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Ode to Beethoven – Interview with Rachel Podger

Interview

In the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, we have invited some of our favourite musicians to join us for a year-long series. Acclaimed violinist Rachel Podger told us more about her upcoming concerts in #Beethoven250 and shared her personal Beethoven anecdotes.

Tell us about your Beethoven 250 Kings Place concert(s) this year.

Chris [pianist Christopher Glynn] and I are lucky to have TWO Beethoven recitals at Kings Place in this very important Beethoven anniversary year! The first one is on 20th February, in which we’re playing the bubbly Spring Sonata, the stormy C minor Sonata and the last Sonata in G major which and has a beautiful timeless quality to it. In November, we will play the awe-inspiring Kreutzer Sonata.

What’s your favourite Beethoven anecdote or quote? Anything we are less likely to have heard before?

Beethoven uttered many quotable truths and much wisdom. Here are some favourites:

‘The true artist is not proud: he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal, and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.’

Also and maybe the best quote: ‘Only the pure of heart can make a good soup.’

What was the first piece by Beethoven you ever played? Any special memory of a performance?

My first encounter with Beethoven was singing Ode an die Freude (Ode to Joy) at the Steiner school I attended as a child and teenager in Kassel, Germany. As pupils we also learned to recite An die Freude – Schiller’s famous poem is akin to a spiritual anthem where joy appeals to the human race to live in peace and solidarity. No wonder this powerful message is part of the glorious climax in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, paving the way forward for other choral symphonies in the future. The performance of this Symphony in Berlin at Christmas 1989 under Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the reunification of Germany must have been one of the most moving concerts highlighting Beethoven’s meaning, although Bernstein took the liberty to replace the word ‘Freude’ (joy) with ‘Freiheit’ (freedom) for the occasion!

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elisium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
was der Mode Schwert geteilt;
Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder,
wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly One, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where thy gentle wing abides.

Where can you see Beethoven’s influence today?

Beethoven’s genius changed the function of music; before his time a symphony for instance was regarded as mere entertainment. Beethoven’s genius and extreme personality transformed music into pure expression. He couldn’t help but be clear in what he wanted to express, whether that be extreme drama and impulsiveness, extreme lyricism, beauty and tenderness or extreme wit! No-one had written like him beforehand, and this extreme expression became an example for all who followed. It’s as though his contribution cast a powerful spell on musicians who came after him. Beethoven’s posthumous influence mapped the direction of musical development of the nineteenth century, and in fact much of his music still sounds new today.

What would be your Beethoven Desert Island work?

It’s between the Violin Concerto which I adore and the Emperor Concerto…

Who would you invite to dinner with Beethoven?

Leonard Bernstein, Clara Schumann, Peter Werner (my music teacher at school)

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