Touch Press is the most innovative, creative, even transformational publisher of iPad apps in the sciences and humanities today. They have collaborated with Deutsche Grammophon to bring us, at only $13.99, a splendid treatment of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, featuring in-full four classic recordings of the work: 1958 Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, 1962 Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by the great Herbert Von Karajan, 1979 Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Leonard Bernstein (including a filmed performance), and 1992 Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on period instruments conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. For those familiar with Touch Press’s “The Orchestra” app, this Beethoven app will be familiar territory. For those who are not, experiencing this app will be astounding.
Before I launch into the review, watch this brief Vimeo video to get a feel for the work.
The app is advertised as free at the app store, but the free version is just a teaser, with 2 minutes of audio per recording. The in-app purchase price is $13.99, and worth every penny of it. (Note to blockhead complainers who have reviewed the app at itunes: What? Did you think you were going to get four great recordings (worth a cumulative $69.96 at Amazon), the printed score, an analysis by D. O. Norris, and lots of video interviews with the greatest musicians on the planet, not to mention the programming it took to synchronize it all, for free? What country did you grow up in? At $13.99 it’s a steal, so get over it and pay the publishers for their efforts).
The Home Screen
The Home screen acts as menu to the various parts of the app, of course (illustrated below—all graphics have been reduced to fit the blog margins below, and do not represent the quality available in the app).
Tapping on the photo of any of the conductors will bring one to a screen where (to start with) a curated score (showing select instruments playing, rather than all instruments) crawls in sync across the bottom half of the screen while icons for all four conductors remains in the upper left—allowing the listener to switch between recordings as the score moves—and next to the conductor icons there is a seating chart of the orchestra, comprised of little colored discs, that light up when the instruments play. This latter device is described as a “mesmeric Beatmap” by the publisher’s press release, and I have to believe it is popular with those who cannot read music, judging by its prominence, but fortunately you can exchange it with either a detailed written analysis of the passage being played, or in the case of the Bernstein recording, a video of the Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. All synchronized with the score, of course. If you are not apt to switch between recordings, or take advantage of the other media available at the top of the screen, you can expand the score to fill the entire screen. (I have added labels to the screenshot below).
What I have called the “instrumental map” in the illustration above is sort of an orchestal tab arrangement, if you will, that displays when instruments (or voices) are performing with dashes to indicate duration and tone, included, one supposes, for non-musicians.
If you do not have headphones (or earbuds) plugged into the audio port when you start the app, it will warn you that they are required for an acceptable audio experience, which is certainly true. Apple’s inexplicably poor external speaker choice on the iPad means that any serious music listening must be done with headphones.
If you tap “Insights” from the home screen you will be taken to a screen from which you can tap a face to hear the comments of the musical expert, or a series of comments from various experts grouped by topic; part of the “two hours of specially exclusive interviews” included in the app.
Most of these interviews are specific to the work, sometimes in enormous technical detail, but the Bernstein interview (if you are too young to have experienced Bernstein as a living cultural presence you have missed a lot) might serve as an impassioned introduction to a Western humanities course. The Dudamel interviews are in Spanish, the Helbig, Kussner, and Mayer interviews are in German, and the Ott interviews are in Japanese, all with English subtitles. My favorite is the Sarah Willis interviews, where she plays horn, demonstrating the practical musical difficulties that the 9th poses for her instrument, and particularly for players on the period horns.
The section titled “The Story” is a longish essay by David Owen Norris whose major sections are “A Brief History of Beethoven,” “Beethoven’s Ninth in Context,” “Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony,” and “The Performance and Synchronised Score.”
The most interesting passage of the essay describes how the Royal Philharmonic Society, having commissioned the work, first performed it in Beethoven’s absence.
Sir George Smart valiantly conducted a work of which he understood little. One critic suggested, in effect, that what Beethoven needed was a decent editor. ‘We must express our hope that hits new work of the great Beethoven may be put into a produceable form, that the repetitions may be omitted, and the chorus removed altogether. The Symphony will then be heard with unmixed pleasure, and the reputation of its author will, if possible, be further augmented.’ It’s interesting to think that it’s the long shadow of Beethoven that is perhaps the chief reason that composers, unlike novelists and playwrights, are not normally subjected to editorial interference.
All fascinating, while the essay does a good job of initiating those unfamiliar with Beethoven’s career in general, and the career of the 9th in particular. The section on “Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony” is especially notable for its use of inline music (symbolized by an inline “play” symbol, that actually plays the musical idea being discussed.
The passage-by-passage analysis of the piece as it plays is completely different than this essay, and is musically technical. For example “The woodwind hold on the D minor chord, and the strings have no chance to insert the dominant chord that would have hit the nail on the head and made a proper perfect cadence.” And so on. As I say, there are various features included to make the performance appealing to non-music readers and non-musicians, but these will be the app’s primary audience.
The most powerful and precise performance is conducted by Karajan, with dependable precision, but the most interesting is the Gardiner version played on period pieces—meaning valveless horns, gut strings, and a slightly lower tuning, which can be a minor distraction when switching between performances on the go. The score is the famous “Urtext” of Jonathan Del Mar, a story in itself, and remarkably accessible as part of the app.
In the interests of honesty I have to say that I am not a fan of Beethoven’s symphonic works (though am very much a fan of some of the piano sonatas and string quartets). Terms like “swagger,” “gaseous bloat,” and “misty German romanticism” come to mind when considering the German symphonic form in general and Beethoven and Schiller in particular. Nevertheless, you have to admire the self consistency, inventiveness, and striking originality of Beethoven, even if it is not to my particular taste. This app makes it all accessible in a unique way that breeds admiration, if not love.
To me the fugue in movement 2 and the lyricism of the Adagio movement are the most interesting parts of the work. The overheated movement 1 and the Schiller choral Ode that wraps it up lead, historically, to those awful Wagner operas that I would rather not even think about. On the other hand, I’m sure I sound an awful lot like the early English critic quoted above, who suggested a sweeping edit, so the piece could be heard with “unmixed pleasure.” Such is taste. If yours tends to Beethoven, or even if it does not, you will find a lot to like in this app. And in a academic setting, that’s pretty much the point. It makes the work, undoubtedly a monument of Western culture, more accessible than it has ever been for appreciation and comment.
As indicated above, this is a terrific app, and shows, as the other great Touch Press apps do, the potential for the iPad as a publishing platform. I could not recommend it more highly.