Sunday, September 24, 2017

Symphony: Class 2 - Beethoven: Glory of the Tradition - Still More

Let's start with a question: what are your most vivid memories of listening to Beethoven's music?

Second question: does anybody have the sense here that Beethoven is played less than he used to be? Or that the perceptions of the kind of composer he is have changed over your lifetime?

So in order to make sense of Beethoven, we have to acknowledge the fact that perceptions about Beethoven seem to have changed more precipitously over the last thirty years than they ever seemed to since he died a hundred-ninety years ago. Beethoven occupies a different place today in musical discourse than he ever before did, because until roughly 1985, Beethoven seemed, quite simply, the center of classical music, maybe even the center of music itself. He was just about the undisputed King of the canon, his music was performed more, and was both more respected and more loved than the music of any other composer - and I'm sure everybody in here but me can remember a time when this was unquestionably true. He was the sun around which every other part of music turned. The Third, the Fifth, the Sixth, and the Ninth symphonies seemed to have as central a place in classical music, in music itself, as Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth have in theater and literature. But all sorts of events have happened in the last generation that changed the way we view Beethoven. Some of them have nothing to do with Beethoven and everything to do with us, and we'll be talking indirectly about those in every single class. But there were three revolutions, or, let's phrase it differently, there were three supposed revolutions in the way we perceive Beethoven, that completely changed people's conscious views of how we listen to Beethoven's music.

Of those three revolutions, only one of them, in my opinion at least, was a real revolution. The other two revolutions affected our perceptions of other composers much more than they did Beethoven, and let's talk about those two for a moment.

Historical Instruments vs. Modern Instruments

(write about the specific differences in the instruments...)

What we call, or at least used to call, period instruments, may have a real effect on how we perceive certain composers. Berlioz, whom we'll cover next week, is a composer for whom the physical sounds he produces is the single most important part of the music. To hear Berlioz on period instruments can be an incredibly illuminating experience in ways we'll listen to next week. Berlioz would occasionally even write parts for instruments that don't really exist anymore, so orchestras have found all manner of temporary solutions that have very little to do with Berlioz's actual intent. There are all sorts of Baroque composers for whom, hearing their music on the instruments of the period makes much more sense. Even Haydn, or at least early Haydn, becomes a completely different experience. 

But there are other composers, like Beethoven, or Bach and Brahms and Schumann and Bruckner, who seem almost completely unconcerned with the sound they project. Everything is just orchestrated in solid blocks - strings here, answered by winds there, then brass, then strings and winds together, then winds and brass, then everybody together, and then you start the process all over. You'd be surprised how great music music can be even if the composer has obvious limitations. The only composer who was great at everything was, of course, Mozart, and even he had his moments of weakness. But in the case of so many German composers, whatever the instruments sound like is almost secondary, because they're simply focused on other issues, and their genius is in other realms of music, perhaps more theoretical realms - form and design, harmony and melody. In the case of Bach particularly, it almost doesn't matter which instruments play his music so long as they play the right notes in the right order. 

So what this ultimately means is that so long as the sound in Beethoven has a physical impact on you, it doesn't matter how the instruments which produce it are designed. The design of the particular instruments doesn't matter, the sound they produce doesn't much matter, perhaps even the balances between the instruments don't much matter. I've heard many performances of Beethoven where conductors try to bring out instruments you don't generally hear, and the result is almost inevitably that you lose a lot of physical excitement. 

What's important in Beethoven is the dynamics, or perhaps more to the point, the dynamism. Beethoven could only have composed the way he did had he lived through the period he lived through. From a technical point of view, the most important contribution to making Beethoven Beethoven was the invention of the modern piano. All you have to do is listen to the difference between a Mozart sonata and a Beethoven sonata. Haydn wasn't a virtuoso pianist the way Mozart or Beethoven was, relatively speaking, much of a piano sonata writer. Haydn was, fundamentally, a chamber musician and most at home writing string quartets. Whereas Mozart was, in his way, obviously just as great a writer for the piano as Beethoven, and it's at least arguable that both of them did their very best compositions in various piano pieces. But the two masters, arguably the greatest there've ever been, have completely opposite ways of approaching the piano. Try to listen to how the composers obtain the effects they do. Which brings us to our second duality. 

Mozart piano vs. Beethoven piano

(Mozart K. 533 Ciccolini)

(Beethoven Appasionata Richter)

How do the composers get these effects?

 To me, the appeal of this Mozart sonata is based on agility. The dynamics don't matter nearly as much, what matters is the flair of tossing off this dizzying array of notes, scales, sequences, arpeggios, as though it's the easiest thing in the world. But in the few years that separate Mozart to Beethoven, the Viennese piano underwent an enormous change. The dynamic contrasts could be twice as wide, and hundreds of times more important. Beethoven exploited this change not only by fundamentally basing his music on dynamic contrasts and using the element of surprise they generate to play the audience....... like a piano.... (feel free to boo me for that), but also realizing that you could get still more dynamic contrasts by making the chords much fuller. Mozart's music is based on melodic lines that sometimes go a million miles a minute like a bird flying through they air, the lines rise and fall, they intersect and cross each other, they pass each other around, and they do all this at three times the speed which any other composer of Mozart's time can. 

Beethoven could obviously go toe-to-toe with Mozart on any virtuoso effects, and they're much more fiery, but the reason the effects can be much more fiery is because they start with a base of these enormous, full, rich chords that allow him to scorch the earth like a forest fire. Mozart seems to fly through the air while Beethoven explodes. The reason for this has to do with the way music travels through the air. The sound produced causes the air itself to vibrate. What that ultimately means, never mind how, we'll get to that in future classes, is that every note you hear is not just one note but a series of higher notes vibrating along with it, and when we get to Bruckner and Brahms we'll talk quite a bit about that and I'll show you all sorts of physical evidence of it. But what happens is that when you play a very full chord like so many chords in Beethoven, every note in the chord causes every other note played to vibrate still more. So you ultimately get these chords that hit you in the solar plexus every time. And that brings us to duality #3 and the second pseudo-revolution in Beethoven performance:

Instructed Tempo vs. Harmonic Tension

Beethoven left a series of metronome markings for all of his symphonies that, for a hundred fifty years, were mostly ignored. Most of the inspiring Beethoven performances you've heard in your lifetimes were played at tempos much slower than they're usually played today. Let's listen to the first few phrases of Beethoven's four most famous symphonies in two famous performances with the same orchestra. One is at the kind of comfortable tempo that people used to take in an era when the fashion was to play Beethoven according to the dictates of however long it took the harmonies to vibrate, often at the expense of the dynamics and the rhythm and the form - based on a kind of fashionable musical analysis that we don't need to talk about but clearly works better for Wagner than it does for Beethoven. The other is at Beethoven's specified tempo that so many conductors now strive for and sometimes fail to get. Each of these will be two performances separated by half a century. 

(play opening of Eroica, first Furtwangler, then Scherchen)

(Play opening of Fifth Symphony: first Konwitschny then Chailly)

(Play opening of Sixth: first Thielemann then Scherchen)

(Play opening of Ninth: first Konwitschny then Chailly)

It's pretty different, yes? But there's a problem: two of the fast performances were from the 1950's, two of the slow performances were from the 2010's. The truth is that some people have been advocating for performing at Beethoven's tempos since the very beginning, and yet so many people seem to think that this is a new phenomenon. Even in the mid-19th century, Wagner was complaining that Mendelssohn's performances of Beethoven were much too fast, and one of Beethoven's students, Ferdinand Hiller, would complain that lots of performers rushed the tempos in Beethoven. So clearly, people have been hearing a perky Beethoven that sounds more like Haydn or Rossini since the very beginning. The difference is that, in the 21st century, the practice of trying to reach Beethoven's tempos is the norm.

Now personally, and this is completely my editorializing, I think the single most damaging thing to happen to Beethoven's reputation is that people insist on playing him much faster today than they used to. Yes,  used to be a problem that most musicians would perform him too slowly, but they performed Beethoven too slowly because they over-revered him. Now, many conductors and instrumentalists play him quickly because they don't revere him at all.  

The average audience member thinks that the particulars of one performance to the other don't matter, but from the point of view of people on the stage, we see the impression a piece of music makes from one performance to the next, and often, though not always, audiences blame the composer when the performers just didn't do a great job of selling it. We'll talk about cases of that later in the class, but we know that whether or not the music makes any kind of impression, at least sometimes it's the performer's fault and not the composer who just wrote a boring or non-sensical piece of music. 

There are a few musicians who can make something musical out of a jumble like Beethoven at top speed, but there aren't many. The end result of these faster tempos is one of two things. Many of today's classical musicians have techniques 100x more secure than they've ever been, it's almost become a science. I can point to all sorts of performances in which the performance is completely robotic. Those full chords that hit you in the solar plexus have less time to vibrate, and therefore the physical impact is nowhere near as strong. Speed does not necessarily mean excitement any more than slowness necessarily means profundity. The other result, perhaps an even more common one, is that many musicians can't handle the faster tempos. Orchestras often have to get a Beethoven symphony ready in two rehearsals, if that, and lots of orchestras play in giant halls that need a full complement of musicians to fill them with sound, and the orchestra is too large and unwieldy to stay together. So over the course of a fifteen minute movement like the opening of the Eroica or the Ninth, the tempo creeps slower, and slower, and slower. I've heard this happen at the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop a couple times now. Alsop is not nearly as bad a conductor as a lot of detractors say, in Mahler she's downright inspiring, but she doesn't have the iron grip on the orchestra you need to play Beethoven this fast. David Zinman did have it, and the Beethoven recordings he did in Europe don't do justice to how exciting his Beethoven performances used to be here in Baltimore.

Lots of people used to give theories of why they disregarded Beethoven's metronome markings like Beethoven was deaf, so how could he have known what his music sounded like? Or Beethoven's metronome was faulty. Now there is one subtle, extremely elusive problem that seems to have eluded tens of thousands of musicians for a century and a half.... It presupposes that Beethoven was a moron! He clearly would have known if his metronome was faulty, even if he was deaf he would have known what's playable to musicians and what isn't. 

So in its place, I'm going to submit to you my own personal theory: Beethoven didn't mean his metronome markings literally. He knew they were basically unplayable, and he knew that musicians would disregard them no matter what he did. The metronome markings are his way of exhorting musicians - however fast is comfortable for you to play, play it a little faster. Chance the impossible, take a risk, do more with these works than you think you can. That kind of risk taking is what gives Beethoven the vibrance he needs. If you make speed into a kind of scientific requirement, you will lose the passion that Beethoven needs. But if a performer stays within your comfort zone, the audience will never hear what's shocking about Beethoven.

And now that we've spoken about risks, let's talk about the third, and very real, revolution in how we perceive Beethoven. And we'll do this by listening to small excerpts from a couple of pieces written in France after the French Revolution that weren't performed for two whole centuries until a musicologist unearthed them in the 1990s. 


But in so many ways, the agreed upon assumptions of classical music life have been completely challenged and upended, and even within classical music, Beethoven's stock has gone slightly down. This isn't to say that Beethoven isn't still in the obvious top 3 and that he's anything but one of the undisputable major titans of music, but he's not quite the unassailable King the way that Shakespeare still is.  

Personally, I kind of think it's a shame, because even if Beethoven was perhaps misunderstood, mis isn't 

"O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed - O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society. I must live like an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed - thus it has been during the past year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this almost meeting my natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence - truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state - Patience - it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to bread the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else - Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that ye did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. to you brother Carl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide. - Farewell and love each other - I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid - I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave - with joy I hasten towards death - if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so -

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