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Lewis Lockwood quotes verses written by his mother on the dedication page, ‘Poets are sieves’ – a phrase also suggestive of the process of distillation undertaken in the mere 234 pages of Beethoven’s Symphonies,

The latest in a string of volumes by the author examining the composer from a multiplicity of angles. In my experience, musicians are divided on the question of how far knowledge of the background to a piece of music matters in the preparation of a performance. Some are adamant that everything necessary is found in the score itself. Others enthusiastically embrace anything that offers additional insight, even if it can be hard to define precisely what effect this has on a performance. Working his way through each symphony in turn, Lockwood lucidly makes the case for examining not just the content of a work, but its personal and historical context.

The expression of that context may seem a little skimpy to Beethoven aficionados, but plenty of snippets of information bring things to life. For example, Lockwood links the funeral march of the Eroica symphony to a march genre of the day found in opera and French revolutionary music. He suggests the essentially easeful mood of the Pastoral symphony is deceptive, having roots in Beethoven’s continuing need to find solace from the long-standing dark mood expressed in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. Fascinatingly, Lockwood places the ninth symphony’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in the context of the development of national anthems.

Lockwood’s musical analysis of each symphony may be more involved than many general readers would care for, but the touch is hardly over-weighty. Conversely, those needing more fibre may wish to read this new volume in conjunction with his earlier meaty overview, Beethoven: The Music and the Life.

In conclusion, Lockwood examines the timeless qualities of the symphonies by showing how the fifth in particular resonated among Polish Jews in the Łódź ghetto during the second world war. His final thoughts: the symphonies ‘stand as examples of what great music can still mean in our fragmented and pessimistic age’.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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