Edo de Waart talks about his relationship with Beethoven's Music
“When you grow up in Amsterdam, you hear a lot of Beethoven, but when I was young, I had no inkling of how important he would be in my life. The first work I ever conducted was his Fifth Symphony, when I was 23, for the final performance of Franco Ferrara’s conductors’ course in Hilversum. I stood on the podium and realised what an incredible genius he was, and that continues to this day.
Beethoven was totally different from Mozart. When you look at a manuscript of a Mozart symphony, it’s very clean: he had the music perfect in his head and just wrote it down. With Beethoven facsimiles, it’s like a madman has been let loose with crayons and paper. He would scratch things out and go over them, as if he was overwhelmed by his own talent.
One of the things I love about Beethoven is that he can turn on a dime – from fury and rage to ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean it, I love you.’ We are used to this in Romantic music now, but it wouldn’t have happened if Beethoven hadn’t been what he was. He pushed the possibilities of writing about one’s emotions. He’s not lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, but his music is personal, and in order to play it, you have to make it personal, too.
The authenticity movement has not gone unnoticed by me and many others. When I work on Beethoven, I think about how it must have sounded when he was alive. With the first chords of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, the audience must have fallen off their chairs – they’d never heard anything like it; the same with the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. We have to try to make these surprising, even though everyone has heard umpteen performances and knows exactly what’s coming. It has to have a sense of freshness and it doesn’t have that if you put a lot of oil paint of it. It has to be cleaned up, but without taking out the blood and guts.
We just did a cycle in New Zealand, starting with the First and ending with the Ninth. Within three weeks you travel through the man’s life – his headaches and heartaches. It’s amazing to see his growth measured out in front of you, from the First symphony, which is like late Haydn, to his last symphony, which could be anything – where he would have gone after that, we can only guess. When you hear a cycle like this, after the first day you become entranced and feel like you’re floating. It’s the same if you hear the piano sonatas or string quartets as a cycle. There’s no room for anything else in your mind.
There are actors who are wonderful, but you always know it’s them – it can be fascinating because it’s so personal and they show things you never thought about. That happens in music, too, but I prefer to make conducting about the music and nothing else. I have no other thoughts or needs – I’m not thinking about whether I look wild enough or how my hair is. I don’t want it to be about ‘what does de Waart do with Beethoven’s symphonies?’ I try to understand where Beethoven was coming from, what he was going through and how painful his life must have been. He was already completely deaf, which must have been agonising and frustrating. He was conducting the piece, but he couldn’t hear it and was acting like a wild man.
I’m in the enviable position that I’ve conducted all Beethoven’s symphonies many times. What is hard for a young conductor is that everything is new, but almost everything I conduct is something I’ve done before. But Beethoven never sounds old, and I never worry about what I am going to do with it – I still get excited.”