The orchestra begins its project with a performance of Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60, paired with Mahler’s First, on Sept. 24 and 26.
Even as he continues to celebrate his late countryman, Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), by recording all of his symphonic repertoire by the middle of next year’s Dutilleux Centenary, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot prepares to step back over 200 years to explore the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Over the next two seasons, starting with concerts on Sept. 24 and 26, Morlot will visit all of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos, as well as some shorter orchestral works.
First up, in a season that promises performances of three of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, three of his five piano concertos, and the Coriolan Overture, is the forthcoming pairing of Beethoven’s infrequently performed Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major.
While the question, “Why Beethoven?” is best addressed by listening to the near-overwhelming emotional and spiritual range of his music — which encompasses everything from casual romps through pastoral landscapes to triumphant odes to freedom, all while paying careful attention to the most noble and fragile beatings of the human heart — asking Morlot as to why he has paired Beethoven’s Fourth with Mahler’s First provides invaluable insight into his approach to both composers.
Seattle Symphony: Beethoven Symphony No. 4 & Mahler Symphony No. 1
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, Benaroya Hall, 200 University Street, Seattle; $21-$121 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org)
“We have the opportunity to program Beethoven’s works with different pairings and associations that can impart the kind of story the symphony and I want to tell with the music,” Morlot said.
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“I believe Mahler was very inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth when he wrote his First Symphony. Mahler’s opening is almost a copy-and-paste. Beethoven opens with enigmatic drops of intervals of thirds; in Mahler One, it’s exactly the same process, but with intervals of fourths. This is the journey that takes us through his first movement, and actually, cyclically, through the whole symphony.”
That Mahler would be acutely aware of Beethoven’s work comes as no surprise. A celebrated conductor who performed Beethoven on numerous occasions, Mahler was intent on pushing the boundaries of symphonic development while honoring what had come before.
Beethoven operated in much the same manner, moving forward, even through deafness, while honoring the tradition of Bach, Haydn and Mozart, who preceded him. Both men, in fact, reached the apex of their symphonic statements with massive works that included orchestra, chorus and large-voiced soloists.
Then there is the celebration of nature found in both pieces. Mahler, whose first symphony includes bird song, rustic ländler (folk dance) themes, a parody of “Frère Jacques,” quotations from his deeply moving song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer and even Jewish klezmer music, was in his own way as far-ranging as Beethoven in the manner in which he encompassed both nature and humanity.
What is most surprising, however, when discussing Beethoven with Morlot, is that he considers Beethoven the “hardest” composer to master.
“Until two years ago, when Dutilleux passed, it was very easy to get answers to questions about dynamics, nuance, tempo, etcetera,” he said. “You just picked up the phone and asked him. When I work on new music, I’m on the phone daily with composers with all the questions I would ask Beethoven. But instead, we have to play with the pulse and other things, all while reserving the right to change our minds.”