By David Zinman
I have a fantasy of what Beethoven’s music should sound like, a fantasy that has taken shape over the
last eight or nine years. Until that time, I had been blindly accepting what other conductors had done
before me—a trap I think every artist must be careful to avoid. If the weight of tradition develops into
a burden that obliterates all original thinking, then conducting becomes mere reproduction: Should
one approach Beethoven in the style of Karajan, or Furtwängler, or Toscanini? Examining the actual
notes in Beethoven’s score, I discovered that there is nothing in the score to support the “Romantic”
I decided to look at Beethoven’s music in a clear-eyed way, asking myself various questions and
applying the answers (within the context of what can be determined about performance practice during
Beethoven’s time) to arrive at my own idea of how Beethoven might sound. First of all, suppose we
accept the metronome markings in the score as being Beethoven’s intentions? What will that do to the
music? Second, what if we decide to abandon the Wagnerian-based sostenuto phrasing imposed on
Beethoven’s music and play the phrasings as he wrote them? Then, what if we take into account the
rudimentary role of the conductor in Beethoven’s day, who was inclined to beat time with a rolled up
piece of paper on a table, without much tempo fluctuation? What if we accepted the fact that players
were still ornamenting in his time? Berlioz tells in his memoirs that when he conducted a German
orchestra, he had to stop all the wind players from ornamenting in Beethoven symphonies—a tradition
that was ongoing 20 years after Beethoven’s death. Accepting all these things makes the music sound
quite different from what we’re accustomed to hearing in the Toscanini or the Furtwängler tradition.
My point is that music has changed a great deal since Beethoven’s day, and he was part of that change.
Certainly it’s evident in his compositional development that he was trying to break out of the boundaries
of the classical style. But although he was the great, blinding light that illuminated the path to
Romanticism, he had one foot deeply rooted in classical tradition and in the musical habits of that time.
Remembering this, one understands why he began to change his notation to better specify his intentions,
to use what I call “contraindicative markings” that counteract the prevailing habits of his time. For
example, Beethoven wrote “tenuto” over a note to warn players that the note must be played long—
not at half its value, as was the custom. Examining the manuscripts will yield all sorts of fascinating
discoveries! Just last year, the conductor Max Rudolf found that in the autograph of the “Pastoral”
Symphony’s slow movement, Beethoven had requested that all the strings be muted—not just the two
solo cellos, as is today’s practice.
But why, you may well ask, have performers been ignoring Beethoven’s intentions for so long if they
were so clearly indicated in his scores? Principally because of the tradition of composer/performers
interpreting both their own music and other people’s music in their own style, in the style of the day.
Mozart performed Handel’s music in this manner, and Wagner’s own style of composition, with its
tremendous sostenuto playing, determined his interpretation of Beethoven. The orchestra parts have
come down over the years with all these changes edited in, so that it has become impossible to tell
what Beethoven actually wrote by looking at them. It’s only now that we are beginning to eschew this
practice. The original-instrument movement has provided much of the impetus. I think it’s a wonderful
laboratory for discoveries. We have found out so much about the music by playing old instruments, and
that knowledge should carry over into everything we do, so that we become accustomed to asking “what
if” and experimenting rather than simply repeating what has been done before us—whether or not we
choose to perform on period instruments.
It’s exciting that there are so many different schools today. People are screaming at Norrington,
screaming at Hogwood, and screaming at Harnoncourt; everyone’s bashing each other over the head and
claiming the others know nothing. I love all the controversy, but I don’t believe in dogma. There is no
one “right way” to perform Beethoven. What I have done is to draw my own conclusions from what is in
the music; people are free to disagree with them. My questions have led me to find my own interpretive
viewpoint—who knows if it is correct? I am finding my own way rather than simply accepting the
weight of tradition.
Beethoven’s audiences were stunned by his music. In restoring the starkness and physical energy to
Beethoven’s music, I am attempting to recapture this experience for modern audiences. I would like
people to come away from the Fifth Symphony feeling, “My god, this is a cataclysm!”
Whether or not one takes repeats or uses vibrato or performs on modern instruments is not the
issue. Live music-making should be a vital and gripping experience; whether you like or dislike the
interpretation, it should engage you. At least you can go to a concert and turn your mind on rather than