Till the trumpets crack – going beyond

Herbert von Karajan conducting - the trumpets crack

In the second movement of Beethoven’s masterful symphony the ‘Eroica’ the music takes the form of a funeral march, building to a dramatic climax where the two trumpets have to play an almost impossible phrase.

The great German conductor Herbert von Karajan solved the problem by doubling the trumpets, so that they could share the notes. This made it playable – but for once he was wrong.

And it’s a misstep that we can all learn from.

Going beyond

The Eroica, Beethoven’s third symphony, was first performed in 1805 and revolutionised western classical music. It pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible, musically but also emotionally.

The funeral march is surely the strongest expression of feeling in music to date, and possible even since. It starts slowly and rises to a peak of emotion – at which point comes the near-impossible trumpet phrase.

In straining to play the notes, the trumpets echo the strength of Beethoven’s grief in a way that could be done in no other way. The trumpets crack – and as they do, we recognise that some emotions are beyond expression.

Karajan was rightly revered for the silky smooth quality of his work with the Berlin Philharmonic. But here he misstepped.

Because the very purpose of the phrase was to be unplayable.

Pushing the boundaries

We see it in sport. We want to see the athletes strain to reach their goals. There is less triumph in an easy performance than in a titanic struggle that goes to the wire.

Ask Liverpool and Spurs this week!

In art, too. The rapid brush-strokes of the post-Impressionists pushed the boundaries of what can be shown.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Leiden, Detail of Self-Portrait, Aged 51, c. 1657, National Gallery of Scotland.

Rembrandt would use large areas of deep shadow to express the idea of the inexpressible. While traditional Japanese and Chinese artists would leave much of a painting white to lead our thoughts towards the infinite.

And no less so in writing. In the opening of Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe tries to evoke the anarchy of a town-hall meeting in Harlem with broken grammar, unfinished sentences and a stream of non-verbal sounds.

While when Hamlet dies (SPOILER) he has gone beyond speech. “The rest is silence…”

Saying the unsayable

In my own way, I’ve been straining to do the same with the novel I’m writing at the moment. The protagonist has a psychological condition which I have been working to express as much through what he doesn’t say and what he doesn’t think, as what he does.

It’s been one of the most challenging pieces I have ever written. But what is the point if you don’t push beyond.

Whatever you yourself do – art, science, business, personal life – are you pushing beyond? Straining to do the almost impossible?

Until the trumpets crack..?

Find out more

Beethoven’s 3rd symphony ‘Eroica’ courtesy of Musopen

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