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Reinventing a classical classic

Pierre Henry (Didier Allard/INA/Getty Images)


Reinventing a classical classic

Newly released recordings of Pierre Henry’s homage to Beethoven are bold—and delightful

“I felt a need to revisit a classical work in my own manner,” says the composer Pierre Henry in the 2007 documentary Pierre Henry: The Art of Sounds. “It was at that time that I chose to write a 10th Symphony inspired by Beethoven’s nine symphonies.”

Henry’s “manner” is what has come to be known as musique concrète, in which a composer extracts sounds from their original contexts, rearranging and manipulating them into new aural shapes. And Henry’s “10th Symphony” was not just “inspired by” Beethoven’s nine but also comprised entirely of extracts of them—hundreds, in fact.

Now, four decades after Henry first presented the work using tapes and speakers, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, the Chœr de Radio France, and Le Jeune Chœr de Paris have finally brought the symphony to life.

Actually, they brought it to life on Nov. 23, 2019, at Paris’ Cité de la Musique. But the recording of the event has just become available courtesy of Alpha Classics. In a year glutted with new Beethoven albums commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, Henry’s opus stands alone.

Titled Pierre Henry: La Dixième Symphonie—Hommage à Beethoven, it’s an eight-movement version of what Henry, who died in 2017, had planned to expand to 12. It never would have come together if researchers hadn’t taken the time to locate in the original scores what the electroacoustic-music composer Maxime Barthélemy estimates in the liner notes to be “hundreds of elements.”

Audacity doesn’t get more audacious. How dare Henry seize the right to tamper with perfection! But La Dixième Symphonie is also, to quote Barthélemy again, a “clever sound collage.”

The elements clash and resolve in ways both shockingly abrupt and surprisingly serene. Booming climaxes get repurposed as segues. The motivic thunderings of the ninth symphony’s second movement and the fifth symphony’s first movement go mano a mano. If as Beethoven lay dying his symphonies flashed before his long-deaf ears, he may have “heard” something very much along these lines.   

Readers of the classical-music portal Slipped Disc responded to news of the Cité de la Musique performance last fall with indifference and condemnation. But at its best, musique concrète is a kind of play, not iconoclasm, and that play at its best is a way of discovery.

Play also requires a sense of humor. Henry’s equivocal description of La Dixième Symphonie as an “original piece,” a “precedent,” or “a crime which, perhaps, will set a precedent” was, like much of La Dixième itself, proof of a willingness to laugh—at himself and his obsessions if nothing else.   

At its core, La Dixième is the work of someone who loved Beethoven so much he wanted there to be more Beethoven than there already was. In this, Henry was not unusual. What makes him unique is that rather than merely wishing, he set about making his dream a reality.