Louis Andriessen: The Nine Symphonies Of Beethoven

Louis Andriessen b. 1939
The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for orchestra and ice cream bell (1970)

Louis Andriessen Louis Andriessen was born into an extraordinarily musical family. His father and uncle were well-respected Dutch composers and his brother and sister also took up the trade. After studying at the Hague Conservatory, Andriessen went to Milan for two years to work with Luciano Berio. In his early compositions, he experimented with a number of different styles including serialism, pastiche, tape and indeterminacy.

His classical studies were complemented by a love of jazz. Because of this varied background, Andriessen’s oeuvre is varied and embraces whimsy with as much seriousness as the profound. He is also not afraid to acknowledge musical influences from whatever genre they may come. JS Bach, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, Charles Ives, rap and boogie-woogie are all on equal footing.

The most ardent of the avant-garde composers rejected all pre-twelve tone influences wholesale and strove to create an entirely new aesthetic. Stockhausen and company stuck rigidly to their artistic and philosophical ideals and ended up composing themselves into a corner. Not so with Andriessen. The bedrock of jazz is the collaboration of players and exchange of ideas. It is outward looking where the classical avant-garde movement was preoccupied with looking inward. In many ways, Andriessen managed to glean the best of both worlds and combines the curious openmindedness of jazz with the intellectual discipline of the avant-garde style

Various writers have described Andriessen’s style as “a tough sound, processed-driven rhythms and hard-edged sonorities” and “a European heavy metal answer to American minimalism.” Although there are not any of the aforementioned rhythms in 9 Symphonies, Andriessen is not shy about introducing non-traditional instruments such as electric guitar and bongos into the mix.

The 9 Symphonies of Beethoven is not so much a comment on Beethoven himself as it is on the institution of the symphony. The twentieth century saw the breakdown of the large orchestra as the favoured compositional tool. Composers tended to use smaller ensembles with unconventional instrumental combinations in order to avoid any association with the bloated German Romanticism of the late 19th century.

The piece is essentially a highlights reel of all nine symphonies with brief interpolations of other instantly recognisable music. In many ways, the 9 Symphonies was conceived in the spirit of the postmodern mashup that has become popular in recent years. The question is, does removing the context and presenting only the most popular bits make the piece more or less poignant? Is the experience enhanced by listening to 15 minutes of buildup or is it better just to listen to the best bits on their own?

The symphonies are presented in order, generally speaking, with Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture making cameo appearances. Andriessen uses stylistic as well as melodic quotation and incorporates Europop, boogie-woogie and lounge music. The final joke is the interminable number of V-I cadences at the end of the piece. In this case, the jab is directed at Beethoven, who had an affinity for signalling the end of his symphonies more emphatically than was perhaps strictly necessary. The conclusion of his fifth symphony is a particularly fitting example.

9 Symphonies is an early work of Andriessen’s and was the only time he wrote anything for orchestra. His 1976 work De Staat (The Republic) brought him into the international spotlight and remains his most famous work.

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