The Friday Symposium: Thomas Tallis and White Châteauneuf-du-Pape

On this edition of the Friday Symposium, we go even further back in music history to motets composed by Thomas Tallis. One of my Desert Island Discs is certainly the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Spem in Alium, along with other Tallis compositions.

One of the most complex and ethereal compositions of its or any other age, there is one pairing that seems appropriate and just happens to be a fantastic late summer wine. While the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are more plentiful, the few white wines the region produces are among the best in France (and, thus, the world). Like its red counterpart, white CDP is typically made from a blend of grapes, a combination of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Clairette Rose, Grenache Gris, Picardan Blanc, Piquepoul Blanc and Piquepoul Gris. The actual blend and the proportions thereof are left entirely to the winemaker.

The La Fagotière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is one of my favorites. Fermented in stainless steel, it exhibits none of the secondary oak flavors that typically get in the way of white wines. It is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picquepoul Blanc, bringing peach armoas and citrus flavors to the fore. Unlike many CDPs, this is made to drink on the younger side and the 2018s can be found fairly easily for about $40 a bottle. A bit on the expensive side, but just a perfect match for the Tallis.

Echoes of Fate: Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata

I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvellous, superhuman music. I always think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvellous things humans can do.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Maxim Gorky

Read The Tempest.

Ludwig van Beethoven, when asked to explain his new sonata

Beethoven’s second period began with his Eroica Symphony, but opus numbers are always deceptive with Beethoven. Research has uncovered that Beethoven worked on several compositions at once, which is why his themes crop up in multiple works that were being composed contemporaneously. He worked on multiple symphonies, piano sonatas and concertos together, making it impossible to know which actually came first and where certain musical ideas began. Perhaps it was how his mind worked, a symptom of his encroaching deafness, or otherwise due to his legendary lack of organization, but teasing out Beethoven’s musical timeline is simply impossible. So while Beethoven’s second period is often referred to as his “Heroic” Period, after his Third Symphony, his maturation from Mozart-clone to something else may have begun elsewhere.

A good candidate for that change is his 23rd piano sonata, the so-called “Appassionata.” For all the importance of his symphonies, Beethoven’s piano sonatas are where I feel most connected with Beethoven. The Appassionata was composed in that same burst of creativity that resulted in the Eroica symphony and the Kreutzer violin sonata, as well as the first stab at his opera, Fidelio. Here, as in its siblings of 1802-1804, Beethoven’s compositions are becoming more complex. For example, listen to how Beethoven introduces a secondary lyrical theme and interweaving it with the original as the first movement progresses. The Appassionata is also notable in that it anticipates the Fifth Symphony, still half a decade away. Listen carefully to the first movement—you can clearly hear the “fate chords” that introduce and dominate the first movement of the Fifth Symphony reoccur here.

In the Appassionata, Beethoven continues to undermine expectations of the Classical sonata form—failing to repeat the exposition, but repeating the development and the recapitulation, and shockingly introducing a new theme at the end.  And those are just the most obvious. In sonata form, the composer is expected to present two contrasting themes in the exposition, but Beethoven’s second theme is more or less a variation of the first. This creates a sense of unity throughout the movement, something Beethoven would do on a much grander scale in his Fifth Symphony. Like a great jazz musician, Beethoven needs only the briefest motif on which to create an entire sonic world, using harsh dissonances (often deployed in thunderous chords) to break the prevailing tonality of the piece, sending it new directions. Listen for those “sour chords” in the finale–still clearly identifiable to a modern ear; shocking to its contemporarires. Beethoven deploys these sonic bombs to disrupt our expectations, something that he has already done rhythmically and dynamically (moving from pianissimo to forte without crescendo) throughout. Indeed it is Beethoven’s elevation of rhythym to become an equal partner to melody and harmony is, at least in my view, the true secret to his enduring appeal. Take it from this middling musician–the most challenging aspect of playing Beethoven is rhythm.

The Appassionata does not settle the argument of whether Beethoven was a Classicist or a Romantic, but lends support to both sides of the debate. This music shocked contemporary audiences: Classical Period art was all about proportion and Beethoven’s disjointed forms, dynamics and rhythms were undermining those very elegant proportions that Haydn and Mozart had so carefully constructed. Beethoven may have bought the house, but he was doing a full gut renovation on the insisde.

Beethoven made his name as a performer, the leading virtuoso of his day. And if his tempo markings are indicative of his skill (rumors abound as to Beethoven’s faulty metronome), he might just be the greatest pianist of all-time. Of course, Beethoven was still using a fortepiano, which was quite a different instrument from the 88-key, iron soundboard-based instrument we know today. So, to compare, here are two recordings. First, we turn again to Emil Gilels for what I think is a definitively sensitive recording. If you are interested in an alternative approach that is more virtuosic, Google Vladimir Horowitz’s recording. Much faster, more dynamic and bombastic.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”:

But let’s also consider what this sonata would have sounded like on an instrument similar to what Beethoven was actually playing at the time. Here a more recent recording by Ronald Brautigam, playing the final movement on a modern recreation of a somewhat later fortepiano:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”:

While I appreciate much of what period instruments have to offer (my choice for the Eroica was on period instruments taken at Beethoven’s indicated pacing), my heart, at least here, belongs to Gilels.

The Friday Symposium: Bach and The Martini

Leave it to academia to turn something wonderful into something dreadful. When most people hear the world “symposium” today, they think of a bunch of talking heads sitting on a podium massaging their own egos. In the Ancient World, however, a symposium was decidedly more fun–after all, the word symposium is derived from the Greek “symposio”, which means “drinking together.” A symposium, in Ancient Rome, was therefore a drinking party where wine and music flowed together. So when Our Friend from Boston requested a paring of music and drinks in this blog, my mind turned to the original meaning of symposium. I will also note that this idea was in part stolen from The Friday Belt, which was one of the best features of what was probably my favorite blog ever.

The first drink, of course, has to be the Martini. It is one of the first and one of the best, an icon that is bracingly refreshing in summer as it is the literal representation of winter in a glass. No drink brings as much history and atmospherics to the table. And once you know how to make one, the riffs on the formula are nearly endless.

Let’s start with what a Martini is not. It is not made with vodka. It is not simply chilled gin in a glass. It is a cocktail and thus made from a combination of ingredients, one of which is dry vermouth. I love vermouth and take my “dry Martinis” quite wet by modern standards. Julia Child was fond of the Reverse Martini (two parts vermouth to one part gin). Audrey Saunders brought back the Fifty-Fifty Martini. But the classic is and will always be three parts gin to one part vermouth, which is what I drink. Finally, a Martini, like every cocktail that is made solely from spirits, should stirred, not shaken. There is little more depressing in life than ordering a Martini and getting ice chips floating at the top of the glass. In this regard, this classic scene from The Thin Man (first scene in the montage), was complely wrong. Incidentally, the glass used by Nick Charles in these films is now known as the Nick and Nora glass, which is as an ideal vessel for a Martini and nearly any other variation of it.

A Martini, like most cocktails, should be small, no more than four ounces total. Bars love these swimming pool masquerading as cocktail glasses, but really that is just a vehicle for a warm drink. A Martini should be silky smooth in texture, bracing in flavor, and icy cold in temperature. A perfectly made Martini is a thing of beauty; a poorly made Martini is the cocktail served in hell.

Today’s Martini drinker is faced with an endless set of gin and vermouth combinations. The classic, Beefeater and Martini & Rossi, is a classic for a reason. A more upscale version, The Botanist and Channing Daughters VerVino Variation 1, amps up the flavor considerably. For those who do not like juniper-flavored gins, Plymouth and Perucchi Bianco make for a nice pairing. As for the other more popular premium gins, I do not like Tanqueray in a Martini (a G&T is an entirely different story) and I do not like Bombay, either in its original or sapphire versions, altogether. My favorite is decidely middle of the road: Broker’s and Dolin Dry. Three to one, stirred, with a dash of orange bitters and olives thank you very much. Both will make less of a dent in your wallet than any of the others mentioned here.

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are similarly bracing, brilliant when perfectly executed and unlistenable when they are not. Today’s recording is Nathan Milstein’s. His performance is cold perfection of technique, the heat of which only emerges after you’ve had a few.

The classic “Dry” Martini is not, however, the original version. It is, in fact, a riff on the original recipie–The Martinez. The Martinez is made with equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, to which a teaspon of maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of orange bitters are added before stirring into a coupe garnished with a twist of lemon. It is altogether a solid drink, even if the Dry version we know today was a clear improvement.

Just like the hipster bartenders who have resurrected the Martinez, period instrument performers have sought to improve on Milstein’s classic recording, bringing historically informed instruments, bows, and techniques to the table, all in an effort to get closer to Bach’s ideal. Like these recreated Old Tom gins, period instrument recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas are interesting but can’t really match Milstein’s peerless classic. But both the drink and these new recordings have their fans. Thomas Zehetmair, in his more recent recording of these works, gets closer to that ideal than most. Perhaps a Martinez for that one.

Beethoven Goes Boom: In Celebration of the Memory of a Great Man

You either die a hero of you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

The Dark Knight

Beethoven’s Symphonies are major events in music history.  And that really began in 1803 with his Third, the Eroica.  Settle in, this is going to be a long one.

To understand what Beethoven was doing in the Eroica, you need to understand what was going on in Beethoven’s life and in European history generally. As discussed last time, the teenaged Beethoven was a progressive, who welcomed the French Revolution as the first shot of what he and other idealists hoped would be a wave of popular uprisings across Europe, overthrowing the ancient and oppressive ruling aristocracies. But as Revolution gave way to Terror and dictatorship, those hopes appeared dashed. Until He emerged. Rising from the lowest levels of society (his father was a lawyer) by proving his military genius in the army, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the dictatorship and became First Consul of France, an echo back to the ancient Roman Republic. Napoleon set about reforming France as reflected in the revolutionary ideals of Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Beethoven like so many idealists across Europe welcomed Napoleon’s emergence as nothing short of the Hero of the Revolution.

Beethoven in particular had cause to celebrate Napoleon, who appeared set to use French military might to bring French freedoms and rights to all of Europe. Joseph II, the progressive ruler of the Holy Roman Empire had died in 1790 and his successor, Leopold II had lasted barely two years on the throne. Francis II, destined to be the last Holy Roman Emperor, was decidedly reactionary, revsering many of Joseph II’s progressive policies and tamping down on popular sentiment across his empire. Many of Beethoven’s friends were caught up in the opposition to Francis’s rule–Beethoven was spared their fate only due to his many supporters among the aristocracy in Vienna.

During this time, Beethoven was also waging an inner struggle that was considerably more significant. By 1802, he could no longer deny the horror that fate had dealt him: He was going deaf and there was no cure. For someone who lived for music, this was a cruel torture indeed. Beethoven strongly considered suicide to save himself the pain, but resolved to soldier on, trusting that he could continue to serve his art through pure intellect, even if time would soon rob him of his ability to actually hear it.

Having taken that decision, he resolved to compose a massive symphony, unlike anything ever written to date. And he would dedicate it to his hero, Napoleon, relocate to France on the wings of its success and garner new patrons in a country that better reflected his political ideals. It was a good plan: France and Austria were at peace, his ideas for the new symphony were well-advanced, and there was a ready audience at home and abroad for new works. But as they say about the best laid plans of men . . .

In 1804, after he had completed the symphony, Beethoven learned from one of his students that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. Flying into a rage, Beethoven (depending on which account you believe) tore up the title page of the score or otherwise scratched out his dedication to Bonaparte. And a good thing too: By the time of the symphony’s premiere in 1805, France and Austria were at war again.

Quite simply the most important symphony ever written by any composer in the history of the world. Ever. Beethoven, at the age of 32, had finally confronted his deafness, and determined to overcome it.

John Suchet, Classical FM

So what makes the Eroica so important, so revolutionary, as to deserve such praise? Let’s take a look at the music itself. Beethoven set out to create a Heroic story, a musical analogue to Homer’s epics. Keeping that in mind, let’s consider what he wrote.

The First Movement opens with two brash and loud E-Flat Major chords. This was unprecedented, completely unexpected, and totally shocking. They are the first true power chords in history. They grab your attention, while grounding your ear to the home key of E-Flat. It’s hard to find a good parallel in contemporary music, but if pressed, I’d say that Beethoven’s E-Flat Chords were imitated, if they did not directly inspire, the Beatles’ opening chord to A Hard Day’s Night.

The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night:

Like Beethoven, the Beatles were already quite famous, but this chord announced to the world that they, like Beethoven in 1803, were something entirely new. More on the Beatles’ chord here:

Back to Beethoven: Almost immediately following those two thrashed chords, the cellos enter with the heroic theme. The theme itself echoes the opening chords by essentially breaking apart an E-Flat Major triad and presenting its constituent notes individually. The theme is cut short by a C#–one of the most famous dissonances in music history. This is also unexpected, since it introduces a musical conflict into the exposition–C# is not found in the key of E-Flat Major. The conflict is momentarily, if somewhat unsatisfactorily overcome by resolving to a D, but the initial conflict breaks the theme, which returns in fragments played by different sections of the orchestra (a bit like Pierre Rode’s sixth violin concerto, as discussed last time). This tonal struggle in the music is replicated in the rhythms, which move from a steady 3/4 time to a disjoined 2/4 time, made all the more complicated by placing the emphasis strangely on the second beat. This chaos is joined by new rhythms that resemble the beat of horses’ hoofs, as the key soars to B-Flat. The woodwinds enter, but present only pulsing harmonies–a frantic heartbeat. The heroic theme reappears (the theme in the exposition traditionally repeats in sonata form), leading to the development.

The horses reappar throughout the development, along with the fragmented heroic theme, giving the sense that the battle has been joined. Beethoven presents even more jarring harmonies and rhythms, heightening the sense of conflict in the music and leading to a series of very dissonant chords, representing the pain experienced by the hero. The hero seems to overcome his pain and conflict, as his theme reappears, but it collapses upon itself. The woodwinds present a new theme, which dissolves without resolution.

Then the horns sound the heroic theme and the recapitulation begins. The heroic theme opens the recapitulation (also standard sonata form to repeat the theme here), but the jarring C# of the exposition is resolved by a more satisfying C. The horn seemlessly transitions the theme to a flute, giving a sense of peace. Beethoven doubles down on his musical statement in a series of power chords: E-Flat Major; D-Flat Major; and, C Major, reinforcing the resolution of the the opening dissonance. The woodwind theme from the development (the only other theme in the movement) comes back, first in F but then resolving to E-Flat, thereby resolving all conflicts in favor of the hero’s home key. A great fanfare closes out the movement in truly glorious fashion.

And that’s just the first movement! Granted, it was as long as some of his predecessor’s symphonies, but we are starting to get the idea that something truly new is afoot.

The Second Movement opens in Beethoven’s signature key,, C Minor. The traditional slow movement here is presented as a funeral march, taking significant cues from French music. Here, Beethoven composes the soundtrack to the end of life itself. Fate, an ever constant companion in Beethoven’s music from this period, reveals itself: An oboe presents a new theme even as the music shifts to C Major and the woodwinds sound a hymn, before returning to the C-Minor funeral march. That about sums it all up, no? But there is still more to come. Beethoven presents a double fugue on his theme, but this more raw than Bach’s mathematical gems. Beethoven’s fugue is raw and filled with emotional power. A series of power chords sound; the funeral march returns in fragments and the movement ends.

The Third Movement opens with a country dance theme. Taken at a swift beat in Beethoven’s original manuscript (indeed, Beethoven’s stated beat is wickedly fast throughout leading most composers to adjust downward, much to the peril of the music in my view). The dance is wild, almost too fast to be a dance. And the rhythms shift again from 3/4 to 2/4, also strange for a dance.

The Final Movement opens with a grand fanfare which leads to, well, almost nothing. Beethoven unexpectedly dissolves to just a baseline devoid of melody. As many have noted, Beethoven took this baseline from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, which tells the story of how the titan brought civilization and enlightenment to mankind. From this bass line, Beethoven constructs a melody—perhaps the melody that inspired the entire symphony. This theme becomes a fugue, which becomes a march, which becomes a hymn. This is Beethoven at his best—showing off like Mozart did before him. More and more instruments pile on–this is a victorious celebration. The music fades momentarily and the opening fanfare returns, leading to a glorious resolution and suitably grand conclusion.

So what does it all mean? There is little agreement here. Some say that this is where the Romantic Period began. Perhaps, but I cannot shake the fact that Beethoven is adhering to classical forms, even as he upends the details. But the Romantics have a point and it is this.

Beethoven said that his Third Symphony presents the struggle of a great man to overcome hardships. He thought, at the time, that he was writing about Napoleon, but he was really writing about himself. Here, in 1803, Beethoven changes music history forever by telling his own story, with all of his raw emotions fully on display. Eroica is nothing less than Beethoven’s victory over his creeping deafness. Beethoven’s full title: Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo.

Hailed by his supporters and derided by nearly everyone else who heard it at the time, audiences took years to come to terms with Beethoven’s Eroica. But come to terms they did, for Beethoven had strode boldly through the doors that Mozart had opened at the end of his life, showing the world new possibilities for music. Beethoven stripped away the artifice. Music need not be clothed in religious vestments or the shallow emotions of fictional or historical characters. Music, like art and literature, was now free to reveal the innermost emotions of its creator, forging a bond between composer and audience that would endure throughout time.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat, Op. 55 “Eroica”:

Interlude: Pierre Rode

During his time in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name, which the local Vienesse mistook as a signifier of an aristocratic family. The German aristocracy commonly used “von” in their names, while “van” was used by exclusively by commoners. But there was nothing aristocratic about Beethoven.

Coming of age in the latter years of the Enlightenment and steeped in Kantian philosophy in particular, Beethoven loathed the aristocracy even if his home in Bonn was ruled by the more enlightened Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. As Beethoven entered his late teenaged years, France erupted in Revolution. The ideals of the Revolution, the establishment of a Republic, and the commitment to human rights dovetailed perfectly with Beethoven’s youthful outlook on life. Beethoven’s ambitions quickly turned to France, not just as a political and spiritual home, but as a musical one as well.

Just as Mozart repeatedly turned to Italy for inspiration, Beethoven’s primary influence was Gallic. The French School excelled in opera–Beethoven’s lone operatic attempt, Fidelio, was based on French dramatic operas of the 1790s–and, especially, the violin. Despite its origins in Italy, the violin, first through Catherine de Medici and then through violinist-composers such as Lully (both histories detailed here some months ago), the violin reached its late Classical apex in France. Beethoven’s rededication of his most famous violin sonata to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer tells only part of the story.

Pierre Rode was unquestionably one of the greatest violinists of his age, evenutally becoming a court favorite of Napoleon’s. Today, he is most often recalled as having received the dedication of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, which he premiered. He also composed a set of Caprices, which remain (at least in my day) a fairly common set of advanced studies for violin. Rode, however, also composed 13 concertos for violin and orchestra of startling beauty and originality. Until very recently, I was completely unaware of their existence, despite the dog eared copy of Rode’s Caprices gathering dust somewhere in my closet. There was a very good reason for this: The first recordings of these works were first made about 10 years ago.

We are, today and in the years to come, deeply endebtted to the great violinist Friedemann Eichhorn and the Jena Philharmonic for undertaking to record all of Rode’s concertos. Beginning in 2009, Eichhorn dug deep into Rode’s music and has produced a catalog of recordings that, to some extent, stands music history on its head. Next week, we will tackle one of Beethoven’s seminal works, which is to say one of the seminal works in all of music history–his Third Symphony. But even as Beethoven borrowed liberally from his own compositions for that truly titanic composition, I think he also might just have been influenced quite a bit by Rode’s compositions too.

I recommend the entire set enthusiastically, but here are a few highlights. Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 1 repeatedly “recalls” Beethoven’s second period compositions, especially at the start and in the atmospheric second movement–but Rode composed this in 1794, nearly 10 years earlier than comparable Beethoven works.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 3:

Perhaps my favorite of the entire set is Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 3, a supremely polished work that prefigures many later composers. Only this concerto was written in 1798. The opening movement is frightfully difficult, far beyond anything that other composers were demanding of their violinists at the time. Is that a hint of Paganini I hear? It is no accident that when Paganini composed his famous Caprices he also chose to compose a set of 24–the same as Rode had done.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 5:

Finally, Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 6, from about 1800. And that date is important. Here we have a work that features harmonies that move frequently among neighboring keys, disjoined rhythms, and a theme that is so ellusive that it appears largely as fragments across the entire first movement. These are some of the very innovations that Beethoven unleased in his Third Symphony. Given his obsession with France, and the French violin school in particular, it is likely that he did encouter this score–which was published 3 years prior to Beethoven’s work on the Eroica. Rode’s 6th might very well be the wellspring for Beethoven’s second period.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major, Op. 8:

The Strange Tale of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata

As a (former) violinist, I cannot leave this period without paying homage to one of the great violin sonatas ever composed, Beethoven’s Kreutzer.  In this piece, written more or less contemporaneously with his Third Symphony, Beethoven begins to emerge as a new artist altogether.  I’ve often described him as music’s first punk—smashing the same chord at full volume repeatedly for effect.  But those two chords are still to come. Let’s listen to the butterfly emerge and consider two of the more interesting and famous Conversations provoked by this piece. 

It may come as some surpise, given its published title, but Beethoven did not compose this sonata for the great violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer–he composed the work for another violinist, George Bridgetower. There is something to be said that this work is rather more a duet for violin and piano than a pure violin sonata, and the truth of that becomes evident when you see that the work was premiered by Bridgetower outside of Vienna with Beethoven at the piano. Beethoven had met Bridgetower in early 1803 and they got along famously. Commissioned to write a sonata for the two of them to perform, Beethoven was eager to impress his new friend. Unfortunately, the two quarreled soon afterwards (the persistent rumor is that a woman was involved) and Beethoven, prefiguring what he would do the following year with his Third Symphony, instructed the publisher to dedicate the sonata to Kreutzer instead.

The dedication reads:

Sonata for piano and violin obbligato written in a concertante style, similar to a concerto, composed and dedicated to his friend, R. Kreuzer, member of the Conservatory of Music in Paris, first violin of the Academy of Arts, and of the Imperial Chamber, by L. van Beethoven.

This dedication holds a few clues. Notice that the piano is listed first–again, this is more a duet than a pure violin sonata. Beethoven also suggests that the piano be peformed in grand style–as if an orchestra were playing behind the violin as in a concerto. In other words, tear it up and leave nothing on the table.

Kreutzer, for his part, hated the sonata and told his friend Hector Berlioz that the work was “unintelligible.” He never performed it and likely thought it was destined for the dustbin of history. After all, Beethoven wasn’t quite Beethoven yet.

There is, it must be said, somthing to Kreutzer’s critique–the work is uneven. Perhpas reflecting Beethoven’s rush to finish the score while Bridgetower was still in Vienna, the three movements appear to have little to do with each other. The first is truly magnificent, one of the greatest compositions ever written for violin. The movement opens with a slow introduction in A major, before hitting its stride a couple of minutes later as the key shifts to A minor, rather than the relative minor (F-Sharp minor). Choices for the violinist abound and the great violinists in history have taken dramatically different approaches to both bowing and fingering. For example, most violinists (including my choice here today) take most of the presto with martelé bowing–listen for the hair to bite into the strings repeatedly. This is created by quick pressure into the strings and quick bow movement, but slowing towards the end. Others, notably Jascha Heifetz, use a spiccato technique that is characterized by short bouncing strokes on the strings. Spiccato is frightfully difficult to master but does allow the violinist to play faster. At the close of the first movement, the tempo slows to adagio once more, with the piano and violin exchanging a theme that is both a stark contrast to the rest of the movement and its explanation. Then a flourish at the end. This is truly one of the high water marks in music history.

The next two movements are somewhat unsatisfying after that first and seem somewhat unrelated to each other. There is good reason for this. The third movement was taken more or less wholesale from an earlier work–Beethoven had rewritten the final movement to be less “brilliant.” His work on the first movement was also quite advanced, so it was quickly finished. The second, however, was only in preliminary sketch form and Beethoven, notortiously slow at composition, was under the gun–the commission came in March 1803 with the recital scheduled for the end of May. Bridgetower had to peform from Beethoven’s manuscript, while Beethoven used some notes and played mostly from memory. There was, as was the custom, a lot of improvising of the score during the premiere.

Today’s recording is one of my alltime favorites, a desert island disc if there ever was one. Eschewing my traditional taste for Heifetz where speed is the order of the day, we turn instead to the German violinist Gidon Kremer, who, in the 1970s, Herbert von Karajan himself anointed as the greatest living violinist. But what makes this recording extra special is the presence of Martha Argerich on piano–who better to bring Beethoven’s relentless drive? Any performance of the Kreutzer demands that the two musicians be true equals and this superstar pairing is just what is needed. The DG recording, with its famous “close mics” heightens the drama.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”:

But that is not the end of the story. The Kreutzer has one of the more interesting musical Conversations in history, with a detour through Russian literature.

The first part of this Conversation (I know the Professor is waiting for it!) is . . . Leo Tolstoy.  In his short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, the protagonist invites a violinist to perform Beethoven’s work with his wife (a pianist).  The results were tragic.  As the protagonist explains: “I was in torture, especially because I was sure that toward me she had no other feeling than of perpetual irritation, sometimes interrupted by the customary sensuality, and that this man,—thanks to his external elegance and his novelty, and, above all, thanks to his unquestionably remarkable talent, thanks to the attraction exercised under the influence of music, thanks to the impression that music produces upon nervous natures,—this man would not only please, but would inevitably, and without difficulty, subjugate and conquer her, and do with her as he liked.”  Eventually his madness causes him to murder his wife.  Listening to Kremer and Argerich burn it down, one can see why. Certainly, a slew of artists were inspired by Tolstoy’s novel.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček owned a copy of Tolstoy’s novel. Writing more than 100 years after Beethoven, Janáček borrows liberally from Beethoven, but twists Beethoven’s themes through rougher rhythms and modern harmonics. Setting out to recreate Tolstoy’s “poor, tormented and run down woman”, you instead get the searing heat of her affair.

Leos Janacek, String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer”:

Searching for Truth: The Conversations

It was the Moonlight Sonata that started my obsession with musical Conversations. And no, it wasn’t the Mozart link described in the prior entry.

It is easy to find how Beethoven influenced subsequent composers. You can jump only a few decades forward to Frederic Chopin, for example:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 in C# Minor, “Moonlight”:

Frederic Chopin, Fantaisie Impromptu in C# Minor, Op. 66 

Dedicated to Beethoven, Chopin’s composition (also in C# Minor) opens with a direct quote from the Moonlight’s opening, before moving on to examine a similar soundscape.

And it is exactly that soundscape that so captures me. As I noted the last time, some of my earliest memories are of my father playing the Moonlight Sonata, and like many childhood memories, that soundscape paints a world that takes me back to the innocence of youth. It is catnip for me–and I have searched for and found that soundscape elsewhere throughout music history. I won’t claim any formal connection between any of these works (I’ve selected different works by Mozart and Chopin, for example). But for me, here are some of the greatest composers in history scratching at an essential truth.

Much like the descendents of Babel, these composers speak to me in different tongues, but are each saying the same essential truth. I wish I knew what that was.

Playlist: Searching for Musical Truth

A Bonus Conversation:

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, like so much of what he wrote, seems to exist out of time. There will be more examples to come, but Alicia Keys makes that case effortlessly on the very first track of her debut album. From 2001:

Demystifying the Moonlight

Beethoven’s 14th Piano Sonata from 1801 is easily one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed. It is instantly recognizable by name and intimately associated with Beethoven. For most people, it is exceeded only by his 5th and 9th Symphonies as signature works. Its sobriquet, “Moonlight,” was only acquired after Beethoven’s death and has worked a disservice in confounding the meaning of the music. This brief entry only starts to pull on the many strings that make this work one of the most interesting in history.

At 31, Beethoven was hardly a novice composer. But he was not yet that Beethoven–that archtype of a classical composer who laid bare the full depth of his emotions in his music, breaking classical forms and paving the way for the Romantic Period. This sonata, entitled Quasi una Fantasia, was merely a step, albeit an important one, in that remarkable transformation from piano prodigy and Mozartian classicist into that composer that uniquely exists out of time–revolutionary and eternal in equal measure.

Beethoven dedicated the sonata to his student and lover Guilietta Guicciardi, whose name appears on the published version.

Her father objected to the relationship and the two were parted. We will skip over the fact that she was only 16 at the time and assume, as historians have done, that her father’s objection to their relationship was due to class distinctions.

But the dedication, and once Ludwig Rellstab’s description of the opening movment as “a boat on the river in the moonlight” gave rise to its current name, the Moonlight Sonata has been acccepted as one of the most romantic works of music ever composed.

Well, I think it is quite something else altogether. And the clues are right there in the music. First, listen to the beginning of Emil Gilels’ classic version–the movement that inspired the misnomer “Moonlight”:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, I. Adagio sostenuto:

I love this. Some of my earliest memories are hearing my father play this in our home. It is a soundscape that is as comforting as a fuzzy blanket on a cold winter’s day. But therein lies darkness too. In the 20th century, pianist Edwin Fischer discovered a score in the library of Vienna’s Musikverin that holds the key to the meaning of the movement and the entire sonata. This brief sketched score, in Beethoven’s hand, which transcribes the accompaniment to a scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and transposes it into the key of C# Minor, the same key as the sonata. Here is that very bit of Don Giovanni that Beethoven quotes–listen to the strings in the background:

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, Scene I, “Ah Soccoroso!“:

That is unquestionably the source, and therein lies the meaning: This is the Commendatore’s death aria:

Ah, soccorso! son tradito!
L’assassino m’ha ferito,
E dal seno palpitante
Sento l’anima partir.

Help, assistance, all is ended!
Oh, to die alone unfriended,
Vile assassin, thou’st undone me,
Heav’n protect and guard my child!

Let’s set the stage: As the opera opens, Leporello is waiting outside of a home for his master, Don Giovanni (Don Juan). The randy Don rushes out of the house, pursued by Donna Anna and her father, the Commendatore. Don Giovanni duels with the Commendatore, mortally wounding him. The Commendatore dies right after singing the above aria.

Well, that’s an interesting bit of source material to inspire the opening of a sonata written for your lover, no? But perhaps Beethoven was saying somthing other than “I love you” under what Rellstab mistook as a romatic moonlit river cruise. Yes, Beethoven was in love, but his love had been denied by her father. Having had his way with her (as Don Giovanni likely had with Donna Anna), Beethoven indulges in a bit of dark fantasy here–recall the title Beethoven gives the work, “Quasi una Fantasia.” And that fantasy is to do exactly to Giulietta’s father what Don Giovanni did Donna Anna’s.

This is no love song. The 31-year old Beethoven is writing to his teenaged lover, stating in a coded message that he is fantasizing about killing her father. Now, listen to that first movement again. Beneath the melancholy of C# Minor lies a slowly boiling rage. That rage builds, painfully, before it literally explodes all over the keyboard in that remarkable final movement. I can hear it all, as if Beethoven speaking directly to me (better, in fact, since my German is pretty terrible)–Beethoven’s broken heart, his unrequited love, and his murderous rage against the man who has denied him that which he desires most. Just look at the tempo marking — presto agiato (fast, agitated). As one critic remarked, Beethoven’s “ferocity is astonishing.” Yeah, no kidding.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, III. Presto agiato

Beethoven’s sonata also began to break the mold of the classical sonata form, which traditionally was fast-slow-fast (perhaps with a final even faster movement). Beethoven provides a slow build–slow-moderate-fast, which is in keeping with his message. And that, more than anything else, is why this work is so important. Here, Beethoven is starting to say that music is not driven by form, but rather by emotion. Beethoven is refining his art to communicate more effectively. And music history would never be the same afterwards.

Soaked in Mozart

In 1787, a 17-year old Beethoven left his home in Bonn, Germany and traveled to Vienna with the express purpose of meeting and studying with Mozart, the greatest composer in Europe. Whether Beethoven actually met Mozart is debatable–the famous quotation attributed to Mozart (“Stanzi, Stanzi, watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.”) is surely apocryphal. So too is the story that Beethoven’s mother heard Mozart play and dreamt that night that her yet-to-be-born son would grow up to become a great composer.

What is not disputable, however, was the esteem that Beethoven held for Mozart and his music. He was, as a friend recalled, as “soaked in Mozart” as Mozart had been, according to his father, “soaked in music itself.” Beethoven’s debt to Mozart is significant and persisted throughout Beethoven’s life. Some influences are easier than others to divine.

Let’s begin by listening to one where Mozart’s original theme from Don Giovanni is expressly acknowledged:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Variation in C Major on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano”:

Don Giovanni would remain a fertile source of inspiration of Beethoven throughout his life–in fact, next week’s post will be dedicated to my favorite of these.

Here’s one from early Beethoven. First, Mozart’s original:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Notte e giorno faticar”:

And here’s Beethoven’s version:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Dirabelli Variations, Variation No. 22:

Beethoven’s Pathetique Piano Sonata, which featured in the prior entry, also cribs from a Mozart original for the famous middle movement.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13: Adagio:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457: Adagio:

There are, of course, many others, but let’s jump forward to the end of Beethoven’s life and hear one of the most famous:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, “Choral”: The Ode to Joy:

That famous theme of the Ode to Joy? Yup, that’s Mozart. Listen at around the 1:00 minute mark in the below.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Misericordias Domini, K.222:

Incidentally, I think Mozart’s Misericordias Domini is evidence that Mozart should have written a lot more choral music.

These selections merely scratch at the very surface of the deep Conversation that Beethoven had with Mozart over the course of his life. The question of whether they actually met in person is really besides the point: They connected in the one place that truly matters, in the realm of music.

Beethoven’s borrowing from Mozart (even as Mozart borrowed liberally from the Haydn brothers, among others) obscures the point: The two composers were frightfully original and revolutionary, often in very different ways. Before stepping forth into the relenteless imagination of Beethoven, let’s pause to reflect on some of Mozart’s more revolutionary works. Some have been cited here already; others are yet to follow. I’d like to imagine that had young Beethoven possessed an iPod, this would be his Mozart Playlist.

Classical Music IV: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

THE great debate in music is whether Beethoven was a Classical or Romantic composer.  Heck, I had to write a paper on this very question for my high school music theory class.  I took the position that Beethoven had clearly been a Classical composer at the start of his career, but by 1803 had evolved to become Beethoven—a singular genius who existed outside of any recognized aesthetic and anticipating music that wouldn’t be composed for more than a century later.  Spoiler alert: I did not get a very good grade on my paper, but I continue to hold that opinion today. 

Beethoven was the undisputed titan of his age, revered both during his lifetime and afterwards.  Even half a century after he died, Beethoven’s music continued to dominate concert programs, even as it continues to do so today.  No composer has more keenly tapped into that central struggle of what it means to be human and perhaps that is why his music continues to speak to us like none other. 

But even setting aside his uniquely enduring popularity, Beethoven’s music went beyond merely revolutionary.  Yes, Monteverdi nearly single-handedly dragged Renaissance music into the Baroque, but Beethoven’s revolutionary compositions were of a completely different scale.  I’ve gone to many concerts where 20th century composers’ works were featured alongside Beethoven’s—only to come away with the impression that it was Beethoven’s music that was the most edgy, difficult, and distinctly contemporary. 

This view is far from unanimous. As I’ve said previously, the English composer/documentarian Howard Goodall has animated quite a lot of my thinking here and he takes a decidedly contrary view: Incidentally, the very reason that Goodall cites for not loving Beethoven—“I feel quite strongly the presence of the composer in every nuance, every detailed instruction, every decision he makes”—is exactly why I love Beethoven so much. I am no composer, but my personal Conversation with Beethoven is the strongest of any composer. That, in a nutshell, is why I love art—the private, emotional dialogue with artists across time and space.

Beethoven began his career as a true Mozartian, turning out lovely, Classical scores—mostly for piano, where his prowess rivaled Mozart himself. Indeed, Beethoven was also a child prodigy—and very much the tormented child prodigy that everyone wrongly believes that Mozart was. Leopold Mozart may have been strict, but he reveals himself in his correspondence with his son to be a truly loving father, who was bearing the burden of raising a genius in a field in which he also excelled. Leopold’s guidance, advice, love and admiration for his son is unmistakable.

Beethoven, in contrast, was not so lucky. His entire adolescence coincided with Mozart’s prime and, let’s face it—why go see the copy when the original is still around? Beethoven was raised to be the next Mozart and, when Mozart died in 1791 and Beethoven celebrated his 21st birthday, he was, in a sense, released from the burden of competing with a living god. Art had to move forward and Mozart had given Beethoven the cues on where to go next.

Let’s pick up the story in 1798-1804, the start of Beethoven’s middle period.  Deafness was already encroaching on him and his production had noticeably slowed.  As his hearing problems first manifested at upper ranges, these pieces reveal a shift to lower registers where his hearing was still intact.  Ultimately, Beethoven would rely on the vibrations created by these lower notes to test his musical ideas before ultimately composing entirely in his mind.

Here are three standout works from that period.  Beethoven composed over 700 works in his lifetime, but only the major works are afforded an “opus” number.  As with Bach and Mozart before him, choosing from among these is incredibly difficult.  But, as pretty much everyone loves Beethoven, I feel like we can pause here with the great man for some time, to fully revel in his art and in his genius. 

First up is his “Pathetique” piano sonata.  Like Mozart, Beethoven is absorbing ideas from his contemporaries (here, Jan Dussek’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major) and finding new ideas and greater emotional depth from them.  There is only one choice (for me) here—the seminal recordings by the Russian pianist Emil Gilels.  My father was a very talent pianist, and I grew up listening to him play these pieces and to his favorite pianist, Gilels.  No one, in my view, captures the depth of these pieces in quite the same way.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”:

And here is Beethoven’s primary source for this work.

Jan Dussek, Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, No. 35, Op.3:

A bonus Conversation.  If you thought that the theme from the second movement of the Pathetique seemed familiar, this is why.  Billy Joel took the basic melody and chord progressions, added a back beat, and turned it into a 1950s style rocker. 

Roll over Beethoven indeed.

Billy Joel, This Night: