John Suchet, presenter of Eroica Unwrapped,
Answers our questions about Beethoven, the Eroica…
…and audiences in t-shirts
Those of you who made it to our fantastic ‘Eroica Unwrapped’ concert will know that we were lucky enough to have the Classic FM presenter and author John Suchet unwrap Beethoven’s third symphony for us. He provided us with knowledge of Beethoven’s life and how much of it is poured into the Eroica, as well as engaging in an exclusive book signing for the lucky audience members.
Here at són we like to give you that little bit extra, so John very kindly agreed to a short interview to explain to us why he believes Ludwig to be ‘the master’ of classical music and why his works are so influential.
In your “unwrapping” of the Eroica, you described it as “Beethoven’s finest achievement” – why do you think that?
I think that it’s not only Beethoven’s finest achievement, I think it’s the greatest symphony ever written by anyone, ever, in the history of the world – ever! I really hope that [our Eroica Unwrapped concert] will bring that out. It’s almost twice as long as any other symphony that any other composer had ever written, it breaks the rules from the very opening chord. I’ve heard it I don’t know how many million times but it always takes me by surprise at every turn. Beethoven is the master, it’s as simple as that.
Why is he so much more influential than all of the others?
Remember he went deaf, very slowly over a long period of time. I think Beethoven, more than any other, pours his life into his music. If you know what’s happening in his life at the time of writing a particular piece of music, you listen to it through different ears. All of Beethoven’s problems, he had them throughout his life and they were all self inflicted, with the single exception of his deafness. They’re there in his music. You hear it in the Eroica, you hear his struggle to overcome his deafness and by the end of the symphony he’s overcome it. Now musicologists will debate why it’s E flat and not C sharp, but what interests me is what’s happening in his life and he is coming to terms with his deafness. He’s just written his Will and Testament, he’s reserved to himself the right to take his own life if he can no longer hear his music – but he never does. His hearing gets worse and worse but his compositions get greater and greater and it’s the triumph of this man’s will, his sheer determination to overcome that affliction – and that’s there in that symphony. If anyone’s down in any way – Beethoven’s Eroica, by the end of it I could climb Mount Everest!
Beethoven’s 5th arguably has one of the most distinctive and well known openings to any piece of classical music, why do you think Eroica deserves more recognition?
The 5th is better known because it was used during the Second World War to alert the free French to messages from the BBC in London. This isn’t as well known in that sense but it is as dramatic, to me it is more dramatic, because Beethoven’s first two symphonies in a way are Mozartian. They’re harking back to Mozart and Haydn, his two great contemporaries. The Eroica is the turn of the century, we are in a new century and he is taking the symphony into a completely new direction, nothing like it had ever been written before. Now people will say the fifth is greater, or the ninth is greater – I wouldn’t argue, other than to say the Eroica is the first that absolutely set a new path.
Has classical music always been such an important part of your life, right through your childhood and journalistic career?
I’ve always loved it because at school I was actually quite a good musician, well a very mediocre one – but not bad. But I originally wanted to become a musician, and that was my ambition, but fortunately for the world of music I changed my mind and went into journalism. So it’s always been there at the back of my life, so to speak, and I have to confess that at school and at university, all my friends were listening to the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd – things like that. I was a bit into Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Mozart – a bit anoraky but I won’t apologise for it. I loved it, and I still love it, and now it’s my career thanks to Classic FM. Who would have thought that?
How do you think we can broaden Classical music to a wider, younger audience?
First of all, cut the stuffiness out of it. I’m not sure what Robin is going to wear tonight but when I see a conductor walk on stage in white tie and tails, my heart does sink a little. That’s not going to get young people in, I’d like to see the conductor and the orchestra in casual clothes, I know everyone likes dressing up and I’ve heard people say ‘we like dressing up because they do’ but I would like to see people in the audience in jeans and t-shirts. They’ve come to hear the music!
And the other thing is, if you explain to the audience what they are about to hear, what to listen out for – and I don’t mean Eb as opposed to C# – I mean: ‘Was the composer in love when he wrote it? Was he drunk? What was going on in his life when he wrote it? And by the way listen out for this particular bar because you won’t believe what he does there.’ No key signatures, no opus numbers, tell them what’s going on in his life. Then when you explain you see them almost go ‘oh yeah that’s what he said, I get that.’ That’s the way, I think, to bring people in, by demystifying it. All these great composers are geniuses, unlike any others who have ever lived, but they’re still human beings. I mean Beethoven had to eat and drink, pay his rent. He may be a god to us now, but he had to live like an ordinary mortal. That’s the way to do it.
Many thanks to John for allowing us to talk to him. Our sell-out “Eroica Unwrapped” concert was a great success, which couldn’t have been achieved without John or our wonderful orchestra. However, the real hero of the night? It had to be Beethoven.
són Creative Intern
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