Haunted by Beethoven's Allegretto For over 100 years, the composer's "Allegretto" movement from his Seventh Symphony has haunted musicians and music lovers. Once you start to listen, says pianist Helene Grimaud, you simply can't do anything else.


Haunted by Beethoven's Allegretto

The French pianist Helene Grimaud brings the classics to a Berlin nightclub. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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One week in the fall of 2003, the world seemed to be accompanied by a music that I love: the second movement, the Allegretto, from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. First, the jazz pianist Jacques Loussier released a CD of Variations on the theme. I was ambivalent about doing an interview with Loussier: the original theme was too important to me, and playing and discussing Loussier's music but not Beethoven's might sound trite. Then I caught a moment of NPR's classical music program Performance Today, playing what struck my ear as a classical piano setting of the Beethoven theme. After some research it turned out to be by Schubert, who was even more obsessed by this theme than I was and had made some wonderful music of his own out of it. The least I could do was make some decent radio, but I wasn't sure how.

Then, I heard the music that created critical mass in my mind for a story about the Beethoven theme and some of the music and musicians it has inspired. The pianist Helene Grimaud released an album called Credo, in which she played pieces by Beethoven, Aarvo Part and the American composer John Corigliano. The Corigliano piece, "Fantasia on an Ostinato," was based on the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh — as Grimaud would say, "haunted by it."

The story aired on Christmas Eve. It's on my mind because it introduced me to the remarkable Miss Grimaud, who appears on All Things Considered once again this week. This will be the third time I have spoken with her: I also interviewed her in 2005 about a CD of Chopin and Rachmaninoff pieces. The occasion this time: the publication in English of her memoir, Wild Harmonies, and the release of a new CD, Reflection, featuring the music of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Here is my personal archive of interviews with Helene Grimaud, of whom I will add only the following:

She is a gifted, versatile pianist who plays with compelling intensity and passion. She is a thinking musician for whom an album is an art form, a collection of studio performances united not by composer or convenient duration, but by an idea. She speaks and writes of romanticism and a transcendental communion with nature, which she manages to live out by running a rescue center for wolves, for whom she feels a special affinity — part ecological, part mystical. And she is, to put it simply, gorgeous.

Death and Transcendence in Chopin, Rachmaninov

Death and Transcendence in Chopin, Rachmaninov

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There are things about the French-born pianist Helene Grimaud that make it almost possible to ignore her music. There is her memoir, already published in French, although she’s just 35. It begins, "I have no nostalgia for childhood." There is her attraction to wolves. She and her boyfriend run what they call a Wolf Conservation Center north of New York City. And there’s the fact of her movie-star looks. She’s been featured in Vogue. But listen to her playing, and listen to her talk about music, and her intensity makes you ignore all the rest.

Siegel: This is Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata -- she’s paired it with Chopin’s second sonata on her new CD. It is a tribute to two masters of romantic piano music

Grimaud: There are obvious parallels, I think, between Chopin and Rachmaninov. For me, they’re two composers that, first of all, have devoted most of their existence to writing for the piano exclusively or almost exclusively. They’re both wonderful pianists themselves, but they, even beyond all of this, for me, they really epitomize the Slavic soul, and also the notion of exile.

Grimaud: It gives their music a nostalgic color, something quite poignant without necessarily sadness in it, so it’s a very interesting emotion. There’s also something very noble, very dignified about the expression of both those composers, I feel.

Siegel: Chopin, the Polish exile, in France and Rachmaninov, the Russian ex-pat in California.

Grimaud: Exactly, so that’s for bringing the two of them together beyond their respective worlds which have so much in common. There’s also the theme of death that we owe to those two second sonatas.

Siegel: I want you to talk about Chopin’s second sonata. When you play something that is so well-known as the Funeral March from this sonata, how do you as an artist approach this, which is going to be on the knife’s edge of cliché? What do you do, because we know this so, so well?

Grimaud: Well, it’s a good point, and it’s something that we encounter on a regular basis in our vocation, but you can’t let that intimidate you in any way, shape or form. And when the time has come for me to reacquaint myself with a piece or dive into its expressive fiber for the first time, I have no choice. This is something that I must do, and I’m never daunted by however many fantastic versions might be out there because there is an inner voice that fits the material.

Siegel: Wow, when you are in the “expressive fiber,” as you say, the Chopin sonata -- I have a habit of listening to music cranked up very loud, and I’m hearing you breathing throughout that piece, and you’re really into it there.

Grimaud: Yes, well, how can one not breathe something that just sweeps you away?

Grimaud: It’s a manifestation that I can’t really control. I suppose if I wanted to, I could, but there’s really no reason to. And you have a choice between the breathing or the humming, and I’m sure the breathing is the lesser of the two evils.

Siegel: You mean when you’re playing, in practice you might be humming, but in recordings you confine yourself to breathing.

Grimaud: That’s exactly right.

Siegel: I want you to talk about the Rachmaninov second sonata. You’ve said that this collection of these two pieces, which are most of the CD, represent both death and also transcendence in the Rachmaninov piece.

Grimaud: Yes, that is very palpable in the finale of the Rachmaninov sonata. There’s that jubilation, that victory over one’s demons.

And of course the theme of bells is ever-present in his music and in the sonata from the very start of the first movement. It’s there and it continues all the way throughout. So there’s something very ominous about that, but also toward the end of the piece, it becomes a hopeful chime.

Grimaud: You know, what’s really interesting is what these two composers have to say about the timeless preoccupation of mankind. It really places this idea of death and the way it’s always there. And so these pieces really put you face to face with, "What are we here for? What is life about?” And so, in a way, it puts you back at the center of the urgency of living, and you can only really achieve that by looking death in the face, really.

Siegel: Well, Helene Grimaud, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Grimaud:: Thank you very much, thanks to you.

Siegel: Helene Grimaud’s CD is called, Hélène Grimaud plays Chopin & Rachmaninov.

The Allegretto: From Jazz Reverie to Classical Credo

The Allegretto: From Jazz Reverie to Classical Credo

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Now, some new takes on an old piece of music.

I love this piece of music. It's the second movement, the Allegretto, from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

This version is from the recent boxed set of Beethoven symphonies played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle.

I'm no music critic, not even a musician, but this music means something special to me. The theme of struggle and progress, of adversity and ultimate triumph.

One year, I kept this piece queued up in my car cassette machine. At eight minutes, its duration coincided with the repeat segment of the morning news that I had no desire to hear again.

So I would drive across the Potomac, inching through rush hour traffic, amused by the contrast between the high and heroic early 19th-century drama of Beethoven and the low banality of my late 20th-century commute. On one occasion, this music was a perfect soundtrack to life at its most exceptional. The Berlin wall had come down. I was flown to Germany to cover the story. When I awoke in a hotel on the Kurfurstendamm, I turned on a television set and saw the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim playing precisely this movement. Outside my hotel the sidewalks were packed with East Berliners they were walking freely in family groups, unafraid, through the suddenly accessible western part of the city.

For eight minutes, life and art were in perfect synch, mutual imitation, mutual validation.

The liner notes that accompanied Simon Rattle's boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies speak of the heroic pathos of the Allegretto and they mention that Franz Schubert was haunted by this movement for his whole working life.

No kidding.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard a radio broadcast of Schubert's variation for four hands played by two pianists called "Duo Crommelynck." This piece was written in 1824, just over a decade after Beethoven's Seventh was composed. And in the fifth variation Schubert did what, exactly ... quoted, paid tribute, ripped off? In any case, he acknowledged the spirit that haunted him: Beethoven's marvelous Allegretto from the Seventh.

This music continues to inspire. It pops up in two lovely new CDs that are very different except for the fact that they share this theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh.

First there's a CD of Allegretto theme and variations by the Jacques Loussier jazz trio.

Jacques Loussier, the pianist, says he, too, has long been haunted by this piece.

Jacques Loussier: This theme is so great and so special and for so many years I've been listening to that theme. And it's more than an attraction, that's the word "haunted" is really there because many, many times during a month, during a week, I whistle this theme, and I remember that theme because this is one of the most beautiful and important themes of Beethoven.

Siegel: What is it about this Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony that seems to be so important to so many people?

Loussier: Personally, I love the way the theme is conducted, with the change of harmonies and with the rhythm, which still all the way through the theme -- it's an attraction.

Siegel: In some of the variations that you play, like the first variation, the variation is simply understood. You're playing with the rhythm, you're altering the rhythm.

Loussier: This theme is beautiful but it is also a little bit sad. And the first variation shows that we could also be happy in playing the theme in a different way, which brings something more agreeable in terms of happiness and in terms of beauty.

Siegel: So you are picking one element of the piece and exaggerating it, magnifying it for that particular variation.

Loussier: Exactly, this is what I try to do. I try I don't know if I succeed, but I try.

Siegel: Did making this album satisfy that sense of being haunted by this theme? Or do you still find yourself thinking about it or whistling it all the time?

Loussier: Yes, because this is a sort of a definite inclination for some beauty musical theme like that. And I think I will keep that feeling forever. I don't feel I will change my rapport to the music of Beethoven, especially this beautiful theme.

Siegel: Jacques Loussier's CD is called Allegretto from Symphony No. 7, Theme and Variations.

The Allegretto plays a more subtle role in a stunningly eclectic CD by the classical pianist Helene Grimaud and the Swedish Radio Orchestra and Choir.

The CD is called Credo, the name of a chorale work by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Grimaud and the orchestra also play a Beethoven chorale work, she plays Beethoven's sonata "The Tempest," and she plays this 1985 composition by John Corigliano. It's called "Fantasia on an Ostinato," and its foundation is the same theme from Beethoven's Seventh.

Helene Grimaud speaks of the trance-inducing powers of this piece, which is haunted by Beethoven but minimalist in style

Grimaud: I think it's a beautiful homage to this aesthetic and particularly to the hypnotic textures that it can achieve.

Siegel: And at the core of it, at the heart of it, is that theme from the Second Movement of Beethoven's symphony.

Grimaud: Exactly, which is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, totally transcendent and exhilarating and poignant all at the same time.

When that theme finally appears, unveiled, it gives you the sense of something that was already there, sort of a memory of the future.

Siegel: Corigliano in this piece that you play, and you as you perform it, make a connection between the music of the early 19th century and the music of the late 20th century. And somehow in this piece they don't seem all that far apart.

Grimaud: That's exactly right. And that's why I really wanted this piece to be on this Credo album. Because for me the album was the way to illustrate the concept of universalism. One of the only hopes that we have is to never lose sight of how we're connected to something bigger than ourselves, and how all disciplines of life have their roots in a global intuition that really shows how time is abolished through that concept. And all of a sudden, it doesn't matter what came before or what is yet to come. What is there, it holds our future.

Siegel: Do you remember when you first heard Beethoven's Seventh, when you first connected with that second movement?

Grimaud: Yes, and as a matter of fact it is a great part of why I wanted to invest myself in music, if I could put it this way. My father bought a complete set of Beethoven symphonies when I was I think 8, 8 ½ years old. And it was really the Seventh that somehow did it. And after that I knew I was going to have to express myself in this way. So it is a very important piece because it is the beginning of my relationship to music, truly.

It is a totally organic piece of music. It's not really fast and it's not really slow. It has a pulsation that to me is very close to the heartbeat. And it grows in that inevitable manner, something that cannot be stopped. It sort of unfolds and sweeps you away with it. And it's a movement that I can never listen to while doing something else. Whatever it is I'm doing, I stop when that piece is playing.

Siegel: Pianist Helene Grimaud. Her soon-to-be released CD is called Credo. It includes her playing John Corigliano's "Fantasia on an Ostinato," a piece based on this theme, the Allegretto, the Second Movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.