On October 7, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with soloist Veronika Eberle, and Beethoven’s  Symphony No. 3,  Eroïca.

The Eroïca was completed in 1804 and marks a turning point in Beethoven’s life and work. A celebrated, successful and well-paid pianist and composer, he began losing his hearing in 1798 (aged 26 or 27). By 1802, he realized that the loss was permanent and described his despair in a letter written in October 1802, the Heiligenstadt Testament.

But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair, a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

My copy of A History of Western Music, 8th edition, describes what we have gained from Beethoven’s personal tragedy.

Beethoven’s courageous resolve to continue composing in the face of calamity was translated into his music, as he sought with each piece to say something new. His compositions seem to reflect the struggle of his own life, becoming like narratives or dramas. The music gives the impression of conveying the composer’s own experience and feelings rather than invoking the stylized, objectified emotions found in earlier music. […] This new conception of instrumental music as drama, replacing earlier notions of music as entertainment or diversion, is part of what musicians and listeners have valued in Beethoven’s music since his own time.

The Eroïca is the first work that fully expresses this new approach and on Friday, Yannick paired it with the earlier Beethoven work and the violin concerto by Mozart to demonstrate how shocking Eroïca was for audiences in 1804.

Do listen to Yannick talk about his relationship with the Eroïca. Even if Beethoven is not your thing, you’ll love the French accent.

The large hall at De Doelen was a few seats short of full on Friday night, which means that there were about 2,000 people in the audience. Perhaps the sheer mass of people contributed to the somewhat muffled acoustics. Although I sat quite close to the orchestra in the same area where I nearly always sit (the cheap seats!), I felt as if I was listening through cotton wool. Or perhaps it was the coughing that distracted me? Coughing is of epidemic proportions at De Doelen. Sometime last year, they even added the phrase “please keep coughing to a minimum” to the standard message about turning off your mobile phone, but I think more drastic measures might be necessary… Nevertheless, the evening ended with the longest standing ovation I have so far witnessed in Rotterdam. Have I mentioned that a standing ovation seems to be de rigueur here? In my 2 years here, I can only recall one performance that didn’t end with the audience getting to their feet and clapping. However, on Friday, Yannick was called back an unprecedented four times (the standard is three) before the audience agreed to shuffle out into the cold rain.