Archive

Tag Archives: Beethoven

kelly briar

It is impossible to listen to the final quartets of Beethoven and not recognize in them something quite different from the optimistic and heroic thrust of his most popular works, the Eroica, the Appassionata, the Razumovskies. The quartets in question no longer follow the standard four-movement shape of the classical quartet and symphony, and they no longer seem addressed to the world and society, but rather, they are discursive, wandering and seem turned completely inward.

Innigkeit

Innigkeit

It has been called his “late style” ever since 1855, when Wilhelm von Lenz wrote his book, “Beethoven and his three styles,” which attempts to give shape to the composer’s career, with an “early style” in imitation of Haydn and Mozart; a “middle period” with all those grand exhortations to heroism and the overcoming of obstacles and the establishment of freedom and individualism; to the “late style” of innigkeit and apparent formlessness.

Since then, it has become standard to view an artist’s career into three: apprenticeship, mastery, and a “late style” in which the artist perhaps gives up his public function to investigate his private concerns. Within this pattern, it has become usual to see the late period as the culmination of an artist’s life and work, as its height, as its reduced essence.rembrandt self portrait

And so, we see the final paintings of Rembrandt, the late romances of Shakespeare, the last dark photographs of Edward Weston or the Ninth Symphony of Mahler as somehow special, as more meaningful, as “better” even as “best.” We look to them for something like a peroration of wisdom, the final words or notes or brushstrokes of a sage. Goya’s black paintings, or the black paintings of Jackson Pollock. (Usually, there is some element of darkness in late work, whether it is the Beethoven quartets or the quiet “ersterbend” that ends the Mahler Ninth.)

weston china cove pointlobosAs Minor White said of the Weston photographs: “Rarely are we shown the maturest work of men who have lived richly and whose spirit has grown all their lives … the last photographs of Edward Weston made at Point Lobos … may parallel in content the last quartets of Beethoven.”

There are many problem with this formulation. First, so many artists — certainly the majority — don’t fit into this pattern. Second, while we can recognize a “late style” in the final works of Franz Schubert, Schubert died at 31. Can that be considered his late period? Suppose he had lived his three score years and ten? What would have followed his “late style?” Obviously, a late style is something we apply only in retrospect. Even Beethoven, whose late style defines the idea, died at a fairly young age of 56. Where would he have gone if he had lived to 70? His late style would then have been something transitional.

Then, there are artists whose supposed late style is generally admitted to be a decline. One thinks of the final paintings of De Kooning. And there is the problem of someone like Wagner, who strove self-consciously for the prestige of having a late style with the artificial spirituality of “Parsifal.”

There is another issue, too. Late style means more than one thing. Initially, we think of art that is intensely personal rather than public, art that reaches the darker and more private parts of the human experience. But that is not the only thing — perhaps not even the primary thing — that defines late style. As Edward Said said in his study of the subject, late style is characterized by an increasing simplicity of technique. Take those late quartets, which are a bouquet of dances, marches, recitativ and arias, and movements sometimes so short, they hardly count as movements at all. They alternate with long fugal passages where the counterpoint is hidden in blocks of chordal harmony. Even their sonata-form movements are choppy with short, punchy themes entering stage right and quickly running off stage left, chased by the next patch of tune. There is a superfluity of material and an economy of means.Heiliger Dankgesang

It is as though an artist, a composer, a poet, had spent his youth perfecting an elaborate craft, the mastery of which is part of his declaration to the world, but having become increasingly confident of his ability, he no longer considers it to be the important part of his work. The competence is still there, but the showing-off is gone: The artist only uses so much of his virtuosity as is needed to make his point.

Another way of putting it is that when young, an artist is in love with his artform — with his villanelle, his twelve tones, his impasto — and so aware of the tradition and history of that technique, that he wants to strive to shoulder his way into that history, to take his place. But as age and its concomitant wisdom encroach, the technique seems a shallow exercise compared with the content: The balance shifts to what he has to say rather than how he says it.

As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.”

This is Picasso’s arc: Early work is meant to rattle art history. He goes through his “periods,” which are each an exploration of a particular technique or “ism.” But in his later life, he freed himself to simply play with his paints or his pottery. It is clearly Picasso’s “voice,” his “look,” but the ism ceases to be the point: the work becomes an endless parade of bulls, women, birds, still lifes and images of concupiscent artists, often with bulls or women.matisse cutout

Or Matisse, who ended with paper cutouts, as simple as a child’s finger painting.

One sees this in many a career, where the young artist finds his voice and shouts to make a name, but once having established his bona fides, feels then free to explore what he is really interested in. One thinks perhaps of Richard Diebenkorn, who made a name with abstract art, and after becoming famous, started making “pictures.”

kelly coverI was struck seeing some drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, who made his career with minimalist Color Field paintings — they might as well have been models for flags — but these drawings were of plants, in simple black line on simple white paper. They were elegant and expressive and nothing like the bland paintings. He has made them throughout his career, but they had been seen only once (in 1970) before they made a big splash, showing them in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Kelly clearly loved the plant forms he drew.

There comes with age and experience — and perhaps prodded along by the awareness of the extreme shortness of life — a need to say what needs saying unencumbered by all the apparatus and hoopla that seduce our younger selves.

And this is where the simplicity of means becomes the same thing as the profundity of meaning. In his middle period, at the height of his Beethoven-ness, he can spend an entire symphony showing us how an obsessive rhythmic motiv in C-minor can grow into a triumphal shout of joy in C-major. But by the late quartets, the emotional expressions pass moment by moment, as if attention to the present were more important than presentiment of the future or reminiscence of what has gone before. There is an intensity of the now, an urgency of being present. And that is where we find the marriage of the late style’s depth and its simplicity.

Tallulah Rose

Tallulah Rose

I have an interesting “contest” going on with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose. She is 16 and immersed in music, taking guitar, piano and banjo lessons; she has some genuine talent. When I chauffeur her around on those occasions when I am called on, and am playing some Bach or Beethoven on the car CD, she is apt to say something like, “Classical music is so boring; it all sounds the same.” And, of course, when I hear her listening to pop music on her iPad, my reaction is the mirror: Pop music is so boring; it all sounds the same. So, I scratch my head and wonder.

How can something sound so monotonous to me and not bore her to tears? How can something so varied and glorious as classical music possible sound to her as if it is all the same gluey mush? It is more than a question of taste; we are clearly hearing different things.

Most people are likely to think of this as merely a matter of taste — “I like indie rock, but she likes country,” —  and it is, to some degree — but while someone who likes Taylor Swift may say they don’t like Justin Bieber, they recognize it as merely a different genre of pop, and they wedge into their corner of sound comfort. Is there anything more insular than heavy metal?

But classical music doesn’t seem to function to Tallulah Rose as just one more Billboard magazine chart category, like soul or country-Western or hip hop. Those are all options out there for popular consumption and one chooses the category one feels most simpatico with.

But classical seems to be a different species altogether. It isn’t, for its serious listeners, just one more entertainment option. Its goals are elsewhere.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Tallulah Rose and I thought we might explore this question. She suggested an exchange. She would choose 10 pieces of pop music for me to listen to and I would choose 10 pieces of classical music for her. Tallulah Rose isn’t one of your ordinary junk-music fans: She has high standards for her music and would consider the bands she has chosen for me to be “art,” or at very least music that no one of any musical sophistication would be embarrassed to be heard listening to. She has excellent taste in her music. She picked for me music by Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, among others. I was to listen to her music and write about it, and she was to do the same for my choices.

What T-Rose chose for me:

1. Jesus, Etc. by Wilco
2. Australia by The Shins
3. Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
4. Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes
5. Wake Up by Arcade Fire
6. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John
7. Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys
8. This Charming Man by The Smiths
9. Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse
10. Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Sound System
Bonus track: Title and Registration by Death Cab for Cutie

In choosing music for her, I felt it only fair that I not bury her under the Bruckner Fifth or the Mahler Third, but try to find pieces of reasonable length, and I chose several movements instead of whole concertos or symphonies. Her music for me tends to run between 3 and 5 minutes. Here is my list for her (She snuck in an extra for me, so I added one extra Mahler track for her):

1. Gabrieli — Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass choirs
2. Bach — Prelude and Fugue in c-minor from WTC Book 1
3. Mozart — First movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in d-minor
4. Beethoven — Third movement from the “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, no. 2
5. Chopin — Mazurka Op. 30, no. 4
6. Brahms — Finale of the Fourth Symphony
7. Mahler — Two songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld from Songs of a Wayfarer
8. Rachmaninoff — Finale from Piano Concerto No. 3
9. Villa Lobos — First movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
10. Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man

I have listened four times through to all of T-Rose’s music and I can say that none of them is musically unsophisticated, but neither can I say, outside the LCD Sound System’s Dance yrslf Clean, which actually does something with the music,  that they engage my deepest sympathies. Again, I am convinced that my music and hers simply are not attempting the same thing.

For a start, her music’s appeal depends greatly on the lyrics. Even when I read rock criticism in, say Rolling Stone, the criticism is less about the music qua music, and more about the quality of the words. The sentiment expressed is expressed verbally, not musically. (More on lyrics later).

Second, the parts of music that seem most treasured by the rock and pop listener is a consistent beat, often aggressively propulsive. Following that, it is a melody — although in contemporary pop music, melody sounds more like chant than tune — prosody is so slipshod that the same melodic note can sustain a single syllable or three or four, if that is what the words demand.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For my classically oriented ear, the unrelenting rhythm is monotonous; I keep hoping it will lead to something, but it doesn’t. For my ear, harmony is paramount. I am always aware of it, shifting from major to minor, or to a Phrygian mode or the endless unresolved but constantly yearning dissonances of atonal or serial music. I am always aware — more than the melody at the top of the orchestral heap — of the bass line. I remember Brahms saying when he got a new piece of music to look at, he’d cover up the top staves and look at the bass line. That way, he said, he could tell if the music was good or not. When I listen to popular music, the bass line is generally undistinguished, often repetitive, and rather more in the way of a continuo — a second reinforcement of the beat slammed out by the drums and cymbals.

When I say her music and mine are not doing the same thing, I mean, in part, that the music part of her music is meant to be a place to drop her head into for a few minutes, to grok on a pulse, while the verbal part is there to express, often elliptically, the concerns of a young mind. At worst, in the kind of pop music T-Rose wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, those concerns are numbingly conventional, but even the more sophisticated lyrics speak to the exaggerated optimism or cynicism of adolescence, the need to be appreciated as wise and knowing, even when those of us who have been through it already, now recognize those attitudes as pose.

angry young men

Slight digression: The question of pose is most obvious in the many band photos used for PR or for CD covers. The musicians look so serious and world-wise: You can’t put anything over on them. But you can run through hundreds of photos and they all seem to be the same people: surly faces, collars drawn up, hands in their pockets standing in a warehouse district street to prove their working-class origins. One can’t help recognize the same memes from the Angry Young Men of England in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s as if every band has seen photos of John Osborne and wants to be Richard Burton from Look Back in Anger or Tom Courtney from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The straight-jacket of the meme is limiting.

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Back to the main issue: The music of rock and pop seems meant to create a pervasive mood throughout the length of a song — and except for a few experiments, all this music falls into the 3 to 5 minute song form.

Classical music, on the other hand, revels in contrast: The tempos keep changing, vigorous first themes alternate with quiet second themes. An established key center is disrupted by a series of wrenching modulations only to be reaffirmed. Instead of a single simple emotion, there is a constant development of emotions. When I find T-Rose’s music boring, what I mean is it doesn’t grow — but then, it’s not meant to. And one of the things she finds boring in my music is that it never settles down into something she can depend on, to give her that one single, clear emotion she wants from her tune.

Another thing: For her music, as I said, the words are paramount. The music behind the words seems to function more like the music in a film: to underline the sentiment, but not to express it directly. Something interesting to hear while the “real” action is happening in the words. For my music — at least for the big 19th century pieces that make up the bulk of the repertoire — the music attempts to make an argument from start to finish, like the slow shift from c-minor to C major in Beethoven’s Fifth, or the chapters of Mahler’s Third, “What the fields tell me,” “What the birds tell me,” “What love tells me.” It works like an opera, telling a story — musically — from start to finish. To hear its meaning, you have to be aurally sensitive to changes in harmony, in orchestration, in dynamics, in the ways the themes change and grow. The way you hear the E-flat arpeggiated tune at the beginning of the Eroica changes from a closed-off, harmony-denying drop to its D-flat in the third bar to that bright, victorious arpeggio in the recap and coda, where the same tune ends on the upper B-flat dominant that seems to rise above all the violence and disaster of the previously heard music. Classical music is about development; pop music seems to be about stasis.

Arcade Fire: yet again -- hands in pockets

Arcade Fire: yet again — hands in pockets

I write as if I think classical music is superior to pop music — and I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to that prejudice — but that is not what I’m writing about here. Rather than argue that one music is superior, I’m saying their goals are so different, so at odds, that it is almost silly to compare them at all. One might as well compare apples to double-entry bookkeeping.

But I wanted to note something interesting about the words in the music T-Rose gave me.

The conventions of prosody have shifted dramatically. In the “old days” — as recently as the Beatles — words were written as poetry and scanned with regular meter, and carefully crafted to fit the tunes. In this, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were no different from Oscar Hammerstein II. Think of such lyrics as, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Every accented word drops on every accented note, with the weaker beats hitting off-beats in the tune. A comfortable fit. The same with “Some enchanted evening,” or “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” or “You should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good lookin’ she looks like a man.”

Even the Rolling Stones followed the conventions: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until the darkness goes.”

This is what Robert Frost would call playing tennis with a net.

Playing with the net can bring delightful surprise and pleasure. Think of, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”

Words and music: Hand in glove.

But listen to the songs T-Rose gave me, and something different is happening: First, the words don’t scan; they are more like snippets of prose. Some words have a strong beat, others fit in the space between, no matter how many or how few syllables. They just cram into whatever space is left for them.

Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

The song is designed around a short, repeated pattern of notes that are memorable, or are meant to be memorable. The words fill in the interstices and the music is a mortar between the word-bricks. (This method would seem to derive from the blues, with its statement and licks, but they no longer follow the 12-bar harmonic pattern of the blues).

“You’ll be damned to pining through the windowpanes,/ You know you’d trade your life for any ordinary Joe’s,/ Well do it now or grow old,/ Your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold.”

There’s no regular rhythm to the words. But over and over in these songs, I do hear a pattern, and it is a surprising “revenant” from the past: It is the pattern of Medieval English verse — the four-beat line split in half with a caesura, or pause. Like The Seafarer or Piers Ploughman, the lines come with heavy stresses counted, but unstressed syllables come willy-nilly, and always that pause in the middle.

“I looked on my left side (pause) as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman (pause) worthily clothed.”

Think of the line by Pope: To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Then try these lines from Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes:

“Come down from the mountain (pause) you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us (pause) follow my ornate song.”

If Norwegian Wood had been written by Wilco, no doubt its words would be something like: “I got a girl (pause) She had me.”

(I doubt this is in any way a conscious or even unconscious DNA reappearing in pop music from the distant past, but rather that there is something meaningful in such a line that means it can reappear like convergent evolution that makes a marsupial Dingo look like a canine. Anyway, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing that habit.)

The pattern occurs in song after song that T-Rose gave me. With this one variation. In some songs, the two-beat (pause) two-beat is followed by a closing three-beat line. The Black Keys’ Little Black Submarine:

“I should’ve seen it glow (pause) But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind” (three beats).

(In conventional prosody, “I should’ve seen it glow” would scan at three beats — “I SHOULD have SEEN it GLOW” — but with the music under it, it has only two beats: “I SHOULD’ve seen it GLOW.”)

It’s a whole different prosody; a whole nother esthetic.

I have listened yet again to the songs on T-Rose’s list, and I can hear many interesting bits in them. I even came to think very highly of the music in Dance yrself Clean — it actually goes somewhere. But overall, I’m stuck where I began: Popular and rock music — even indie music — is too simple musically, too repetitive, too harnessed in its beat, and written with lyrics created under an esthetic that I am simply too old to be simpatico with. I can respect it, but I cannot enjoy it.

I think the same for Tallulah Rose: I believe, on her part, she has already given up on Bach and Copland. I have not heard anything from her about it.

conductor ecstasy

“It doesn’t matter how badly they played,” said my old mentor, Dimitri, “if the symphony ends with a lot of loud, rousing brass, it will get a standing ovation.”

It is the end of a symphony, more than anything that has gone before, that leaves the most vivid impression on its audience. And I don’t mean the coda of the finale, but those last repeated chords that hammer home the end, those tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant tuttis that were so viciously lampooned by Eric Satie in his Embryons Deséchés.

Satie embryons deseches 1

Sometimes they never seem to be willing to give up and let you go home. Beethoven’s Fifth is the poster child for this cliche (not that it was a cliche when the composer first did it).

But ever since, the bringing home the tonic key and signing off a 45-minute symphony has been left to block chords pounding our ears.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are many examples of composers doing something interesting, surprising and creative with those end notes.

Here are my top five symphony conclusions:

Brahms symphony 2 with arrows

Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 73 — This is the symphony that Dimitri meant when he talked about rousing brass. No symphony comes close to the exciting, fresh, explosive yelling-it-out in ecstasy rah-rah that winds up this monument. It’s already loud and compelling when the trumpets, horns and winds sing out a quadruple-repeated and harmonized Nachschlag (turn) and do it again a third higher (first yellow arrow in the score). The audience is going “whoopee” and then the trombones and bass trombone hit and hold a D-major chord (which Brahms particularly marks fortissimo) over the staccato final chords of the rest of the orchestra, and finally resting on a tutti D. Wow. You always want to stand up and cheer at the end — which audiences habitually do.

Haydn Farewell Symphony

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp, “Farewell” — Modern instruments can negotiate most keys fairly well, but in Haydn’s day, F-sharp was a pretty out-there key, which made this symphony strange sounding to begin with. There was an extra bite of instruments that could not quite play easily in key. This is the only symphony Haydn wrote in this orphan key. It is a “Sturm und Drang” symphony, full of sound and fury, accentuated by the odd key choice, but the finale ends in a whimper, not a bang. It is the opposite of the Brahms. In fact, Haydn has the instruments stop playing, one by one, and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end playing a simple A-sharp below an F-sharp, as the concertmaster blows out the candle that would have illuminated his sheet music. A visually dramatic end, and a musically audacious feat.

Sibelius symphony 5 piano score

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, op. 82 — Silence is the astonishing surprise at the end of Sibelius’s Fifth, also, but loaded in between otherwise standard cadential chords. It was a really audacious thing to do — bring the symphony to a rousing climax and then stop everything for five beats, then hit another chord and wait again. Over and over at the end, with irregular silences between the bang-chords. If you count them, you can see the rests are oddly spaced, which gives the music a real off-balance feeling, like you cannot know what to expect. If you count out the rests in quarter-note time and the outbursts of tutti, you get: 1-2-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-Bang, 1-2-3-Bang. (When he wrote the first draft of the symphony, those rests were filled in with noodling in the orchestra, the effect was bland, but he left these “black holes” there instead and blew the minds of his audience.)

Mahler symphony 9

Mahler, Symphony No. 9 — The last notes of Mahler’s final symphony, after 80 minutes of angst and rancor, are marked “ersterbend,” “dying.” The last two pages of the symphony take a full six minutes to play, attenuated and stretched to the limit of concentration by player and audience alike. They are orchestral whispers — death-bed speech as the music quietly accepts death. When played with the proper attitude, the audience greets the final silence not with applause, but with hush. In Amsterdam in 1995, when Claudio Abbado played it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Mahler Festival, the audience stayed silent for several literal minutes before any applause, each member gazing into his or her own private abyss before coming back to reality and applauding the performance.

Leningrad children prepare for gas attack

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 in A, op. 141 — This has to be one of the most peculiar symphonies in the repertoire, with its quotation of the Lone Ranger tune from Rossini’s William Tell in the first movement, and turning Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde into a waltz in the finale. But the final moments of the symphony are a complete enigma: Over a hushed pedal point in the violins, which goes on for two minutes, the percussion ding, snap and clang quietly in a mechanical tick-tock over and over, with xylophone, woodblock, castanets, glockenspiel, tympani, snare drum and triangle until a final C-sharp (the third of the tonic A-major chord) dings a final punctus, sounded on glockenspiel and celeste. What was Shostakovich thinking? He never explained. He smiled like the Cheshire cat.

Beethoven symphony 9 strings

One last note — There is one symphony ending that has a surprising finish that you almost never phase 4hear. It is buried under a welter of excited sound. When the chorus sings its final “Götterfunken” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the coda that follows builds up steam quickly and drives home to a final D major chord. It is in the final chords that Beethoven hides an extra fillip: He has his fiddles, which are already racing as fast as they can go, double the number of notes they have to play — dig-ga-dig-ga to diggadada–diggadada — and the tympani doubles its speed, too. This detail is usually buried in the overwhelming drive of the rest of the orchestra, but one recording makes the change clear: a 1967 recording by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony, originally released on a London Phase 4 LP, with singers Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Alexander Young and Donald McIntyre. Its drive is overwhelming.

stokie bach 2
He stand up on stage, his back to the audience, raises his arms, flicks a thin shaft of wood and the orchestra sounds. As he beats time, the musicians keep up. He slows his arms, they slow the music; he speeds up, they race forward.

What is the magic of a symphony conductor?

The single most-often asked question I got as a classical music critic by a non-musician is: Just what does a conductor do? Is he necessary? Could I do it?

And this is a difficult question to answer, because orchestras differ, conductors differ and the music they play varies. No single answer is quite right. conductor 3 Lenny

For instance, when a Leonard Bernstein stands up in front of the venerable Vienna Philharmonic and gives a tiny wiggle of his wrist, the music stirs, just as if the baton were a swizzle stick; if a journeyman conductor stands in front of, say, an orchestra in Muncie, Indiana, and waves his arms like a madman, the players likely puzzle what the dickens he is trying to accomplish, or worse, are forced to ignore him.

(Or her — there are finally a growing number of women maestros, or maestras).

We say the conductor “leads” the orchestra, but what that means can vary quite a bit.

conductor 11 eduardo marturetIn current times, many conductors find themselves primarily in the position of traffic cops, keeping the music running on time, slowing the aggressiveness of the brass, or encouraging the timid violas to speak up.

In past times, the podium-master was a magician, drawing from the orchestra a singular and personal reinterpretation of the score.

But, you say, aren’t the musicians professionals? Don’t they know how to play the music? And, of course, in a good orchestra, they are. If it is an “old hand” group, with a long history of playing together, the orchestra may decide they know better than the tyro conductor how that Mozart symphony should go, and then, no matter what the minimaestro signals from the stand, they ignore him and go their own way. This often improves the performance; old hands often DO know what they’re doing.james de preist

It also depends on whether the conductor is attempting a “standard model” performance, matching the so-called Platonic ideal performance that almost every classical music fan has in his head — in such cases, the orchestra can run on auto pilot quite well — or whether he is an idiosyncratic baton waver, who will be asking the musicians to rethink the warhorse, in which case, if they are a conscientious orchestra, they will attempt to follow the baton.

Some famous conductors were notorious for changing their interpretations during performance. Wilhelm Furtwangler, most notoriously, could ask them to do the opposite of what they had rehearsed. He often defended this by saying he doesn’t know what will happen in the hall, where acoustics can change with the audience, how full it is, or how much wool overcoat the crowd — and the reverberant sound — may be buried under. He also depended on momentary inspiration for his performances: This gave the Berlin Phil under his stick a presence and vitality rare in the industry: Every moment was alive with possibility, and never a routine run through.

Or Sir Thomas Beecham, who famously hated to rehearse, and would spend the time running quickly through each piece and then announce, “That sounds about right,” and then, during performance, ask them all kinds of somersaults and bounce from the podium.conductor 2

Needless to say, not everyone can get an orchestra to turn on a dime, follow the baton like a setter on a leash, and roll over the interpretive cliff with the arch of an eyebrow. The major maestros can and could do this. The itinerant guest conductor is not often in that league (make that “almost never” and then cross out the “almost”).

There are those who decry an overly demonstrative baton-waver (Bernstein used to alarm an army of critics, who found him frantic on the podium, only later to change their initial opinions of him when they discovered he could draw life-altering performances from his charges). And there are those who praise the Laconian reserve of others, believing that there is some virtue in not hamming it up.

The truth is, either approach can create great music.abbado conducting

A symphony conductor has several jobs, not all apparent to the audience.

Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the major part of his work is done in rehearsal, not in performance. While working with the musicians, the conductor lays down the outlines of what he wants in the performance, things such as how fast they should play, how loud, and when the oboe should play louder to be heard over the horns, and when the horns should tone it down, so the oboe can be heard.

They work over phrasings, over such arcane things as the bowings to be used by the string players, the amount of vibrato, or when to alter the scorings (there are times when the parts must be gently rewritten for better effect — each conductor has his own conscience on such matters, but even the score-fanatic Arturo Toscanini regularly touched up his Beethoven).

conductor 4 kentThey also decide when to take marked repeats and when to ignore them. (Failure to make such things clear can create disaster, as when Beethoven screwed up a repeat during the premiere of his Choral Fantasy and had to stop the music altogether and restart the band.)

In rehearsal, the conductor’s personality and approach can make a difference. In the past, some conductors were absolute dictators, brooking no backtalk from the galley slaves. Others were more collegial, asking in conversation with the musicians what might work best. (Sometimes the orchestra, for instance, knowing the hall better than the visiting conductor, can help him understand the idiosyncrasies of the performance space).

Nowadays, dictators are rare. Musicians unions and simple common-sense have toned town the tyrants. A conductor cannot easily get away treating his subordinates like dogs. This is better for the poor musicians, but not always better for the music.conductor 7

Second, during the actual performance, the conductor tries to keep the music running on the schedule he has set during rehearsals, and tries to keep the musicians from straying too far from the plan. He beats time with his baton and uses his free hand to give hints, such as “more vibrato, please,” or “you, up there with the trombones, a little humility, please, we’re trying to listen to the cellos.”

But there is a third job the conductor has, and it is sometimes overlooked, indeed, oftentimes derided. That is the conductor’s duty to the audience. And I mean his visual duty, not merely his sonic one.

That is, the conductor, who knows the music well, can help the unsuspecting public understand what is going on in the music. Regular concertgoers don’t need much help with Beethoven’s Fifth, but especially in less familiar music, the body language of the conductor can point the listener in the right direction. The motions of the conductor can be theatrical for the audience, not merely technical for the players.

Certainly, there is a level of puritanism rampant in the classical music world that frowns on conductorial theatrics with the same disapproving hauteur that it reserves for those neophytes who applaud between movements, or leave the hall before the encores in what is sometimes called a “standing evacuation.” But a certain amount of theater can be a great help for the audience, who are often in the process of falling into a “confused slumber” while the music is droning on, and they can wake up for those moments when the conductor is hovering mid-air like an apache helicopter.bugs bunny conducting

The magic a great conductor can create is one of those things, like charisma, that we have all experienced but can never explain. Some got it, some don’t. The pretenders are embarrassing.

There are fashions in classical music, just as there are with everything else. Currently, there is a widespread prejudice that a good conductor shouldn’t “interpret” the music, but should let the music speak for itself. This sounds nice, but it is rather like telling an actor playing Hamlet, just speak the words clearly, don’t “interpret” them. There is a reverence for the score that would do a hardshell Baptist proud speaking about holy writ.

Yet, some of the greatest recordings to come down to us demonstrate that the personal vision of the conductor can make the music, not only come alive, but provide for the audience such a profound and moving experience that they are willing to shell out the price, often dear, of a ticket for the next concert, in hopes of something equally thrilling, even life-changing.

And anyone who actually looks at a score will know, there are hundreds of details that need interpreting. A score is by necessity a rather vague document. It tells us the notes, but not the music.opening two pages

Click to enlarge

Let us take a well-known example: the first page and a half of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We can point out a few of the puzzles a conductor must deal with. Sure, he can rely on his memory of a thousand other performances, but a conductor should always start with the score, and this one has lots and lots of questions for him.

Right from the get-go, there are those four opening notes: “Dah-dah-dah-Dum.” Then repeated a step lower. opening motif

They are usually played as a triplet and a downbeat: “ONE-2-3-ONE.” But notice that the score actually begins with a rest. This is in 2/4 time and there are four eighth-note beats before the bar line. It is “(rest) 1-2-3-ONE.” Which throws the rhythm slightly off and turns it from a triplet to a pair of iambs. The first and third beats of a bar are accented; the second and fourth are recessive. The first note is on the second beat, so, the first bars go like: “I CAME to PLAY; I’m HERE to STAY.”

OK, but that creates a problem. As the symphony progresses, we hear that four note motif hundreds of times, and often so fast, piled one on the other that keeping the fine point of the rhythm is very difficult, especially for lesser orchestras. And when we hear it so often as a pattern, we tend to hear it as a triplet and downbeat.

Further, if we look deeper into the symphony, we find that the four note motif is repeated in all four movements, and in the third, it comes in a triple meter: It actually becomes ONE-2-3-ONE.scherzo

So, perhaps Beethoven always intended it to sound like three-and-one. Here is a decision that has to be made in rehearsal: The orchestra has to all agree, or at least the conductor has to decide which way he’s going to play it.

You can hear different recordings of the symphony and in some, you can hear the triplet-and-downbeat and in others you hear the pair of iambs.

The next decision you have to make concerns those two prominent fermatas (the “eyebrows”) over the second bar and the fifth bar.opening bar with fermata pointed

They indicate Beethoven want you to lengthen those notes and hold them longer than their measured length. But how long should you hold them? This will depend on how you see the rest of the symphony, or at least the rest of the movement.

Look at the first page and a half and notice how often there are rests and fermatas. This is a very odd symphony. It begins with a lot of ambiguities. Not only the issue of triplet or iamb, but what key is the damn thing in? The first four pitches are G to E-flat and F to D. There is no bass note to tell us whether we are in the key of E-flat major or in C-minor. It could be either. And with all those pauses and fermatas, we can’t initially tell whether the movement will be fast or slow.

As Professor Peter Schickele says in his sportscast of the Fifth Symphony, “I can’t tell if it’s fast or slow, because it keeps stopping.”
benjamin zander conducting vertical

This brings up a major interpretive choice the conductor has to make. Should he try to smooth things out to make a continuous movement with a propulsive sense of drive, or should he emphasize the herky-jerky stop and go? After all, Beethoven intentionally put all those stop signs along the road.

You can get an immediate idea of what your conductor thinks with how he handles those two first fermatas.
If he wants to drive the thing forward, he will barely hold the E-flat and D under the eyebrows, and keep the rhythm as propulsive as possible. Otherwise, he may tend to  hold those notes a very, very long time, breaking up any sense of forward motion.

Listen to two extremes: First, conductor Benjamin Zander, with a student orchestra plays the first movement like a bat out of hell, running through the stop signs. It is exciting and propulsive. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gXdWELSgEQ

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01Then, listen to Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1947, in the first performance the conductor was allowed to lead, after being finally cleared of Nazi leanings. The emotions, not just the thrill, are deep and profound. The world has just survived the worst war in history and the man who loved music and Beethoven above all else is finally allowed back with his beloved musicians. What a deeply moving performance, but how utterly different from Zander’s.

Listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qMwGeb6SfY

Some will say that it is Furtwangler’s emotions we are hearing, not Beethoven’s, but perhaps they need to be reminded that what we’re really talking about is emotions we all share. The audience had just been through a great conflagration. Their nerves were shot, emotions were near the surface. The performance acknowledges that: It is music for the NOW of the moment, and not a recreation of some 19th century moment. Surely this is the true purpose of the concert. If Furtwangler makes the undercurrent all the more palpable, he is truly giving us the heart of the music.conductor 9 mahler

This may seem like a lot of fuss to be made over four lousy bars of music, but they are essential to understand the music.

Now, if you look at the succeeding bars, you will see that the four-note motif gets tossed around the string section, from second violin to viola to first violin, and then repeats, as if it is piling the motif up on itself.

Taking approach No. 1, you want the motif to build into a theme, and you want the pattern to play as if it were performed by a single instrument, in a single singing line. If you take approach No. 2, you want to phrase the thing so that there is just a little hitch between violin 2, viola, and violin 1, so they can be heard as separate voices.

That phrase repeats, and then the four-note motif goes through its first metamorphosis, and becomes not three repeated notes, but in the treble, two repeated notes, and descending eighth note and then the downbeat note. It is a slide downhill. It is answered by the bass notes doing two repeats and a rising eighth note before the downbeat. Going uphill. with sine wave overlappedApproach No. 1 is to play these patterns almost as a sine-wave down-up, down-up, again as if it were a single singing voice. Approach No. 2 plays treble against bass, as if they were arguing, “I’m going downhill!” “NO! I want to go UP!” Back and forth.

Again, you accomplish this by phrasing the notes with a little hitch between the parts. That hitch is too short to be notated, and in fact, doesn’t necessarily alter the beat at all, but rather you simply hesitate a microsecond before each entry, creating a minuscule gap between the phraselets. Disintegration, not the through-line, is the guiding metaphor for this version of a performance.

You might notice in the score that underlying this sine-wave/argument the cellos and bassoons are playing an alternating C and B, which are the home note and leading tone of the key of C-minor. The conductor has to decide how prominent to make this counter-melody. Is it merely background, or is it something paying auditory attention to?

You might also notice that until this point, the double bass has had nothing to play, outside underlining the opening motif notes. Since then, they have been silent. But now, the whole orchestra lights up in a tutti cadence, and we come to a natural “joint” in the structure of the symphony, a big gesture rounding off a section of the musical argument. (You don’t need to understand this, but the cadence uses a D-major chord, technically the dominant of the dominant, to end the cadence on a G-major chord, the dominant chord of C-minor — for the first time, Beethoven has used a chord outside the key of the symphony).

But wait, as Ron Popeil might say. That cadential G-major chord includes a whole note with fermata on the first violin section, which seems to have taken it upon itself to play “outside the box,” as it were, refusing to punch out that G-major with the same brusk hit that the rest of the orchestra uses, it holds on, as if it were a misbehaving child.

violin fermata 2

Again: How long should the violins hold that fermata? Approach No. 1 says, not long, we don’t want to slow things down. Approach No. 2 says “But we’re trying to interrupt the flow as often as we can.”

While we are on that half-note G that the violins hold, a decision has to be made whether the note should be played at a constant dynamic level, and a constant intensity, or whether it should include a bit of a climax: Should they slightly increase the volume as they hold the note, or slide the bow lower on the string to change the intensity and timbre of the tone as they hold it; should they do a slight decrescendo on that note, letting it die away; should they do a slight increase and then decrease in volume or intensity, making a kind of whoooOOOOooo out of the note; and should they just end the note, or let it die away, or should they punctuate the end with a kind of plosive end, as if they ended in a “T” or “P” sound? The choice will depend on what the conductor believes the symphony is trying to accomplish.

So, with that fermata, does the conductor hold up the next series of notes a bit, or does he dive ahead as strictly as he can? Of course, the next notes are the four-note motif again, and another fermata and another stutter and hold. conductor 5 bert hulselmans

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the basic tempo. Beethoven gives us a metronome marking for the movement, where a half-note beat registers 108 on the Maelzel metronome. This is very fast, indeed. There is a  problem — or at least a question — about Beethoven’s metronome markings. They are all rather fast, compared to the way the symphonies have been traditionally performed. The HIPP (“historically informed performance practice”) crowd believes the metronome markings should be taken seriously and biblically. The traditional crowd notes that Beethoven didn’t come up with these metronome markings until late in his career — they are retrofit to the scores — and that when he came up with them, he was stone deaf. They point out that the early metronome Beethoven had may have been malfunctioning. And that if you hear music only in your head, it is likely to be heard faster than you would experience it in a working ear.

When he actually tried to perform the allegro of his Ninth Symphony at the tempo marking he originally indicated, he realized it was off by a third, and reduced it from a metronome marking of 120 to 88. We should keep that in mind when we proscribe any variations from the printed metronome numbers.

Either way, Beethoven made clear that he wanted the tempo indicated to refer to the beginning tempo only, and that he expected his musicians to alter the tempo as the music progressed to further its expressivity.

The quote: “My tempo markings are valid only for the first bars, as feeling and expression must have their own tempi,” he wrote.

Beethoven was no fan of metronomic performance.

And, how can you have a meaningful metronome marking when the music keeps stopping and notes are asked to be held against the prevailing metronome beat?

A lot of decision have to be made even in this first page and a half. Many of them have to be hashed out in rehearsal, so the orchestra is on the same page with the conductor.

But others can change during performance. Orchestra overhead shot copy

The phrasing has to be agreed on before the performance, but things like how long to hold the fermatas may change during performance depending on many factors.

You know in theater, how the audience can affect the actors’ performance. A good audience brings out a better performance; a bad audience can turn the actors into automatons or can make them exaggerate their performances to try to force a reaction from a recalcitrant audience.

The same in music, and the conductor may alter his tempo, the length of holds and rests, in order to underline some interpretive detail that he believes the audience is not paying attention to, or conversely, is so in tune with the music, that he can risk some interpretive byways he would not attempt with a less attentive group.conductor 14 muslim

Or, it could be the occasion: Some national figure has just been assassinated, or some city has been bombed: the ritual significance of the music may make for a deliberately more emotional performance.

Furtwangler recorded the Fifth at least 12 times over the course of his career, from 1926 to 1954, and anyone who cares about the music deeply wants to have as many as possible, because they are each different. There’s one from before the war, during the war, the one just after the war when the conductor was first freed to perform again, and then recordings from the 1950s, in better sound, but as the conductor was aging. In 1943 in Berlin, the war was in everyones’ hearts and minds, and Furtwangler brings greater intensity to the music, with longer fermatas and more intense phrasing. Other recordings he made at different times are quite different. The particular way he plays the music was most likely spur of the moment, created during performance and not in rehearsal, as he asked the orchestra to “feel” along with him what he was attempting to do.

I hope I haven’t bored you with too much detail, or patronized you by saying things you already know quite well. I just want to help you enjoy classical music as much as I do. I cannot imagine life without it: As Nietzsche said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

beethovn lede photo
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.

casals
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