Cosmic hum

Alan Gilbert '89 joins Thomas Kelly's beloved First Nights class to discuss Beethoven's 9th and the beginning of the universe.  

By Cherie Hu '17

How do you conduct the beginning of the universe?

The event in question is not the Big Bang, but rather the opening movement of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a choral symphony that lasts more than 60 minutes and is widely considered to be one of the Romantic composer’s most eminent works.

Thomas Kelly, professor of music at Harvard University, asked this question Oct. 13 during his popular course First Nights, which surveys and analyzes the controversial premieres of classical works throughout history. For such a colossal masterpiece, the opening sound in Beethoven’s 9th is deceitfully subdued: a perfect fifth played pianissimo over string tremolos, resembling an orchestra tuning before a performance.

Kelly evoked interstellar imagery as he walked his students through this first gesture, which he called a “cosmic hum” followed by “isolated sparks in the universe” from the violins. From the performer's’ perspective, such an enigmatic beginning requires a skilled conductor who can balance granular precision with vast ethereality.

Alan Gilbert '89 Photo: David Finlayson
Fortunately for Kelly and his students, one of the world’s foremost conductors was in the room: Alan Gilbert ‘89, music director of the New York Philharmonic. Aside from conducting, Gilbert is also an educator, serving as director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School.

After Kelly gave a brief lecture on the history of Beethoven’s 9th, Gilbert took to the front of the Holden Chapel classroom to provide his technical expertise as a conductor. The beginning of this universe, he explained, is far from empty.

“You have to give a lot of clarity, while still maintaining this sense of floating emotionally,” he said. “We’re not multiplying by zero, but rather are starting with this single cell.”

He then led an interactive demonstration of the opening sequence, with the audience acting as the orchestra under his invisible baton. “Just like two points in space define a line, two points in time define a tempo,” he outlined. We practiced coming in together on his cue, which, indeed, consisted of just two nearly invisible flicks of his wrist.

Little of the remaining class time, however, was spent on conducting technique. After all, if Gilbert studies how we conduct music, First Nights is a carefully curated study of how music conducts us – why we react in a certain way to unfamiliar sounds, and how this effects both composers’ lives and their surrounding cultural history.

“While I think a lot about practical elements of conducting, in terms of how to motivate people to play well and within a certain artistic vision, at the end of the day it really is all about the story,” said Gilbert.

For Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the story lies both in the music itself and in the composer’s personal experiences. Both Gilbert and Kelly walked the class through the symphony’s cryptic departures from traditional form. For instance, the fast scherzo movement precedes the slow adagio movement, and Beethoven’s overall style begins to abandon a clear structure, resembling a stream-of-consciousness style known as through-composed.

Gilbert also pointed to a specific section in the symphony where the timpani are not tuned to the rest of the orchestra, creating a shocking dissonance. Many orchestras today modify the timpani tuning so that it sounds more pleasant, which “takes out the blood and guts from the music,” he said. “Life is not that sanitized, and I think Beethoven was really writing about life.”

Beethoven at the pianoIn fact, Gilbert seemed particularly interested in Beethoven’s personal experiences while composing the 9th Symphony. In Gilbert’s eyes, the piece’s stream-of-consciousness nature was a “therapy process” for Beethoven, who was “trying to find his way into a new paradigm, and very consciously trying to proclaim a new truth.”

One could argue that Beethoven’s iconic status derives in part from his self-consciousness, from his struggles in pondering and challenging his own legacy. Gilbert may be grappling with these same issues, as he plans to step down from his position at the New York Philharmonic next year, at the young age of 49.

“Alan has a view from a high mountain of the classical music landscape,” Kelly told me after lecture. “He has a lot to contribute to important conversations about the future of expensive, high-caliber orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, about the future of music education and about classical music as a whole.”

Indeed, from the insights and reflections he lent to the captive audience at First Nights, we can rest assured Gilbert’s career is far from over.