A while back I promised to write some entries explaining my rough-and-ready top 10 list for classical music. At the top of the list is Leonard Bernstein's recording of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, his Third. I picked this recording not because it's the greatest Eroica ever — if pressed, I'd name Klemperer's EMI version instead — but because Bernstein's radio lecture, included with the Sony CD, is maybe the most effective introduction to the intellectual and emotional power of classical music that I know of. Be forewarned: Lenny's Brahmin ahccent makes John Kerry sound like Boss Hogg.
I rambled on about the Eroica in my long essay "Listen To This." (There's the fatal C# in the corner of the picture.) Here, briefly, I'll say that the Eroica is the ne-plus-ultra demonstration of how to develop a theme. "In the beginning was the Note,” Bernstein intoned in another lecture. That's what you hear at the outset: the Note, the Word, E-flats reverberating as total chords. But then what? The Note was what Beethoven perceived in the far reaches of his imagination or felt in the depths of his soul; after the flash of the eternal begins the struggle. It's really not much of a theme, once it gets started. Beethoven had good ideas, but Mozart and Schubert usually had better ones. The genius was in the working-out, the struggle, the creation of a form. Often, the more sundry the ideas, the more astounding the form. The Eroica marks the point at which Beethoven stops trying to conceal his difficulties behind a mask of Mozartean mastery; instead, he brings the struggle directly to the surface of the composition. The music seems sometimes not to know where it is going because Beethoven has no idea where it is going. This is, above all, honest music. Genius sweats and thrashes in real time. I get caught up the human drama time and again: Oh God, I think, this time he's not going to make it. But he does.
Reading Judit Frigyesi's book Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, I came across some remarkable sentences by Georg Lukács: "The essence of art is form: it is to defeat oppositions, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force, from all things that have been deeply and eternally alien to one another outside this form. The creation of form is the last judgment over things, a last judgment that redeems all that could be redeemed, that enforces salvation on all things with divine force."
In short, Beethoven kicks it.