Thursday, December 16, 2010

A New Symphony: Beethoven at 240

Today is, if not exactly his birthday, the day the world generally observes as Beethoven’s Birthday. From the historical record, we know he was baptized on December 17th, 1770 – he was more than likely born the day before but there is nothing that tells us that specifically.

Since I wrote last Saturday about Elliott Carter celebrating his 102nd birthday with a new work given its world premiere in Toronto, I thought today I’d tell you about a new work that received its world premiere this past summer, a brand new symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The only difference is – this is fiction.

Well, it might seem obvious, but I just wanted to be sure we’re all on the same foot (bunions aside).

This is an excerpt from The Doomsday Symphony, a music appreciation thriller which I began sketching over the summer and started writing in mid-October. During the month of November, it was my NaNoWriMo project where the goal was to write an additional 50,000 words by the end of the month (piece of cake). Even at 90,000 words, it’s not finished yet and, though friends have asked me about it, it’s also not ready to be posted at Thoughts on a Train.

Unlike my earlier attempts -- The Schoenberg Code and The Lost Chord – this one is not a parody of anything written by Dan Brown. While it would be difficult to say it is entirely “original” – now, there’s a philosophical red-herring – despite the occasional parody, let’s just say in The Doomsday Symphony, I’m on my own.

First of all, to explain – most of the story takes place on Harmonia-IV, one of a series of parallel universes that is neither exactly Heaven nor Hell where, our hero Dr. T.R. Cranleigh [later changed to T. Richard Kerr] discovers, the population consists mostly of dead musicians or people who once considered themselves musicians, even some music critics (though for these latter it’s probably the equivalent of Hell).

This is the after-life home of many of the great composers – others may reside on Harmonia-V, some fewer on Harmonia-ii6 while others ended up, through some kind of cosmic deception, on Harmonia-vi but I digress – who, contrary to what we might assume, continue to compose and occasionally hang out, discussing music over their beers, at Stravinsky’s Tavern. In these various parallel universes, by the way, interlopers from The Other Side (like Cranleigh) are called Trespassers though the popular slang is Zoombies, from the Greek word ζωή (zoe) meaning “life.”

The plot involves two villains, each with their independent villainies. In the one that initially draws our hero (a know-it-all musicologist who knows a great deal about very little) to Harmonia-IV, Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben, a trained forensic musicologist, has been hired as an agent by SHMRG’s CEO, N. Ron Steele and his Director of Office Supplies and Classical Music, the would-be composer Manfred (or “Man”) Kaye. They want to “kill off the great composers of the past” in an attempt to corner the market in the music licensing business.

Through her thesis advisor, the great Danish musicologist Frøkken Bohr, Klangfarben has discovered that a legendary parallel universe where dead composers go exists and can be accessed through a time-gate located in a field outside the abandoned mining town of New Coalton in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Once there, with the help of a lawyer and former musician named Abner Kedaver who counted among his clients Brahms and Mahler, she manages to find the hand-held time-traveling devices the Harmonians use to travel back in time. This way, she can affect the lives of composers like Bach, Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven not by killing them before their prime but by in some way altering their lives so they never achieve the greatness that we revere them for.

Without them, other composers would not have been influenced by them because, as we know them, they would never really have existed. What would Brahms be without Beethoven, for instance? And so it affects music in a more long-range way than it might initially seem.

In this way, then, by talking a 20-year-old Bach into accepting Dietrich Buxtehude’s job offer to stay in Lübeck as the resident organist – an offer which included marrying his eldest daughter, ten years his senior – Bach might never have gone to Leipzig, would be unlikely to have fathered some twenty children, and would probably have developed into a very fine composer on the level of Buxtehude but probably only one as well known today as Buxtehude – a great composer, perhaps, but not a Great Composer, if you get my drift.

The second plot involves a mild-mannered assistant conductor named Rogers Kent-Clarke (who once studied with conductor Louis Lane) who, following Cranleigh, finds himself in the middle of Harmonia-IV, meets Gustav Mahler and hears him telling people about his latest symphony in which (a kind of counterpart to his 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection) he describes the End of the World.

With a series of increasingly dissonant chords – similar to the three fateful chords of his 6th Symphony which some call the Tragic – carefully placed structurally throughout the course of this ninety-minute-long work, Mahler is convinced the last chord will bring about the destruction of the universe. A philosopher and apocalyptic cult-leader named Siegfried Schweinwurfer (translated literally from the German as War-Peace Pig-Thrower) therefore dubs it the Doomsday Symphony. Kent-Clarke makes up his mind to steal the score, return to Earth with it and become famous for discovering and premiering a new Mahler symphony – in essence, becoming a SuperConductor.

The rather serious side effect of his ambition, unfortunately, could bring about the destruction of the world in 2012, another plot that Cranleigh and his associates - now including Harmonian Detective Milo Smighley and the detective from Pennsylvania who got involved in investigating something completely different at the beginning of the story, Jenna Sainte-Croix - must solve before the novel's end.

Hence, the title of the novel – since I thought Bach to the Future wasn’t quite as effective.

Anyway, at this point, early in our story, the Universal Philharmonic – under the direction of a conductor whose name I have not yet chosen – is preparing the premiere of Beethoven’s latest symphony, his 39th. This is the opening sequence from (quite coincidentally) Chapter #39, at the first rehearsal held in Einstein Hall.

= = = = = = =


The music was so calm, so self-assured and, above all, so beautiful. From the expansive opening, magisterial yet thoroughly human, there was no doubt on any of their faces this would be Beethoven at his best. Here was a new masterpiece and this orchestra was the first to bring it to life. Every one of them sensed the honor.

And the responsibility.

They followed [Maestro] implicitly, watching the years melt away from him. The crotchety old man, frail yet still in his prime, became the music – likewise calm, self-assured and even, in a way, beautiful.

They knew that Beethoven had been working for over a decade on this symphony, starting the sketches even before he had begun the last one. That one had disappointed many, though the composer held his ground.

"What is it with critics bad-mouthing my even-numbered symphonies," he continually groused. "Can't they tell they're all good, each in their own way?"

Even if you considered his posthumous career, now over 180 years and thirty symphonies later, Beethoven still managed to come up with different responses each time he came face-to-face with what he called "the Symphonic Question." He'd gone much farther than Haydn – even a thousand symphonies later – had ever done. Mahler himself would be much affected by this one.

And how he hated sitting there in Stravinsky's Tavern having to deal with Mahler and those endless discussions about "What is a Symphony?" It was enough to make him miss the old days of the conversation books!

What started out like a slow introduction, despite the tempo indication of Allegro non troppo (not too fast), gradually unfolded as the first theme, the violins playing the notes of a triad – slowly undulating arpeggios – which the solo horn then picked up and, playing them in faster rhythms, turned into a gradually unwinding melody supported by flutes and clarinets. This melody, more than just a triad, served as its own harmony. What sounded like a chord progression turned into sequences of this melodic-harmonic cell flowing so seamlessly, you could overlook how simple it really was.

But that was Basic Beethoven. A common device from his mortal symphonies, he expanded it to greater and more complex lengths in his 13th, 27th and 35th symphonies, yet never losing that sense of sublime simplicity. His famous small cells, the building blocks opening his 5th or 21st symphonies, became larger, like durable structural beams spun out of diamonds.

And it wasn't only his own works where you sensed this. Without Beethoven's examples, the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich or Sibelius would all have been very different works, each finding significant influences there. Even those "anti-symphonies" by Berlioz and Liszt found inspiration in Beethoven's "Pastoral," at least metaphorically, implying some dramatic story told across its surface.

But Beethoven argued these were only "surface elements." You needed to dig down to find the structural architecture that supported the surface: in lesser composers, symphonies like that usually fell flat because it lacked this support.

It didn't matter whether listeners could "hear" this or not – and by that he meant "hear it and consciously point it out," talking technically the way a composer might talk about it – that wasn't the point. It was something subconsciously understood, a realization satisfying the listener without necessarily knowing why; unsatisfying, much the same way, when it was lacking.

Studying the latest music written over the past century, Beethoven had become disturbed by the sound of some trends composers were following but he understood them as direct reactions – pro or con – to his own ideas.

If Schoenberg ordered pitches in the technical way serialism implied, he was doing so because he understood the organic importance of inner structure.

Though he wasn't pleased initially with Alex Ross's statement, "Beethoven got it wrong," in his otherwise wonderful book, The Rest Is Noise, he understood it was all a reaction to him, impossible if he'd never been.

First, the orchestra "ran" each movement through non-stop to get a sense of it before going back to fix some technical details. Basically, for a first rehearsal, everything was progressing smoothly, nothing requiring them to stop. They might need to clear something up that hadn't come across quite so clearly, but on the whole he was feeling pretty confident.

Used to having the composers sitting in on later sessions of the rehearsal process, Maestro [Name] was even more nervous than usual. Beethoven was quite well known as a notorious stickler, not one he'd risk disappointing.

If his musicians weren't "on the needles and pins of extreme anxiety," as he put it, he himself was feeling close to nausea, ready to break out in a sweat at the least chance of complication. While it was deemed an honor to premiere a major new work by Beethoven, many conductors often wondered, "was it worth the aggravation?"

The one trumpet player missed his cue and came in a beat late but managed to catch himself, making the necessary correction so that he, the conductor and Beethoven were probably the only ones who noticed. Otherwise, the first movement's read-through had gone splendidly, only a few other things needing touched up here and there, but otherwise quite impressive.

There was that spot leading up to the scherzo's trio they'd have to go back and work on – something in the cross-rhythms between winds and strings before the trombones entered – but the second movement went surprisingly well.

Throughout the rehearsal, [Maestro] expected to be interrupted by the composer at any moment, but there was nothing – not even a cough. Was it possible that Beethoven had already left? Hadn't he liked it at all?

Then from the darkness of the auditorium, there was enthusiastic applause from their lone audience. Beethoven, usually quite reserved, was shouting, "Bravo! Superb!"

"So with that, everyone – good job! Let's take a break," he smiled, "ten minutes. No, we're ahead of schedule – make it twenty."

Stepping down from the podium, [Maestro] looked like a much younger man than before.

Very few rehearsals in recent memory had gone this well. [Maestro] was often reticent with his praise so between that and hearing Beethoven yelling "Bravo" from the hall was enough to put smiles on everybody's faces.

Marsha Funebre, the personnel manager, was clapping everybody on the back, wishing she had champagne to pass around backstage instead of plain soda.
= = = = = = =

From there, the plot continues.

Two members of the orchestra are secret agents working for the Security Division of BHUIA, the Bureau of Harmonian Universal Intelligence Agency (formed from two previous but redundant organizations, the Bureau of Harmonian Intelligence and the Universal Intelligence Agency).

Agents Rondo Sharrif, the principal horn player (a young Palestinian musician who had been killed in an attack by a suicide bomber on his way to a rehearsal with the West-East Divan Orchestra), and violist Roger Babbitt (whose initial appearance, running late for the rehearsal, is very much like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) are summoned to appear as witnesses in the trial where Judge Willa Fortune will preside over the case against Dr. Cranleigh and his associates, Trespassers wrongly charged with the plot to kill the Great Composers (who, of course, wonder what’s the point, since they’re already dead) while Klangfarben runs free to next attack Mozart.

Incidentally, like many names in The Doomsday Symphony, Rondo Sharrif, such a fine player his friends call him “Horn Solo,” is an anagram, in this case of Harrison Ford (who, of course, was Han Solo in the original Star Wars).

But there is more to this excerpt than meets the eye – just as there is usually more to the music than meets the ear – but I’ll get into that in another post.

Update: In the spring of 2011, I completed the novel, The Doomsday Symphony, and posted it on the installment plan (making it a serial novel) which you can read, beginning with this introductory post. If you've already read this post, you can just click on ahead to the first installment.

Dick Strawser

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