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Ludwig van Beethoven would have turned 244 this week. belushi beethoven

Everyone knows Beethoven. He wrote “Da-da-da-dum” and “Ode to Joy.” He’s the scowling visage parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. He’s the plaster bust on Schroeder’s toy piano.

Ask anyone to name a classical music composer and nine out of 10 will utter his name. Even those with no familiarity with classical music know he’s the one who rolls over to tell Tchaikovsky the news.

So it’s not surprising that symphonies program his music more than anyone else’s, and often devote entire festivals to the music. schroeder 2

It would be silly to call anyone the “greatest” composer, but Beethoven — along with only Bach — is the one most often given that honor. Such is his power as a producer of human emotion through the ear canal, that his only real rivals in European art music are Bach and perhaps Mozart. That doesn’t mean he is everyone’s favorite composer. There are many who cannot stand his relentless pounding and drive. And surely among “great” composers, Beethoven probably has the third-most detractors, after Schoenberg and Wagner.

But it would be hard to find anyone who has altered Western music history more directly and obviously than the scowling master from Bonn. michael christie

“There are many reasons one could say Beethoven’s music is the greatest. His music speaks to the listener from the first note,” says conductor Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera.

It isn’t just that the music is familiar, it’s overpowering. It’s big, loud, sublime and of an intensity unheard before him.

“Just take the opening of the ‘Eroica’ symphony,” conductor Joel Revzen says. “The first two chords. Haydn or Mozart used a slow introduction to prepare us for what is to come. Beethoven takes a hammer and hits you over the head with it.”

Two crisp E-flat chords, and we’re off to the races.steve moeckel

“You can listen to one chord and know it’s Beethoven,” conductor James Sedares says. “He had a voice that was completely unique for his time and always.”

Violinist Steven Moeckel has given wonderfully insightful performances of Beethoven’s violin concerto.

“This may sound cheesy, but it feels, when you play it, Beethoven got a glimpse of heaven. Audiences are taken on this journey, so epic. Beethoven is on a heroic scale — and he means to be.”

Difficult to appreciate

But why does Moeckel qualify it? “It may sound cheesy … . ”

There are several things that stand between us and Beethoven, and make both the performance and appreciation of his music difficult.

Beethoven’s music is about big ideas, such as heroism, nobility, struggle, brotherhood. He believed in them; the question is, do we? Or have such ideas been rendered into toothless bromides and platitudes?

Can we still understand Beethoven’s music after the trenches of World War I, after Auschwitz, after all the dehumanizing misery of the 20th century?

Music historian Richard Taruskin has written about the difficulty of accepting the grand vision of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its paean to universal brotherhood.

“Why? Because it is at once incomprehensible and irresistible, and because it is at once awesome and naive,” he wrote.

“We have our problems with demagogues who preached to us about the brotherhood of man. We have been too badly burned by those who have promised Elysium and given us gulags and gas chambers.”

You can hear the problem in many modern performances of Beethoven. The conductor no longer believes in the grand ideas and falls back instead on the music’s obvious rhythm and drive. There’s a great divide between the conductors who performed before World War II and those who came after.james de preist

“I look for the old depth and breadth of expression that was there and can be retrieved if we listen to the right master,” the late conductor James DePreist said. “And most of the right masters are dead.”

You listen to recordings by Wilhelm Furtwangler or Willem Mengelberg and you hear a Beethoven different from that of Roger Norrington or David Zinman.

To many modern ears, the older performances seem melodramatic and overwrought. The modern performances seem cleaner and less fussy. The older conductors interpreted the music and massaged its rhythms. They conducted by phrase length, not by bar length, and they knew the rhetoric of performance and often spoke to their orchestras about the philosophy and meaning of the music. Modern conductors speak of the notes.

But Beethoven was clear about this. In the same way a great actor interprets Shakespeare when performing as Hamlet, and makes pauses and emphases, the musician was asked by Beethoven to do the same.

“The poet writes his monologue or dialogue in a certain continuous rhythm, but the elocutionist, in order to ensure an understanding of the sense of the lines, must make pauses and interruptions at places where the poet was not permitted to indicate it by punctuation,” Beethoven told his friend Anton Schindler. “The same manner of declamation must be applied to music.”

‘Writing for history’

But ours is an unheroic age. We reserve the word for firemen and soldiers, who certainly perform courageous acts. But a hero is more than that. Mythologically speaking, a hero is the individual who translates the will of the gods into history.

This is no small claim: A hero changes the world. Beethoven certainly did.

There is good reason to be suspicious of such things now. Too many have changed the world for the worse.lawrence golan

But Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, clearly saw himself as a hero. He knew he was changing the world. He championed freedom and democracy in a restricted and aristocratic age.

“He changed the world of music,” conductor Lawrence Golan says. “Right off the bat, with the first chord of his first symphony. It was revolutionary at the time.”

He performed for the aristocracy and slummed with the nobility, but he told Schindler, “My nobility is here,” pointing to his heart, “and here,” pointing to his head.

“We’re clearly looking at big ideas in Beethoven’s music,” conductor Timothy Russell says. “Mozart wrote for an audience, but Beethoven knows he’s writing for history.”

History, however, has moved on.

Disposable music

For the 21st century, music has mostly become entertainment. Music written to be pondered and meditated upon does not fit into the jigsaw puzzle of a niche-market audience, where music is used and discarded in months.beethoven bust

“Beethoven wrote Velcro music and this is a Teflon Age,” DePreist says.

“We have deconstructed the 19th century and have an initial impulse to jettison so much of it. But the idea that the 20th century — or the 21st century — would simply supplant the 19th was absurd,” he says. “But we have much to learn from every century.”

The difficulty has been to separate the desire to be free from the past — which is an honest desire — from the tendency to ignore the past and refuse to look at what the past teaches us.

“It teaches us more than the notes of the stylistic things,” DePreist says.

Art has a responsibility to challenge people, says Moeckel.

“To broaden their horizons, and, so, if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but let’s talk.”

And what he confronts us with is the struggle of being alive.Joel Revzen 1

“Beethoven was a man who struggled every day of his life, a man shaking his fist at the heavens constantly,” says Revzen. “It is the human condition to struggle against adversity, whether socially, politically or one’s physical limitations. It is the struggle of the human condition through eternity.”

If you want to relate it to the contemporary world, he says, just think of what the people in in Syria or Afghanistan are going through just to survive, “or the people who struggle against oppression every day around the world, or the people who struggle in this recession.”

“How can I survive until tomorrow in hopes maybe my life will change?”

It is that engagement with the big things that drives Beethoven’s music and gives it such power to move us, even when we are suspicious of its meaning. The problem is ours, not Beethoven’s.

“There is still a message in the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Ode to Joy,’ ” conductor Benjamin Rous says.

“Our time is broken in a way Beethoven’s music isn’t. Maybe a broken era needs an art that is whole.”

Three creative periods

Critics, biographers and historians divide Beethoven’s life and work into three periods: early, middle and late.

Since Beethoven, the tripartite division has come to fit the careers of many artists, but it began with the composer.beethoven young man

His Early Period features music that imitates the style of Haydn and Mozart, and although the music sometimes strains to escape the bonds of that style, it’s thoroughly Classical.

His Middle Period contains most of the music for which he’s best loved: the “Eroica” symphony, the “Emperor” concerto, the “Archduke” trio, the “Appassionata” sonata. It is big, brawny, heroic music that strains to escape not just the style but the very limits of the musical instruments of his time, the philosophical and religious conventions of his era, and sometimes the very heart in his breast. It is loud, pounding music.

“He grabs you by the collar and says, ‘I’m Beethoven, and I have something to say!’ ” says Revzen.

There are a lot of musical exclamation points in this very publicly aimed music.beethoven primary portrait

It is in the Middle Period that Beethoven staked his claim to being the first Romantic composer, emphasizing emotion over formal restraint. But, as conductor Benjamin Rous puts it, “He started out as Classical and ended up as Romantic, but in reality, he was Classical and Romantic at every moment in his life.”

Finally, Beethoven’s Late Period defines the term for all others: The music becomes more inward and searching, it has left behind the formal constraints of the time and experiments with new form, new meaning and expression. His late quartets bewildered not only the audiences of his time but the musicians who played them.schuppanzigh

“Do you imagine, when the spirit speaks to me, I have your wretched fiddle in mind?” he asked violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose string quartet premiered most of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Beethoven’s late music remains a challenge for many listeners. The “Grosse Fuge,” was his final movement to the string quartet op. 130, but was a movement so difficult for both listeners and performers that when Beethoven originally submitted it for publication, his publisher requested he substitute something easier. It is still work to listen to, albeit work with a tremendous payoff to those willing to dive in.

The rondo he wrote in its place as the quartet’s finale turned out to be the last piece of music Beethoven wrote before his death.

A gut reaction

Ludwig van Beethoven was probably history’s most famous sufferer of irritable-bowel syndrome. It made the composer’s life miserable and likely accounts for the scowl he wears in almost every portrait.

“The cause of this must be the condition of my belly which, as you know, has always been wretched and has been getting worse, since I am always troubled with diarrhea, which causes extraordinary weakness,” the composer wrote a friend in 1801.beethoven death mask

It was a problem that plagued him his entire life, and its likely cause is what killed him.

This may seem an undignified way to introduce “the greatest composer in history,” but you have to do something to clear away the idolatry that accumulates around a world-changing figure, to see him as a man rather than a demigod.

Otherwise, when we spin panegyrics about the man’s greatness, our eyes will glaze over, reading it as conventional boilerplate.

So, it must be said that this colossus who changed music and directed its course for more than a century was in reality a short, stocky German with a provincial accent, boorish manners, who wrote in bad grammar and frequently uttered banal platitudes as if they were earth-shaking profundities.

He was born in Bonn in 1770, and his drunken father tried to pass the child off as a prodigy, like Mozart. But Beethoven’s virtues were not Mozart’s: He had none of the grace and felicity of Mozart; his music grew from hard work and infinite rewriting.

Beethoven went to Vienna to make his fortune as a piano virtuoso and found many aristocratic patrons. He frequently insulted the hand that fed him.

He told one of his patrons, “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!”beethoven ear trumpet

But just as he began to achieve fame, his hearing started to fail. In later years, he was completely deaf: At the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, a soprano had to turn him around onstage so he could see the applause he could not hear.

Each new piece found both acclaim and criticism: Conservatives disliked the profusion of ideas in the music, finding them confusing and the works too long and difficult; admirers recognized in his work overwhelming emotional power.

By the time of his death, in 1827 at the mere age of 56, he was generally acclaimed as the greatest composer in the world. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral.

It is only in recent years, after scientific analysis of a few strands of his hair, that we know how the composer died: It was lead poisoning, probably by drinking wine from a lead-lined cup, that slowly killed the composer and probably caused his lifetime of colic.

The ‘Mighty Nine’

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are the cornerstone of classical music. Every conductor cuts his teeth on them; every audience expects them.

Their monumentality influenced every composer who came after him for at least a century, and even now, it’s impossible to dip into classical music without addressing “The Nine,” as they’re known.

But the symphonies are very distinct; each has its own personality. Collectively, they are probably the best entry point for discovering the music of the titan, Beethoven.

There are many sets of them on CD, spanning nearly the entire history of recorded music. The first complete set of symphonies was recorded in 1920 and since then there have been at least 100 traversals. There have been 60 full sets sold since 1960. Herbert von Karajan recorded them all four times, Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum each did it three times. Any conductor worth his salt wants to prove his mettle by tackling the nine.

There is no one “best” set — pretty much everyone is agreed on that point — but if you want them all in one package, you could hardly to better than the set with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin recorded on Teldec. Both the performance and engineering are tops. Teldec makes the orchestra sound like it’s in your room with you. Barenboim has a unified and coherent view of the cycle which is intelligent and emotionally persuasive.

But for some, it will feel old-style. It is. If you want the modern huff-and-puff race to the finish, then you should look to John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique on so-called original instruments.

You could hardly find two more different views of the music, but both are played with commitment and musicality. (Avoid the Norrington sets, which are dreadful and downright unmusical).

One-by-one

There are many who insist the best way to acquire the best of them is to get them individually and not in complete sets. Different orchestras and different conductors respond to certain symphonies better than others. David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, for instance, cannot be beat for discovering the wit and verve in Beethoven’s first symphony, but they don’t really believe in the nobility and heroism inherent in the bigger, odd-number symphonies, like the Fifth. For that, you have to go to an old-order conductor, such as Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic, which recorded the most harrowing and emotionally wrought versions of the Fifth Symphony.

Any choices among the symphonies will be idiosyncratic: As listeners we are just a variable in our sympathies as the conductors themselves. You may want the bounce and beat of a modern performance, or you may be more moved by the old tradition.

These are a few of my suggestions, along with some information about each of the Nine.

Please note that modern critics aren’t the only ones who are idiots.

Symphony No. 1 in C

First performed: 1801.

david zinmanBeethoven’s first is his lightest, brightest and funniest, an obvious imitation of the spirit of his teacher, Joseph Haydn. Its jokes begin with the very first notes: a dissonance in the wrong key!

Initial critical response: One critic called it “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”

Suggested recording: No one has captured the wit of this symphony better than David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Symphony No. 2 in D

First performed: 1803.

bernard haitinkNow considered one of Beethoven’s “shorter, lighter” symphonies, it was a large symphony by the standards of the time and a challenge for its first audience.

Initial critical response: The Leipzig critic called it “a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and (in the finale) bleeding to death.”

Suggested recording: Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

First performed: 1805.

bernstein youngThis immense symphony single-handedly changed the course of music history; twice as long as the standard Haydn symphony and built on ideas of heroism, with a great funeral march as a slow movement.

Initial critical response: The leading music journal of the day described it as “a daring wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution. … There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but, on the other hand, the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion.”

Suggested recording: Many modern performances are too tame. For the needed heroism and grandeur, and the sheer visceral excitement, try Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat

First performed: 1807.

claudio abbado 2Robert Schumann called it a “graceful Grecian maiden between two Norse giants.” It seems like a retreat after the furious charge of the “Eroica,” but if it is less noisy, it is subtly subversive, with an introduction in the “wrong” key.

Initial critical response: Carl Maria von Weber wrote a review in which the orchestra instruments all bitterly complain about having to play this symphony and then are threatened with being forced to play the “Eroica” if they don’t shut up.

Suggested recording: Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic are as elegant as it gets.

Symphony No. 5 in C-minor

First performed: 1808.

wilhelm furtwanglerFor two centuries, this has been Beethoven’s calling card, the primal symphony, restless, turbulent, an epic struggle to wrest a triumphant C-major out of an obsessive C-minor, and with more than 700 relentless iterations of the iconic rhythm: “Da-da-da-dum.”

Initial critical response: French critic Jean Lesueur said it was such exciting music that it shouldn’t even exist.

Suggested recording: The music is so familiar, and so emotional, it’s hard to play now without irony, but when attacked with conviction, it still packs a wallop. Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic are still the champs in a pre-stereo recording, but in modern sound, Carlos Kleiber and the same orchestra come very close.

Symphony No. 6 in F, “Pastoral”

First performed: 1808.

bruno walter 2This is Beethoven’s musical picture of nature, complete with birdcalls and thunderstorm. But it’s also one of the composer’s most tightly argued pieces musically, with much of the symphony drawn from the first two bars: It’s a miracle of concision, even when most discursive.

Initial critical response: Berlioz agreed with critics, “as far as the nightingale is concerned: the imitation of its song is no more successful here than in M. Lebrun’s well-known flute solo, for the very simple reason that since the nightingale only emits indistinct sounds of indeterminate pitch it cannot be imitated by instruments with a fixed and precise pitch.”

Suggested recording: Every critic’s choice in this seems to be Bruno Walter and the pickup Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony No. 7 in A

First performed: 1813.

arturo toscanini 1Richard Wagner called this the “apotheosis of the dance,” and it is the most rhythmically driven of all symphonies; the second movement hardly contains anything but its rhythm. It all comes together in a Dionysian paean to the spirit of life.

Initial critical response: Weber expressed the opinion that Beethoven “was now ripe for the madhouse.”

Suggested recording: Even though it’s a pre-stereo recording, you have to hear Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in a driven performance that wrests every ounce of power out of the score.

Symphony No. 8 in F

First performed: 1814.

georg solti 1The composer looks backward with a smaller, almost Haydnish symphony, full of Haydnesque “jokes,” such as the metronome tick-tick of the second movement.

Initial critical response: One critic wrote that “the applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short — as the Italians say — it did not create a furor.”

Suggested recording: Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony give a brawny performance of this work and include a really fine Symphony No. 7 as well.

Symphony No. 9 in D-minor, “Choral”

First performed: 1824.

bernstein oldBeethoven’s magnum opus, which adds singers and chorus to the symphony and expresses the composer’s view of universal brotherhood and the joy of the cosmos. At more than an hour long, it is immense and usually performed for ceremonial occasions.

Initial critical response: “Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.”

Suggested recording: Despite mangling the finale by changing Beethoven’s “Freude” (“joy”) to “Freiheit” (“freedom”), there is no more committed performance than the one given by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with an orchestra composed of musicians from many orchestras in both East and West Germany.

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What is classical music?

It can be hard to pin down. Many have tried to define it; certainly, they believe they can know it when they hear it. But the outlines of what we define as classical music are unhelpfully squishy.

Is it merely European aristocratic music from the 18th through the 20th centuries? Certainly the audience for Mozart’s Magic Flute wasn’t aristocratic. And Italy’s appetite for opera is wider than the upper crust.

Is it orchestral music? Not if we count Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Is it instrumental? Not if we count the masses of Palestrina.

It is often called “art music,” as if music in other forms could not aspire to the condition of art. Tell that to Frank Zappa. And frankly, much of the music played in concert halls was never intended to be more than entertainment, albeit of a refined order. Not everything is the St. Matthew Passion; some of it is just Skater’s Waltz.

To look at what we call classical music, we should consider: What is the central question of classical music? That is, what question does classical music answer?

And by that, I mean not only European classical music, but all those around the world, from Indian ragas to Chinese opera.

The question is so banal as almost never to be asked. What is the central question to all classical musics?

It is this:

“How do you make a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

Popular music consists of songs, and, in our culture at least, that means a 32-bar song that you can repeat over and over. But imagine listening to Memories repeated for half an hour and imagine the tedium. It would be my substitute for pistol and ball.

Whether it’s folk songs or rock and roll, the idea is to get in and out quickly, establish a mood and then finish it off.

Yes, there are exceptions in popular music, from In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida to Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo, but a case can be made that they are “classical musics,” also.

When we ask the first question, a second question arises immediately:

“Why should a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

And it is here that we come to the difference between popular and classical musics: the difference between simple mood and complex emotional developments. Between a New Yorker cartoon and a Tolstoy novel. cartoonA song gives us a passing mood, seldom offering any narrative complexity (it may offer psychological complexity and even complexities of melody or key structure, and a great song usually has something of this). But a symphony, like a play or a movie, starts in one place and takes us on a journey, leaving us someplace else at the end.

The time spent allows for not just complex emotions, but a sequence of emotions that interact.

You can think of it this way: Classical music is movies for the ear. There are characters, there is development, there is a plot and plot twists. Fight scenes and love scenes, perhaps a mystery, perhaps a road trip.

It presents ideas in time in a way that makes sense to an audience listening for them.cellar 1

Most young filmgoers know the habits of filmmakers so well, for instance, that their expectations become part of the appreciation of the film: They know what to expect when the teenager opens the cellar door and goes down to the dark to investigate that funny noise, and they are delighted if the filmmaker does something fresh and new and upsets their expectation with a surprise.

Classical audiences also know what to expect and are delighted when a composer takes a left turn and expresses a new way to think about it.

It is often thought there is special, arcane knowledge required to enjoy classical music. And, of course, there is a lot of specialized language. There is with films, too — key grip, D.P., fade, dissolve, two-shot — but you don’t need to know any of them to enjoy a film. It is the same with symphonies or sonatas.

It isn’t the words that matter, but the sounds. You don’t need to know the words to enjoy the music.

These are words about wordless things.?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

When you see a gun being put in a desk drawer in the first half of a movie, you know instinctively that it will be used in the second half.

When Beethoven’s audience heard C-major sneak into the first three movements of his C-minor symphony, they knew it would come out blazing in the finale: They waited in suspense to hear how he would do it.

This is the appeal of classical music for its audiences.

This isn’t something technical only a musician would know. “Major” and “minor” are simply words: It is the emotional shift that matters, from the tight, constricted, frustrating feel of the opening of the symphony to the ecstatic release of the ending. It is an emotional journey, and one that you could not accomplish in a simple song.

It’s also part of what distinguishes classical music from its popular cousin. Popular music is like a commercial: short, punchy, memorable; classical music is like a novel: long, involved and with many characters and a slowly achieved resolution.

None of this is meant to denigrate popular music or songs. I love a good tune as much as the next person. But popular and classical musics are attempting very different things.

You couldn’t pack all of Indiana Jones into a three-minute trailier.

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

jumping for joyIn Shelley’s Ode to a Nightingale, he reminds us that “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” And in classical music, our greatest symphonies, quartets, sonatas and trios all give us a complex emotional universe — and the greater the music, the more likely it will contain heavy, dark, profound and difficult emotions. When it’s doing its job, a symphony is not background music.

You can go through it all: Even music that is ostensibly about joy tends to be about a kind of manic fervor or about the transcendence of the pains of mortal life — not simple happiness. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” for instance, is so over the top, that sometimes you just want to say, “Boy, get a grip.”

Happiness would seem to be the province of the popular song — Feelin’ Groovy, or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies (you should hear Duke Ellington’s take on that one in Blues No End). What you feel coming out of a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony is something different — rung out, depleted yet renewed, taken through the paces of all of life. Happiness is irrelevant. Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’ First, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, Mozart’s Jupiter — They are all large, complex and attempts at metaphor for the joys and pains of being alive.

“Our sincerest laughter/ With some pain is fraught.”

But mere happiness? You can look long and wide to find anything that simple in classical music. And yet …

And yet, as I was driving to the store the other day, with Brahms’ First Serenade in the CD player, I felt a swelling of pure happiness as I listened. The music flew by with a genuine joie de vivre, a thought you rarely think when Brahms comes along. Johannes is all gravitas, Weltschmerz, longing — it used to be joked of Brahms that when he is happy, he sings, “The grave is my joy.”

But here he is, without a thought in his head, spinning out tunes of unreflexive pleasure. The horns and clarinets seem to dance their way through the six movements, with no angst over whether the G-major of this theme leads to the e-minor of that one, or whether the rising fourth here is balanced by a descending fifth in the finale. None of it, just tunes. Bouncy, happy tunes. Who knew Brahms had it in him.

And I began to consider other pieces in the standard repertoire that might share something of this simplicity, this sheer pleasure in the notes —  that feeling of walking along on a sunny day with some spare change in your pocket, knowing you will see your sweetie in the evening and whistling a happy chune. Happy couple

Could I list at least 10 such compositions: It was a challenge I set myself.

First up, of course, come Schubert’s “Trout” quintet. No one has ever written so many hummable tunes in a single piece of music, from beginning to end, pure forward-moving bouncy, danceable melody. It is the counterweight to that other quintet, the string quintet that seems to bind up in its aching arms all the sorrow and pain of the world. In the “Trout,” there is none of that, only hope and pleasure and everything that a major key can shout.

Did Beethoven ever write anything so worry-free? Beethoven had bigger fish to fry. He was busy creating a new century. And yet …

Buried in that treasure hoard of piano sonatas — the so-called “New Testament” of piano literature — there is one tiny sonata in G-major, op. 78 — alla Tedesca — that has nothing but bounce and verve. It is short, clever, witty and fun. Not your usual Beethoven adjectives.

Haydn, of course, is the fountain here. You can pick almost any of his works and find acres of wit, bounce, pleasure and fun. There are his more profound moments, but pick any symphony in the 60s or 70s and you can run from start to finish with a smile in your heart. When I want to feel good, I snap in a Haydn symphony to listen to.

For instance, the Symphony No. 73 in D, “La Chasse,” which ends with a fox hunt, a rousing ride through the countryside with horn and hounds.

Or the Symphony No. 60 in C, “il Distratto,” which has a joke larded into it every 11 bars — you never have to wait long for another one, like a New York City bus. There’s the place where he stops and has the orchestra retune, right in the middle of the finale; there’s the second theme in the first movement, that just stops in its tracks harmonically and seems to fall asleep. But it isn’t the jokes, per se, that I am touting here, but the sheer joy of the music, unalloyed with anything like “the saddest thought.”

If you want to find the same music, but in a 19th century idiom, you have it in Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was a mere stripling of 17. It begins with joie and ends with enthusiasm and in between it is stuffed with buoyancy and energy. You cannot listen to it without it putting a bounce in your step.

I had the pleasure of seeing the New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine’s Symphony in C at the Palais Garnier in Paris, and I couldn’t tell which thrilled me more, the choreography or the music. It is one of the high points of my esthetic life and kept me smiling for days, even weeks.

You get something of the same confident buoyancy in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, written as a virtuoso piece for orchestra, and everyone gets to join in the party. No shadow hangs over the music — it is all joy.

The 20th century is a sorry one, filled from end to end with war, murder, oppression and genocide. But there are points of light in the music. Prokofiev may have the three great “War Sonatas,” with all the weight of the world on them, but he started out with his Classical Symphony, which is a nod back to the music of Haydn, but with all the hot sauce of Modern dissonance tossed in for spice. The music bounces its way from the get-go. You can’t have a heavy thought while listening to it.

And Paul Hindemith — who used to count as one of the big three of Modern music with Stravinsky and Schoenberg (how the mighty have fallen) — joins my list with his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. He is helped out, of course, with the jaunty tunes that he culled from Weber, but he costumes those tunes with the happiest, bounciest orchestrations and developments.

And finally, to round out my self-assigned Ten, there is the verve and sass of Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, which is 15 minutes of toe-tapping polytonality based on dance tunes from Brazil and named after a cabaret in Paris where the avant-garde met and drank and did their best to show off to each other. Listen to the music once and you will not be able to get it out of your head for days — or out of you hips, knees and feet. Not a care in the world.

The cares of the day will come back, as they always do, and even such happiness as embedded in this music can wear out its welcome, joyful, but a bit thin compared to the Big-Boy cousins in the concert hall, but for a moment, like that happiness you feel skipping down the street on a good day, it seems like all the world needs.

Here’s my list. Please add to it or make your own:

–Symphony No. 60 in C “il Distratto” by Joseph Haydn

–Symphony No. 73 in D “la Chasse” by Joseph Haydn

–Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, op. 79 “alla Tedesca” by Ludwig van Beethoven

–Piano Quintet in A, op. 114, D. 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert

–Symphony No. 1 in C major by Georges Bizet

–Serenade No. 1 in D, op. 11 by Johannes Brahms

–Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

–Symphony No. 1 in D, op. 25 “Classical Symphony” by Serge Prokofiev

–Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith

–Le Boeuf sur le Toit, op. 58 by Darius Milhaud

Victrola

From the “Preamble” to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. 

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

birds

This is about two very unpleasant men and a third about whom I know little except his work and talent. I learned from all three.

Old EzThe first is Ezra Pound, a vile anti-semite and spouter of crackpot economic and political — to say nothing of conspiracy — theories. He also wrote some profoundly beautiful verse. When I was in college, I pored over his Personae, the collection of his shorter poems. But that is not why he makes this list. I read a lot of wonderful poetry by lots of excellent poets.

The one thing you have to say about Pound is that he knows a lot of stuff. And as he got older, more and more of that stuff became the upholstery of his writing — cushion stuffing, basically. Pound couldn’t help writing about what he knew — or rather what he had read about. It is very literary knowledge and you wonder if he ever looked around him to see the street traffic or the overcoats his fellow pedestrians were wearing against the winter. Instead, his head is stuck in the world of Procne and Philomela, that of Greek classical culture, Renaissance finance, the historical concepts of founding fathers and Provencal verse forms.

I mention Procne and Philomela for a reason. In his early poetry, any reference to nature comes in the form of a literary reference. Hence nightingales and doves. In the myth, Procne was turned into a swallow and her sister into a nightingale. In Pound, owls are Athena and eagles are imperial. One gets used to this as one gets used to the scenic flats in a stage set. pound mugshot

But then, after the war, when Pound, who had been making rather silly anti-American radio broadcasts for il Duce, was arrested and imprisoned as a traitor in a POW camp in Pisa, his poetry begins to crack, much like he cracked mentally. The Pisan Cantos, for which he won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1948, has its share of remembered, misremembered and half-remembered arcana, but throughout the many sections of the book, moments pop through where you are suddenly out of the dusty library of his brain and in a cage in Pisa, noticing actual weather and actual birds.

“4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one”

And you see them, black notes on a musical staff. The world begins to break through the battlements of book learning. Air ventilates the stony cell of his brain.

“The Pisan clouds are undoubtedly various

and splendid as any I have seen since

at Scudder’s Falls on the Schuylkill

by which stream I seem to recall a feller

settin’ in a rudimentary shack doin’ nawthin’

not fishin’, just watchin’ the water,

a man of about forty-five

nothing counts save the quality of the affection”

At several points he notices small but very real details:

“That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole.”

And you weep to know that buried under all that pointless erudition — an erudition that is a deflection of experience — there is a genuine human soul who might have been truly great. Cantos

The final fragments of Cantos speak of his dawning understanding of what he has failed to grasp.

“Let the gods forgive what I

have made

Let those I love try to forgive

what I have made”

These are the final words of his Cantos, and your heart breaks. And you remember the quote from Henry Miller: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”

Literature is nice, but living one’s life in the actual weather wearing actual galoshes is more to the point.

The relationship between brain and book is explored in the next book — which has the most unfortunate title since the now out-of-print Design of Active-Site Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors: ZenbookIt is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The title is a faddish one, that practically screams, “I was written in 1974!” The book has nothing meaningful to say about either Zen Buddhism or motorcycles. But it has a lot to say about the central distinction between nouns and verbs as they play out both in our minds and in the world before us.

Pirsig makes no attempt to be likable. He is spiny, querulous, bossy, pedantic, and exhibits some of the anempathetic qualities of Asberger syndrome. Yet, he is unquestionably brilliant.

He uses Plato’s dialog, Phaedrus, to examine what he calls “Quality,” which he defines in an entirely idiosyncratic way, essentially remaking the word entirely. Pirsig

“Quality is not a thing. It is an event.”

That is, a verb, not a noun. It is one’s engagement with the world in the instantaneous present, before anything is named or understood.

The book slowly builds to this understanding as Pirsig takes a motorcycle trip with his son. The tour is interrupted by long stretches of philosophical discussion taking us into the issues of perception.

“Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past, and therefore unreal.” When you have experienced something and given it a name, it is already over. That unintellectualized instant of engagement is an active boiling; anything after it is already a snapshot looked at in leisure.

And we tend to fit what we experience into the patterns of the snapshots we already have in our photo album. As I have said many times, “What you know prevents learning.”

The climax of the book, for me, comes when Pirsig makes the leap from this to the words of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, and suddenly, the odd, incomprehensible language of that Chinese classic pops into palpable reality: “The name that can be named is not the absolute name.” Pirsig substitutes his odd definition of “quality:” “Fathomless! Like the fountainhead of all things …  Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.”

I have since substituted the word “beauty” for “quality.” If art seeks beauty, it is in the form of engagement with “the fountainhead of all things,” the precious, unslotted, uncataloged now and its very active nowness. Beauty is the engagement, not the thing: A verb, not a noun.

But language itself can be bypassed. Too many seem to believe that thought comes in words. It may do so, but a good deal of thought comes non-verbally. There is visual thinking, aural thinking, spatial thinking, temporal thinking. You cannot verbally engage your brain with a pitcher’s slider and hope to connect with the bat. The thinking involved is completely non-verbal.artur schnabel

Music is the great cultural means of making an argument over time without words, and you cannot get a better example of this than Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Of all the things I learned at college, the one I am most grateful for is the ability to read musical scores. I collect scores — Eulenberg and Kalmus miniatures — the same as language books, and read them with much pleasure. If you are on an airplane and try to listen to music through headphones, all you get is static drowned in jet noise. But if you bring along the score, say, to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, you can read it and hear it in your head and the jet noise disappears.

And no score has meant more to me than Artur Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven’s sonatas. The notes sit on the pages like Pound’s blackbirds on their wires and sing their song. schnabel edition score

Schnabel is a micromanager as an editor, and many pages have more footnotes than musical notes. But he was one of the greatest performers of this music ever — his recordings of the complete set, made in the 1930s, is still in print and has never been superseded, even as technology has progressed. And his insight into the music, expressed in those footnotes, is always enlightening. I have gone through those two volumes of sonatas many, many times, always with profound enjoyment and growing depth.

I cannot imagine my library without them.

NEXT: What has fallen by the wayside

I hate style. When I hear an artist say she has finally found her ”style,” I get nauseous. Style is not what art is about.

Style should be the way something needs to be said. I see too much art wherein the artist has chosen a clever style, as if it were a shirt from a J.C. Penney catalog, and then tries to stuff it with something.

Artists who read art history and try to figure out where it is going next will always be shortsighted. Art is going where it will next because of some great imagination whose vision of reality cannot be expressed in the old vocabulary.

Younger artists tend to need style tricks more, just as older artists seem to strip down their style, like the final Kurasawa films or late Tolstoy.ran

As an example: The greatest writing survives translation well. Lesser, more refined artists often are untranslatable because their substance is the fugitive stuff of style. Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevski and Dante are all powerful despite language problems. They each concerned themselves with powerful searching problems and explored the mazes of those problems with shocking honesty (in the terms of their times).

The search within

Artists and writers now need to search their innards for analogous problems. Our answers won’t be Dante’s answers, but art on the level of importance as the Paradiso is needed.terpning

Rembrandt; Picasso; Beethoven; Dostoevski; Dante; Michelangelo; Raphael; Hokusai; Bach; Homer; Shakespeare; Cervantes; Chaucer; Neruda; Matisse; Durer; Sophocles. . . . Does LeRoy Neiman, after all, belong on that list? Or Howard Terpning, or Frank Frazetta?

Four modes

There are four modes of producing art. I don’t mean discrete modes, but that they are four points on a spectrum. They are:guernica

–› The artist connects with something real in the world or the medium and, because his discovery cannot fit the molds cast by previous artists, he forges a new style. Picasso and Beethoven are representatives of this mode. Inner drive and a sense of the insufficiency of the old styles cause the creation of a new style.wyeth winter 1946

–› With some other artists, the interaction with authentic experience causes no feeling of the inadequacy of the existing styles. The connection with something real is still there, but accepted style merely becomes the mother tongue to discuss or develop the connections. Brahms, Andrew Wyeth and Rachmaninoff are possible examples.

The next two modes differ from the first in that the prime aim of the artist is not to express some genuine engagement with the world, but rather to manipulate style.

–› One is an imitation of the first mode, wherein the style is foremost and the artist attempts to create novelty rather than express something larger. Many students, too young to have anything real to say, are guilty of this mode.

–› The last is an imitation of the second, in that the conventional style is used with limited substance. Montovani, Cowboy artists or the truckloads of ”starving artist” oil paintings are prime examples. Neither message nor style is genuine, but only imitates the ”look” of art.

Like all those people who think they can paint like Jackson Pollock.amateur pollock

Style is seductive

louis armstrongStyle is a demon that seduces us. Audiences often choose by style and not by intrinsic worth: Jazz listeners listen to Kenny G pop jazz before listening to Mozart; Classical fans will listen to Zelenka or Ditters von Dittersdorf before listening to Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.

If we consider the actual function of art, the problems become clear. Art organizes, on a primary level, the undifferentiated chaos we find around ourselves. If the world does not seem chaotic to you now, thank the artists who have gone before you and struggled with the problems of perception.

To an artist, who is a person not entirely enculturated, the things we take for granted — the things that seem self-evident — are not to be trusted. Is perspective a realistic portrayal of how we see? That is suspect. Is nuclear war an entirely bad thing? Maybe, on a deeper level, it would be good for an overpopulated planet drowning in its own sewage. Maybe. Is the world of dreams all in the mind? Or is it as valid a reality as the one with digital watches and brothers-in-law? Maybe more valid. What are the true relationships between men and women? Why do otherwise reasonable people commit horrors and atrocities? Maybe it is a normal function of being a human. Maybe.

The artist won’t necessarily answer these questions, but he will consider them, or questions like them, and will engage with his explorations and exit the labyrinth with a canvas gripped tightly in his mitts, and with a wild look in his eye.

Style is a means of avoiding these tough issues, substituting a disengaged, shallow cleverness.autumn rhythm

To make new art, the artist should not attempt to find novel juxtapositions, but should go back to that primary undifferentiated chaos and attempt to find an order directly from it. Too much mediocre art comes from people trying to be new rather than trying to be real.