In my most recent post in this series, I referred to the "staccato" opening statement of the fifth symphony. A reader corrected me: "The first movement's theme is not marked staccato." I thanked the reader and made a correction.
The error reflected a fact I don't generally shout from the rooftops: I'm not classically trained. I can't read music; the best I can do is strum chords on a guitar, banjo, or ukulele. My understanding of "staccato" was loose; I was aware that it was a musical term, but hadn't given much thought to the fact that something that sounds, to my casual ear, generally along the lines of what I think of as "staccato" might not be precisely that.
My error — which I happily acknowledge was necessary and appropriate to correct, and am grateful to have been made aware of — caused me to start thinking about what it means to write about classical music as someone who's not classically trained. What are the limitations inherent in doing so? How is the perspective of someone who can't read music different than the perspective of someone who can?
(While we're in brutal full-disclosure mode, let's also acknowledge that I have poor pitch: music teachers asked me not to sing in school musicals beyond grade school, and when I was once cast in a lead role with a vocal solo, the director asked me to try rapping it.)
Music is a rich art form, and there are many different dimensions to approaching and appreciating it. Though my parents didn't make me take piano lessons--and I absolutely did not want to — when I was a kid, I was introduced to classical music at home. In addition to my dad's records — the very ones I'm listening to right now, in fact — there were TV and movies.
Like generations of kids, I remember Disney's Fantasia as being one of my first introductions to classical music; John Williams's Star Wars score — shamelessly cribbing from the playbooks of Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky — showed me, as well as many of my fellow Gen-Xers, the power of the symphony orchestra. Alan Alda's The Four Seasons (1981) was a family favorite, so my siblings and I learned to associate Vivaldi's stirring strings with the dramatic passing of each Minnesota season.
Still, classical music wasn't something I'd felt I had cultural permission to own. By "own," I mean not just literally owning records, but owning it as something I actively listened to and felt invested in. In modern consumer culture, music isn't just something we listen to for enjoyment, it's something we use to represent our identities to others. Wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt was cool...but would it be okay for me to wear a Beethoven t-shirt?
I started slowly, buying budget CDs of The Four Seasons and The Planets when I was in college. I started subscribing to BBC Music Magazine, which includes a complete work on CD with every issue. I read books and guides, the best of all being Jan Swafford's Vintage Guide to Classical Music, still one of the best-written books — on any subject — I've ever read.
(Swafford actually lived down the street from me when I was at Harvard for grad school, and though we never met, sometimes when my roommate and I were walking home late after having a few drinks at the bar, we'd bellow, "Schoenberg! SCHOENBERG!" Sorry, Jan.)
When I finished grad school and became an arts journalist, I'd amassed enough experience with classical music that I felt confident enough to occasionally write about it: occasional reviews, news articles, and think-pieces that drew on my sociological study of cultural fields — where classical music looms large in any discussion of "high," "low," "middlebrow," "nobrow," or what have you.
I was excited, last fall, to be hired at Minnesota Public Radio, where I split my time between Classical MPR and the Current. Though my new colleagues have been very generous and enthusiastic in their offers of support if I ever were to feel lost in the musical weeds, I was still a little nervous. I love classical music, and I know a fair bit about it — but could I ever really know classical music without technical training? Would I forever be, in some sense, an outsider?
As it happened, shortly after I started at MPR, I met the stage director Peter Sellars — well-known in the classical music world for his collaborations with composers and performers including, most notably, John Adams. Adams has praised Sellars for the musical sensitivity that makes him a superb collaborator despite the fact that Sellars isn't classically trained, and I asked Peter if he had any advice for me as a classical-music latecomer going to work at a classical music station.
Peter smiled. "When something is happening in the music," he said, "you know. Don't you? Your toes curl. You just know."
The symphony I'm listening to right now, Beethoven's Pastoral, is one that my dad describes listening to in Naples when he lived there during his U.S. Navy service. Dad and his friends would sit out on Dad's balcony, drink a little wine, and blast the sixth. Dad doesn't have much more musical training than I do, but over 40 years later, he still remembers how on those Italian summer evenings, there was nothing like Beethoven.
When something is happening, you know. You just know.1 Comments)
The first Beethoven that I knew as Beethoven was the opening of the fifth symphony, the four-note tattoo that's one of the most famous figures in all of music. I first recall hearing it on a Time-Life record — not this album in my dad's Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, but one of those flimsy little plastic records that you were supposed to weight with a penny and put on your turntable to sample the sound of a collection being advertised.
In this case, it was a classical collection featuring, of course, the mighty Beethoven. The sampler record opened with a few bars of the fifth symphony, then a stentorian announcer was heard. I don't remember the exact words he used, but the gist was that if you didn't own Beethoven's greatest hits, you were missing out on THE MOST PROFOUND MUSIC EVER CONCEIVED BY THE MIND OF MAN.
Not the most welcoming invitation to classical music, but that's the impression that generations have been given by an approach that takes Beethoven's mighty work as its calling card. As well-worn as the work has become, it hasn't lost its power to overwhelm. Majestic as the entire work is, its ferocious opening movement is particularly indelible: it's one of the passages in Beethoven's repertoire where even a 21st century listener can readily hear how the composer raised the stakes for all of music.
Beethoven composed the fifth in his mid-thirties, a period when his deafness was increasingly troubling him. In popular myth, the insistent theme of the first movement represents fate knocking at the composer's door. To say...what, precisely? "The bad news is, you're going to lose your hearing. The good news is, you're going to become an immortal pillar of the musical arts. Sorry, did I come at a bad time?"
At least the reviews were good. Though the initial performance went poorly, E.T.A. Hoffmann later praised the score: "How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!" That makes it sound like a candidate for inclusion in Kubrick's 2001. It wasn't, but it did get sent into the stars: the symphony's first movement appears on the Voyager Golden Record in company with the likes of a Brandenberg concerto movement, the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."
In all of Beethoven, there may be no composition so definitively BEETHOVEN as this. The Ode to Joy may be even more famous, but it's not the first piece you think of when you picture the composer's glowering visage. That's the fifth, speaking across the centuries with an urgency that seems unlikely ever to diminish.4 Comments)
Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, telescopes through time: it opens in the present day with a young woman reading the book of a deceased writer, then flashes back to that writer as a young man being told the story he later turned into the book, then flashes back to the time that story originally took place.
That comes to mind as I sit here listening to Beethoven's magnificent Eroica symphony on this record from 1970. I'm hearing through speakers and a receiver that were also made around that time, purchased by my dad when he got out of the Navy. This experience — listening to Karajan's silky Berlin Phil players perform a masterwork on a DG record played on a top-of-the-line Sansui/Altec system — would have been a prime middle- to upper-class luxury in the years just before I was born in 1975.
So there's my dad, in his Minneapolis apartment in the early 70s, listening to Beethoven and reading the paper in his squared glasses and white turtleneck. Flash back a decade, to Karajan coaxing what Harvey Sachs called a "calculatedly voluptuous" sound from his players as he created a recording that he had every reason to think would be regarded as definitive by a generation of his peers.
Flash back to the standard-bearers of earlier generations: to Furtwängler, whom Karajan succeeded as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. To Toscanini, Furtwängler's more fastidious elder. To Brahms, whose work Toscanini conducted in the composer's lifetime and whose own symphonic compositions were slow to emerge because he was intimidated by the precedent set by Beethoven, as recent a historical figure to Brahms as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are to me.
Finally, flash back to Beethoven, famously replacing his third symphony's original dedication to Napoleon with a generic dedication to "a great man" after Napoleon declared himself emperor, disgusting the composer with his selfish hubris.
210 years later, here I sit, listening to that very work as passed down and burnished into one of the great accomplishments of Western civilization, having been lived in, along the way, by countless interpreters and listeners living countless lives. Not unlike a hotel, actually — and a grand one at that.
Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/DG
Photo: Symphony Hall, Boston (Wikipedia Commons)
As I moved on to the third side of the first volume of the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection--the final movement of the second symphony, and the Leonore Overture, with the third symphony beginning on side four--I decided to research the set. Here's what I learned: though the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection might have been a fine investment in timeless music for the subscribers who purchased it via mail-order in the early 70s, it wasn't a very sound investment on financial terms.
The exact cost is a little blurry in the contemporary advertisements I've found online, but it looks like subscribers paid in the vicinity of $15 per volume, including shipping and handling. That translates to north of $1,000 in 2014 dollars for the complete set. It won't cost you that much to get your hands on a copy of the collection today, though: a couple of hopeful souls are asking $125 on eBay, and finding no buyers. People seem only vaguely interested when the price drops to $50 for all 85 records.
That's further evidence of how the vinyl resurgence hasn't hit the classical world the way it's hit the indie-rock world, but even classical vinyl buffs aren't very interested in this set. There's a lot of Beethoven out there, and the few people looking for vintage records of these performances would prefer to buy the original releases rather than the reissues in the Time Life set, which are regarded as being lower-quality pressings.
What this all means is that there are a lot of people like me out there: owners of a very impressive-looking but not particularly valuable collection of Beethoven recordings.
It does look impressive there on the shelf, and of course there's no composer more likely to impress the casual visitor than the mighty Beethoven. By his bicentennial, Beethoven had become regarded as the quintessential composer: the musical linchpin between the classical and romantic eras, with a poignant and inspirational personal story.
It's telling that in 1900, just as "classical music" was coalescing as a field, Boston's Symphony Hall was built with a single name adorning the medallion at the summit of its proscenium: BEETHOVEN. The German composer didn't just epitomize classical music, he virtually defined it. His (literal) position in the firmament is all the more striking given that he'd only been dead for 73 years--the builders of Symphony Hall were only as distant from Beethoven as we are from Jelly Roll Morton.
So, naturally, if you were looking to trick out your record collection circa 1970 with an impressive set of music by one composer, it would have to be Beethoven. A few hundred 1970s dollars--payable in 17 easy installments--must have seemed like a very small price to pay for 85 sleek black discs of genius incarnate.
Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 1 & 2
Placing the record on the turntable, I did my best to channel Steve Staruch. "And now," I said, "the Symphony No. 1, in C major. The Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan."
I lifted the needle. The record refused to spin. I realized my omission.
"After I plug this in," I clarified, "we will hear the Symphony No. 1, in C major."
I plugged the turntable into the outlet strip and again lifted the needle. The turntable spun, but the auto-return kicked in and returned the arm to its cradle.
"Pardon me," I said, lifting the arm yet again. "Now, we will indeed hear the Symphony No..."
"Jay!" exclaimed my exasperated girlfriend. I nodded silently and dropped the needle.
The record is the first of 85 that constitute the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, a massive collection issued by Deutsche Grammophon and Time Life to commemorate the composer's 200th birthday, in 1970. The records were recently given to me by my father, who still owns a turntable but typically prefers to listen to his computer or iPod.
From my earliest childhood I remember the set, the behemoth of my father's record collection. Resplendent in pristine blue slipcovers, the records were a physical manifestation of the cultural weight of classical music generally, and Beethoven specifically. Even the Beatles and Bob Dylan had tiny amounts of shelf space compared to the stormy German composer.
The set was rarely played; my father appreciates classical music, but on an average day is more likely to reach for the Bee Gees than Beethoven. Many of the records in his Beethoven set--perhaps even most of them--have never so much as been touched by a needle in their 40-plus years of existence.
Since before the term "bucket list" was a thing, it's been on my bucket list to listen to the entirety of the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection. With Beethoven's sestercentennial coming up in six years, I figure that if I start now, I can proceed at a nice leisurely pace and still wrap up right around his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020.
To hold myself to it, I'm going to blog about it: one post for each two sides in the set. (That would be one post for each record, but the sides are pressed for multi-record changers, so side one of a five-disc set is pressed on the flip side of side ten, side two with side nine, and so on.) As I listen, I'll blog about Beethoven, yes--but also about anything and everything else that occurs to me as I listen.
For those listening along at home, the first five-record set is part one of two sets of symphonies and overtures. Symphony No. 1 fits tidily on the first side of the first set, and the second side contains the first three of the second symphony's four movements. Why does the set start with the symphonies? That's a subject for my next post.(1 Comments)
A new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work -- by Mason Currey, describes the habits of highly creative people.
Stuck on a big project? Need some creative inspiration? Take Beethoven's advice:
Beethoven would stand at the washstand and pace back and forth and then go back to the washstand and put water on himself. It was an essential part of the creative buildup, but it also made him hated as a tenant and neighbor because he was splashing water everywhere.
Posted at 9:56 AM on October 24, 2012
by Daniel Gilliam
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven
Posted at 10:14 AM on February 1, 2012
by Daniel Gilliam
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven
Brooklyn Rider will be releasing a new recording (date TBD) with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, a monumental composition that has been revered by composers, string players and audiences since its completion in 1826. Here's a look inside the recording process:
Learn more about the recording here.
Any prolific composer could surprise us with how they rank their own works. Perhaps it's as simple and as compelling as "What have I done lately?" This 19th century Titan might have dismissed one of our favorites with, "That's so 1808."(1 Comments)
On Saturday December 17th, 2011 erstwhile SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon returns as host. He is known for his wonderful impersonations and also his self-imposed laughter.
However, Fallon was able to keep his composure this past Saturday when he added Ludwig van Beethoven to his list of impersonations!
Beethoven is seen introducing the "band" to the newly composed Variations on "Ode to Joy" orchestral suite with the familiar Beethovean smooth jazz flavor!
Quite funny for both music aficionados, music lovers and classical music laymen alike!
A week from today (December 16) is Beethoven's birthday. As pointed out by Lucy in this classic strip, we don't really know this. What we do know is that Beethoven was baptized on the 17th of December, and Catholic children were traditionally baptized on the day following birth.
The Peanuts has a online museum dedicated to Schultz and — by proxy — Schroder's love of classical music in general and Beethoven in particular; including clips of the music played in the comic strips.
Too well-made for hard-headed reality, they may not in fact have happened as reported. But apocrypha are parables, saying something truthful without necessarily being true.
Having finally seen "The King's Speech" over the weekend, I was all fired up to write a marvelous blog about how the film smartly uses the music of Beethoven (Mozart too!) to fully enhance the drama. Alas, it seems David Stabler of The Oregonian beat me to the punch.
So here's the link to Mr. Stabler's article. He nailed it. I concur wholeheartedly. And if you have not yet seen the film. Go. Go. Go.(1 Comments)
It was common practice in Beethoven's day to arrange large scale works for smaller forces. After all, getting to the concert hall wasn't always possible, so this allowed amateur musicians to experience great music right in their homes.
Beethoven's assistant, Ferdinand Ries arranged the "Eroica" Symphony for piano quartet, and you'll hear an exclusive performance by the Mozart Piano Quartet, recorded live last July at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Northern Germany.
Stay up late tonight for our weekly Euro Classic - just after midnight (12:05am, Thursday).
Recently, a colleague of mine stopped me in the hall to ask about a certain piece of classical music that had grabbed his attention. And a little later, another colleague stopped me in the hall, with a similar question.
They were asking about the same piece.
It doesn't have a snappy title like "The Four Seasons" or "Peter and the Wolf." At the beginning, you might not know quite what to make of it. But in its enigmatic way, it's one of the most attention-getting pieces in classical music.
It's the second movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, and in honor of that coincidence, I thought it was worth passing on.(2 Comments)
Posted at 10:30 AM on March 10, 2009
by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven
Back in November I posted a note about 33 Variations, a play about a musicologist trying to unravel one last Beethoven mystery before she dies.
Well, the play has opened, and the reviews suggest the show has a lot of potential, but doesn't quite soar:
From the New York Times (registration required): "Ms. [Jane] Fonda's layered crispness is, I regret to add, a contrast to Mr. Kaufman's often soggy play..."
From the Washington Post: "On this occasion, [Jane Fonda] not only manages to transcend time, but also the material. For '33 Variations' . . . marks a pleasing Broadway return for Fonda, even if it's little more than a handsomely annotated music lesson."
Andras Schiff has been spending a lot of time with Beethoven in recent years, playing all 32 piano sonatas in a series of 8 recitals in London, New York and Los Angeles (and maybe other cities, too?). He's gotten reviews like this one from Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times:
He's thought these pieces through very thoroughly, and he is gadding about the country delivering his cycle, yet he manages to make every gesture seem as though he were discovering it for the first time. He is a remarkable Beethovenian -- fresh, original, riveting.
He's recorded them all, too, and Classical Minnesota Public Radio will bring those recordings to you in December. Starting Monday, listen in the 10 a.m. hour for your daily dose of Beethoven.
Looking for extra credit? Here's a link to audio for a series of lecture-demonstrations Schiff gave about the Beethoven sonatas when he played the whole cycle in London.(1 Comments)
Posted at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2008
by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven
Publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a short waltz and sent it to 50 composers, asking each of them to write a variation on it. Beethoven turned him down--but then ultimately wrote 33 variations on it. Why?
That's the question at the heart of a Broadway-bound play called 33 Variations. It's by Moises Kaufmann, the same playwright who created The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Jane Fonda has been announced in the role of a modern-day musicologist trying to unravel the mystery.
What if some of J. S. Bach's best loved pieces were actually composed by his wife?
That's the conclusion that an Australian music scholar has reached.
Is it a logical conclusion, far-fetched, or somewhere in between? Judge for yourself and read the article here.
Posted at 12:15 PM on July 27, 2008
by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven
I mentioned this on the air this morning, so I thought I'd post a link, too.
Pianist Andras Schiff has been playing all of the Beethoven sonatas in a series of eight recitals. A couple of years ago, when he played them at Wigmore Hall in London, he also gave a lecture-demonstration before each concert, and much to my delight London's Guardian newspaper put the audio files on their website.
Schiff is finishing up the same series of concerts at Carnegie Hall this season, but doesn't appear to be giving the lectures again.
Happy news in the New Year for the Minnesota Orchestra. Not long after receiving a Grammy nomination for their recording of Beethoven's Ninth, their new CD of Beethoven's First and Sixth Symphonies gets a perfect 10 rating from critic David Hurwitz (actually two 10's, for artistic quality, and sound quality). Read the review here.(1 Comments)
Just in case you missed it on All Things Considered: Music critic Tom Manoff taking notice that the most famous Beethoven symphonies have the odd numbers (Beethoven's Fifth, Beethoven's Ninth..), and the "neglected" ones, the even.
Actually, in the case of Beethoven, they're all famous--but the even numbers may be slightly less so. The full story here.
So, the Minnesota Orchestra kicked off their "Beethoven's Back" promotion today with The Big Guy himself handing out coffee, newspapers and downloads in front of Orchestra Hall this morning, and it reminded me of a story about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the great conductor of long ago, Otto Klemperer.
It seems Klemperer was visiting a music shop with a recording company executive named George de Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He approached a clerk and asked, "Do you have Klemperer conducting Beethoven's Fifth?"
"No," the man replied. "We have it conducted by Ormandy and Toscanini. Why do you want it by Klemperer?"
"Because I am Klemperer," the conductor replied indignantly.
"Sure," said the clerk, and nodding at his companion he said "And that, I suppose, is Beethoven?"
"No," Klemperer grinned, "That's Mendelssohn."