Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 3 & 4


Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, telescopes through time: it opens in the present day with a young woman reading the book of a deceased writer, then flashes back to that writer as a young man being told the story he later turned into the book, then flashes back to the time that story originally took place.

That comes to mind as I sit here listening to Beethoven’s magnificent Eroica symphony on this record from 1970. I’m hearing through speakers and a receiver that were also made around that time, purchased by my dad when he got out of the Navy. This experience — listening to Karajan’s silky Berlin Phil players perform a masterwork on a DG record played on a top-of-the-line Sansui/Altec system — would have been a prime middle- to upper-class luxury in the years just before I was born in 1975.

So there’s my dad, in his Minneapolis apartment in the early 70s, listening to Beethoven and reading the paper in his squared glasses and white turtleneck. Flash back a decade, to Karajan coaxing what Harvey Sachs called a “calculatedly voluptuous” sound from his players as he created a recording that he had every reason to think would be regarded as definitive by a generation of his peers.

Flash back to the standard-bearers of earlier generations: to Furtwängler, whom Karajan succeeded as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. To Toscanini, Furtwängler’s more fastidious elder. To Brahms, whose work Toscanini conducted in the composer’s lifetime and whose own symphonic compositions were slow to emerge because he was intimidated by the precedent set by Beethoven, as recent a historical figure to Brahms as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are to me.

Finally, flash back to Beethoven, famously replacing his third symphony’s original dedication to Napoleon with a generic dedication to “a great man” after Napoleon declared himself emperor, disgusting the composer with his selfish hubris.

210 years later, here I sit, listening to that very work as passed down and burnished into one of the great accomplishments of Western civilization, having been lived in, along the way, by countless interpreters and listeners living countless lives. Not unlike a hotel, actually — and a grand one at that.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:

Symphonies 1 & 2

Symphonies 2 & 3

Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/DG