Heroic

When I first performed this symphony, I was in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. I was 15, and it was like an initiation rite: now I too would be able to say I’d played “Eroica”. The title was one of the attractions: Italian, exotic, even a little naughty if you think there might be supposed to be a “t” in the middle. I imagined I heard Boromir blowing his great horn in the 2nd movement. And of course there are the mythic stories about this symphony: Beethoven’s tearing up its dedication to Napoleon in protest, the Boston Symphony’s last-minute performance of the Funeral March in the face of unthinkable tragedy.

The second time I performed this symphony, I was an adult blogger on violinist.com. It was a whirlwind-quick festival over Christmas vacation, with a young, creative—heroic—conductor as the inspiration. I dusted off the old memories and was surprised and pleased at how well it all came back.

The third time I performed this symphony . . . well, I haven’t gotten there yet. We have 3 more rehearsals, which, if you think about it, isn’t that many. Yet, I still feel like I’m the muddy middle of things. I’m doing okay with respect to getting basic rhythm, intonation, and dynamics, and with re-awakening the muscle memory, but I’m still . . . struggling.

Back in my old orchestra, I was the concertmaster. I didn’t always mention that; in fact I usually just talked about “the orchestra I play in . . . “ unless it was a situation where I thought it would help me, or the orchestra, such as when I was dealing with publicity or finding a concert venue for orchestra-associated chamber groups. Then, I was the concertmaster, I was in charge, I was the one to deal with. I had the support of the conductor. I practiced my music, I tried my best to standardize the bowings, I served on the Board of Directors. I stood in front of the group and asked for the tuning A to start the concert. None of this stopped me from feeling like an impostor sometimes. Since I had never been to music school, since I had quit the violin twice, and since it was a non-audition volunteer group, I hadn’t earned the position the way most people do. I believe I did earn it over time, as a steady, conscientious presence who believed in and came to love the orchestra like a family. But I didn’t wear the mantle lightly, and sometimes I felt a little guilty enjoying it. After all those teenage years spent kicking around the back of county, state, and youth orchestras, and of turning the concertmaster’s pages in high school, a dream that I hadn’t even realized I’d been nurturing, came true in middle age.

And now it’s over.

During my time as concertmaster, I thought I was appropriately deferential to the conductor, and appropriately considerate of suggestions from the rest of the section (and other sections). I was small-c-conservative and mostly stuck to the printed bowings and took passages “as it comes” unless I had a good reason to do otherwise. Once I figured out a bowing I stuck with it and played it the same way from rehearsal to rehearsal, again, unless I had a good reason to do otherwise, and then the change was announced. My leadership style, if I could be said to have one at all, was not in-your-face, not heroic. I didn’t have strong musical opinions because I really didn’t think I had the right to have them.

Well, apparently, I was wrong about that and probably other things too. There’s nothing like the back of a first violin section to bring out the opinionatedness in all of us. For example, I have to admit, sheepishly, that I do not follow someone else’s bowings very well. For 7 years I’ve been used to doing what I want and expecting everyone else to follow me. And when I look up, I expect to see the conductor’s smiling face, not someone else’s bow going the opposite direction from mine. I find myself grumbling silently—up bow? There? WTF, are you kidding me? Oh, yeah, ok, that’s fine. Oops. I’ve been making liberal use of my pencil—and its eraser—in rehearsal.

In Eroica, though, my opinionatedness seems to focus on something different: interpretation. I remember now that I did have a policy as concertmaster that was not universally loved. I always told my section to play chords divisi, the notes divided up between two players on a stand, unless it was explicitly marked “non-div” or unless the conductor said otherwise. This started as a carryover from high school and youth orchestra days, but I still agree with it in principle. I think that symphonic chords, at least when played by a non-professional orchestra, sound better when played divisi: cleaner, better in tune, more together, and less crunchy, because players each only have 1-2 notes to worry about, but all notes are heard in the audience. Playing chords divisi also works to prevent a phenomenon that I personally dislike (and here is my opinionatedness again rearing its ugly head): violinist showoffy-ness. But in the current performance, not only are we supposed to play all the chords non-divisi, but he’s having us do a lot of down-bow retakes, another technique that I prefer to use sparingly.

I want to stop grumbling, even silently. I’m new here and I know it’s not my place to grumble. But I still don’t like the heaviness that these techniques bring to the piece. The concertmaster says it’s what Beethoven would have wanted, a reason I fully respect, if true. But is it true? How can we know?

Beethoven’s Eroica might be the most talked- and written-about symphony in the history of classical music. I did a little internet research and I found a number of cool things that made writing this blog take a long time but didn’t answer my question: 1. The Eroica Riddle: Did Napoleon Remain Beethoven’s Hero; Beethoven’s taking away the dedication to Napoleon may have been motivated more by practical and financial reasons, than by democratic disillusionment with a self-proclaimed emperor. 2. Norman Bates listened to Eroica in the Hitchcock movie, “Psycho;” and 3. The opening chords in Eroica can be, and have been, played many different ways, from short to long to bright to deep, at different tempos and even with different pitches, if you include historical recordings.

This last project, in particular, drives the point home that everyone has an opinion, they’re all different, and maybe that’s actually part of the fun. So this is mine. Yes, the Eroica ushered in a new symphonic era. It was unique, and revolutionary. It threw off shackles, and Prometheus became unbound. But it didn’t completely lose touch with its classical roots, either. Underneath the unexpected chord changes and rich orchestrations, there is still a framework that connects it with Mozart, Haydn, and those who came before. There is still room for lightness, even delicacy, in the Eroica. There are always going to be the myths, and there is always going to be someone who comes along and points out that it is really more complicated. Than that.

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14 thoughts on “Heroic”

  1. Hello,
    I’m just a beginner, slow starter, for the violin. I saw your blog post via the Violinist.com and via WordPress’ “violin” tag. I use the same tag sometimes but, in my case, with using other tags, like “beginner”, “practice.”

    Nice to meet you,

    Naba 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Naba, Nice to meet you too! I have been blogging for a while on violinist.com, but sometimes I want to write about other things, so I started this blog.

      I am an adult “re-starter” on the violin. I quit when I was in graduate school and when my kids were babies and toddlers, and then I started again when they were a little older. I think it is great to be an adult amateur! I very much admire people who start violin from scratch as adults. It is definitely easier for those of us who still have some muscle memory. Best of luck to you with your violin studies! Do you play with any groups?

      Like

      1. Good point. I really want to join an ensemble group, but I yet can’t find good one in my places. (I live in Nara, Japan. South of Kyoto, East of Osaka)

        Oh, and, thank you following (to my former blog?) Recently I’m not using following feature but I’ll see your blog posts, sometimes, via RSS reader.

        Can I send you linkbacks (or trackbacks?) as same as comments? Sometimes?

        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks. 🙂

        My current blog is:
        imnaba.wordpress.com

        Because my main interesting is talking, or conversation, to people, so, I often make new blog, in 2 years or so. Current blog is now about 1 year.

        Oh, by the way, don’t you have SoundCloud account?
        (If you had, I want to follow you on there)

        Mine is:
        soundcloud.com/naba_t

        Like

      3. No, sorry, I don’t have a SoundCloud account. I sometimes post videos of myself playing on YouTube or Facebook but not that often. There are a few on my violinist.com blog. That’s an interesting thought, maybe I should collect a few of them and post them here!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Very recently, in Japan maybe, we can use the internet cheaply by smartphone, but instead of it, we have “speed limit” of 3MB by month.

        So, I mean, I can’t use streaming web sites, very often. Sorry. :3

        (But, I can listen to SC, because it’s available for the offline users)

        See you, I’m going to go to practice to the park nearby.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that you gave us a sample of the opening chords through time! What an interesting look at how music varies based on interpretation. It is very difficult to change bowings you have always done a particular way. Best of luck to you as you continue to grow and learn with a new orchestra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t make the video, but I thought it was very interesting. So many tempos, and interpretations, and even pitches, in just those two E-flat major chords. My favorite are the longer chords, in a moderate tempo. Nothing too extreme.

      You’re right it is difficult to change bowings, but for me it’s mostly just getting used to the fact that I have to follow now. It was sometimes a pain to work out bowings myself and send them to the rest of the section, but it was also a privilege. I went to another concert over the last weekend and there was a bald guy in the 1st violin section who was frequently out of sync. I might not have noticed it so clearly if I hadn’t been thinking about it anyway, but I found it quite noticeable and a little distracting. I don’t want to be that guy/gal!

      Like

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