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Agent reflections: Beethoven in his 250th year

When I was little, I had a hi-fi next to my bed: the sort that combined a tape player, CD player and radio all in one, complete with extendable silver antennae for picking up the analogue signal. I received it on my 6th birthday: bulky, purple and perfect. 

Before then, I would listen to music downstairs in the kitchen or in the music room (where my father, sister and I would practise our instruments).  

I was something of an obsessive child. I remember once being so fixated by an encore showpiece by Fritz Kreisler that we had on a CD performed by my hero, Jascha Heifetz, that I got up early one morning, went downstairs in the cold and put on the CD in the kitchen.  I then got out my violin from its case and attempted to play along with the CD, despite having no sheet music and very little skill.  It was before the hi-fi, so I must have been younger than 6. 

Other memories pre-hi-fi include an Andreas Scholl CD of German baroque songs that my mother owned that I played on loop, thinking how utterly extraordinary it was to hear a voice so sonorous and beautifully unusual.


It must have been something of a blessed relief for my parents when the majority of my listening took place in my bedroom after my birthday in 1995, and of course, I was also delighted to be able to turn up the volume as loud as I liked. It was so exciting to have a world of music available to me at my fingertips: with just the twirl of a button, I was able to slip and skip between BBC Radio 3, Key 103, Galaxy 102 (yes, I’m a Mancunian who loved local radio too!) and Classic FM, however, my nightly ritual without fail, was BBC Radio 3.


Every evening before bed, I’d put on the radio and tap the ‘sleep’ button to 60 minutes - giving myself an hour to listen to something beautiful before drifting off.  The next morning, I would often wake to a distinct melody in my head that I would sing repeatedly - anxious to know what it was so I could listen to it again properly. Looking back, I was so incredibly lucky. I would run to find my father and whistle or sing the tune at him, asking him to identify the piece, which he managed to do without fail.  He would then promise to take out a CD from the Royal Northern College of Music library (where he was and continues to be a Professor) and bring it home to me to consume for the next few weeks.


We went through so much music together.  Some of the many highlights included Gluck’s Orfeo, Offenbach’s La Périchole, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, all of the Mozart Horn, Flute and Oboe concertos, a double CD of Gabrieli’s Canzon performed at St. Mark’s Basilica, too many Haydn string quartets, The Magic Flute, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole - the list goes on and on. And of course, there was so much Beethoven.


My interest in Beethoven started gradually, thanks to hearing my father practise the violin concerto, and then, less fortunately, hearing many of his students at home attempting it during their lessons!  Then, of course came Disney’s Fantasia with its vibrant and colourful illustration of the Pastoral Symphony, which I found to be both beguiling and bewitching as the centaurs, fauns and cupids danced before me. However, I grew ever curious and needed that curiosity to be fed regularly via the small pile of borrowed recordings that I found waiting for me on the end of the kitchen table. 


I quickly came to adore the staggeringly contrasting first and second subjects of the Coriolan Overture, and laughed over the stunningly fast semiquaver baseline the bassoons have to contend with in The Consecration of the House and was completely enraptured by emotional depth of Florestan’s Act II aria from Fidelio.  There was a very particular genius for me when it came to Beethoven. How could the same person write the Gassenhauer Trio (of such classical elegance and seeming simplicity) have also composed the Grosse Fuge, within one lifetime? Why did someone so lyrical in so many ways, only compose one opera? What inspired Beethoven to compose the Waldstein Sonata in such epic proportions both in length and in technique?  I loved the amazing melodies of some works and the experimental harmonies and structures of others. Beethoven always seemed to be one of the most vibrant and unique of all the composers I listened to, and for that, I adored him.


I’ve been lucky enough to uncover new works by Beethoven in recent years that I had previously overlooked. Thanks to working with Sir Simon Rattle, I discovered Christ on the Mount of Olives which I found simply extraordinary (if not slightly sadistic for the singers!) and I went back to the Barbican to hear the London Symphony Orchestra perform this work twice, and would have gone again had I had the chance.   Similarly, I only came across Beethoven’s songs, ‘An die Ferne Geliebte’ when working at Decca Classics after stumbling across them in the catalogue, performed by the incomparable Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, live from the Wigmore Hall. And I have no doubt there is so much more out there that I will uncover and fall in love with in the years to come.


So, here’s to you LWB. Thank you for all the memories - from childhood to the present day and beyond. Happy 250th Birthday, and a sincere THANK YOU for the music.


16 December 2020

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