Musings about Beethoven (and other things).
To hear this joy once again vocalized
is like hearing Beethoven’s 9th again
for the first time. 1
A person dies; you forget what they sound like. Turn on your heart; remember their voice. It may be like listening to Beethoven’s “Eroica” again for the first time. It may also be like listening to Stravinsky’s “Le sacre …” again for the first time, or Hendrix, or YES, or Eva Cassidy. It likely won’t be like listening to Elvis.
EXPOSITION – Theme 1
If waiting for Wagner to make his point makes you want to reach for a joint and waiting for Schubert to finish a phrase makes you not want to hold out for days, don’t think that Beethoven’s grip on your throat is some kind of quality effort. But if you want to appreciate Beethoven to the fullest, don’t listen to the King Stephen Overture. (If you want to appreciate yourself to the fullest, listen to Cage’s 4’ 33”). Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong about liking the overture to King Stephen. It is what it is. Although the majority of musicologists and critics don’t include it in the pantheon of major works by Beethoven, that’s their decision – a decision informed by having listened to and analyzed all of his music, making it harder to dismiss as crank. But, still…it is their decision. That is what it is, too.
EXPOSITION – Theme 2
If you want to know what real creation looks like, look in Beethoven’s wastebasket. If you want to know what real creation doesn’t? Look in Schubert’s. Never judge a book by its wastebasket! Beethoven’s floor was cluttered evidence of his fits and false starts. Schubert’s floor, however, was so clean that one could safely assume he did most all of his work in his head before setting pen to paper. In a way, Beethoven heard with his eyes (he was deaf at the end after all), while Schubert heard with his ears. Seeing was more relevant to Ludy than to Frank.
Another thing, (there is never just one more thing): In musical contexts, the listener simply must “go where the art is.” For example, if you are listening to Schubert, don’t expect Beethovenian drama and rhythm and wonder why Schubert doesn’t “grab you by the throat.” Like Mozart, Schubert was a melodic composer; it took him an age to develop things melodically. Like Haydn, Beethoven was a motivic composer (done done done daaaaaaa). Both composers are wonderful, but if you listen to either with inappropriate expectations you are likely to miss the “point” of the music, its aesthetic. Further, if a listener plops Schubert on the turntable (remember those?) and hopes it feels like Beethoven, it is the expectation that is wrong-headed, not the listener.
Critique in art is never about the maker. It is about considering other ways to look at things. Aesthetic conversations are never about argument but explorations. Well, some are:
When I was seventeen, my father noticed that I was often listening to the music of Beethoven. He said, “How can you stand all that ‘long-hair’ music?” I chose not to respond then. I knew better. When I was thirty, my father noticed that I was often listening to the music of YES. He said, “How can you stand all that ‘long-hair’ music?” After reminding him of his comment thirteen years previous, I asked him, “Have you ever heard any music by YES?” He said, “No.” I said, “Then we can’t have this conversation until you know more. You are not stupid, mind you, just ignorant.” He called me an arrogant ass.
I am also reminded of my best friend in college who once said to me, “You have a fault! Your favorite version of the music you love is often the first version you hear. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – mono two mikes out front, with Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Yes, that version was the first to capture the “wall of sound” as Stravinsky intended, but better equipment can never make his music sound better?! Your favorite Beethoven 9th is Munch with the Boston and Leontyne Price; also, the first version you heard.” We laughed and talked some more. I admit I was a bit shocked by his observation. He was right, of course, and made a terrific point: There is never just one path. I feel the same way now about all those folks complaining about CDs. Needles and vinyl? Really? I suppose the “vinyl folks” think that holding a book is a cognitive act.
So, here’s what I think:
Opining about old stuff is often just another romantic binge; you know, that nostalgic longing for a past that no longer exists – as if that idyllic way of life is somehow lost to the modern world. This notion is generalizable. For example, I have had Physical Therapy in the morning and an MRI the next. I have come to believe that the first version of my body is definitely not my favorite.
RECAPITULATION – Theme 1
Some about Beethoven’s reputation as a composer has always muffled me. You see, it is based on the merits of approximately one-third of his compositional output. It could be posited that two-thirds of the music he composed was not particularly clever nor especially artful – he wrote for money, too – and certainly not the like the compositions we have all come to admire and expect. If Beethoven does not embody perfection, then what?
Scholars tell us that essentially all of Brahms’ compositions are stellar. They neglect to mention, however, that Brahms tossed out anything he thought unsuccessful. Same with Paul Dukas. Not every composition needs to be a masterpiece; not every person’s photo is a gem. I suspect Ansel Adams would agree.
RECAPITULATION – Theme 2
There is an assumption among teachers that composing is hard work; i.e., that the first draft has been revised and revised and revised until the muse showed itself unencumbered by less relevant drafts. They’re right to hold that assumption, of course. They have evidence. They have paper trails that illustrate the evolution of finished work. By analogy, they could likely say, “Why, just look at Beethoven’s manuscripts!” They are messy, a visual metaphor illustrating the hard work of revision in producing great work. In addition, thank goodness, teachers also have retrospective accounts by other composers who have described with precision how hard the work is and how important revision is. But things have changed.
The Crab invites a small group of friends over to watch the Saturday afternoon football game on television, including Achilles, the Tortoise and his friend the Sloth. Crab “gets” that there is never just one path, one exploration.
And the Crab said, “And there was a work that made me think of you, Mr. Sloth – a marvelous piano concerto for two left hands. The next-to-last (and only) movement is a one-voice fugue. You can’t imagine its intricacies. For our finale, we played Beethoven’s Ninth Zenfunny. At the end, everyone in the audience rose and clapped with one hand. It was overwhelming.”2
One last thing for now: Beethoven had no experience working without pen and ink. He had no delete buttons to play with, no control of the space on the page once he committed ink to paper. He could only cross out missteps like mad or toss false starts on the floor and grab another sheet of manuscript to start over. He couldn’t toss his early drafts into the ether like we can, making them inaccessible to scholars and educators.
And there you have it: