When questioned about the way he conducted music by a certain, sacred German composer, Gustav Mahler replied simply, "Your Beethoven is not my Beethoven." Truer words never spoken.
It wasn't just that Mahler's interpretations were different, more intensely expressive, more innately dramatic than the norm at that time. The music itself was different.
The famed conductor, himself an important composer, approached Beethoven on the podium with a mixture of awe, respect and, well, concern. Mahler worried that Beethoven's deafness had prevented the venerable man from making the best orchestration choices. Further, Mahler worried about the dramatic contrast between his turn-of-the-20th-century orchestra and Beethoven's turn-of-the-19th.
There had been many technical improvements in instruments, especially brass, which could now play notes that were impossible before. Also, concert halls had gotten much larger than those Beethoven knew, resulting in orchestras with more players than in his day and new problems of balancing strings and winds.
Surely, Mahler reasoned, Beethoven's scores could use a little help, a little retouching, as a result of such differences. Who could possibly object?
Lots of people, as it turns out, particularly the musical press in Vienna, New York and other cities that experienced Mahler's changes to Beethoven's sacred scores. A "thoroughly disgraceful system of 'painting over' the works of our great classical composers," declared one Viennese critic after a Mahler-led concert. "What was offered yesterday as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a deplorable example of this aberration, this barbarism."
'Get over it'
In the years since Mahler's death in 1911, the "painted-over" Beethoven editions have been largely ignored and so, for the most part, his acts of barbarism could only be read about and imagined. Starting Thursday, though, audiences at the Kennedy Center will have a rare opportunity to hear for themselves what all the fuss once was about as the National Symphony Orchestra's 2000 Beethoven Festival presents Mahler-ized Beethoven.
Leonard Slatkin will conduct the Mahler editions of the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies, along with the "Coriolan" Overture and what was, in Mahler's day, the almost equally controversial arrangement he did for full string orchestra of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 95. For good measure, the festival also has room for another "barbarous" selection, Mahler's Bach Suite, which combines reorchestrated movements from two of Bach's Orchestral Suites. Lectures, chamber music programs and demonstrations of the differences between original Beethoven and Mahler's editions will be part of the festival.
"I think that over the course of two weeks, we will get an interesting view of Beethoven," Slatkin says, "and a little more insight into Mahler. You don't often get a chance to see very familiar music through someone else's eyes."
Slatkin, who has championed Mahler's less controversial editions of Schumann symphonies, understands why Mahler's Beethoven editions caused such angst in the past, and may still rankle purists. But the conductor's attitude might be best described as: "Get over it."
"Mahler never goes so far as to destroy the intent of Beethoven," Slatkin says. "The music is never overwhelmed. You can't really hear many of the changes. But a lot of what he did makes sense. What I do, and what most of my colleagues do, when a musical line can't come through clearly is to downgrade the dynamic level of a group of instruments. Mahler would reinforce the line by adding instruments."
One example comes in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, when Mahler adds four horns and doubles the number of woodwind players so a theme that usually disappears in performance can be heard. In the first movement of that symphony, an extra timpani is brought in for reinforcement of a mere 20 measures. At one point in the "Eroica" Symphony, Mahler puts in an extra trumpet part that has only eight notes.
"Mahler could do that sort of thing because he had the resources at the Vienna Philharmonic, and it wasn't an issue with a union," says David Pickett, an authority on the Beethoven-Mahler editions who is an advisor to the NSO's festival and will give some lectures for it. "You can argue whether Mahler was right or wrong, but I don't think he went over the top.
"And he wasn't trying to improve on Beethoven; Mahler rejected that word. He felt that you can't make the music better, but you certainly can make it worse. When you look at his scores, you don't suddenly come across a bit of blood and Band-Aids; there are no abrupt changes. Mahler very carefully adds and subtracts, bar by bar, to achieve an increase of clarity."
When faced with snarling critics after a Vienna Philharmonic performance of the Ninth Symphony in 1900, Mahler had a pamphlet distributed at subsequent concerts outlining his views on reorchestrating Beethoven and reminding everyone that Wagner had started the practice some years earlier, without inciting great dissent. It didn't do anything to quell the opposition -- Mahler got severely criticized for asking people to read a treatise when they only came to hear music, and as for citing Wagner, well, to the Viennese, Wagner was a god, Mahler a Jew.
But Mahler's document eloquently presents the conductor's case. After addressing Beethoven's deafness, the development of brass instruments and the general enlargement of orchestras, Mahler assured his listeners that, "far from following any arbitrary purpose ... [I] was constantly and solely concerned with carrying out Beethoven's wishes even in seemingly insignificant details, and with ensuring that nothing the master intended should be sacrificed or drowned in a general confusion of sound."
Not all of Mahler's ideas conform to such sensible motives. His decision to add a tuba in the Ninth Symphony is a stretch; that instrument wasn't invented until after Beethoven's death. Mahler also was known to add a second player to Beethoven's single one in the famous oboe solo in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony; that could not have had anything to do with avoiding a "confusion of sound," since the rest of the orchestra is silent at that point. And in the finale of the Ninth, Mahler once placed the wind band off-stage during the march passage to create a special effect that Beethoven could never have imagined. (Slatkin says he might try this out at the festival.)
For Pickett, who has spent 20 years studying Mahler's Beethoven scores, the changes in the "Coriolan" Overture are more blatant than in the symphonies.
"You could say he goes over the top there, and I would accept that," Pickett says. "He takes the violins higher than Beethoven ever did, for example. But it's worth remembering that when people heard Mahler conduct Beethoven, they would say, 'We could hear all the parts and we didn't know why.' And as one critic said, 'It doesn't matter if you don't like it, because you can go back to Beethoven's version next week.' It's not like painting a moustache on the 'Mona Lisa' that's there forever."
However painstakingly Mahler's Beethoven scores may be replicated during the NSO's Beethoven Festival, one thing audiences won't be able to hear is exactly how Mahler interpreted Beethoven. There is no recorded evidence, only descriptions (often contradictory) in reviews and other documents, of Mahler's tempos and phrasing.
"He didn't alter any of Beethoven's metronome markings, but I doubt Mahler stuck to them," Slatkin says. "Contemporaries said that he conducted Beethoven's symphonies as if he had written them, leading me to believe he was a very spontaneous musician."
For Slatkin, investigating Mahler's touched-up Beethoven provides reaffirmation of a basic concept in music.
"Any great work must survive re-evaluation and reinterpretation. That's what makes it great."
Beethoven by Mahler
What: The National Symphony Orchestra's 2000 Beethoven Festival at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Chamber music by Beethoven and Mahler performed by NSO members. Sept 7 at 6 p.m.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, performed first in its piano solo arrangement by Liszt (Frederic Chiu, pianist) and then in its orchestral edition by Mahler. Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 9 at 8:30 p.m.
Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and String Quartet, Op. 95, arranged by Mahler. Sept. 9 at 8:30 p.m.
The Seventh Symphony and Coriolan Overture and Mahler's Bach Suite. Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.
The Ninth Symphony. Sept 15 and 16 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: Prices are $19 to $66. The festival includes lectures and additional chamber music programs (free with orchestra ticket purchase), and a recital of Beethoven violin sonatas performed by violinist Pamela Frank and pianist Claude Frank at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 ($25) at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. For more information, call 202-467-4600.