Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Beethoven and a couple of his Symphonies

Coming face to face with Beethoven can be a daunting experience.

First of all, since he seems to be regarded as the Greatest of the Great Composers by so many lovers of classical music, you may find him either so thoroughly intimidating or you might think he must be over-rated. Again, different people will always react differently – and how we feel about him today doesn’t mean he was always regarded this way, or that he won’t be regarded differently in the future.

Many people might consider the greatest composers in the classical music world to include Bach and Mozart, though there was a time when Bach was almost completely forgotten and largely unknown to a wider audience until some seventy years after his death. And don’t forget Mozart couldn’t find a decent job during his lifetime and also wasn’t that well known not long after his death except for a few pieces and even that to a relatively small group of enthusiasts.

It was in 1877, not long after conducting the first performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 (which he called “Beethoven’s 10th), the conductor Hans von B├╝low came up with “The Three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms!” which was essentially a marketing phrase rather than an honest historical assessment. However, somebody else had already come up with a 3-B tribute for Beethoven’s “logical successor,” the French composer, Hector Berlioz – and that was back in 1854. But by 1877, most people (especially Germans) would no longer consider Berlioz the equal of Beethoven.

But Beethoven’s star, once ascended, never really faltered though he became more god-like and titanic and less of a mere mortal. In fact, one of the problems with classical music is that we forget these composers ever were human: they’ve become marble busts and their lives either bearing little impact on how we consider their music or becoming so mythologized, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction (or at least glorification).

We tend to overlook that Beethoven had a rough childhood, hated his father, his mother dying when he was not yet 20, and spending more time quarreling with his brothers throughout his life than having any kind of familial relationships with them; that he never had any kind of loving relationship with a woman throughout his life, as well – at least a fulfilling, two-sided relationship (he was often in love but often with women who, whether married or part of the wealthy society who looked down on Beethoven’s kind as mere tradesmen, unattainable); he was frequently ill – and not just his deafness – which would have stifled any man’s creativity; and had a personality that often alienated him from the society of the people he needed for his artistic support.

There was another major distinction between Beethoven as a composer and composers of previous generations: Mozart and Haydn, for all their brilliance and originality, were still basically servants employed by the upper class aristocracy. Beethoven was the first great composer who didn’t have what we might call a “steady gig.” He was never an aristocrat’s court composer or resident pianist, nor did he ever hold a job as a music director for a church or the equivalent of a “university professor” (which in itself was something new). He made his living primarily as a teacher of piano lessons to private students – mostly the young ladies of middle-class families who were expected to play the piano and sing as the family’s entertainment center in the days before television and sound systems (later, they would be expected to be good cooks but in those days, you hired people to do your cooking; you made your own music unless you were rich enough to hire some musicians, too). For a while, he was also a concert pianist, playing primarily what we would call “solo recitals” but also appearing occasionally with orchestras and chamber ensembles (unlike other concert artists of the next generation, he never toured all over Europe).

In fact, the whole idea of the “public concert” was something that was fairly new. It had only been during the days of Mozart’s childhood that such a thing started happening in London – originated by one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons who settled there – so that musicians (both performers and composers) could make a living by performing for ordinary people who would actually pay money to hear their music. Before, the general public never got a chance to hear the performances that were held in aristocratic homes or the castles of the crowned heads of Europe (including all those little German city-states).

J. S. Bach had given some public concerts as the director of Leipzig’s “Collegium Musicum” where, without a public concert hall to hold them in, people went to Zimmerman’s Coffee House to listen to programs featuring concertos and sonatas and suites of dances.

In Beethoven’s time, then, while he also played in the homes of the wealthy, he also gave public concerts. In addition to playing specific pieces – which could involve a number of performers playing in a variety of combinations – pianists often would improvise. This was something Beethoven, as a composer as well as a performer, excelled at and often there were competitions at some of these programs – imagine a kind of reality-TV approach to dueling pianists – and of course rivalries within the musical community. It was one way that Beethoven began to become well known in the late-1790s after he’d arrived in Vienna to study with Franz Josef Haydn.

Beethoven, unlike Mozart, was not a “fast” composer, capable of writing a symphony in a few days, if need be. Nor was he the craftsman like Haydn who needed to turn out a certain amount of music in a short amount of time. He was often pains-taking, spending months working out his themes and then figuring out some of the possibilities of what he could do with them.

This makes sense when you figure Mozart, during his 35-year life-span, wrote more than the 41 published symphonies we know (several of the early ones are quite short and rather meager in comparison to the later ones), or that Haydn, over a period of 36 years, composed at least 104 symphonies – but during Beethoven’s symphony-writing career, between 1800 and 1825, he completed only 9. Well, “only”… Granted, those nine symphonies are all considered masterpieces where Mozart or Haydn would likely be remembered for maybe a dozen or so symphonies - actually, for Mozart, perhaps a half-dozen - in the standard repertoire today, but their idea of what a symphony is changed over the course of their own lifetimes: it began as a functional, orchestral multi-movement piece for an evening's entertainment that was more craft than potential masterpiece, possibly written for an occasion and, quite likely, not intended for future performances. Later, the symphony became more of a “significant effort” and even if they weren’t intended to be future masterpieces, they had more of a sense of posterity about them.

We don’t know why Mozart wrote his last three symphonies – he had no performance lined up for them and there seemed to be no commission to bring them about and this was a time when few artists set about writing something that didn't have a reason to be written (unlike later when a composer might think "hmm, perhaps I'll write a symphony") – but they are each a masterpiece and, considering they were all three written between June and August of 1788 (along with several other works), each different from the other. Haydn wrote his last twelve symphonies for concert series in London, primarily to sell tickets, so there was a sense of writing for “popular” appeal, here, that the others may have lacked, another problem to consider when trying to figure out how to write a symphony.

Beethoven wrote his symphonies all for public consumption – not for aristocratic music-lovers though some of them were first heard in private concerts in aristocratic homes – and while there was an eye toward popular appeal, there was also a sense of universality about them that Haydn or Mozart would probably have never considered at the time they were writing symphonies.

Would Beethoven’s symphonies have been different if he had lived 10-20 years earlier? Most likely. Would Haydn have written symphonies differently if he had continued writing symphonies had he lived longer? One of the favorite “what-if” games for classical music lovers is what Mozart would have sounded like if he had lived as long as Beethoven – that means, he would’ve died in 1813, around the time Beethoven was finishing his 7th and 8th Symphonies. Or as long as Haydn: then, Mozart would’ve died in 1833, outliving Beethoven by 6 years… Well, that’s all conjecture of course, but musicians are always developing: since they didn’t live in a vacuum, it’s quite likely they would have been greatly influenced by events of their time as well as artistic trends and attitudes in the musical world around them, adapting and “perfecting” their own creative styles in response to some new stimulus.

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It’s not always wise to put too much stock in what a composer was doing at the time he was composing something, because art exists independently of the artist. Still, it’s interesting to realize what was going on in a composer’s life when he was working on a particular piece. For instance, I recently heard a string quartet by Franz Schubert. If nobody told me anything about it and I had no idea when it was written, it would have been a very enjoyable piece of music just as it was. But knowing he was 16 when he wrote (and wondering what I was doing when I was 16…) and also that he’d recently decided to quit school because he’d gotten less than acceptable grades in Latin and had failed Math – his scholarship, which he thought he might lose, was reduced with the admonition to do better in his class work, that “singing and music are but a subsidiary matter… good morals and diligence in study are of prime importance and an indispensable duty for all those who wish to enjoy the advantages” of this scholarship. So clearly this delightful piece came at a time when he felt strongly enough about becoming a composer that he probably put a little more thought and effort into it, perhaps, consciously or not. Incidentally, it was not written for “public consumption.” Like much chamber music of the time, it was intended to be performed and listened to “at home.” Schubert’s father, a school-teacher, was the cellist and his two older brothers played the violin; Schubert himself played the viola. There’s a big difference in the scope of this string quartet and those he would write at the end of his short life.

So, let’s think about Beethoven having just had considerable success in Vienna as a pianist and as a composer with his first set of string quartets, his first symphony, a ballet that was at the moment quite popular, and some piano sonatas he had been performing around town.

Then, on the verge of his mature career – he is now 32 – he is aware the problems he’d been having off and on with his hearing were becoming more serious, in fact could even mean he was going deaf.

It’s one thing to go deaf in your old age or to contend with life having been deaf from an early age, but the sudden possibility that, so close to professional success as he was, he had to face it now must have been devastating – certainly as a performer but also as a composer. While he did not go “totally deaf” until the mid-1810s, in 1802 it was serious enough the letter he wrote to tell his brothers about it – known as the Heiligenstadt Testament – reads as much like a last will and testament as it might indicate thoughts of suicide.

He wrote this in October while staying in what was then a rural suburb of Vienna called Heiligenstadt (it’s now been absorbed into the city limits), despairing of hearing the birds singing, the shepherd playing his pipes, of not being able to hear people talk to him, of wondering how to explain to people “I am deaf.”

At the same time, he was working on the last movement of his 2nd Symphony. How would you expect it to sound, given the circumstances going on in his life at the time?

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Not exactly what you’d expect, is it? No gnashing of high drama, no sense of tragedy or loss – certainly nothing suicidal. If anything, the opening theme sounds a bit like a yelp – one critic described as a hiccup followed by a growling stomach – and it’s fairly high-powered and lively all the way to the end.

Now, Beethoven felt his symphony didn’t need a big tragic ending – downer or not. There was nothing in what he had planned previously to indicate that turn of emotional events. Even though he swore he would overcome this handicap – and seize Fate by the throat – he knew this symphony did not need a fist-shaking “curse-you,-Fate” ending, either. The fact that it’s as boisterous as it is might lead modern listeners (perhaps over-analyzing it) to think it “over-compensating.” Regardless, Beethoven was able to compartmentalize reality and art and deal with such striking and presumably life-changing contrasts.

While the 3rd Symphony, the famous “Eroica,” which was presumably inspired by Napoleon directly or by the image of a “great man,” a world hero, marks a decided change in the course of the symphony – it’s usually credited with being the first great masterpiece of the Romantic Era when it was completed in 1804 – it does include “a grand funeral march for a hero” in the slow movement even though there was no indication Napoleon was going to die anytime soon.

Perhaps this idea of “seizing Fate by the throat” was behind the 5th Symphony (which he actually began after the 3rd, but ending up completing what became his 4th Symphony beforehand) with its famous “Fate Knocks at the Door” motive, the intense drama of the opening movement, the disturbing nature of the interruption in the third movement (based on the rhythms of that opening “Fate” motive) that leads directly into a dance of triumph in the finale. Though he never gave it a title or mentioned there was a story behind the music, it is too easy for us to think that here, Beethoven is grappling with the whole idea of his deafness, determined to overcome it.

However, since he never mentioned anything about that, rather than making it a personal story, it becomes a universal one. It can now become – by inference – anybody’s story, anybody’s ordeal with a catastrophe that must be overcome and, in the end, is successfully overcome.

That may explain why, aside from some initial reactions about its new-fangled drama being a little over the top, this symphony – or at least its first movement – has gone on to become one of the most popular works in the classical musical repertoire, familiar to people who’ve never even set foot in a concert hall before.

Here’s the complete symphony in one of those “color-coded” analyses that will help you follow the formal design of each movement.

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I don’t at the moment have much time to write about his 9th Symphony, but here’s a performance of the last movement, the setting of the “Ode to Joy,” which I’ll get back to later tonight…

Well, actually, it became a post of its own: you can read it here and listen to clips of each movement of the symphony.

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This is one of those graphic representations that simplifies the score for those who can’t read musical notation but might be allow you to follow the textures and sonorities of the score.

More to come,

Dick Strawser

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