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.
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 maybe Beethoven's famous reaction to Napoleon crowning himself Emperor was his way of saying 'I didn't expect Stalin, I just wanted Bernie Sanders~' 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 if you devote everything in your life to its cause for which no sacrifice can be great enough, the end result will be inevitably worth it. So 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. And you can make just as long a list of right-wing revolutions. In order for an artist to have self-esteem, he or she needs to feel, more than anything else, like they are useful. So artists just about always the first to sign up for revolutions - we always imagine that after the next revolution, a new society will value us more than the old ones, and often they do; they value us so much that they put us in prison.
Revolutions, real revolutions, not like the Revolutionary War 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 in order to clean up the chaos that follows the toppling of one brutal regime, another regime springs up that's twice as bad. And that's precisely what happened in the French Revolution. First comes the guillotine, then the French Civil War that claims roughly a million lives, and who usually wins any civil war? The general who has the willpower to kill the greatest number of people. Napoleon Bonaparte restores order, he issues a code of law that promises people inalienable rights and dignity, and to bring people their inalienable rights, no sacrifice is great enough. So he begins a series of wars around Europe to liberate other Europeans from their monarchs, and then, in the ultimate betrayal, he crown himself Napoleon Premiere, Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French.
I'm sure you know what happens to Beethoven next. Just in case you don't remember, he wrote his Third Symphony mostly in 1803 as a portrayal of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. When he hears in 1804 that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he tears out the dedication page of the Third Symphony, and writes in Italian - the language of music - Sinfonia Eroica - Heroic Symphony, and underneath, 'To The Memory of a Great Man.'
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 fall for right-wing revolutions. Even today, there are all sorts of rockers you would not expect to be right wing, you expect it from Gene Simmons or Meatloaf or Ted Nugent, but Johnny Ramone? Prince? Eric Clapton? Alice Cooper? Brian Wilson? These are all conservatives at a point in history when American conservatism is not that far off from being a mass movement (incidently, I apologize to anybody who's a Republican in here for bringing contemporary politics into this, but in order to grapple with history, we have to relate it to the present day, if you want to dispute anything I say at any point, either from the right of me or the left of me, please feel free - the point is to engage the material and in this classroom, there are no trigger warnings).
The point is this, whether right or left, this lie of the mass movement almost inevitably turns out to be the most vicious lie imaginable. And if the history of culture's taught us anything, it's that artists often need to believe in a revolutionary lie like Napoleon in order to have the morale to produce anything at all.
So, how does Beethoven create musical metaphors for revolution? Well, he starts by creating a symphony that is almost twice as long as the standard symphony. It has opening movement longer than any ever conceived, probably longer in many performances than the majority of Haydn symphonies. It has three subjects rather than the customary two, as we discussed last week was Haydn's great contribution; and who knows, in Beethoven's mind at least the first movement may or may not be a musical portrayal of a battlefield. It has a slow movement that is literally a funeral march - is it a funeral march for a composer on the verge of suicide? Is it a funeral march for the millions of dead in the recent wars? Did it become, in Beethoven's mind after he composed it, a funeral march for the dream of the world which everybody who believed in Napoleon wished to see? Or is it just a funeral march? Nobody ever really talks about the last two movements, and we won't talk much about them, but I do want at least to play you some of the last movement to show you that Beethoven is not just a colossus. There are other things on his mind than just epic drama.
But let's start with the epic drama.
Eroica Opening Chords - (Karajan '84)
Obviously nobody ever started a symphony like that. Haydn and Mozart both began many symphonies with grand loud gestures, but this isn't a grand gesture, this is a very terse one. It's like a middle finger at the audience says 'pay attention you dolts, even if I don't earn your attention right away.' Those first two chords, like two enormous bangs.
In the mind of a listener who is in the middle of wartime, what might loud bangs sound like?
(wait for someone to say explosions, gunfire, artillery...)
We can't say for sure at all that Beethoven is doing anything but writing kickass music, but it does almost sound like he's putting you in the middle of a battlefield.
What does he do next, let's hear the phrase afterwards.
Eroica Opening Phrase
(walk over to piano, play opening phrase)
Beethoven sneakily puts in that diminished chord we talk about, and then he resolves it. And if this is a battle, you quickly see what each side chooses as their weapons. On one side, tonic chords, consonance, peace (play opening phrase), on the other side, dissonance, diminishment, musical violence (play measure 7). And it's just a small opening volley.
What happens next? I want everybody to do something. Beat in three with me: one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two-three. Now let's beat through the first forty seconds of Beethoven's Third:
Eroica First Forty Seconds
These accents are called syncopation, and in this particular kind of syncopation, we suddenly don't know if the music is in 2 or in 3, and half of the accents are on diminished chords. Like on a battlefield, it's supposed to be disorienting.
But when you get back onto solid ground, it sounds like a triumph.
So what else does Beethoven do to make you think this might be a battlefield? Well, there's this unmistakable horse galloping rhythm, you can almost hear the Lone Ranger going 'Here Comes The Cavalry'
Transitional B-Flat Subject (keep going a bit)
And then you hear things that sound like a sneak attack.
Lead up to second subject
(pause) and then you hear something that sounds like a charge of the infantry, perhaps running heroically at enemy fire at top speed. (pause) And then you hear the artillery.
But then you get what we call the first crisis. I don't know if there's any real program that works here, except to say two things. One is that, to me, it's clearly meant to signify doubts that our side might lose, because it's just a long series of diminished chords moving chromatically, and whenever it's not diminished chords, it resolves to keys that are as far away from the home key of as music can possibly get.
And then comes the third subject, which sounds like one of those sad war songs that folk groups used to love to sing.
We are now clearly in defeat-land, and defeat land gets still more tragic. This is a moment that may just be, as Mahler would say, a long buildup to a cry of despair.
But just when things seem darkest, something amazing happens. It's almost like a musical metaphor for blundering our way into victory - something we Americans know all about in our history. You almost can't hear it because the trembling violins are too quiet. But it's supposed to literally sound like the horn is coming in at the wrong moment. This moment is such a radical innovation that Beethoven's assistant Reis started yelling at the horn player, and even Wagner wanted to correct it. But like in battles, like in life, it's almost inevitably something small and stupid which results in everything working itself out.
Wrong note horn entrance
So now, let's play the denoument when clearly you realize you've won the battle.
This is obviously a level of triumph, and joy, and celebration that I'm not sure ever existed in music before Beethoven. The music of Haydn and Mozart didn't need to earn its happiness. Even if Mozart's happy music can sound sad, it's still fundamentally happy. And any unhappiness in Haydn's music he balanced with happiness. But for Beethoven, he had to earn his happiness, and music was a battlefield on which he was able reclaim good feeling, but any good feelings came at a terrible price.
Play first bit of Funeral March - Klemperer/RDO '57
So lets go back to those questions I asked earlier about the Funeral March.
Who, if anybody, is being buried? Is it a funeral march for a composer who may still be planning on killing himself? Is it a funeral march for the millions of dead in the recent wars, or the people suffering under monarchies who made all those revolutions and wars necessary? Did it become, in Beethoven's mind after he composed it, a funeral march for the dream of the world which everybody who believed in Napoleon wanted to see? Or is it just a funeral march?
Whatever the answer, if there's a musical metaphor for what's going on here, you hear it all over the place in all those different rhythms in the string accompaniment. Listen again to the beginning, but listen to the bass and cello.
Play first bit of Funeral March - Klemperer/RDO '57
And then listen to how the strings accompany the oboe. This seems like a military drum, getting closer and closer.
And think about it for a second, where else in Beethoven do you hear something not unlike this rhythm?
And then we get a curious passage that sounds not entirely unlike a twenty-one gun salute with its drums going at the same time as the guns, three separate times, and it happens twice, it's one of my favorite moments in Beethoven and inevitably, most orchestras don't give it nearly enough power. Bruckner would be impossible without this moment.
But then comes the moment everybody remembers in the funeral march, the fugue.
Now, who's generally associated with Fugues?
Indeed, Bach. But when Beethoven wrote a fugue, it wasn't just beautiful music and counterpoint for its own sake, Beethoven wanted to express something. Your guess is as good as mine as to what this expresses, but it's clearly something involving more than one person. Maybe it's a collective outpouring of grief, maybe it's the procession after the funeral, but a fugue means that many voices are equally important. A community of voices all of whom are clearly expressing something tragic. And no matter what this passage means, you can still hear the drums.
I could play more of this movement, but it's best for you all to go home and listen, and between you and me nobody conducted it better than Otto Klemperer, just like nobody ever conducted the opening movement better than Herbert von Karajan. I'll send recording recommendations to your emails when we leave.
There's just one more point to make about the Eroica. The first two movements are obviously unbelievably serious and heavy and demanding in ways that Haydn and Mozart never were, they'd probably have been fired if they tried. But not only that, the first two movements require a level of musical organization that no symphony has ever had to have. Beethoven is creating a path nobody has ever tried before. So what does Beethoven do in the last two movements? He completely lightens up. What does he do in the finale, he creates, almost deliberately, a mess in which every section has barely anything at all to do with the section that came before and after. It's as though Beethoven is saying 'Yeah, I know, that was brutal, thanks for coming, here's a dog and pony show."
Let's just listen to the theme and variations at the beginning of the finale. He starts with what seems like it's going to be another heavy, incredibly grand gesture.
And then he deliberately creates a theme that is so threadbare it's barely even music. Like an admission that he pulled a fast one on us. It's a musical joke. Listen to it in sequence.
Finale opening and theme
The way he develops it isn't much more substantial. It takes two minutes of this before he even gives us a melody.
Later in the movement, he brings back more of the heroic material, but it's almost deliberately awkward and as disorganized as possible, as though he's trying to juxtapose the heroic and the comic, the high and the low, stand together. And that is a facet of Beethoven that Mahler will later run circles with.
Let's talk very briefly about the Fourth Symphony. Mostly about the introduction. Does anybody remember that Shakespeare song from Much Ado About Nothing? I'm going to quote it, and don't worry, it's right in front me, it's not from memory:
I could not possibly come up with a better description of Beethoven's Fourth. It's just a perfect piece of music, certainly Beethoven's most perfect symphony; not a second too long, not a note out of place, Haydn and Mozart would be overjoyed if they could write anything like this, and in many ways Haydn particularly did.
The encroaching darkness we found in the Second, it's still darker here. All you have to do is hear the slow introduction, and you hear how far Beethoven's now moved from Haydn. Let's listen first to the beginning of Haydn 102, and then let's listen to the beginning Beethoven 4. It's the same basic idea, Mahler would take the same idea a century later for the beginning of his first symphony - and yes, all three sound exactly like the beginning of the Star Trek theme, and no doubt that's intentional- but listen to how much darker Beethoven is willing to make the beginning of a happy symphony than Haydn. Haydn's introduction is kind of dark, but it's not THAT dark, and compared to Haydn 104, it's nothin'
Haydn 102 - beginning - Davis/Concertgebouw
I've learned that that's a lot of experts' favorite Haydn symphony, and I don't really understand why. Let's now listen to how much darker Beethoven is willing to go before he brings us into the light.
After Beethoven brings us back to the light side, the dark always keeps popping up in this symphony, but it's ultimately an incredibly light piece of music. Schumann called a slender Grecian maiden in between two Norse giants, which strikes me as being not all that far off. But in order to talk about the other Norse giant, we have to talk more about Beethoven generally. We'll do that after the break.
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, and only certain movements in them: like the first two of the Eroica, the Fifth, the storm movement of the Pastoral, the second and fourth movements of the Seventh, and the Ninth. That myth about Beethoven doesn't do justice to the complexity of what he does, or how Beethoven composed. And furthermore, 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 over the last thirty years than they ever have 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 indisputable center of classical music, maybe even 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. The Third, the Fifth, the Sixth, and the Ninth symphonies seemed to have as central a place in music as Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth have in 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-revolutions 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 than the music was written for, and while a larger bow gets a fatter sound, it's also slightly more unwieldy and makes it more difficult in fast passages. We'll talk more about the difference in 19th wind and brass instruments when it's time to talk about Berlioz.
But by the time Beethoven roles around, the string instruments are quite a bit more similar. 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 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 very soon. 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 often in more theoretical realms - form, design, harmony, 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 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 about 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 suspense or surprise you. 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 a lot 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 they 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 dynamic contrasts on the pianos in Vienna become twice as wide, and therefore 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 finger-to-finger with Mozart on any virtuoso effects, but in Mozart, the virtuosity is not self-conscious, it's just what the world's most talented composer does naturally. 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
Some of you may now that 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 Fifth Symphony: first Konwitschny then Chailly)
(Play opening of Sixth: first Thielemann then Scherchen)
It almost seems like different pieces, yes? But there's a problem: one of the fast performances were from the 1950's, and one of the slow performances was from the 2010's. The truth is that some people have been advocating for performing at Beethoven's tempos since the very beginning, 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 big orchestra just 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. We think of Beethoven as the ultimate Romantic, who was putting his angry feelings on the page. But what if he wasn't trying to be a Romantic at all? Let's listen to a couple of small excerpts from 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
It's fairly close, but it might be a coincidence. Now let's 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
I don' think I need to play the Beethoven piece that sounds like it. But here's a slightly more complicated version of that in an orchestral piece by Luigi Cherubini, a very famous composer who's still occasionally played, called Hymn of the Pantheon, which commemorated the war dead in the French Revolution.
Cherubini - Wait for it...
You know exactly what this sounds like 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, whom I often think is more of an insightful observer than a great conductor, and contrast it with a similar passage in Beethoven's Fifth.
Beethoven vs. Mehul
I'm a little less convinced by this one. Beethoven was working on the Fifth Symphony for four years, it seems more probable to me that Mehul heard from someone that Beethoven was doing a symphony with something like this in it and said "I can beat Beethoven to the gate." But 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
I'm also a little less convinced by this one, but hear it in the context of the last movement of Beethoven 5.
Beethoven's Fifth Finale - Harnoncourt/COE
Those first three notes sound like it could be the Rouget de Lisle. This sounds a bit more like it, we played it last week:
Liberte moment in the Finale
So all 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 some 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?