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?
Just so you know at the beginning, we're going to talk about a lot of music by a lot of composers today, not just Beethoven. The structure of all these classes is going to be a little loose. Beethoven is the subject of today, but the popular image which we think of as Beethoven in our minds, the colossus who put his autobiography into his music, really only exists until the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven's last three symphonies, 7 8 9, all three of them of course among the most extraordinary pieces of music ever conceived, are at least in my opinion, pieces by a different composer than the composer who wrote the second to the sixth symphonies. Beethoven made three new and very different attempts at different styles of writing symphonies, and he never followed up on any of them. It was left to later composers to take up his example. To my mind, you could almost say that the seventh symphony is really the first symphony of Schubert or Bruckner, and we'll talk about that in a future class. You could almost say that the eighth symphony is the first symphony of Mendelssohn or Schumann or even Brahms, and that will be a class. And you can even say that the Ninth Symphony is the first symphony by Berlioz, or by Mahler, or even Charles Ives, and that will be at least two classes.
So really, we're only going to talk about five symphonies today. Beethoven 2 through Beethoven 6. Don't worry, there's plenty to do today and thisAlong the way, we'll talk at length about how Beethoven's performed and sample different performances. We'll talk about the way Beethoven composed vs. the way Mozart composed and how they both, and Beethoven particularly, wrote for the orchestra as though they were writing for the piano. We're going to talk a lot about the French Revolution and it's enormous impact on Beethoven, and talk, sadly, a little about Contemporary America. We're going to listen to a little Renaissance music, a little Baroque, a little Chopin, even a little Miles Davis and Bill Evans. And yes, please don't get scared, we're also going to talk a little bit about music theory.
Beethoven is, or at least was, the center of the musical repertoire. Weirdly, he's not the center of the symphonic canon - in many ways that's now Mahler. The Beethoven which most people think of as Beethoven, the titan, the fiery genius who breaks the strings of his piano, who has unconquerable self-belief and unbreakable willpower, who is larger than human, that's really only based on half of his symphonies: the Eroica, the Fifth, the Sixth, the second and fourth movements of the Seventh, and the Ninth. And in none of those cases does that do justice to the complexity of what's going on in that music, or of how Beethoven composed it. It's certainly not that the rest of Beethoven's music is any worse than those four-and-a-half symphonies; hell, I'd even argue that the Second and Eighth Symphonies are better than the Seventh. But Beethoven is so much more complicated than the public image of him. There's no way to do justice to talking about Beethoven without talking about his impact on all the composers after him.
So in order to make sense of Beethoven, we also have to acknowledge the fact that perceptions about Beethoven seem to have changed more precipitously over the last thirty years than they ever did 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 undisputable center of classical music, maybe even the center of music itself. His music was performed more performed, 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 that 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 first revolution affected our perceptions of other composers much more than they did Beethoven, the second wasn't a revolution at all, for Beethoven or anybody else. So let's talk about those two pseudo for a moment with our first duality.
Historical Instruments vs. Modern Instruments
As we said in the last class, the orchestral instruments were somewhat different in Haydn's day. But they have much, much more in common with instruments 200 years after Beethoven than they do with the instruments 200 years before Beethoven. Let's listen to three clips of the same piece, the last movement of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto. First, let's hear the sort of romantic way it used to be done:
Bach: Brandenburg 3 - Allegro - Karl Richter
It's nice, isn't it? Very proper and prim, something closer to an orchestra than a chamber ensemble, even when playing fast, everybody tries to get the most beautiful possible sound. Here's what it generally sounds like when played today.
Bach: Brandenburg 3 - Allegro - Diego Fasolis
This is roughly eighty years before Beethoven, and the differences are fairly obvious. String playing was, at least in a sense, a bit more like fiddling, and often the music for strings would be correspondingly more rhythmic as though it's country fiddling. The fundamental differences in the strings are that they're made from the guts of cats rather than metal, and the bows were slightly smaller. Whenever you see a bluegrass or celtic fiddler choking up on the bow, that's because the modern bow is larger, and while it gets a fatter sound, it's also slightly more unwieldy and makes it more difficult in fast passages.
But by the time Beethoven roles around, the instruments are quite a bit more similar. Now Beethoven's Violin Concerto is certainly a piece that can sound like country fiddling, so here's what a bit of its last movement sounds like on modern instruments:
Beethoven Violin Concerto - Finale - Perlman
And here's the same passage on the instruments of Beethoven's day. (Mullova)
Aside from a slight difference in pitch, you can barely tell the difference. 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 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. They use the orchestra as though it's just a piano or an organ.
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 has moments of weakness even in his best pieces. 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. Let's listen now to a very different performance of that same passage from the Brandenburg Concertos:
Switched On Brandenburg
I couldn't find the original on youtube. But this is the closest in sound to the original Wendy Carlos version I found. I'm sure some of you remember that 'Switched-On Bach' record that sold amazingly in the late 60's. But Moog synthesizers never went away, they just went underground after they went out of fashion and lots of musicians are still using them, most of whom are exactly 63 years old.
The point is, whether or not you like this version of Bach, I guarantee that the person who created this arrangement spent many days more thinking about the sound of the music than Bach ever did. Bach, more than any other composer after him, thought exclusively about the notes. He thought linearly, or horizontally, and so long as every line emerges with clarity, a performance of Bach will still retain its 'Bachness.'
Beethoven didn't think that much more deeply about sound. In so far as he cared sound, he cared about the contrasts of sound, loud vs. soft, when to make the orchestra shout, when to make it whisper, and how to hold you in. 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 the 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, but in Mozart, the virtuosity is not self-conscious. It's like a child building a sandcastle, he just does it because that's inevitably what happens when kids go to the beach. In Beethoven, he is self-consciously out to thrill you. The effects are 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. 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 once-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 almost seems like different pieces, yes? But there's a problem: two of the fast performances were from the 1950's, and one 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. It 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 perhaps they under-revere him and don't value at all this amazing tradition of ours.
I'm sure some of you are thinking 'who cares' right now, because 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 challenging musicians - however fast is comfortable for you to play, play it a little faster. Chance the impossible, take a risk, do more with these pieces than you think you can. That kind of risk taking is what gives Beethoven the vibrance he needs, but if performers make speed into a scientific requirement, they lose the passion that Beethoven needs. But if they stay at tempos within their comfort zone, the audience will never hear what's shocking about Beethoven.
And now that we've spoken about risks, this brings us to our next duality:
Revolutionary vs. Romantic
In this duality, we have to 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. Some of which 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...
I don't think I need to play the original for you. You know it without my saying anything. 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 another composer who hasn't been a celebrity in a few hundred years, Etienne Mehul, and his Symphony no. 1, with a little bit of commentary from the still controversial English conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who's an insightful observer of music even if his observations don't always work well in performance, 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
I'm a bit less convinced by the final two borrowings. If anything, I'd imagine Mehul saw Beethoven's Fifth rather than the other way around, but this begs some obvious questions.
Question #1: by the standards of the 21st century, would all of this be considered 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 the 'Fate knocking at the door' story 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 forbodding 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. Audiences knew the 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 brain too. And while I'll to refrain from any comment about the intelligence of the average classical musician in 2017, you can pretty much figure out my opinion when I say that 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 just the way that the World War II generation used to fight over whether Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee or Lena Horne sang Fever the best, the interwar generation would have fights about whether Rubinstein or Horowitz or Rachmaninov or Josef Hofmann played the best Chopin Mazurkas. 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 could, if they were so inclined, travel to hear Beethoven conducted live by Mahler or Richard Strauss.
So let's hear one of the very best conductors who ever mounted the stage, Willem Mengelberg, a name not enough remembered today, do the first two or so minutes of what I think is one of the very great recordings of Beethoven.
Mengelberg Beethoven 2 - Introductory Adagio
Diatonicism vs. Chromaticism
Now in order to understand what we just heard, we need to delve a bit into music theory and the rules of harmony. I promise we're going to keep this very simple. What you need to know is two terms: diminished chords, and chromaticism.
Chromaticism is the easier of the two terms. I'll simply go to the piano and do this very quickly.
Here's a C-Major scale. (C major scale) Baby simple.
Here's a C-Major chord (play), also called a triad (play), and here's a C-Major scale in triadic chords, like something you get in Duke Ellington (C-Major scale in triads), like when Duke Ellington improvises on Take the A-Train. None of that is chromaticism, what I just played is just about the limit of what you can get from harmonies we call diatonic, meaning that most music has two poles, the tonic (play C-chord), and the dominant (play G-chord). And everything in the most basic building blocks of music exists between these two magnetic poles (play C-chord, G-chord, C-chord), so that when you do something like sing the blues to this chord (scat the first eight bars of a blues pattern), your ear, without even realizing it, has the expectation of that other pole, which we call the dominant chord.
Chromaticism is a completely different conception of music, one that exists in American music but only at the perifery. It's a European plant, and when Americans hear chromaticism in our music, for whatever reason, we associate it with something feels loucher than what many of us are comfortable with. Think of Miles Davis in Kind of Blue, which is probably the singular moment when jazz became something other than a mainstream music while Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were firmly in diatonicism:
(play opening Bill Evans piano solo of Kind of Blue)
There is something about the ambiguity chromaticism that has always seemed to people to feel like luxury, if chromaticism were a person, the average American would look at it and say - 'boy, I dunno....' But it's been present in European music, Europe of course being the continent of sophisticated luxury, from at very least the Renaissance onward and arguably well before that.
So listen, for example to this famous bass-line from the 17th Century English composer, Henry Purcell.
When I am Laid in Earth - Jessye Norman
This is Dido, the great tragic heroine in the Aeneid, who commits suicide after she's left by Aeneis, and sings her lament of a broken heart. Purcell was another of those musical geniuses like Mozart and Schubert who only lived to show us the smallest bit of what he was capable, and what he does here is to gradually descend by the smallest intervals possible on a keyboard or in Western tonality. It is literally the music of a gradually worsening mood and mental state (play chromaticism), that finally finds enough solid ground to communicate itself to others (play second half of the phrase), only to repeat the process over and over again. It's a perfect musical metaphor for a downward emotional spiral.
Or take this composition from an aristocratic composer writing about spurned love, Carlo Gesualdo, who not only knew about unrequited love, but did something about it. He caught his wife in bed with another man, and murdered both the wife and the lover in their bed.
Moro Lasso - Alessandrini
You hear those first few chords, which are simultaneously chromatic both in the top treble line (play it) and in the bass line (play it) and you instantly understand the desperation of the composer, and can probably also imagine him committing murder. It's like the walls of his intestines are tearing.
Chromaticism is going to come up over and over again in this class. But the question still remains, what, ultimately or if anything, does chromaticism, these stepwise ambiguous musical lines,... what do they ultimately express?
I could try to come up with a more specific explanation, but instead, let me defer to the greatest music appreciation teacher who ever lived and more importantly, a much better pianist than I am, Leonard Bernstein, who will explain it in the context of a little super-chromatic piece by Chopin:
Bernstein explains Chopin Mazurka
The point of chromaticism is nothing more than musical ambiguity, and ambiguity, being what it is, may not have any purpose at all. But in the context of Beethoven, of a composer who learned so much of his craft from Haydn, the point of chromaticism is to resolve it. And because the chromaticism is so much more dissonant than in Haydn, Beethoven's resolutions have to be a hundred times more complicated, more tortured, than those in Haydn and Mozart. They are like musical symptoms of some kind of emotional pain which has to be transcended.
And the way Beethoven does this is, so often, through the diminished chord. The diminished chord (play it) is what most separates 19th century music from just about any music on either side of it. Almost all the most famous music from before the nineteenth century doesn't have it, and almost all the most famous music of the 20th and 21st centuries don't. They're almost too sophisticated for any three minute song, and they're almost too quaint for anything that's even remotely avant garde. But what they function as is a kind of musical magic bullet - a musical portal to infinity. Once you use diminished chords, you can make any sequence of chords work musically, and therefore music can be designed completely differently. It doesn't have to be just counterpoint as it's been for a thousand years in the church, and it doesn't have to be just melody as it's been in popular music seemingly from time immemorial. For the first time, music can be based on harmony and only harmony. The harmonies become so complicated that they create a drama and suspense no less intense than the drama and suspense in Shakespeare and Hitchcock. All you do is start with a plain consonant chord (play C-Major), then the tension of dissonance (diminished 7 C-sharp), and then the release of a different consonant chord (D-Major), but that creates the question, how do you get back to that original chord? If a composer wants to get from that chord (D-major) to another much more distant key, go through a diminished chord (play D-diminished seven), and you'll get there (F-Sharp), and that creates still more tension because now you have to get from this chord (F-Sharp), back to the original chord (play C-major) and you may have to go through all manner of weird permutations to get there. And yet, if you just put the right diminished chord in between it (F-Sharp Major, F-diminished seven, C-Major) you led right back home. Let's go again to Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein explaining diminished in the context of Tristan (1:08:18-1:10:15)
And now, how does Beethoven use this chromaticism. Let's listen to that introduction again and see how many times he uses chromaticism or diminished chords. This is the beginning of a major key piece very much in the style of late Haydn, but try to hear just how difficult Beethoven finds it to keep a happy front.
Play introduction to Beethoven 2 again - Mengelberg
Haydn juxtaposes light and dark, Mozart blends light and dark, but Beethoven interweaves them so that you not only hear both at the same time, but you hear both of them conflicting with each other. You almost can't hear where the chromaticism begins and the diatonicism ends.
But if that's not enough to make you understand how this might be connected to emotional pain, listen to the end of the first movement, when Beethoven piles diminished chord on top of chromatic movement on top of diminished, one after the other, after the other, after the other, to make the most heroic possible statement. It happens in a flash, yet you hear it and in a good performance it takes your breath away, and it's like a statement that music will and can never be the same again.
Play ending of Beethoven 2 Allegro - Harnoncourt
(make weird faces to get the point across...)
Remember how we talked about transcendence in the first class? Music doesn't get more transcendent than this; and I mean that in a factual, not a subjective, sense. Beethoven creates the greatest imaginable dissonance that anyone knew how to conceive in 1802, and he transcends that dissonance to find a way to bring resolution to it and get us back to D-Major.
Now, in Beethoven's personal life, what at this point was he transcending?
(When someone says deafness, give them the page that has the Heiligenstadt Testament on it, each person reads a sentence and then passes it to the next person)
What I gave you is the first half of the Heiligenstadt Testament. This was a suicide note Beethoven wrote to his brothers in a when he was staying at a spa in Heiligenstadt, a neighborhood of Vienna, while he was writing the Second Symphony. He never showed to anyone until it was discovered in his apartment after his death twenty-five years later.
Read a sentence and pass it along to the next person. And say it as dramatically as you can:
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.Anyone who writes something like that, anyone who writes music like the Second Symphony, is not a person whom you want to spent more than a small dose of time with at best of situations. Beethoven was, of course, a wild man with a hair trigger temper who could send restaurant food back to the kitchen via the waiter's head. But he was also, in many ways, a friendly man who wanted to live his life morally and with the utmost concern for other people. And unlike some composers..., the decency of his character clearly comes out in his music. This brings us to the next duality:
Personal vs. Political
I'm sure many of you remember that famous sixties slogan: 'The Personal is Political.' Now, as the world's youngest Franklin Roosevelt Liberal, I kind of doubt that's true in every situation. But I am as positive as a person can be that Beethoven believed it. How many of you remember Eric Hoffer, one of my favorite thinkers, the guy who was a longshoreman during the day and a philosopher at night?
Does anybody remember the name of his most famous book?
The True Believer! Now like the Sixties, and like the current era we're living through in an almost completely opposite way, Beethoven was living in revolutionary times. The whole world had very strong opinions about issues which they were clearly willing to fight and die for. Everybody was wondering whether people would go to war, and eventually, nearly every country did go to war. That's not going to say that that's what will happen soon, but as always, it's like Russian Roulette and whether a society ultimately lives or dies at any tense moment is almost entirely luck.
But here was a man who was near the point of suicide, who was constantly in love and could barely get any woman to stand him for more than the length of a lesson or concert, who grew up with an abusive and alcoholic father, and then as a concert pianist became one of the most famous musicians in Vienna, the musical capital of the world. And then he goes deaf. The gift that prevented Beethoven from having an adulthood just as traumatic as his childhood, the gift which probably gave Beethoven his entire sense of self, was mercilessly taken away from him.
Now let's pass this paper around and read a few quotes from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer:
"When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need for something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives."
"There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless."
"The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."
"There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation."
This last quote will be particularly meaningful in the context of Beethoven:
"Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, "to be free from freedom." It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility? "The French Revolution was so long ago, that we can't really judge the people who supported it by contemporary standards. Supporting Napoleon Bonaparte, a murderer of ten-million people in senseless wars, and Beethoven was clearly one of Bonaparte's biggest supporters until 1803, was nothing like being a Hitler sympathizer. It might have been a bit like being a Stalin sympathizer, and when you hear how Beethoven took all those French Revolution pieces to heart you can almost imagine him writing 'Feel the Bern' on the title page of his Third Symphony. But Beethoven was clearly a huge fan of Napoleon, and like a lot of artists, he didn't know much about how to achieve the best practical approximation of his dreams, and he didn't really care. What mattered was the dream.
We artists are dreamers, and as a result, radical causes will always be catnip for us. It's true that it's a privilege to be an artist, but being in the arts is just about the hardest privilege you can take upon yourself. You probably went into the arts because standard careers make you feel like a misfit, and how much more do you feel like a misfit once you realize the way artists are generally treated? You work at your craft hours every single day without seeing another person, and you only see other people when you audition for them, and most days, they slam the door in your face, you inevitably sometimes have abusive bosses, the pay is shit, you're constantly in the presence of people using dangerous substances, and everybody is grouchy from having to work under the exact same crappy circumstances.
When you are an artist, you are being told every day of your life that everything you do doesn't matter to anybody. You exist on the fringes of society, and you are, at least by the standards of anybody already privileged enough that they can try for a career in the arts, considered a second-class citizen. You're not an actual second-class citizen, mind you. If you're in the arts, you're by definition, a little privileged. And yet I would venture a guess that among any kind of privileged career except maybe an athlete, there is more humiliation that goes into becoming a musician, a writer, an actor, a painter, perhaps especially a comedian, than goes into any other first-world career by an exponential margin. If we artists were actual second-class citizens, it would almost be better for our sense of selves because there would be a goal to strive for. But we are, inevitably, the Fredo Corleones of every stable family and school and town, and even if the humiliation isn't actually so horrible in reality, it feels much worse than it is because nobody else who started with our advantages has the same disadvantages.
But then, here comes some great historical event promising that everything will be different. Here comes the French Revolution and Napoleon ten years after that, here comes Bakunin and the 1848 Revolutions all around Europe and Latin America, here comes the theories of Marx and Engels, here come Lenin and Stalin in Russia, here come Castro and Che in Cuba, here comes the Arab Spring to Syria. But revolutions, real revolutions, not like the American Revolution when one group of landowners took arms against another, but real revolutions, violent ones in which the people rise up to overthrow their masters, are usually incredibly tragic events because they replace one brutal regime with a regime that's twice as bad.
But artists, on the other hand, need this feeling of belonging. If artists don't have the self-esteem to get inspiration from their own lives, and at some point, every artist doesn't, then they need to get inspiration from something that promises them that there's something much more important than themselves, and if some community promises them that everything that's bad in life can be overthrown and replaced with a system that's everything good and decent and right with the world, artists will always be the first to fall for that lie. Sometimes, they even become hard-right-wingers rather than left-wingers. But every time, this lie of the mass movement turns out to be the most vicious lie imaginable. And even so, if the history of culture's taught us anything, it's that artists often need to believe in a lie like this in order to have the morale to produce anything of demonstrable worth.
Let's take a second break, and then we'll talk about how Beethoven dealt with this loss and regaining of self-esteem.