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Beethoven – and I don’t mean the dog.

February 7, 2013

I thought about calling this “All you ever wanted to know about Beethoven…”, but decided against, for the simple reason that it would be utterly inaccurate.

This is going to be slightly different to other posts on this blog. To start with, it’s the first one that has been suggested to me by someone else, someone, moreover, whose opinions I have quickly learned to value; and she did so in a way that seemed to indicate that she would actually want to read it. Being both suggestible and tainted with the vanity of people who like to write, I rolled over quickly. (“Rolled over” – that just came to me, and I can use it later. Neat.)

Secondly, it’s not going to be quite the A to B pattern of other posts. Because this one has a theme, it’s incumbent upon me to try and stick to it rather than wander off at a tangent without returning. I don’t know if I’m up to this – the discipline of writing with unity. Hence the spider diagram, which I learned today, coincidentally, is the modern tool for the busy essay-writer.

beethoven mindmap finalSo, Beethoven.

What do I know about Beethoven? Precious little, if I’m honest. I could tell you more about Britten and less about Beyoncé, and certainly nothing that you couldn’t pick up from 10 minutes on Wikipedia. The obvious things, and the memorable ones, but not necessarily the important ones. His deafness, for example – I know about that, but I can’t make up my mind whether or not it’s important. As a factor in what drove him, and how it affected his music, it is fundamental, but that is all on the input side. If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t be able to tell just from hearing the music, and so why does it matter to me? How much should I care what the troubles of the composer were when I hear the music he wrote? Are we supposed to hear the music and track it back to source, or let it carry us downstream? To put it a slightly different way- is the 12th String Quartet great because Beethoven was deaf? No – I don’t believe that it is. The music is powerful, emotional and no doubt highly personal, and owes its creation to many influences, one of which was the world into which his deafness locked him. But it is a creation – something new – more than just a reconstruction of those influences.

Well now, that got a bit heavy a bit quickly. Particularly since I said you weren’t going to learn anything here. So to lighten the tone here’s something that you may not know – a children’s tv programme from the 1970s called Ludwig, which was essentially an excuse to make animations to accompany the music of Beethoven. If you’re of a certain vintage, and British, then you’ll know what I mean if I say this falls somewhere into the idiom of Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, with a bit of culture thrown in.

In similar vein, Beethoven is the passion of the impenetrable Schroeder, Charlie Brown’s friend in Peanuts. When I was small and read without much understanding, I used to be a little disappointed with Peanuts, thinking that it lacked the comedy of other comic book characters – Desperate Dan, the Bash Street Kids and so on. But quietly (and without realising it till later) I envied Schroeder the intensity of character that allowed him that fixation.

What do I think about Beethoven? That’s easily told. I think he was a truly phenomenal composer. He tossed aside the constraints of classical form, having made it possible to do so by making magnificent music within it. Modern symphonic form owes its freedom and  lyricism to Beethoven. The bridge between classical and romantic music is of his making. It’s arguable that Wagner and Mahler could not have written on the scale and with the ambition that they had if Beethoven had not already shown how broad and sweeping music could be. You could probably (but I won’t) trace a line from the Pathétique all the way to Coldplay’s Fix You, just to make the point.

I think that in the Moonlight Sonata he gave one of classical music’s greatest gifts: a piece that amateurs can play. Technically, the first movement is straightforward, being slow enough (adagio sostenuto) for the key not to present problems and without many complicated chords. Moreover, the majority of recordings that you come across feature a good amount of latitude in tempo – Rubato-Plus, you might call it – which means that the cunning amateur can disguise as expression those moments when he (yes, I mean me) has to take a fraction longer than usual to make the next note. This is, seriously, a piece that people with limited technique can play, and play well. Then along come the second and third movements – allegretto and presto respectively – and shatter their (my) illusion of competence.

More personally, I think about the Pastoral Symphony (No 6 in F), and what a perfect picture it paints. As a piece of imagery I think it has no equal. The whole symphony is gorgeous, but I always come back to the specific memory evoked by the 5th Movement – one of those which is just a tableau – that I tentatively date at about my fourth summer. (No I am not claiming to have been a prodigy). Lying in a hammock slung between the two apple trees in Gran and Grandad’s garden, being swung by Gran while she sang the central theme from the 5th movement as a lullaby. Perhaps I am conflating those images. I know that she sang that tune; I remember the hammock and the trees (one of which gave such huge amounts of fruit that it was the annual task of my brothers and me to pick them and lay them in for the winter). Whether those things coincided in quite that way I could not guarantee, but it seems appropriate to have a representative memory accompanied by representational music. Later, studying French literature at school, we read Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale. A performance of the symphony is one of the central episodes in it; my appreciation of that lyrical, but tragic and rather dark novel was even then coloured by the sense of peace that the music has always given me.

What do I feel about Beethoven? This is trickier. I recognise his genius, his accomplishments and his astonishing musical vision. No other composer’s music has given such a glimpse of how our minds move. It’s impossible not to acknowledge all the thrills and elation that he gives me: the quartet from Fidelio that I mentioned in my last post brings tears to my eyes; the big symphonies and piano concertos make me cheer with delight. But…

…my heart belongs to Mozart.

So, with thanks to Chuck Berry, and apologies to Ludwig: Roll over Beethoven.


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  1. 6, along with 1 and 8, are missing from my current collection, and I don’t know them well – on your suggestion, I will look up 6 later tonight. I also don’t know the Gide you mentioned, but it reminded me of Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ – which has reminded me how much I enjoy that piece, and how long it’s been since I’ve listened to it! (or read the story, for that matter) I’m biased towards piano music, and I prefer B.’s piano music to Mozart’s. But there are those strains of otherworldly perfection running through so much of Mozart – I think immediately of the male-voice trios (Leporello, the Don, the Commendatore) that essentially bookend ‘Don Giovanni’ – that’s a kind of magic unique to M.

    The Moonlight is especially dear to my heart, since it was one of my audition pieces for my high school – it seems such a pure distillation of three such disparate emotions. It’s been years since I could play the presto, but it was awfully fun when I could 🙂

    • Oh – also, thanks for the link to the spider diagram thing – I’ll share that with my students!

    • I recognise the three emotions in the Moonlight – I envy your capacity to express more than one of them! I did Teenage Moody” for the first movement, and decades later I can still do Teenage Moody.
      I’ll have to listen to the Kreutzer now.

  2. “Are we supposed to hear the music and track it back to source, or let it carry us downstream?” Wow, that line struck me. Could have been the title of one of my literature essays at university. In those days I would’ve sided with the first half of the sentence. Nowadays I’m firmly with the later whether it be music, literature or art – perhaps by way of excuse for my lack of intellectual depth now I’ve left education!! Oh, and as for animated kids’ programmes utilising classical music, you need to check out Baby Einstein and Francis! 🙂

  3. Thank you very much.
    That’s my evening viewing sorted out then.

  4. Anne-Marie Hetherington permalink

    I don’t think you are conflating the images of Gran and the hammock. I have exactly the same ones. You left out the fact that it is sunny and warm; it always is in my memory of those things. Well done, this one really hit the mark. And, as for the final comment about your heart…so does mine!

    • I am now wondering what a literally conflated image of Gran and a hammock – a grammock, or grannock, presumably – would look like?

  5. Enjoy your thoughtful and articulate ideas on music in general, and Beethoven in particular.
    They will be swirling around in my mind, now with lots of other music/Beethoven/Mozart ideas + feelings. Besides studying the Beethoven symphonies, critically, now, I was given a music library containing TONS of those fine gentlemen. (By a piano-playing friend, so definitely skewed toward solo piano works, which is fine by me- I grew up under my father’s baby grand, tho not a player myself.) (Just a little flute in jr. High :))

    So, just a quick “hey”, and to let you know all my computing is done via phone, with a 3 Gig monthly limit; so I must choose very carefully about all. If I don’t listen right away, it means I am waiting to wifi somewhere.

    Music + memory: a very big + fascinating subject !

    My library-giving friend said he can hear the future (Beethoven leaving classical style behind) in the Mozart piano sonatas, so that started this particular adventure. (My heart belongs to JS Bach :)) I am learning so much ! (And having a wonderful time.) Thanks for some fun conversation.

    • That’s brought a big grin to my face! Thank you – I’m looking forward to more chat. Like you, I’m learning loads – I may post soon just about the music that people have introduced me too in the short time I’ve been blogging. It’s really exciting that there will always be more music to discover! All the best

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