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Why would anyone mess with a Beethoven masterpiece?

Would a modern painter try to improve on the Mona Lisa? Would an architect redo the Taj Mahal? Of course not. That’s why we call them masterpieces: They stand the test of time, and certainly don’t need improvement.

So, why would anyone in their right mind mess with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the famed Eroica, one of the supreme creations of Western art, a work that simultaneously summarized a passing era and launched a new one? Why would someone tamper with such an iconic score?

Well, somebody did, and The Florida Orchestra’s latest Masterworks program offers a seldom-performed version of the symphony by Gustav Mahler, the brilliant composer and conductor who died in 1911 in Vienna. Mahler believed Beethoven could use a little help from a friend, so he “retouched’’ not only the Third, but the Fifth, Seven and Ninth symphonies and the Coriolan Overture. But why fix what isn’t broken?

Let’s look into Mahler’s logic. From the early 19th century, when Beethoven composed these works, to the dawn of the 20th century, lots had changed. Instruments improved, orchestras grew in size, and concert halls expanded to accommodate more people. Beethoven’s music, Mahler believed, needed to catch up with the times.

The evolution of instruments, orchestras and halls prompted Mahler to do some tweaking, notes Egon Gartenberg in his book Mahler: The Man and His Music. “Such developments, coupled with concert halls possessing a size and acoustics undreamt of by Beethoven, forced a sensitive musical poet of the stature of Mahler to redress the imbalance which he heard and felt.’’

Mahler “doubles’’ some of the instrumental ranks, creating a bigger, more vibrant sound than the slighter textures heard in Beethoven’s time. In fact, the original performance of the Eroica included only six violins and the composer didn’t even specify the number of instruments he wanted for other parts, which by Mahler’s standards would make it a chamber work. Even so, is all this fussing necessary?

“Does it need it? That’s debatable. Is it interesting? Yes. It’s a case of doubling up. More musicians will be involved,” said TFO Music Director Michael Francis, adding: “Six horns in the third movement? Boom!”

About 14 more musicians than the typical Beethoven-sized orchestra will be on stage this weekend. Francis chose to perform the Mahler version this season because TFO’s Beethoven celebration looks not only at the man and his music, but his impact over two centuries. The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth falls in December 2020.

Not everyone likes what Mahler did, and some have been downright offended. After conducting his retouched version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1900 in Vienna – a city that revered Beethoven as a favorite child – many people accused Mahler of waging war against authenticity. “What was offered yesterday as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a deplorable example of this aberration, this barbarism,’’ wrote the critic Richard Heuberger of the New Free Press.

In his own defense, Mahler explained that “this is in no way a case of re-instrumentation or alteration, let alone improvement of the work of Beethoven.’’ He said his views were less about arbitrary change than playing the music as Beethoven would have wanted had he lived 75 or 100 years later – with the formidable Vienna Philharmonic (or TFO) at his disposal.

Completed in 1805, the Eroica is the longest symphony up to its time, and more emotionally charged than any that came before. The opening movement alone is gigantic – nearly 700 measures – and Beethoven pushed the boundaries of classical form further by inserting a funeral march and a finale of 10 variations based on a theme from his own Creatures of Prometheus. It is in the slow movement, a searing adagio in C minor, that takes listeners through a ghostly realm never before heard in a symphony.

This Masterworks program also includes the world premiere of Imagined Adventures: AutoBonn by Kevin Wilt; and Don Quixote by Richard Strauss, with cellist Maximilian Hornung. As a unique twist, the Strauss will feature a visual collaboration by TFO’s new visual artist-in-residence, Geff Strik.

Bonus performance! Inside Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony

What started as a musical homage to Napoleon turned into Beethoven pouring his thunderous passion into creating the first great Romantic symphony. What changed his mind? Michael Francis takes audiences on a journey through this masterpiece, ending with a rare performance of the retouched version by Mahler.

Thu, Oct 10, 7:30 pm, Blake High School, Tampa
Admission is pay what you can at the door

Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony

Michael Francis, conductor
Maximilian Hornung, cello
Geff Strik, visual artist-in-residence

Kevin Wilt: Imagined Adventures: AutoBonn
R. Strauss: Don Quixote
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” (arr. Mahler)

Fri, Oct 11, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Oct 12, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Oct 13, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance, available through the TFO Ticket Center.

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