Beethoven was probably born on this day 240 years ago. I’ll let my betters do the rest of the talking now:
187 years total, Photo by Jon Simon
Did Elliot Carter ever babysit Pierre Boulez? It’s possible, considering that Boulez is only 85 years old this year, while Carter finished his 102nd year on earth December 11. Carter was in the audience this past Monday at Miller Theater for a Portrait of the younger man. It was another one of the events at Miller that drew a packed and excited audience that included, along with Carter, other composers and musicians. John Zorn and Chet Biscardi sat in front of me, Olga Neuwirth at the other end of my row, Sean Sheperd milled in the crowd afterward.
Boulez is deeply important, of course, and also truly fascinating. He may deny this, but he has gone through several important transformations in his musical career that have paralleled large-scale movements in art music in the 20th century, from extreme dogmatism and musical utopianism through the return of Romanticism. He has been on the inside of all this both as an important composer and conductor, and has produced great music on paper and on the podium.
Boulez took Schoenberg’s serial atonality to the extreme, applying strict, hermetically logical rules to other aspects of music, like rhythm and dynamics. And although he is, historically, the antithesis of Cage, he did create a very Cageian piece, Le Marteau sans Maître , where willful expression on the part of the composer and musicians is subdued almost entirely. That work was a pivotal moment for him and for contemporary music. It has been praised for decades, but I feel it is a bad piece of music, but a necessary one. It is completely unenjoyable, in the guise of musical expression it expressive nothing other than a set of rules. Yet it also shows that Schoenberg’s system and its developments were a technical and aesthetic cul-de-sac, and after it music had to back it’s way out and find new directions.
Boulez did the same, and with orchestras, by going backwards in time from Alban Berg, he discovered the great works of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. While his results in leading this music are mixed, he can produce astonishing performances, especially live, and has also made some of the finest recordings of Stravinsky and Debussy. I recall his leading the Chicago Symphony in Petrushka a few years ago as the greatest I have ever heard that music. The Miller Portrait was dedicated to his work as a composer and gave examples that spanned seven decades.
The earliest work was 12 Notations, from 1945. Anthony Cheung played this with impeccable skill and musicality. The pieces are sharply etched, mostly atonal but not strictly so. Atonal music is, for most people, including musicians, impossible to follow along the lines and their repetition, it goes against how the ear and the mind work. The fundamental features of melody and harmony cannot be defined in the moment of hearing, so we are left with a series of events placed in time. The best of this music places them with exactitude, and this is one of Boulez’s great virtues as a composer; he creates tension and release by producing a feeling of suspense around when the next event will take place, and what it will be like. The Notations have this virtue, and even have moments of tonality. They also have a great deal of charm and wit, and as Boulez said on stage, they are strictly organized but “hopefully the audience can’t hear that,” which is an important point about music that he would have denied when he first wrote the work! It should just sound good.
His intellectual charm and what is a typical French love of transparent sound and colors is just under the surface of his music, making even the most difficult works appealing in some ways. He also writes very well for the voice, one of the few composers who can make atonal and dissonant vocal lines pleasurable. The example in concert was two Improvisations sur Mallarmé from the 1950s, vocal music that formed the basis of one of his large scale masterpieces, Pli Selon Pli. Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie sang these beautifully, with a full voice, real expression and fabulous pitch. She was accompanied by the centerpiece group of the concert, the excellent Talea Ensemble with precise, impressive leadership from conductor James Baker. The ensemble began and ended the evening with Boulez’s two Dérives, the first from the mid-1980s, the second originally from that same decade but greatly revised and expanded just four years ago.
The first is light, brisk, almost Baroque in the way it builds itself from flourish and trills. The colors are crystalline, chiming. It’s a tone poem, a landscape piece, something out of the Artic, with wind blowing across the frozen surface while, underneath, geological processes move slowly and powerfully. The second work is enormous, the duration of a late Romantic symphony, and a work of complete brilliance. It is ultra-complex but not dense, the clarity and transparency of the score reveals how full of committed thinking the music is. There is something going on all the time, so much polyphony that it is truly too much to digest in one hearing, and it is abstract, revealing nothing about what Boulez was thinking other than the notes and the sound. But Boulez was thinking a great deal, and the music is the demonstration of a mind working at an extremely powerful level, holding and developing multiple ideas simultaneously. The flow of ideas is so fast that it approaches the level of a Cecil Taylor improvisation, just with great orchestration. The effect, as one tries to keep track of the lines, is the creation of a pleasant fugue state. Although there are repeated gestures and sectional ideas, it approaches Carter’s ideal of endless, repetitive music.
Every time I think of, or write that line, I do have to stop and contemplate the idea of a music that does not repeat. Music is repetition and change, that is how musical structures can be made and, usually, how essential ideas of tension and release are conveyed. Music is artificial, it’s something we create out of our minds and in our ears. Carter has dedicated himself for decades now to creating music that doesn’t repeat, music that follows the external flow of time rather than creating it’s own, artificial sense of time. I find this in concept, as a human being, unnerving. Time is what I exist in, and I prefer my art to be artificial, to be at its core an Existential blow against the entropy that is an inevitable feature of the universe. And yet here is Carter, doing the thing that every neuron tells me can’t be done, and doing it brilliantly.
His current output, a substantial sample of which is available on this great set released this year, is the most sheerly enjoyable of his career. Carter has always gone his own way, only coincidentally with or against musical fashion, and his individuality has never been greater. His voice is so consistent and so clear, yet he never sounds like he is repeating himself and reworking his own material. His pieces have become shorter and, as they become ever more concentrated on his idea, with it’s unfathomable implications, have become surprisingly lighter. They are impish, dazzling, full of humor, but without wasted notes or filligree. One is left smiling as if he’s played a good natured practical joke, one where the punch line went by so quickly it may have been missed. This video gives a good example of this style:
It is perhaps impossible to determine exactly what Carter is saying here, but it is so clear that he is saying something worthwhile, and that because it can’t be understood, it draws the listener in. It’s as mysterious, abstract and absolute as music gets, and still it’s amiable, approachable, winning. Carter is really exploring aesthetic possibilities that are as yet unknown in cultural history, and the clarity and concentration of his style, the sense that you are hearing exactly what he wants you to hear, comes from his astonishing creative experience. At 102 years young, his voice is assured and modestly experimental beyond any in the history of Western art music.
It’s an unmistakable feature of late style. You can hear it in a CD out this year from Noah Creshevsky, who has pioneered his own unmistakable style. He calls it hyperrealism, and it’s apt. Creshevsky works with electroacoustic sources (samples and instruments), and stitches his music together into pieces that sound like music that is just slightly inhuman, in that it is clear, direct, has recognizable means and structures, but has a particular quality of the velocity of events and ideas, or adapts an acoustic instrument in a particular way, that could not actually be produced by a person physically playing an instrument. It’s like Conlon Nancarrow’s approach, but with an interest in varied, open-ended structures. The results are as unnerving as Carter’s concept, but exhilarating. The Twilight Of The Gods is a dazzling CD, the pieces full of recognizable details that tickle the mind and the memory, the music itself moving in ways that make one dizzy. Creshevsky’s music is like riding a musical roller-coaster, one that has turns and drops that can’t be seen or anticipated from the car. It can be exhausting, but it is amazing to hear, and the CD is one of the best releases of the year. It’s also a testament, again, to an artist whose language and craft are beyond assured.
Another composer who is so clear and accomplished in his language is Ingram Marshall. He also has one of the year’s best release in September Canons . Here we are on, it seems, a unguided tour of the composer’s mind, with pieces that cover several of the areas he has touched on in his work; his use of electronics to augment acoustic instruments with great beauty, represented by the title piece for Todd Reynolds violin, his pieces that use fragments of his own memory and experiences via older recordings of music, like Sibelius or village marches, as the texture in which to create new perspectives, music for the Gambuh, an Indonesian dramatic form, and of course gamelan music, represented here by “Woodstone.” This last has one of the most compelling and beautiful combinations of melody and harmony that I have ever heard, so beautiful it’s disturbing in its power. A wonderful collection.
Of course, the great example of late style in the arts is Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas and string quartets. Beethoven, the great builder of musical structures that, without a wasted moment, inevitably conveyed the listener from beginning to end, from entrance to exit, every room and passageway with a purpose . . . this Beethoven, late in his life and deaf, with his unerring knowledge of how symbols on a page translated into sound and form, began to explore what strike me as deeply personal thoughts and feelings. The musical edifices are still unshakably firm, but they are more extravagant, with details, passageways and rooms that have no other purpose than to add a sensation of pleasure, or mystery. There is a long debate about the meaning of the late string quartets, and to that I would add the view that much of them mean nothing. That for Beethoven, who had been a public composer, producing works that more and more informed the audience of ideas along with music, the late music is necessarily internal, due to his deafness, but also delightfully internal. He is not only writing what he hears in his inner ear but what delights his inner ear, music that makes him wonder and question and mostly marvel at the oddness of it all. The reputation of the Grosse Fugue, the initial finale of the Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, was that it was too difficult to listen to. It does begin sternly, but then it grows increasingly warm as Beethoven seems to enthrall himself with how much nice music the material can produce. Perhaps the mystery of this late style is that it is the sound of a man humming to himself in his private moments.
To explore that mystery, listen to the Tokyo Quartet’s set of the late quartets, and also to the first two volumes of the Cypress String Quartet’s recordings of the late quartets. Both groups of recordings are at the highest level, and they are quite different from each other. The Tokyo is a veteran group, their sound, especially in the brilliant Harmonia Mundi SACD sound, is bright, polished but not smoothed over. Their tempos and playing style is lighter, they have a focus on ensemble unanimity of purpose, giving the feeling that they have clearly determined the thing they will express and then doing so with great style. Their set is full of energy, bravura in every way. The Cypress is a younger group, their sound is rougher and darker (both types of sound are great in this music). Their playing is more deliberate, like they are thinking out loud, and at times they seem to be deliberately giving an independent voice to each of their members, exploring the possibilities of the music and confident it will bear them safely to a conclusion – this strikes me as a naturally brilliant approach to these pieces, with their willfulness and depth. Where the Tokyo excites with beauty, the Cypress excites with a thrilling kind of gravitas, a willingness to contemplate what is happening in front of them while they play the music. Their CDs have superb sound, and I’m eagerly awaiting the final installment. Both sets would be a valuable part of any Beethoven collection, and with their quality and differences make great ‘bookends.’
Black Friday is a day best kept close to home, I think, especially considering the possibility of a Zombie menace, always lurking at the edge of large, frenetic, monomaniacal crowds. And so a hearty congratulations on your continued survival!
I understand the need to shop for holiday gifts, I just think most of the time spent on it should be from home, with all the contemporary conveniences. For example, where it used to be something of a guessing game, buying music, now via the magic of the ‘tubes’ it’s easy enough to hear a good example of what it is you’re thinking of, giving music fans almost the same opportunity that book browsers have had. If you know what you want, then you’ll get it, but when trying to choose between what seems to be an equally good set of options, this audio browsing is invaluable.
For example, how to decide which set of complete Beethoven Symphonies to give as a gift? Of course you were considering this, because what better gift to give to anyone, especially the proverbial person who has everything. The Beethoven Symphonies are at the core of Western art music, the place from which a listener can explore the past that preceded the composer and the future (and present) he presaged. They gather together aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, philosophical and moral values that are at the core of our individual experience of contemporary civilization and represent not only the ideals that we hold and strive to follow but their realization, in exhilarating and frustratingly fleeting moments.
This is particular to and special about Beethoven. There are other composers, like Bach and Mozart, who made music that expressed all sorts of ideas about God, the self in society, the values of wisdom and maturity. Their works are masterpieces of artifice, of the artificial creation that is the history of Western art music. Fugue does not exist as a means or experience of human life, it is a puzzle, a set of rules to guide the creation of a piece of music that is about how it fits into, and works against, those same rules. That it can be extraordinarily beautiful, intellectually fulfilling and emotionally and spiritually moving is testimony to the triumph of the human imagination, of man as the creating species, propagating ideas as well as children, and is the insoluble mystery of consciousness, which we can explain mechanically (how it works) but not essentially (why it works). The fugue and other abstract forms, even when bent to the service of specific liturgical expression, are outside our experience, invisible shapes which touch us in the moment but pass by, lost in time. When we hear Bach, we hear his brilliance in solving the puzzle. And when we hear Mozart at his most social and humane, in his operas, we hear what he thinks of his characters, and he is always sympathetic. But the characters themselves are abstractions. In Le Nozze di Figaro, the greatest achievement in opera composition, we hear his good humor, his implicit caring for those without love, but primarily we hear how he reconciles character, deed and drama through music. It is music that brings the figures together, not only in the astonishing quartet where the characters sing about their own interpretation of the moment and each interpretation accompanies the others, no matter how far apart their ideas may be, but literally in the end, when the Countessa and Count are reconciled through music, where the music ensures that Figaro and Susanna remain in Almaviva’s employ. The music is meant to salve, and solve, what in real life would be enduring pain and bitterness. It is beautiful, it is genius, but it is not us, our experience, our life. This is the problem with Don Giovanni, with the strange lightheartedness during and at the end that constantly argues against the pain and tragedy of the Don’s violations. A murderer and sex criminal in real life becomes, on the stage, a transgressor of social boundaries, something that does not truly exist. It is the artifice of it all . . .
There is something different about Beethoven which makes him the greatest of all composers. Not necessarily the most important (though he may be), and certainly not the most influential, at least in terms of how the music that followed him was made, although he did single-handedly create the possibility of a century and more of Romantic music. Beethoven appeals to anyone and everyone, his music is passionately exciting and fulfilling to people who have no interest in classical music. His art is sophisticated, challenging, fulfilling the artifice of art music in the deepest ways, but it is not subtle. It doesn’t need to be. Beethoven is always sincere and direct, he expresses exactly what he is thinking, even if what he is thinking is ambiguous or confused, and without the neurotic drama of Mahler. His mastery of the artificial rules of music is so total and complete that he ignores them with confidence and impunity. Although he is the greatest master of harmonic structure, of laying out a journey that, as maze-like as it can be, unerringly brings us home – we hear that assured inevitability in every moment and so eagerly allow him to lead us forward – he casually flouts the rules of Classical harmonic organization, modulating to new keys by decree rather than by design. It’s as if he tells us to take it or leave it, and we take it because it is so powerful and moving. He moves us through his passion and tenderness, not for abstract notions or characters, but for us. He is the democrat of music, unconcerned with bourgeois rank and status, with how a piece or a form is supposed to go.
As a maker of forms, a builder, Beethoven is unequalled. As listeners, we have no need to identify what he’s working with, whether it’s sonata-allegro form, fugue, rondo, et. al. We can hear how he has shaped something, he makes every piece of the edifice clear just as he never hides the outline of his design, so we always feel the connection between what we hear in the moment and how the music began, we always know that what we are hearing makes sense in an overall plan. Hearing his symphonies, even for the first time, is like walking through a building that has a structure based around such a firmly logical design that we can anticipate the size, shape and purpose of each room before we enter. Even in his late works, in the Ninth Symphony, what seems wild and willful is always assuredly there for a reason. The amazing late structures, heroic acts of imagination for a man who was almost entirely deaf, have forms and shapes only tenuously related to those of the past, yet they still come from what we know of the past. During the riotous first movement of the Ninth the hunting horns that sound from the distance in a peaceful moment seem perfectly in place, perfectly right, a connection to a clear and purposeful reality, even as we, and Beethoven, hear this churning, obsessive music around us and wonder what it’s for and about. We know it’s about something, more likely it’s about many, many things, too many to sort out in the moment or in a single hearing. But it unmistakably has a purpose. It recognizes that the abstract artifice of music is as fine for conveying the messy vulgarity of life as a shout or laugh in the street. It is weird, forceful, upfront and sincere.
That’s why we listen to Beethoven, and that’s why it’s such a good gift. But, which one? There are hundreds of complete sets, either in print or easily available on the after market. How to choose? I have a dozen different sets myself, and have heard at least another dozen in detail. It’s not anywhere near a redundant or excessive amount, there is so much for musicians to say about this music that a dozen, each of them fine, each of which sounds like the very best one when it’s playing, is rather a modest amount. This is especially true since so many excellent Beethoven collections are available at budget level prices.
There are two general divides amidst what is available, having to do with modern or older ways of approaching the music, the modern way being Period Performance Practice, an attempt to recreate the sound and style of the music as it was played in the time it was new, and the older way being the legacy of large scale orchestral playing that comes out of the tail end of the Romantic era and the beginnings of recorded sound. Personal tastes may dictate preference, but neither way is objectively right or wrong, and there are excellent examples of each.
In Period Performance style, the patriarch is Roger Norrington’s set currently on Virgin. This was a historic and controversial undertaking, and one of the reasons it wears its age well is that it, thirty years later, it still sounds jarring. The orchestral sound is leaner and sharper than standard playing, the tempos are very fast, and Norrington does make decisions that at times seem brilliant and at others seem misguided. In comparison to other such recordings, though, Norrington seems almost grandfatherly; his orchestra sound is closer to the norm than those who followed him, like Christopher Hogwood and Roy Goodman, he’s warmer and more human than John Elliot Gardiner’s highly praised by slightly cold and didactic set. He also includes some important overtures and the price is reasonable. My personal favorite Period Performance set is the one with conductor Jos van Immerseel leading Anima Eterna, which is more expensive but might be had for a reasonable price. But Norrington is really a foundational set, exciting, full of ideas, often revelatory and brilliant and a welcome gift to give and receive.
There are more choices in the standard sets, and many bargains. The most famous one, and perhaps the consensus pick, is the 1963 version of the four cycles that Herbert von Karajan recorded, his first one with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rich and powerful and sympathetic in conception, von Karajan did place greater emphasis on Apollonian beauty than Dionysian expression, though nothing is short-changed, everything sounds right and satisfying. You can’t go wrong with this choice . . . although there may be better ones, including an excellent, exciting cycle he recorded in 1950s. The sound is mono and somewhat limited for that, but the playing is intense, leaner and faster than what the conductor would later favor. It’s inexpensive too, but may be a bit specialized. A set I always recommend is an under-appreciated alternative, the symphonies recorded by the excellent Belgian conductor André Cluytens with the same Berlin Philharmonic von Karajan would take over shortly. Exceptionally warm, brilliant and straightforward playing, Cluytens lays out the music clearly and with a very light touch. Although he was expressing his own contemporary thoughts about the composer, the feeling is of the music speaking entirely for itself.
These are analog recordings, though, and if there is value in more up to date sound, there are again excellent and inexpensive digital sets of the music. Leonard Bernstein’s is terrific, as is the great German conductor Günter Wand. Daniel Barenboim’s set is beautifully played, but he favors a deeply Romantic view of the music and may be a bit specialized. Osmo Vänska’s doesn’t break new ground but it does everything wonderfully. There are two fascinating and truly superb sets that combine both modern and older ideas, those from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and David Zinman. Harnoncourt is one of the original Period Performance conductors, but for his Beethoven cycle he used the standard sound of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, changing only the horns to the natural, pre-valve, kind. This is Period Practice applied to modern instruments, and the recordings, all live, are fiery. On disc, the symphonies are only available on a substantial and expensive box set, but the digital download of the symphony cycle alone is at a bargain price. The Zinman set is even better. This was the first using newly revised scores and is one of the most exciting on disc. Zinman’s tempos are at the edge of reckless, but his Zurich Tönhalle Orchestra handles them with ease and brilliance. For those familiar with the music already, the revised scores will have some noticeable revelations, especially in the Ninth Symphony, and some moments, like the oboe improvisation in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, send chills down the spine and make the music sound completely new. Slightly specialized, and not the last word, but pound for pound probably the best single Beethoven set available. Give with confidence.
I think it’s important to include one special, incomplete, unusual set. On the Music & Arts label, there is a collection of most of the symphonies, numbers 3-9, as well as a couple overtures, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Fürtwangler. The sound is fairly rough, as these were radio broadcasts, recorded for the archives and never intended for records and distribution (the digital restoration and mastering is deeply skillful). The playing is greater than any you will ever hear, the ideas preserved within difficult, even frightening. These were recordings made in the Third Reich from March of 1942, the Ninth, to December of 1944, the Third. It’s hard to tell what is going on here because there are so many things going on here. One of them is that Fürtwangler is conducting Beethoven in front of audiences that assuredly contained Nazis and at times (perhaps even these recordings), the likes of Goebbels, Göring and Hitler.
Though never a Nazi himself, the conductor choose to stay in Germany prior to the start of World War II, appeared at concerts to benefit the Hitler Youth and to celebrate the Führer’s birthday, and led concerts in occupied countries. He also helped spare Jewish musicians from extermination. And he made this music . . . as a musician, Fürtwangler had a rare ability to discern and express what he felt was real poetry in every piece of music he led, and to do so with an intensity that burned, though never harmed, no matter the tempo or dynamic. Beethoven’s music has an inherent, physical power to it, and these performances are intense beyond description, almost to the point of madness. One of the things that is in this Beethoven that cannot be heard anywhere else is a sense of anger, even fury. The music never loses control, but it seems to be telling us, even in the midst of the proclamation of universal brotherhood in the Ninth, or the scene by the babbling brook in the Sixth, that something is very wrong. And why shouldn’t it say this? Beethoven, this deeply moral music and the greatest achievement in German culture is being played in front of people who have set out, through direct effort and indirect support, to exterminate a vast swath of other human beings. Beethoven, who inherently felt what he had to say in music could be heard by all men because all men shared a sense of humanity, is being played in front of people who see those who belong to certain races and nationalities as not even human beings. Fürtwangler, who decided to stay because, rightly or wrongly, he felt that German audiences needed to hear what Beethoven had to say about love and freedom and that it might influence them for the good, is leading that music in front of people enjoying victories in their war of extermination against Slavs, and waiting to be crushed between the pincers of the Allies and the Red Army, is on these recordings burning with a fury that is indescribable, unsurpassed and perhaps directed at himself. And so the music burns. It’s exhilarating and unnerving. It is so because the message in the Ninth Symphony is so clear and so firmly and clearly believed by these musicians and singers as the Wermacht prepares its drive on the Caucasus, it is so because the Fifth Symphony represented hope, humanity and victory to the allies even as Nazi audiences listened to it as the tide permanently turned against them in June, 1943, it is so because the funeral march for the hero in the Third Symphony is played as the Battle of The Bulge rages to the west and everyone knows, even if they cannot say, that their ‘hero’ has lead them to death and destruction. Music matters, but in the grand scheme of things, and even in daily life, it never actually matters, it never changes the world, it hopefully changes our mood. This set matters, however. There is nothing in the history of civilization that so clearly and deeply captures the ideals we hold for ourselves and the monstrous things that come so easily to societies. It matters because American ‘Exceptionalism’ has spread to the exceptional quality of American torture. It matters because nothing is so beautiful as what we could be, and nothing produces so much bitterness as what we become. And Beethoven, via Fürtwangler, bears witness. This recording is almost impossibly difficult and absolutely essential.
To such crabbed, prissy conservatism, which seeks to take something earthy and vital and make it precious, effete, and to sequester it from the likes of people who don’t share the National Reviews combination of ignorant smugness and misanthropy, I must say Fuck You Jay. NRO is all about preserving a decadent class-based system of social, economic and political segregation, and if Jay Nordlinger ran into Beethoven on the street, Beethoven who was loud and hated government snooping and the aristocracy and enjoyed the satisfaction of a good shit, he would find Beethoven distasteful, as if defiled by the presence of a social lesser.
This is the kind of phony aesthete that music can do without, someone who’s pleasure is being able to purchase a ticket and wear a suit that others cannot afford, someone who doesn’t actually love music. Nordlinger suffers from the same materialistic view of art that infests American liberalism, the idea that it has some sort of ameliorative social purpose. He claims Bach and Beethoven were forces for great good in the world, which they actually were not. They were composers who produced some of the greatest art human culture can achieve. While their work has given countless people pleasure through the centuries, what great good did they force? Nordlinger’s existence and professional post, listener to the greats that he claims to be, is proof that listening to great, humane music does not produce great, humane people.
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.
A hopefully short (sorry for the length!) and not too inchoate ramble through the by-ways of my mind . . .
There’s an inherent and not always well-articulated context to what I write here, and why I write here at all, which is the search for and evaluation of aesthetic values. I’ve read countless times in my life that art and art-making has an inherent morality to it, and it’s taken me time to agree with that, mainly because I think I understand what it means, but now how it’s said. For myself, I would put it this way: making a work of art means establishing criteria, i.e. a set of values, for that particular work, its purpose, roughly. Part of thinking critically about art, the major part, is to discern what that criteria – or set of values – is and how well it work lives up to those values. Put another way, does it practice what it preaches? Is it ethical on its own terms, or hypocritical?
I’m thinking of this with fervor and even fury today because of the usual swirling of dispiriting facts, all, conveniently, from one source. In the Sunday New York Times comes this story that international criminal indictments of some of the members of the Bush administration who are responsible for this nation torturing people may be on the way. This is welcome news for anyone, like me, who is inclined towards that our government is based on law, not rulers – the Bush administration tortured people (this is a matter of fact, and anyone who doubts this should catch the appearances of Johnathan Turley on Countdown or The Rachel Maddow Show), torture is a crime in this country and in many around the world (another fact), and criminals, i.e. those who commit crimes, should be prosecuted. On this last, much of official opinion wavers. This very morning, one of the people named in the Spanish complaint, Douglas J. Feith, is given space on the op-ed page in that same newspaper. I’m having a great deal of trouble with this dissonance, there’s an instant riot in my mind that I essentially have to ignore. How is it that official opinion values this voice, the voice of a torturer (again, facts are facts)? Even if opinion were somehow values- and ethics-free, this is the voice of an incompetent, an ignoramus, someone who is so wrong that in a field where being right or wrong matters, like science, he would be deemed a nut and a crank in an acceptably conservative suit, and dismissed and ignored.
But the world of official opinion is indeed values- and ethics-free. This is because it is a world of socio-economic stratification in America – classes exist here, no less than in England, they are just harder to define. These days this class is much easier to limn – this is the class that rewards its members simply for making it into the group, results and achievement be damned. It’s a class that seems to have only one purpose, which is to perpetuate itself and the livelihood of its members. I can’t think of any other way to explain it. There’s a lot of talk about rewarding success, but failure is also rewarded, no one is responsible for anything and members publicly elicit the opinions of other members with the belief that no other voices exist, or even matter. Personally, this is so infuriating that I can barely touch or consider the feeling – along with all the things I think about here, I have long experience working at jobs, and find myself unemployed for over two years in an environment where this class has destroyed millions of jobs. Nice work, here’s your bonus!
Amorality is one thing, but amorality combined with institutional power and institutionalized socio-pathology, which is the world of the corporate, media and government makers of official opinion, is repulsively immoral and odious. It literally destroys people’s lives. It is beyond criminal, and depend on your personal faith it may never be judged at all. This matters to me deeply, and it is truly maddening. So what can I do to stay sane?
I can listen to Wilhelm Kempff play Beethoven, for example. I can listen and think about this complex stew of Beethoven’s musical goals, the inherent expression of his personality which he strives for, and just what elements of his personality I am hearing, and how I react to them. There is also Kempff’s ideas about Beethoven, his own reactions to these same things, and my own responses to them. It is an ongoing discussion, through the centuries, about sets of values and ethics, amongst people for whom values and ethics matter. In other words, there is responsibility and judgement of success and failure. This is neither simplistic nor dismissive and it does not come to an end, which is why art endures. This is also why the art of previous civilizations is what we study most because it is there we find sincere expressions and arguments about values and ethics. Doug Feith will probably continue to fail upwards and never have to face responsibility for his actions, continually rewarded with money and audiences nodding with self-congratulatory sagacity, but eventually he will be completely forgotten, while Beethoven will endure as long as there is human civilization. Perhaps there is some small solace in that ultimate judgement.
My Mostly Mozart experiences wrapped up the last two nights, with concerts featuring absolutely no Mozart whatsoever!
The draw for me was the local premiers of two recent Kaija Saariaho, her oratorio on Simone Weil, La Passione de Simone, and her cello concerto Notes on Light, which was paired in concert with the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony. Final results were the mix of two extremes, from the disappointing to the delirious.
The oratorio promised a great deal, with a collaborative of Amin Maalouf, Peter Sellars and Dawn Upshaw, not to mention Saariaho herself. Her style is one based around the exploration of sound, and she produces a rich blend of colors and textures that is sensual, mysterious, evocative and fascinating. Her approach to drama emphasizes the development of sound, rather than a Mozartian harmonic structure which mirrors and supports the story. This seems to me an excellent way to approach a passion story, one about transformation, as the composer can solve the problem by demonstrating the drama through the transformation of sounds.
Unfortunately, there was no drama to support. The cause is a combination of the specific subject and the text by Maalouf. As far as I can tell, the story narrated by the singer is that of Weil find her way to a sense of self-sacrifice that eventually led her to commit slow suicide via starvation in what she felt was the shared solidarity of her compatriots in Nazi prison and concentration camps. Maalouf seems to have used Weil’s Gravity and Grace as an important source, which is problematic. It’s a book that was never a book, her notebooks for her own personal thoughts, her way of working things out for herself. While reading it one stumbles on the occasional lovely axiom, it’s mainly impenetrable, a conversation in which only one side is heard. The result for La Passione is a very precious and admiring view of what was a sincere, but also dilettantish, life, which concluded with a morally untenable choice. The Weil in the drama is unattractively naive and shallow, and there is no discernible transformation. Nothing actually happens. There’s also a problem with the dramatic voice, with having a narrator sing about the main character who is further referred to in the third person. It seems to me misguided in that it removes all direct agency.
The music goes it’s own way, dark hued and rich, it’s lovely and even soothing, but since there’s no drama, there’s very little change in the music. Since the character undergoes no real transformation, the music follows along, going nowhere. It’s finely crafted and interesting to listen to, but it seems to lack a center. In complete contrast was the cello concerto, which had a superb performance from Anssi Karttunen. This is extraordinarily evocative music, both the cello part and the orchestral accompaniment. Rather than display the agility of the cellist, the writing is concerned with the types of sounds the instrument can produce, mainly ones that are full of timbre and overtones. The orchestra shades the cellist through the five movement, mainly quiet and slow, and highly concentrated. The harmonies are close, and emphasize the movement and tension between half-steps; there’s more than a little Scelsi in the piece. It has a wonderful sound, and was gripping throughout.
The accompanying ensemble both nights was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Susanna Mälkki with precision, sensitivity and verve. They showed complete command of Saariaho’s idiom and topped off the two nights with a tremendous performance of the Beethoven, one of the finest I have ever heard. It was thrilling, moving, full of rage and dignity and humor, in other words it was Beethoven. Mälkki’s choice of tempos was ideal, and her poise in them was constant, especially her exceedingly fast ones in the first the third movements. She matched the dynamics to speed wonderfully, and kept a focus on clarity of sound and rhythm. The moments of pathos, delight and chaos were all presented clearly and forcefully, yet without particular indulgence. Even at moments that almost beg for extra emphasis, as in when the music seems to disintegrate at points in the first movement, she kept the forward line flowing, and the orchestra played with fire, never seeming rushed. Stupendous. Mozart was not missed Thursday night.
Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” premiered the night of April 7, 1805. And thus began Romanticism, with what sounds, still, like cannon fire.
If the Classic style of Vienna presents the composers thoughts on music in the form of a Haydn Sonata or a Mozart Serenade, the Romantic style presents the composers thoughts about . . . everything. It is not, “listen to my music,” but “listen to me.” A command, an imperative. And Beethoven begins not at the periphery of this idea, but at the core. In the “Eroica,” Beethoven demands that we consider what he means, and what he means he does not exactly know – he means many things, all at the same time, and many of which disagree amongst themselves. In other words, Beethoven is the artist not as Platonic ideal, but as human being.
This is a part of the “heroic” style which begins with him. Another component of it is the endurance, but not always the triumph, of the human spirit against general adversity and especially internal conflict. The title of the work tells the tale – a crisis of belief without a neat resolution. Beethoven was no admirer of France, but did see in Napoleon Bonaparte the possibility of an Enlightenment Revolution sweeping across Europe. He initially thought of dedicating the work the work to Bonaparte, but as his biographer Maynard Solomon relates, he began to have his doubts when that meant losing a fee from one of his patrons, then was further enraged by Bonaparte declaring himself Emperor. That story is well know, as least apocryphally. The tale continues, though. After completion, Beethoven still considered calling the symphony Bonaparte, and the work did not received the title Eroica until 1806. It had become the symphonic depiction of an abstract “Hero.”
This matters, because the work presents a world of musical, intellectual and emotional conflict; sensation, hope, turmoil, questions without answers, a conclusion but not necessarily a resolution and, most of all, it juxtaposes life and death and describes a journey from one to the other and back again. Romanticism! It is a hero’s life and thoughts, and we can think of that hero as Bonaparte. I had been thrilled by the verve, pathos and passion of the symphony, but it didn’t mean much to me until I read Anthony Burgess’s incredible Napoleon Symphony, a novel that is quite faithfully modeled after the music. The marcia funebre takes on a new life when the narrative depiction is of a group of freezing French soldiers trying to make their way back alive from the gates of Moscow in 1812.
But what Beethoven ultimately felt about Bonaparte was ambivalence, and the symphony is anything but that. It is conflicted to the nth degree. It’s an internal portrait of a hero who is really just a man. Beethoven easily fits that, but so can we all. This heroic idea has nothing to do with power, fame or notoriety, or even the current decadent idea of heroism that ‘conservatives’ are so enthralled by. This is heroism as the daily struggle between human impulse and indulgence and our ethical and moral sense, the struggle to find our place in the community and the universe, and at least do no harm.
The work bursts with energy and seems to wander into traps and travails, falling into extremely unstable dissonance almost at the beginning, and following nothing like Classic harmonic structure – it smashes materials against each other which cannot fit together in any way, and then stands briefly, looking at their shards, before turning with a sigh towards some random direction and, hopefully, some light. And that’s just the first movement. The funeral march is heavy with the tread of pall-bearers accompanying the casket, carries some wistful memories of happier times, before falling apart in grief. The scherzo is a wild, almost drunken peasant dance, interrupted by the distant hunting horns of the aristocracy. The finale is Beethoven himself, impudently making fun of a peer, turning the other’s banal melody into a moving finale via a dazzling set of variations. Musically, this comes through clearly in an excellent new recording led by Andrew Manze with the Helsinborg Symphony:
I find the tempos ideal. There is a tremendous effect at the opening, where the opening chords are played with the force that implies a fast pace, and one is left anticipating the second chord, which builds immediate tension. This is a reading where the music really speaks for itself, and the small size of the orchestra allows clarity of internal detail. I’ve never heard the kind of delineation of dissonance in the internal voices as with this performance. Manze seems to be viewing this work from a point in the Classic period, and is full of subtle wonder about the shift in possibility the symphony produces. The newness is there.
Michael Tilson Thomas also covers the work in great musical detail. Between the two conductors, one can get quite an education into what makes the Eroica revolutionary. My own thought is that with this work, you have an idea that becomes essential to Romantic music, which is of music as a memory art. The Classical style, generally, describes a musical journey from a home key and back again. It is the journey of a technique. The Romantic style describes a personal journey, mainly between degrees of light and dark, and frequently between life and death. The territory covered is internal, and the method is through memory – the hero can only return to life by recalling moments, experiences, joys and sorrows, and by that means reconstitute himself again. This is true in Berlioz, who could not exist without Beethoven, and in the art of Courbet, who himself only cares about telling you what he thinks, whether in the famous self-portrait above or this wonderful one of himself as a Communard, rueful and self-mocking:
The terrific Courbet exhibition at the Met includes the famous portrait the painter did of Berlioz, and relates that the composer did not like the painter at all. Two willful artists together, not surprising. It’s a great picture though, the composer full of the same type of creative conflict and turmoil that Beethoven used as his fuel. We admire, even exalt their work, and frequently disparage their personalities, expecting some kind of easy, shallow psychological correlation between the ‘goodness’ of art and that of the people who produce it. But this is based on a strange idea of goodness – a combination of saintliness and agreeability. Beethoven was not a saint, and often not particularly agreeable. He was a man, and that makes him the artist, Hero.
In the process of applying for PhD programs in the fall, I exchanged email with a former teacher of mine at the San Francisco Conservatory. At one point he wrote something, in the prospect of possible future consolation, that struck me as intuitively true:
I don’t think I learned anything from my alleged composition teachers. . . The history of music — now so neatly archived (I think it’s nice that there’s a way for music historians to earn a regular salary too) — is a superb educational resource, non pareil. If I were to undertake to teach a young composer, it would largely involve looking at music by others rather
than the student himself.
This has probably always been (largely) true. A good composer teacher is really more of a critic, I think, someone who can take a piece of music on its own terms and discern what makes it work, and what makes it fail. Being a good composer can’t be taught, but a young composer can be guided towards resources, examples, and also, ideally, shown to a clear way of thinking about their own work, taught how to listen to what they are doing.
But this body of music is the true teacher. Since the Beethoven Piano Sonatas have been published, they’ve been the guidebook for teaching so much of composition and harmony. How can I perform this modulation, make this structure? Well, let’s look at Beethoven and see how he did it. It’s no different, in essence from how writers learn to write (by reading), and jazz musicians learn what their music is (by listening).
In looking at schools, I found out that Princeton has a particular requirement for their fellows (one of a very few) that I found intriguing and exciting – each student writes a piece in response to another piece. How simple, and how great. No complicated lesson, just do the thing that composers do in order to learn their craft and explore their ideas.
So, if I’m not at Princeton next fall, I still have this enormous body of work available to me to learn from. And in truth I’ve already started. I’ve already written music in response (some would say imitation) to other pieces that involve me. Most have not been successful and are pretty much forgotten, like my own version of Barber’s Symphony No. 1. Still, it’s the way. And it’s a way for me to maintain the California focus, the look off the edge of the world into the future, that developed so strongly in me and is so important to maintain now that I’m back in New York.
In the scheme of things, it’s unconventional but appropriate. There is so much music available nowadays, so many styles and such a pervasive effect of non-classical music on my generation of composers, and those that come behind us. So for me, a point of influence in a lasting work of mine, a chamber piece called Big City from whence this blog is titled, is the work of Ingram Marshall, especially his Fog Tropes. There’s a guy who probably would not get into a lot of PhD programs, but he’s made a lot of good music that is firmly in the California aesthetic. Which means it’s evocative, slightly abstract, a little dark. Those are all good things.
Marshall’s work is an evocation of San Francisco Bay and the fog that can completely shroud it, leaving one in an undifferentiated greyscape. It blends electronic sounds with a brass choir, ideally seamlessly: http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=49626185&id=49626748&s=143441
My own piece has a first movement meant to evoke an equally physical experience of living in San Francisco – there is a recorded part that plays along with the instruments, but their voices and musical purpose are different than Marshall’s:
I wanted a background that suggested a physical location, but not the emulsification of sound that Marshall achieves. Also, in peformance, the soprano sax and bass clarinet were spaced as far apart as possible to give the sense the horns were calling to each other, albeit in an uncoordinated way, across a distance.
I revised the piece this fall, and also made a brand new audio file (party because it’s a hassle to get the one off DAT, partly as a learning exercise in some new software tools I have). The result, built from environmental sounds, is hopefully both more specific to SF Bay and also more mysterious. Here’s a sample
I kinda’ like it . . .
. . . and nicely enough, I can catch a performance of Fog Tropes at Zankel Hall tomorrow evening.
And I have a lot more learning to do. The study of Beethoven for harmony and Bach for counterpoint never tires, and in the fall I added a lot of excellent books to the music library. But as for pieces to respond too, well, those pop in and out of my head all the time. Some are more challenging others, more ambitious, more complex. A short list would be something like this:
- Beethoven 3rd Symphony
- “Mir ist so wunderbar” quartet from Fidelio http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=863772&id=864022&s=143441
- “Possente spirto,” from L’Orfeo http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=857691&id=857803&s=143441
. . . and that’s just what I’m thinking of today. There’ll be many more installments on this topic. Now, it’s time to see just what can be done, editing samples and mixing audio files.