Thursday, June 14, 2012

Me, My Memory, and Beethoven's Ninth: Musings on Social and Cultural Memory

I remember fairly vividly the day I first discovered, consciously at least, I had heard classical music every time I watched a Looney Tunes cartoon when I was young but wasn't really conscious of it, classical music. It occurred on that day in 1972 that I first went to see Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 dystopian/utopian novel A Clockwork Orange in a cinema near the Ball State University campus in Muncie, Indiana. Kubrick, who, by the time A Clockwork Orange was released, had, thanks to his 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, become known for his use of classical music to create moods, tones, and irony in his films.

One of the pieces of classical music that figures prominently in both the literary and film versions of A Clockwork Orange is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824). Of all the pieces of classical music Kubrick used in Clockwork it was Beethoven’s Ninth more than any other that stood out to me at the time I first saw the film (though I also recall being amused, fascinated, and intrigued by Kubrick's use of what I discovered was the overture to Rossini's La gazza ladra to choreograph the fight between Alex and his droggies and Billy Boy and his droggies). Both Burgess and Kubrick use Beethoven’s Ninth on several occasions to express Alex’s, Alex is the protagonist in both book and film, emotional highs and emotional lows. Kubrick also uses what Alex calls “the Glorious Ninth” to wryly counterpoint, as James Naremore notes in his 2008 monograph On Kubrick, Alex’s good old ultraviolence to Beethoven’s grand Enlightenment notion of brotherhood as represented in the fourth movement, the choral movement, the "Ode to Joy" movement, of the Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth made such an impression on me that, as I remember it now through the mists of time past, a few days later I made the twenty or so mile pilgrimage from my parent’s home in Hartford City, Indiana to the Musicland in the Muncie Mall in order to buy a copy of the symphony.

I did not know at the time that the version of Beethoven’s Ninth Kubrick used in A Clockwork Orange was, or apparently was, a performance conducted by the well-known Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1958, a performance now regarded s legendary by some. I did know, from a lucky glance at the title credits, if memory serves, that the performance of the Ninth Kubrick used was on Deutsche Grammophon Records, one of the major classical music labels at the time, as I soon discovered. When I got to Musicland, the only music store within miles of Hartford City where you could buy classical music, I found a copy of Karl Bohm’s 1972 recording of the Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon records and bought it.

When I took my double album of Bohm’s Ninth home I played it over and over on my stereo, one of my prized possessions at the time. Over time Bohm’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth became so embedded and sedimented in my memory--I knew almost every note, dynamic, and tempo of his performance--that it became and still remains the standard by which I judge every other performance of Beethoven’s Ninth by.

My memories of how Karl Bohm’s Beethoven’s Ninth came to be a part of my memory may seem unimportant but this seemingly small process reveals a lot about how memory and culture work in human beings. I have, of course, listened to other interpretations of Beethoven's Ninth since that day in 1972 that I discovered Beethoven's Ninth. I judge them all by Bohm's. I found and find Fricsay's, Leinsdorf's, and Kubelik's excellent but then they are cut from the same cloth as Bohm's. I found and find Mackerras's and Zinman's too fast. But then they have been impacted by a revolution in thinking about Beethoven's symphonies, one which views Beethoven's metronome markings as sacred, a revolution that occurred after my introduction to Beethoven's Ninth through Bohm. I found and find Abbado's Sony version and Harnoncourt's reading OK but nothing to write home about. Of the period versions I was lukewarm about Hogwood's and Norrington's interpretations. I liked Gardiner's, the least like a period performance and very much in the classical interpretive mode of conductors before the period instrument revolution, and Goodman's.

The moral of this little tale? Culture, over time, becomes embedded and sedimented in our memories and in our bodies. Once it becomes part of us through embededness and sedimentation, as Bohm's Beethoven's Ninth did in mine, it has an enormous impact on our lives and our thought forever afterward. It can and often does help create our reality for us once it has become part of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment