3rd Symphony (Eroica) – Beethoven
Live and direct. Past midnight in England, I have officially entered my 60th year which means that tomorrow in New York I will be 59. Jenny tells me Not To Think About It Like That. After unwrapping perhaps the finest birthday present since the war a whole day early I am happy beyond measure.
A portable ION turntable, small cute and gorgeous is ceremonially placed on the corner table, plugged in and fired up. First LP (we only have two) : Duke Ellington‘s 1929-1935 film soundtracks “Band Shorts” including on side two the marvellous A Bundle Of Blues with “our conception of that haunting melody Stormy Weather” (sung by Ivie Anderson) coupled with the stunning Symphony In Black (A Rhapsody of Negro Life) featuring a young Billie Holiday on her first recording session (see My Pop Life #34). I sit on the sofa and just listen to the sound of vinyl playing Duke Ellington in my brownstone. A perfect moment. Jenny (for it is she!) smiles at me from the other end of our space. Her gift. Her love. Lucky me. The Luckiest. Then as boiled eggs and toast are produced with salt, pepper, tea and orange juice, on goes Second LP The Four Tops “Live” from 1966 – the very first time I have ever heard this record in any format. A revelation. Of course Levi Stubbs is one of the greatest singers of my own 59 years, but what a crooner is revealed as he tackles ‘Climb Every Mountain’ (!) and Girl From Ipanema (whilst stealing It’s Not Unusual from Tom Jones) alongside classics Reach Out, Same Old Song and Can’t Help Myself. It’s like a direct link to the 1960s through our ears – they even cover You Can’t Hurry Love and If I Had A Hammer. All backed by the Funk Brothers. Delighted, Jenny reminds me that we have one more record to play –
a James Brown single on the King label I bought in Richmond last year (just because) entitled I Guess I’ll Have To Cry Cry Cry. It’s also the first time I’ve heard this one, and it is semi orchestral and soulful a bit like Man’s World.
Scanning the New Yorker for an exhibition we can see before Jenny goes to work at 6pm I see that we have missed my man Jean Dubuffet. Then the workmen start arriving to fix our apartment – light fittings, back door, yadda yadda. It’s a beautiful day but we decide to stay in and watch Spain beat Turkey 3-0. Then Jen goes to work and I grab my hoodie and cycle down to Fulton, walk up Vanderbilt past Grand Army Plaza to Prospect Park. I’d sent a faintly hopeful email out earlier to the Brooklyn crew (Lynn, Harrison & Christopher, Segun and Lucy, Johanna, Sean, Shekhar) but it was more of a shout-out really. Once in the park I sparked up a wee spliff and inhaled deeply, walking across the grass feeling echoes of medieval pilgrimage to a designated spot, I could have been in Germany in 1196, travelling with purpose across grassland with others to a venue which would reveal itself musically first with Beethoven’s Fidelio tickling my ears. As I walk through the gentle crowd and find a spot of grass the New York Philharmonic start playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. This is one of four or five pieces of classical music that I know by heart almost. Not the subject of this Pop Life, but could easily have been. A sweeter piece of music would be hard to find. Very melodic, some might say pop in its sensibilities but all the way from 1791. The soloist is impeccable but not as good as Glenn Miller (he tackled it in 1944) and simply too quiet. The conductor hushes down the orchestra so that we can hear him. He plays it really well, really well, but I want him to blow it harder ! Mate – we’re in a park !!
During the interval I find a wee path by the lake and in the gloaming light a quick spliff for two puffs then complement the taste with a Benson & Hedges – a few other dimly-lit shapes are puffing too. No Smoking in the Park, and there are cops in abundance, but not here. Back in the grassy meadow kids are playing with neon glowsticks and wine has been consumed. A level of chatter I’m suddenly hyper-aware of in my newly-stoned state. I find a spot and stand for a bit as a speech or two is delivered, mainly expressing solidarity with Orlando after this week’s mass shooting. Gay Pride starts here on Sunday for a week. It will be massive this year. Meanwhile in England Jo Cox, young MP for Batley and Spen with a record of helping refugees and celebrating immigrants is murdered by a white supremacist outside her constituency surgery in broad daylight. The shock is still reverberating through England, currently in the poisonous peak of the EU referendum which we are well out-of over here. A platform legitimising fascist Farage and giving all the racists in Britain an entitlement to their foul imaginings has polluted the body of the nation, and bitterness and repulsion are all around. But we are not going backwards now. Let’s get the poison out, let’s beat it and move on. And we will fight this fight in every generation for hate will not disappear. But we will smother it, restrict its oxygen and put it back in the cupboard of shame and keep talking the talk and walking the walk after this utterly pointless ruling-class exercise in divide and rule.
I submitted and bought this box-set about 20 years ago
I lie down propped up by my cycle helmet. The evil and division of the world disappears and is replaced by lines, shapes, phrases and numbers as Beethoven’s Third Symphony starts, magnificent, swirling, the main theme revealed almost immediately then repeated, swollen, then again with flutes, horns, cellos. I don’t know this music intimately, but I know it. It is incredible. The way the themes are intimated, delivered, modulated, a change of key, of tempo, of bar length, of instrument, the underlying countermelody becomes the theme and back and forth and folding and rising and falling. Delicate lyricism, fluid phrasing, ralles and crescendos, impassioned and evocative. I am lying on my back on the grass with my eyes closed. I am stoned. I am very happy.
Beethoven in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte
The 3rd Symphony was written as an heroic musical tribute to Napoleon, whom Beethoven admired greatly, and probably idealised. As he was about to publish the work in 1804, Bonaparte declared himself (like Caesar centuries earlier) Emporer of all of Europe. Just another tyrant, feet of clay, no hero. Ludwig Van was so enraged that he scratched Bonaparte’s name off of the score with such fury that he tore the paper and re-titled it Eroica (the heroic symphony).
It was, at the time, the longest symphony ever written at around an hour, and early reviews were poor. Never trust those early reviews ! Beethoven himself said about it that if it is an hour long, then people will find it short enough. He has been proved right over the years and it stands as one of his, and music’s great achievements.
I scan my life in 45 seconds as the music soars and sweeps around me. It’s all good. A quick flash of me aged 16 in Clockwork Orange garb with false eyelashes worshipping Ludwig Van almost as much as Malcolm McDowell. Travel. Work. Pain. Love. It’s been a long swim to get to this park, this moment of surrender. Sometimes you need to just stop struggling. Just before she left for work Jenny hugged and kissed me then looked into my eyes smiling “we’re doing all right” she said, “we’ll be fine“. So far so good.