Beethoven, My Brother


We all have our madeleines.  This morning I sat in a waiting room, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto came over the radio.  Lost time came in search of me, a mass of moments revivified and occupying me equally and simultaneously.  The sensation was familiar in one important way, it was the feeling I have each time I hear this music, which is both the sensation of the moment and the recollection of that same, wonderful feeling from each previous time.  It is the sensation of knowing that Beethoven is my brother.

In my first go-round in Brooklyn, living in Fort Greene in the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, you might have found me some early weekday evenings at the bar of the Alibi Club, which, before the sun set nightly, was a comfortable, no-frills neighborhood place where one could sit quietly, chat and win a pot of cash by putting in your own money and answer for ‘Final Jeopardy.’  I remember one conversation I had with a frequent patron named Noel, about music.  We were talking appreciatively about what we loved, avant-garde jazz for me and classic album rock for him, but when I mentioned that I had been listening obsessively to George Szell’s Beethoven cycle – and I had been – we found ourselves conjoined in a love for Beethoven.  Not everyone loves, or is even interested in him, but he’s easy to love no matter what one’s musical taste or interest may be; we love our brothers, and Beethoven is one.

Pop songs tell us about experiences that we have had our would like to have, we can relate to and identify with the stories and the feelings and the personalities of the tellers/singers, whether we kissed a girl or loved and lost like Frank has.  Sometimes the songs are so good, so complex and enduring that they leave it to us to decided what exactly we are identifying with emotionally, which changes through time as we endure life.  Usually, though, unendurable teenage heartbreak turns into adult disappointment and ennui, and so the teenage songs no longer work and must be replaced by adult songs.  Classical music is different in that it doesn’t tell us very much at all, it instead appeals to totally abstract ideas of time and form.  It asks questions rather than offers answers, and so does not appeal to all, but its appeal is enduring since it’s always an intriguing, often beautiful mystery to solve.  We never actually find the solution, but there is marvelous pleasure in the process.

Classical music does offer personalities, but often these are both abstracted and idealized.  This is especially true in the Classical era, where the music of Mozart and Haydn is guided by their personalities, i.e. their taste and choices, but presents what they think about their own ideas, not themselves directly.  This changes with Beethoven who is so exceptional because he does both simultaneously; he doesn’t need to choose between telling us about himself and about what he thinks of his own abstract ideas.  To Beethoven, that’s an irrelevancy.  In the Violin Concerto, we hear what he thinks about sonata-allegro form, and how he likes to solve the puzzle of finding his way home after a long journey, and this is appealing and satisfying to those who find spirit and beauty in those questions (and they are full of such things).  We also hear Beethoven tell us about himself, not the abstract figure represented in Classical music but his real, Romantic self.  What he tells us in all his music, literally all, is this: I have suffered, and I have struggled, but I have also found joy.

That is something we all desire to hear and to be able to say ourselves at times in our life, and so Beethoven can appeal to everyone.  For other Romantic composers, we react as we would in making or rejecting friendships; how our personalities mix with the music is the key.  If the music is appealing it is because it becomes a friend, and like real friends we think and react in a variety of ways depending on who we are with, and our moods and the companionship we require.  Schumann, Schubert, the eccentric Berwald, the simple, mystical Bruckner, the aesthete Tchiakovsky, the enigmatic Sibelius are all my friends, but I don’t wish their company at all times.  The Stravinsky of The Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps is my dazzling, eternally youthful and brilliant friend, while the late-Romantic Schoenberg is an acquaintance who shares few concerns with me, and Richard Strauss is an unpleasant fellow who seeks social circles that I find repulsive.  Gustav Mahler is the exhaustingly intimate friend with whom the discursive, fascinating conversation never ends.

Those are some of my friends, and they are my friends because I like them.  Beethoven is not my friend, however, and I don’t always like him.  He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with.  That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me.  He’s my brother, and so I will always love him.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.