. Many orchestral instruments have a fairly narrow range, but the harp has a handy six-and-a-half octaves, so music written for it can travel through the octaves without the timbre changing.
It seems to me that the harp, piano and percussions are the backbone for the other events in her music. Then there is often a timbral texture made up of long string notes and continually changing colour. The stringed and percussion instruments add clarity and pointillism to this.
Harpists like playing Saariaho, because she understands the instrument and the way it works. Which is why Xavier de Maistre wanted her, specifically, to compose a concerto. Because the harp’s pedal system is quite complicated and many composers, even experienced ones, write music for the harp that is almost impossible or terribly difficult to play. Worst of all is when a player faced with an impossible part stamps the pedals in a panic like a driver in the Tour de France. This doesn’t happen in Kaija’s music.
This concerto can be played without amplifying the solo instrument, because Saariaho makes the harp sound easily above the orchestra. She often organises it so that the orchestra acts as a sort of sounding board for the solo instrument: the harp plays a motif, and as the sound fades, we hear an artificial echo of the notes in the orchestra. There are lots of windows in the orchestral texture that let the harp through.
Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is one of the landmarks of symphonic literature. In what respects was it a revolutionary work?
The Eroica is revolutionary yet it nevertheless keeps within the format of its day: Beethoven wanted not to destroy but to develop and expand. The third symphony is simultaneously Classical and Romantic; it ends one era and begins another. It’s difficult to find any other work in which the hinge between two periods in musical history is so clearly visible and audible.
One thing that shocked Beethoven’s contemporaries in the Eroica was its length. Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven’s, is said to have heard one listener mutter: “I’d give a Kreutzer if only it’d stop”. (The offer was not worth very much, since one Kreutzer corresponded to about a quarter of the price of the concert ticket.) The critics, too, virtually went out of their minds because it lasted for nearly an hour, accustomed as they were to short, clear-cut, inoffensive works. The Eroica heralded an era of mammoth works. Added to which, Beethoven had composed a work so difficult to fathom that it needed to be heard several times before it disclosed its secret. This violated the very essence of the symphony to date.
As a construct, the symphony is astoundingly perfect. If it were an aeroplane built in 1804, it really would fly. A huge number of sketches for the Eroica have been preserved that show just how thorough Beethoven was. For anyone interested in how he worked, the Eroica sketchbooks are a fund of invaluable information. Having once hammered his theme into shape with tremendous effort, he went straight on to fashion the middle section, which he called mitte Gedanke (middle ideas). The unusual thing is that all the time, he was writing a single melodic line: the harmonies were in his head. Then came the Durchführung, the development. From then onwards everything was easier – all he had to do was build the bridges between these elements. The Eroica Durchführung was at the time the longest in the repertoire, and it is still one of the longest in symphonic literature.
The Eroica also begins a new chapter in orchestration: Beethoven acquired an interest in the French horn. He got hold of all the articles written about it and interviewed the best French horn players of his day. The French horn had previously been used in symphonies to produce various idiomatic toots, but Beethoven wanted to know whether it could do anything else. The Eroica has three horns instead of two. As a consequence of Beethoven’s inventiveness, the French horn would then gradually become the symphony orchestra’s real phallic symbol and one that, via Brahms and Schumann, reached its apex in the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss. The clarinets also got a bigger role in the Eroica than in any other symphony composed before. The true soul of the symphony is nevertheless the oboe: for this Beethoven reserved the most important solos of all.
Also casting a certain revolutionary aura over the symphony is the original dedicatee: Napoleon. There is no doubt at all that each movement of the Eroica is a picture of Bonaparte. The subject is not in any way surprising, because Beethoven had been inspired by the teachings of France’s great revolution long before he composed the symphony. It is true that Beethoven had, in a fit of rage, scratched the name of the symphony, “INTITULATA BONAPARTE” out of the title page of the manuscript (i.e. Beethoven did not tear the page in half, as legend would have it). But closer examination of the page reveals the text “GESCHRIEBEN AUF BONAPARTE” written in pencil at the bottom. Either he added this later or he had never scratched it out. This page, reflecting indecision, in Beethoven’s manuscript admirably symbolises the ambivalent atmosphere in Europe in the early 19th century of which Napoleon said: “Everybody has loved me and hated me; everyone has been for me and against me by turns.”
So the title was changed to Eroica at the publication stage, but Beethoven never denied his source of inspiration. The symphony is an almost fanatic expression of his admiration for Napoleon. He saw in Napoleon a reflection of himself, a genius who rose to greatness from relatively humble origins. It is no coincidence that in the finale of the Eroica Beethoven used the theme from the ballet Prometheus he had composed a few years earlier: for Prometheus is about a titan who stole fire from the gods. The Eroica inspired by Napoleon tells of man and humanity. Beethoven has deliberately set God aside; he would be returning to Him in his ninth symphony.
Interview by Lotta Emanuelsson
Translated by Susan Sinisalo