Monday, September 25, 2017
Symphony: Class 2 - Beethoven: Glory of the Tradition - A Bit 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.
Let's take, for example, this small passage in the last movement of the Seventh Symphony, and then let's hear it alongside a passage from a piece called Triumph of the Republic by Francois-Joseph Gossec, a French composer nobody's thought of in 200 years:
Beethoven vs. Gossec
Now listen to this fairly simple choral arrangement of a piece whose lyrics are "We all vow, sword in hand, to die for the Republic. And for the rights of mankind."
Fifth Symphony in song
Now here's a slightly more complicated version of that in an orchestral piece by Luigi Cherubini, a composer who is still occasionally played, called Hymn of the Pantheon, which commemorated the war dead in the French Revolution.
Cherubini - Wait for it...
And in case these examples don't seem quite close enough, listen to this. This is the Hymn to Agriculture by a composer named Lefevre, who wasn't even particularly well known as a composer. In his day he was better known as a teacher.
Hymn to Agriculture
And now, of course, the finale of the Pastoral Symphony.
Beethoven Pastoral Finale
And the similarities just keep getting closer. Take the third movement of Etienne Mehul's Symphony no. 1, with a little bit of commentary from the still controversial English conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who's both a brilliant conductor and not as great as his gift should make him, and contrast it with a similar passage in Beethoven's Fifth.
Beethoven vs. Mehul
And finally, let's listen to the Hymn of Liberty, by Rouget de Lisle, who wrote La Marsailles. Like many of these French Revolution pieces, it was written as a kind of propaganda. Both in a complex version to be played in a concert hall, and then a simpler version for choruses to sing in towns.
Song of Liberty
Beethoven's Fifth Finale - Harnoncourt/COE
So this begs some obvious questions.
Question #1: by the standards of the 21st century, is all of this plagiarism?
Question #2: What does it mean that Beethoven, traditionally the great artist of great artists, seems to have taken his themes from other people?
Question #3: Does this mean that everything in the common myths of Beethoven is completely wrong? I'm sure you all know the common notion of the fifth symphony's opening representing 'fate' knocking at the door. But now that we hear the seed in it in music with the lyrics 'We all vow, sword in hand, to die for the Republic', does that mean that Fate knocking at the door is completely wrong?
Question #4: Does this mean that these pieces are all about Beethoven's political opinions? Do you think this music is ultimately about his personal life? Is it just music? Or is it some weird melange of all three, and if so, how does he combine them?
Let's think for a moment about what Beethoven was going through when he wrote his Second Symphony. The first symphony is delightful, but it's more Haydn than Beethoven, and not necessarily even Haydn at his best. A lot of people feel the exact same way about Beethoven's Second Symphony, thinking that it's a bouncy piece of fluff, and not even as good as the first symphony. But I always hear these people's complaints and wonder what the hell music they're listening to.
This is clearly the music of a man who is just barely holding it together. Remember from the end of the first class, that first two-and-change minutes of the Haydn London Symphony, his last? Remember how dark and forebodding that music is? Beethoven takes Haydn 104 to its next logical step. He doesn't balance light with darkness, he threatens light with darkness. The storm is always gathering and the sun can barely peak its rays out on the landscape. Let's listen to the beginning of Beethoven 2 in a very old performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam conducted by Willem Mengelberg. This is a performance from 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Holland. And before we go any further, I just want to put in a quick word about historical recordings.
It's true that before the 1950's, the sound of recordings is almost always much, much worse, but recordings before the sixties come from a period when Classical Music was the music that a majority of the middle class world listened to. Audience knew this music better, they listened more intelligently and more critically, and the music meant more to them. Technically speaking, a lot of musicians from the first half of the twentieth century can't hold a candle to those in the second half, but they played not just with more heart and soul, but with more head too. It used to be a given that the greatest performers would bring their own ideas to the music and put their own spin on it as though they were singing a jazz standard, and hundreds of thousands of people at least would compare one musician to the other. In the way that people used to fight over whether Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee or Lena Horne sang Fever the best, there used to be fights about whether Rubinstein or Horowitz or Rachmaninov or Joseph Hoffman played the best Chopin Polonaises. And that most certainly extended to conductors and Beethoven Symphonies - Toscanini/Mengelberg/Bruno Walter/Otto Klemperer/Wilhelm Furtwangler/Erich Kleiber, those are just some of the august names of that period, to say nothing of the periods before that when a music lover in Germany you could, if they were so inclined, hear Beethoven conducted live by Mahler or Richard Strauss.
So let's hear one of the best, Willem Mengelberg, a name not enough remembered today, do some of what I think is one of the very great recordings of Beethoven.
Mengelberg Beethoven 2 - Introductory Adagio
I'm sure that many of you are of ages venerable enough to remember one of my favorite thinkers, the great Eric Hoffer, who was a longshoreman during the day and wrote books at night. Hoffer's most famous book is called 'The True Believer', and