One of the greatest conductors of all time, Sir Simon Rattle is renowned for his mastery of repertoire from the Baroque to the present day. After building an international reputation for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, he was appointed chief conductor and artistic director of the legendary Berliner Philharmoniker in 2002. In a recent interview, he discussed his two-season Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall which begins with him leading the Berliner Philharmoniker in five performances that encompass Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
As a conductor, what importance do you place on this repertoire?
When I was growing up, my parents gave me a wonderful little book called Bluff Your Way in Music, and it had a chapter on conductors. It said, “Conductors are basically very simple people. All they actually want to do is conduct Wagner’s Ring Cycle and do a cycle of Beethoven symphonies.” I laughed, of course, but over the years it has kind of stayed with me. It is true. We are simple people, and we do want to do that. There are certain types of Everests that we all want to climb.
Now, to do Beethoven symphonies is hard enough, but to do a cycle of Beethoven symphonies is something very different. It’s at the center of music, and it’s the reason that so much of music after it happened. It’s not only an Everest to climb, but it’s an extraordinary journey in its own right. And through it, in a way, you can see the Romantic and the modern orchestra being built. You can also see someone building a whole edifice that will support the music of the next 150 years.
Over the course of your 40-year career, how has your approach to these works changed?
When I first conducted the Beethoven symphonies, I started (as many people do) with the Fourth as a student. Oh, I made a tremendous hash of many of the symphonies. I remember speaking in the Berlin Philharmonie. I remember sitting with Herbert von Karajan the first time I met him and him saying the prophetic and awful sentence, “Oh, Simon, I felt as though I had to write off my first 100 of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Until I’d done 100, it simply didn’t make sense.” At this point, I’d just done my second performance and it wasn’t exactly encouraging, but I understood what he meant. It’s a journey on which you never stop discovering. In fact, I would say it’s a journey where you must never consent to arrive anywhere. The minute you think you’ve got it, then you must be sure to have lost it.
When did you first conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies?
The first time I conducted all nine together was during my Birmingham paradise years, where we could really do exactly what we wanted, how we wanted. We had the experience of working on the first seven symphonies for four weeks, playing them and playing them. And then after those four weeks, we finally came to numbers Eight and Nine, which we programmed together. Eight is one of the trickiest symphonies because it’s Beethoven’s final look back to Haydn, saying, “You know, Papa, I can do everything you can do, but I can do it better.” It’s a debatable point, but certainly Beethoven felt this. It’s not only a matter of enormous affection, but it’s a matter of saying, “Look how far I can take this,” because Beethoven very well knew that Haydn was extremely impressed with his First Symphony, but Haydn really already thought by the Second Symphony that this young man had gone too far.
And now you’re working your way through the cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
As I say, you never stop the journey. I’ve done Beethoven cycles in Birmingham, a cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic over four years, and now—like all simple conductors, having done the Ring with the Berliner Philharmoniker—of course the Beethoven cycle comes up. I think we all felt that this was something we wanted to explore together. We did it once coupled with the complete orchestral works of Webern. But this time, we’ve decided to do Beethoven pure, so we are really speaking this one language for weeks and weeks, and I think it will be a fascinating journey for us.
What is your reasoning for not performing them chronologically?
When you play a cycle like this, it’s such a journey through Beethoven’s life, but I’m not really sure if there is an effective way of playing the symphonies in chronological order. There is also the problem of what you need in a program emotionally. To have the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (no.6) followed by the Seventh. I find is kind of an emotional cataclysm. Both pieces need to come at the end of the program. The Pastoral is such a benediction, and it gets completely blown away by the stunning rhythmicality of the Seventh. The Ninth Symphony sits extraordinarily well on its own. But another piece to play with it could be the Second Symphony—in the introduction of the Second, the first movement of the Ninth is astonishingly prefigured. You can hear Beethoven putting it at the back of his mind, saying, “I’m going to return to this phrase.”
How do you think audiences will respond to your selected order?
I think we’ve found probably the most satisfactory ordering for the symphonies that there is, and one that it’s possible to journey through over five days. And then, for orchestra, conductor, and audience, if you’ve heard these pieces over five days, you really get an idea of how the entire 19th century was made, how it was taken from one place and moved to another by the force and genius of one man. Now, to play the cycle in all these great cities (in Paris, in Vienna, in Tokyo) is a great experience, but to play this in New York at Carnegie Hall during the Hall’s 125th anniversary season is something very particular. Once again, as a simple conductor who only wants to do this, this is one of the biggest and simplest pleasures I could imagine.
This interview first appeared on the Carnegie Hall blog.