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Michael Gielen: Musical Visionary for Cincinnati

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 16, 2012 - 9:32:23 PM in commentary_2013

Michael Gielen
Michael Gielen's final subscription concert as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra took place March 14 and 15, 1986 at Music Hall.  On the program -- paired for perhaps the first time anywhere -- were Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Schoenberg's 1947 "A Survivor from Warsaw."

Gielen's six-year tenure (1980-1986) was marked by many such juxtapositions of old and new music, a practice which earned him considerable criticism and displeasure in Cincinnati.  Since then, pairing old and new has become commonplace, even expected.  Gielen, 85, is celebrated as a visionary and one of the world's most important exponents of contemporary music.

Pairings of Beethoven's Ninth and Schoenberg's"Survivor" have been repeated by many orchestras, including the CSO under music director-designate Louis Langrée November 15, 17 and 18, 2012 at Music Hall

The following is an introduction Gielen wrote for the CSO program book for those March, 1986 concerts at Music Hall.  (Re-printed by permission of the CSO)

By Michael Gielen

Beethoven’s Ninth and Schoenberg’s "Survivor from Warsaw.” Why these two works? At first there seems to be no connection – but they are related. The connection is dialectical and not easy for me to describe, but I will try.

This program jumped suddenly into my mind, as something meaningful and necessary. At first it was just an intuitive idea, but then I began to think about it, to rationalize. I found out how deeply meaningful this idea really is! At first it seemed like my usual way of juxtaposing old and new music. The old and the new really have more similarities than differences. Such a combination seemed appropriate because each of these two compositions come from one of the two “Vienna schools,” whose technique involved the careful working out and development of motives. I cannot think of playing Beethoven without having in mind Schoenberg’s stringency. I cannot play Schoenberg without remembering his classical heritage.

But there is more to this particular juxtaposition of old and new. There are two particular things that we must remember in order to understand the Symphony’s “Ode to Joy” finale. Beethoven’s evolution as a political human being parallels his emotional evolution.  After his youthful enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution – his ardent republicanism – came his disappointment and disenchantment. Napoleon, formerly considered the standard-bearer of the Revolution, crowned himself Emperor and became a despot trying to conquer Europe; he though only of power, not of righteousness. After Napoleon’s fall came the restoration of the Old Regime, with its censorship and police rule. Beethoven’s response was to retire into his inner self. He interiorized his ideals, separating them from reality. Thus in the Ninth the brotherhood of man becomes a pure idea, with no hope of realization in the near future.

I would call this process in Beethoven’s spirit regressive, using that term in its purely psychological sense, in the same way one might think of his emotional and subjective inner love life. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to have satisfying relationships with women of nobility, he turned in his late years to a sickly, manic, obsessive love of his nephew. In other words, another regressive process – the burying, or interiorization, of his libido.

All of this introversion was necessary, it seems, for Beethoven to achieve the incredible concentration of his late piano music, late quartets, Missa Solemnis, and Ninth Symphony. The less his ideals and feelings existed in reality, the stronger his ideals helped to formulate music of the highest subjectivity.

In the poetry of Schiller, which Beethoven set in the Ninth’s final movement, an analogous process took place. Where we now find the word “joy” in his Ode, was originally the word “freedom.” Reactionary forces were so strong that both men could not openly confess their ideals of freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of men.

Since the Revolutions of 1776 and 1789, world history has seen a part of humanity fighting on a major scale for these ideals and for their actualization. The fight continues today throughout the world. Good and evil (if such primitive words are even possible) forces fight within and between blocks of nations. Ever since the idealistic Revolutions of the 18th century, injustice has continued. Consider imperialistic expansion, exploitation of man by man and of earth by man, pollution, hunger, wars, torture, horror. After every effort at justice, freedom, and fraternity among humans, another catastrophe happens.  Both the hope and the despair are the work of mankind. As implied in Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw,” it all goes on, unmitigated, year after year.

After World War I the nations sat down in Geneva, but the recession and the misery of unemployment brought about Nazism.  The Russian Revolution, similar to the French, turned into its own negation, into oppression and tyranny. Oblivious of its ideals, mankind produced Auschwitz, the Siberian Gulag camps, Hiroshima, and the Warsaw ghetto depicted in Schoenberg’s work. And still it is not over. We are heading toward our own destruction. I believe we must remember this reality when singing or hearing Beethoven’s “Be embraced, O you millions, this kiss is for all the world!” Let us never forget the reality this singing is directed against.

The greatness of the Ninth, its beauty, the shattering horror of the fanfare that begins its finale – these can fully reach us today only when we confront the other side of man. Homo homini lupus – man a wolf to man.

The full reality of art is the idea in the reflection of reality.