Inclyti sed victi

He loved to be alone with Nature, to make her his only confidante. When his brain was reeling with confused ideas, Nature at all times comforted him.

Countess Theresa of Brunswick

How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do. … In the country every tree seems to speak to me, saying, ‘Holy! Holy!’ In the woods there is enchantment which expresses all things!

Ludwig van Beethoven

No work of Beethoven’s is so misunderstood as his serene sixth symphony. Dismissed at the time and critiqued in the present as Beethoven’s attempt to paint a landscape in sound, nothing could be further from the truth. Composed contemporaneously with the bomastic Fifth Symphony, nothing about the Sixth makes sense. If Beethoven’s torment was reflected in bombastic and thrusting score of the Fifth, how can we make sense of this gentler, kinder Beethoven?

Perhaps we should not try and find Beethoven’s soul lurking in his music. Beethoven’s music, and the secret to its enduring popularity, is that he perfectly captures OUR emotions in sound. In the many Conversations an audience member can have with a composer, none is stronger, or clearer, than the emotional bond between Beethoven, through his music, and us. In the Fifth, Beethoven connects to our need to be free, feeding our sense of victory as the C Minor of totalitariansim is defeated by the C Major of liberty. In the Sixth, he connects to our need for peace and harmony–bringing us to the countryside where Beethoven felt those emotions most keenly. He’s not painting a landscape. No, in his brilliant Sixth Symphony, Beethoven maps out the emotions of the human soul as it interacts with the natural world.

Pastoral Symphony: no picture but something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused in men by the pleasure of the country, in which some feelings of country-life are set forth.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was not the first composer to be inspired by nature. His teacher Haydn had written symphonies called Morning, Noon, and Night, not to mention his more recent and successful Seasons oratorio. And Vivaldi, of course, had written The Four Seasons a century before. But the most direct precedent appears to be a little known symphony by Justin Heinrich Knecht, Le Portrait musical de la Nature (Pastoralsymphonie).  Although there is no direct evidence that Beethoven knew this work, he was aware of Knecht generally and the similarities of the works is telling. Both are entitled “Pastoral”. Both consist of, unusually for the period, five movements. And both introduce each movement, not with a description of the tempo, but rather with a description of the subject. Knecht’s symphony tells the story of a idyll, interrupted by a storm, after which nature gives gratitude to the Creator. Beethoven’s would be decidedly more introspective, although the idea of using a storm to introduce drama into the symphony was retained.

To the music. Like he did in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven resorts to simplicity, a limited harmonic vocabulary, and complex rhythms to create his sonic landscape. Repitition and lack of variation–so common in the early history of Western music–comes back here to express the constancy of nature, and of our emotional response to it. Gone are the secondary dominants, diminished sevenths, augmented sixths, and other chords that Mozart and other Classacists used to create color and harmonic texture to their compositions. But despite the superficial simplicity of the composition, more is going on beneath the surface.

The first movement (“The awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country”) opens in F Major, which will dominate the score to a greater extent than any key had in any symphony composed to date. There is a reason for this: F Major was long associated with the natural world. Most famously, Bach had composed a Pastorale in F Major for organ, a work that Beethoven may have known. Outside of brief and expected detours to C Major (the dominant key) and B-Flat Major (the subdominant key), the entire exposition (as we are in sonata form) is written in F Major.

The opening, much like the Fifth Symphony opens with a series of motives that, when strung together, create an elongated theme. These motives are as brief as the four note motifs of the Violin Concerto or the fate chords of the Fifth, but here Beethoven is playing with three discrete motivic elements. Here they are:

Nearly every note of the first movement will use at least part of these motivic elements–at one point at the start, Beethoven repeates motive b several times in immediate succession. Absent any harmonic movement in the score, Beethoven uses only dymamics to convey texture. This is simplistic composition, but the dynamics awaken something in us. I suggest that the emotion Beethoven is tugging at is innocent wonderment. When we arrive in the country from the grime of the city, we experience a childlike sense of wonderment. And that emotion must be scored simply, right? And that feeling builds as we experience more of the countryside, arriving at the second theme in C Major. This theme is, if anything, even more simplistic: G-C-B-C. The orchestration provides the texture here, but the overwhelming impact of the music is calmness and relief. Notably, Beethoven changes the music only by changing the rhythms. This conveys a sense of harmonic permanence, while providing the necessary momentum to carry the score forward. Just like nature, right?

This repetitiveness compounds in the development. Just listen for those motives, especially b, which will be repeated over and over again. Perhaps minimalists like Philip Glass learned a thing or two from Beethoven, who uses repetition and the lack of harmonic development to create a hypnotic sensualism in the music. And then the harmonic change comes, suddenly–followed by yet more repetition. More than a few have claimed this passage creates the emotions experienced when looking at a vista from a mountaintop, only to turn around and be astounded by an even better view. And yet it is all motive b. Over and over again. The senerity of the music is ever so briefly interrupted by a quick detour to F Minor, bringing just the faintest of hints of danger (and, oh, there will be danger ahead), before returning back to the sunshine of F Major and the recapitulation. In the coda of the first movement, Beethoven moves from F to the subdominant B-Flat, a IV-I progression that is, not coincidentally, the so-called “Amen” cadence. Not a particularly religious person, Beethoven is nonethless giving thanks for the beauty and peace of the countryside. And, perhaps prefiguring one of his greatest compositions yet to come, the emotional string Beethoven pulls on here is, quite clearly, overwhelming joy.

For those who dismiss the Sixth Symphony as kitsch, their arguments rest primarily on the second movment (“Scene by the brook”), in which muted second violins, violas, and two cellos play an ostinato line that gives the impression of a softly babbling brook, while woodwinds play something like birdsong above. This is not reading into the score–Beethoven labels a famous passage late in the movement to identify nightingales, quails and a cuckoo. Some have called this birdsong passage a joke, but I disagree. It is best understood as a cadenza, as if Beethoven has taken us inside the birds to experience their joy of nature as well. Regardless, my interest in this movement is in its meter, or, to be precise, its apparent lack thereof. Again, Beethoven uses rhytmic, rather than harmonic motion, to propel the music forward. But the rhythm becomes so repetitive that all sense of time starts to become lost in what is an overwhelming sense of stillness. Wagner, among others, took great note of this bit of compositional magic when he composed his greatest opera, Parisfal, in which time seems to disappear for the entire first act. Incidentally, these are the moments by which a performance of the Pastoral Symphony or Parsifal should be judged. Do the musicians make time disappear into an ethereal stillness, or is it just plain monotonous. If the latter, don’t blame Beethoven or Wagner–it’s the guy waving the stick in front of the orchestra who is at fault. One final note about this movement. Just before the recapitulation, and just as he did in the first movement, Beethoven switches to a minor key. In the first movement, it was a more gentle transition from F Major to it parallel F Minor. Here, however, it is B-Flat Major to B Minor, a much more stark change, and the brief darkness that ensues is that much greater. Clearly, there is something wrong. That brief premonition in the first movement is now even stronger and, for the first time in the symphony, Beethoven introduces drama and anticipation.

Which leads to . . . absolutley nothing. The third movement (“Merry gathering of the country folk”) finds Beethoven in a particularly playful mood. Perhaps, as his student claimed, Beethoven is evoking his emotions (and, indeed our own emotions) associated with a favorite country pub (his, incidentally, was called The Three Ravens). It’s hard not to feel the building excitement, created by the quickly rising and falling arpeggios, which lead to that moment when you walk in the door and your senses immediately take in the familiar sounds, smells, and sights of your friends and neighbors eating, drinking and generally making merry. Beethoven moves into a peasant dance (whether this is a riff on one of his lost dances written for the band of The Three Ravens, we will never know). The dances meander, always joyful, seemingly without a care in the world. But just as the dance rises to a crecendo and an expected F Major cadence, the music breaks.

Suddenly, shockingly, we are thrust into F Minor and, without break (for the second time, Beethoven omits the traditional pause between symphonies) and with a profound nervousness from the lower strings, all hell breaks loose. That premonition Beethoven scores in the first two movements is realized. The fourth movement (“Storm, Tempest”) lets loose a fury unrivaled in all of music history. Much copied, but never bettered, this is among the most influential and best music Beethoven ever wrote.

I despair of being able to convey an idea of this prodigious piece. It has to be heard to understand how realistic and sublime imitative music can become in the hands of someone like Beethoven. Listen to the gusts of wind gorged with rain, the dull growl of the basses, the shrill hissing of piccolos announcing the fearful storm that is about the break out. The hurricane approaches and increases in intensity. A huge chromatic scale, starting in the upper instruments, plunges to the depths of the orchestra, picks up the basses on the way, drags them upwards, like a surging whirlwind that sweeps everything in its way. The trombones then burst out, the thunder of the timpani intensifies in violence; this is no longer rain and wind but a terrifying cataclysm, a universal deluge and the end of the world. In truth the piece induces dizziness, and there are many who on hearing this storm are not sure whether the emotion they experience is one of pleasure or of pain. 

Hector Berlioz

Beethoven is not simply orchestrating nature here, he is scoring our emotional response to a storm: fear, unknowing, lack of control. And the way he does this is particularly brilliant. After three movements of relative harmonic stasis, we suddenly hear all of them–the keys change frequently (often after only two movements), produing supremely dissonant chords. Fear–nerves combined with a jagged heartbeat–resound in the strings. Relief and anticipation come during breaks in the storm, but the storm returns with even more fury, bringing a sense of helplessness–best symbolized by a piercing cry from the piccolo. (Incidentally, Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were the first to use a piccolo. I suspect that Beethoven used on here first and, then, realizing its potential, brought it back into the Fifth.). Disjointed rhythms. Dissonant chords. Frantic and frequent harmonic changes. Beethoven’s score shatters just like the world during the worst storms. And then, just like that, order is restored. Silence, punctuated by the last gasps of the storm, leads us out and back into the sunshine. The music shifts to C Major, the first hint that everthing is going to turn out fine, and then it stops, takes a breath, and moves on (again, without a break).

The final movement (“Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.”) finds us back in F Major and the peace of the opening two movements. This celebratory finale is a welcome respite from the agitation of the titantic fourth. Meter again disappears and we, and Beethoven, are again at peace with the world.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral”, Op. 68:

Far from being Beethoven-lite, as critics are oft to assert, this is Beethoven at his absolute best.

Hide your faces, poor great poets of antiquity, poor immortals. Your conventional language, so pure and harmonious, cannot compete with the art of sound. You are vanquished, no doubt with glory, but vanquished all the same! You have not experienced what nowadays we call melody, harmony, the combination of different timbres, instrumental colour, modulations, the skilful clashes of conflicting sounds which fight and then embrace, the sounds that surprise the ear, the strange tones which stir the innermost recesses of the soul. The stammering of the childish art which you referred to as music could not give you any idea of this. For cultured minds you alone were the great melodists, the masters of harmony, rhythm, and expression. But these words had a very different meaning in your vocabulary from what we give them now. The art of sound in its true meaning, independent of anything else, was only born yesterday. It has scarcely reached manhood, and is barely twenty years old. It is beautiful and all-powerful: it is the Pythian Apollo of modern times. We owe to it a world of emotion and feeling which was closed to you. Yes, great venerated poets, you are vanquished: Inclyti sed victi.

Hector Berlioz on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

The Friday Symposium: Fifteen Albums

I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s Desert Island Disc series for as long as I can remember. The original premise was that if you were cast away on a desert island (presumably one with a working electrical power grid), which eight recordings would you choose to bring with you? Across the entirety of musical history, eight is just too restrictive a number. I find it hard to limit just jazz to even 20, let alone “classical” music with more than 500 years worth of compositions to choose from. So here I propose 15–five from each of the three major genres (“classical”, jazz and popular). I’ve limited myself to one album/composition per artist to enforce some diversity.

Popular

  • The Beatles, Rubber Soul
  • The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
  • The Kinks, We Are the Village Green Preservation Society
  • The Velvet Underground and Nico
  • David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Jazz

  • Miles Davis, The Birth of the Cool
  • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
  • Charles Mingus, Ah Um
  • Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners
  • Lenny Tristano, Tristano

Classical

  • J.S. Bach, Mass in B Minor (Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Gent)
  • Gregorio Allegri, Miserere (Tallis Scholars)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Late String Quartets (Hagen Quartett)
  • Claude Debussy, Preludes (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)
  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Bernstein/NY Philharmonic)

Those are my 15. Lou Reed makes the cut; Mozart does not. I’m sure he would find that endlessly hilarious. And despite my deep love of 20th century music, the first omission on the classical list was Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers (Gardiner). Then Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. And then Dimitri Shostakovich and a symphony never to be named later. No Wagner; no Liszt. Interestingly, it was Hendrix who was first out from the popular list (Electric Ladyland), then Genesis (Selling England by the Pound). And then a Radiohead album, maybe. Jazz was particularly brutal for me–no room for Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery, Art Tatum, Horace Silver, Eric Dolphy, Lee Morgan, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, the Modern Jazz Quartet — and the list goes on and on.

Which got me thinking about a Desert Island Bar. Going back to the original definition of eight albums, which eight bottles would I want in endless supply on my desert island. And since the BBC always assumed sufficient electricity to power a stereo, I will assume sufficient refrigeration and the like here. To keep things sporting, I’ve put a notional cap of about $100 on each bottle, although most are far less expensive.

Desert Island Bar

  • Gin: Plymouth
  • Scotch: Ardbeg Uigeadail
  • Rum: Kirk & Sweeney Gran Reserva
  • Bitter: Campari
  • Vermouth: Dolin Dry
  • White Wine: Château Pape Clément Blanc
  • Red Wine: Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast
  • Champage: Louis Roederer Vintage Blanc de Blanc

WIll I regret leaving off sweet vermouth? Yes, but not more than Mozart or Monteverdi. Ultimately, music feeds the soul much more than any wine or spirit can.

The Making of an Icon: Symphony No. 5

Art is most known for its iconic images. There are many in fine art:

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa
Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night

In sculpture too.

Michelangelo, David
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

But there are also iconic images from film:

Casablanca
North by Northwest

The performing arts too are notable for many iconic moments:

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1: To be or not to be

Music too has its icons and the greatest of these–the one that has endured for more than 200 years, recognized across every corner of the globe–is unquestionable the opening salvo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. However you interpret that truly iconic four note motif–many consider it to be “fate knocking at the door”, but the Allies in WWII used it as a symbol of victory–there is no escaping from it. If alien life ever finds Voyager and can play its Golden Record, they too will hear the famous first movement, billions of miles from the source of its creation. Overplayed, overexposed, omnipresent. It is the Mona Lisa of music.

Beethoven began composing his Fifth Symphony in 1804, which explains why the famous “fate chords” were first heard in his Appassionata Sonata, as discussed previously. In fact, Beethoven was working on several compositions at once during this period, which included not only the Appassionata, but also his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies (the Sixth would be premiered along with the Fifth on the same night), the Violin Concerto, the Mass in C, and his lone opera, Fidelio.

In many respects, the Fifth Symphony is a purely Classical composition. It’s structure is as follows:

1st Movement:

  • Exposition:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Development
  • Recapitulation:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Coda

2nd Movement:

  • Theme A
  • Theme B
  • Variation 1 (A)
  • Variation 1 (B)
  • Variation 2 (A)
  • Variation 3 (A)
  • Variation 2 (B)
  • Variation 4 (A)
  • Variation 5 (A)
  • Variation 6 (A)
  • Coda

Third Movement:

  • Scherzo
  • Trio
  • Trio A
  • Trio B
  • Scherzo Return
  • Transition to last movement

Fourth Movement:

  • Exposition:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Theme 3
  • Theme 4
  • Development
  • Recapitulation:
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Theme 3
  • Theme 4
  • Coda

Other than the extended transitions and codas, nothing about the structure of the work is particularly revolutionary. Beethoven, as ever, seems loathe to tear down the architecture of music, choosing instead to build his new world from the inside out.

But the Fifth Symphony is revolutionary. But its not for reasons that are immediately apparent. Yes, the tone is dark, but Mozart got there first, in his Jupiter Symphony, his Requiem, and parts of Don Giovanni. And the idea of a four note motif was also hardly new–Haydn in particular was fond of using them to conclude a musical phrase. What was new was that Beethoven nearly dispenses with melody in the first movement entirely, obsessively chasing that four note motif so much so that nearly all of the music in that movement is derived from it. The four note motif is a unifying thread that connects every movement in the symphony–something no one had done before, rhythmically unify an entire symphony.

Beethoven’s concept of a symphony as a unitary work really takes flight here: In additon to the omnipresent rhythmic device of the four note motif, Beethoven takes us on a musical journey that stretches across the entire work where the main idea doesn’t emerge until the finale. Themes from earlier movements return later on, and, combined with these other unifying elements, allow Beethoven to knit the entire symphony together as a unified whole. Unlike every symphony written previously, the Fifth builds to a conclusion, not the other way around. Others would seize and expand on this concept of “motivic development”, one of the main features of Romantic Period music, making Beethoven’s Fifth a landmark in music history like none other.

Let’s start at the top, with that famous four note motif. While it is tempting to call it a four note motif, it is, like the four note motif of the Violin Concerto, really five beats as the symphony opens with a quarter note rest.

As noted earlier, rests are vitally important in Beethoven. No composer is better at depicting emotion in music and the silences are vitally important to a performers ability to serve as the medium between Beethoven and the audience. Indeed, it is these silences that make the opening so dramatic. But what else makes this four note motif, repeated twice, so iconic? Likely a comnbination of things. First is the rhythm. Beethoven opens his Violin Concerto with another four note motif–but this one is rhythmically superior. Then there is the silence between the repeated motifs. And it is those silences that are the strongest clue to what Beethoven is doing here. We know from the title that the symphony is in the key of C Minor–thus, as good Classicists, we expect to hear a C Minor tonic chord at the start. And Beethoven obliges, sort of. The four note motif creates ambiguity, since it can resolve in E-Flat Major, just as naturally as it actually does in C Minor. And that potential subversion of expectation, by allowing the audience to question which way the music will go, creates a profound sense of drama (even if those hearing the music are unaware of these finer points of music theory). Classicism was all about taking the audience from point A to point B in an expected way. Beethoven, right at the jump, is subverting that, teasing the audience. He’s not breaking any of the rules; he’s just finding loopholes to exploit.

And that ambiguous opening salvo signals that the real revolution in this symphony is going to be harmonic. Beethoven’s journey will, for the first time in music, stretch across four movements, taking the audience from the bleakness of C Minor to the sunshine of the C Major.

Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.

Ludwig van Beethoven

In many respects, Mozart got there first again by opening works in a minor key and ending in a major key. But, unlike in Mozart, the keys of the Fifth Symphony are related and present in all four movements, yet another example of Beethoven creating unity throughout his entire composition. In the first movement, Beethoven modulates from the opening C Minor to the relative E-Flat Major, which was common enough, before moving to F Minor (a wholly unrelated key!) to open the development section. This discordant transition is shocking, even if you now expect it after so many listenings. There is no easy modulation to get there–Beethoven just does it, with horns blaring. It’s as if he’s daring you to question his compositional choice.

The dark development moves from F Minor to C Minor to G Minor before finding its way back to C Minor. I might have missed a step or two there, but you get the idea–the music is inevitably pulled back to the darkness of C Minor. When we get to the recapitulation section, Beethoven pulls a neat trick. Our ears are now fully attuned to C Minor and, because this is sonata form, we expect to go back to C MInor. And that is exactly what Beethoven hints at–it sounds like we are staying in C Minor. But with a wave of his quill (was there ever a composer so skilled at modulation as Beethoven?) we are all of a sudden in C Major heading straight on to an expected conclusion. But this is where Beethoven’s famous coda–hilariously lampooned by PDQ Bach–kicks in, sending us back to C Minor and the darkness therein.

The first movement is also notable in that Beethoven singles out his four note motif–fundamentally a rhythmic device–as the central idea of the movement, displacing melody. Indeed, the four note motif is played in virtually every bar. Beethoven’s primary reliance on rhythm creates drama and excitement in the development section, as the motif is passed around the orchestra like a baton. The motif will reappear in succeeding movements and underpins the entire symphony. Taking his idea of pure music one step further, Beethoven is unifying the entire symphony, harmonically and rhythmically.

The second movement is, more or less, a standard theme and variation structure, albeit with some extended transitions, as seen in the first movement. Harmonically, Beethoven continues the overall idea of the symphony, the triumph of C Major. The movement opens in A-Flat Major, which modulates at times, beginning in the first transition, to C Major. To underscore the importance of his modulation to C Major, Beethoven brings back the same opening rhthym (three fast notes, one held note) here. Incidentally, you can tell when the music is in C Major because these are the only sections where the timpani (tuned to C and G for the first movement) can be heard. But, just as in the first movement, C Major is fighting a losing battle. The A theme returns in A-Flat Minor (listen for the march like staccato towards the end), the darkest and bleakest of keys, before returning, permanently to A-Flat Major.

The third movement opens with a C Minor arpeggio bristling with anticipation–and Beethoven rewards our leaning into the music with the entry of the brass, followed by the violins. Note that, once again, it is a four note motif–short, short, short, long–further evidence of Beethoven’s rhythmic unification of the entire symphony. Once you start listening for the motif, it is everywhere, in every section. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the cellos lead the orchestra to jubillent C Major in the first part of the trio. But C Major cannot survive and the movement concludes in C Minor again, ever more softly and disappearing into fragments.

But Beethoven, as always, is about showing light through the darkeness. Even in the dark days where Beethoven felt trapped between reactionary monarchs in Vienna fighting for survival against the French imperial troops, Beethoven’s music is full of hope. As the third movement appears to melt away into nothingness, the lower strings play an A-Flat Major chord, which Beethoven will use both to transition to the finale without break and modulate to a new key. The timpani sounds the four note motif and the final movement opens in joyous C Major, with trombones and piccolos used for the first time together in a symphony, from which there is no retreat. Other than a second theme in G Major, the dominant and consistent key, right to the end is C Major, triumphant after all. Listen for the four note motif–it reappears again, but in a lighter and more jubillent sound, propelling the music forward to its inescapable conclusion (listen, for example, for how the motif returns in the coda). The Allies were right after all: This–the glorious finale–is the feeling of victory expressed in sound.

Here, in the finale, we finally get the main idea of the symphony–it is what everything else has been building to. The triumph of C Major is the victory of light over dark . . . but is there something else, a deeper and more meaningful message buried in the music? As I noted early on in this blog, the finale is comprised entirely of I-IV-V chords, which are the tonic (C Major), the subdominant (F Major) and the dominant (G Major). And therein lies the message. In the darkest days for European progressives, as France (and increasingly much of Europe) had succumbed to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions, Beethoven literally paints the finale in the red, blue and white of the French Republican flag. In these dark days, Beethoven is drawing inspiration from revolutionary France and its ideals of Libertéégalitéfraternité–composing a hymn to liberty that is both nostalgic and aspirational. Here’s a snapshot of the score with those three chords colored in (courtesy of the BBC and Howard Goodall):

Dismiss the Fifth at your peril. Bruckner and Dvorak each composed C Minor symphonies that closely reflect Beethoven’s harmonics. Mahler (in his Fifth) and Tchaikovsky (in his Fourth) both imitate Beethoven’s darkness to light theme. And, of course, dear Brahms’ First Symphony is so utterly derivative of Beethoven’s Fifth that it was commonly referred to as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” It is the most quoted and the most performed work of “classical” music. Iconic. Revolutionary. And utterly, inescapably, brilliant.

As for the recording, there can only be one. Search any list of the greatest recordings of alltime and you will inevitably find the Vienna Philharmonic’s 1974 performance under the baton of Carlos Kleiber at or near the very top of that list. An iconic recording if there ever was one.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67:

Well, sort of. I grew up with the Kleiber recording, which I eventually wore out to the point that it wouldn’t play anymore. And while I think it still holds up, the last movement in particular seems almost painfully slow. Music historians and period instrument performers have steadily moved Beethoven away from an overly Romantic ethic back to Classicism. In part, that means taking Beethoven at the pace he indicates in the score.

I love the Kleiber recording–you can feel the weight of those opening chords. And Vienna, characterically, is very sensitive to the rhythmic developments in the music. But I find his pacing far to slow and the coloration still too much on the Romantic scale. As he has with so many works, John Eliot Gardner stripped away the Romantic kitsch to great effect–playing Beethoven qua Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67:

Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony at a now legendary concert on December 22, 1808. All of the music was entirely new, all premiering that night. The concert opened with the the Sixth Symphony (although whoever did the program notes that night mislabeled it as the Fifth and the Fifth as the Sixth). Then an intermezzo of sorts comprised of a concert aria and a section of the Mass in C. This was followed by the entirety of the Fourth Piano Concerto, with Beethoven at the piano. And then, after nearly two hours of brand new Beethoven . . . intermission! The second half of the concert was no less epic, feature more selections from the Mass in C, the Chorale Fantasy, a solo improvisation by Beethoven at the piano, and, of course the Fifth Symphony. Total running time? Four hours, give or take.

Even though the performance was reportedly a bit of a mess–characteristically, Beethoven had rehearsed only once with the orchestra–this is among those nights in music history I’d most like to have been present. What must it have been like to hear the most famous eight notes played for the first time in public? Well, to tell the truth, it didn’t send everyone into rapture as you might have expected. The concert received cool reviews and the Fifth was deemed a failure until the publication of a review by the critic E.T.A. Hoffmann, over a year later:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It is the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infi nite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .

Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!

Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit.

Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

What instrumental work by Beethoven confi rms this all to a higher degree than the profound Symphony in C Minor, a work that is splendid beyond all measure. How irresistibly does this wonderful composition transport the listener through ever growing climaxes into the spiritual realm of the infinite.

Nothing could be simpler than the two-measure main idea of the first Allegro, which, in unison at first, does not even define the key for the listener. The character of apprehensive, restless longing contained in this movement is made even plainer by the melodious subsidiary theme. The breast that is oppressed and alarmed by intimations of things monstrous, destructive, and threatening wheezes for air with wrenching gasps, but just then a friendly, luminous figure appears and brings light into the dark night (the lovely theme in G major that earlier had been intimated by the horn in Eb major). How simple is this theme—let that be said again—that the master places as the basis of the whole, but how wonderfully does he derive all the subsidiary and transitional passages from it through rhythmic interrelationships, such that these passages serve little by little to unfold the character of the Allegro, which its main theme only hints at. All these passages are short—almost all consist only of two or three measures—and these are constantly divided among the wind and string instruments. We might think that from such elements only something fragmented or incomprehensible could arise, but instead we receive from them a sense of the whole. So too the constant repetition of passages and single chords, one after the other, which increases the feeling of an unnamable longing that reaches to the highest degree. . . .

The inner structure of the movements, their working out, instrumentation, the way they are linked together—everything works toward a single point. But it is especially the inner interrelation among the main themes which produces that unity that alone allows the listener to achieve one single mood. Often this interrelationship becomes clear to the listener if he hears the connection of two movements, or if he discovers in different movements some common bass figure. But a deeper relationship that goes beyond such observations speaks often solely from one mind to another, and it is just this that exists in the two Allegros and the minuet and which splendidly proclaims the self-possessed genius of this master. . . .

E.T.A. Hoffmann

And that did it. Demand for performances skyrocketed and classical music has never been the same since.

In World War II, in the West, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony became a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany. In Morse code, the letter V is broadcasted as (dot-dot-dot-dash). In Roman numerals, 5 is V. And on Jully 19, 1941, Winston Churchill proclaimed: “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny.” From then on until the end of the war, the BBC began its broadcasts with Morse code for V. A French song, which was composed based on Beethoven’s Fifth, sought to prepare the nation for liberation. And a poem began circulating across the continent:

In ne faut pas desesperer on les aura.
N’oublier pas la letter V
Ecrivez las chantonnez la VVVV
Sur les murs et sur les pave faites des V

Inspired by French liberty, Beethoven had come full circle at last.

The Friday Symposium: Music and Cocktails for the Last Days of Summer

The last days of summer don’t mean as much as they used to these days. While some, no doubt, will board their last train back to the City on Monday afternoon, or otherwise brave the traffic and the dreaded LIE, come Tuesday morning I will still find myself seated here, 100 miles from the office I’ve visted only a handful of times since March 2020.

Yet the pending finality of the silly season calls for music that its light, somewhat trivial, and rebellious all at once. Which got me to thinking about Cecilia Bartoli, unquestionably one of the great mezzos of her age, but whose fear of flying (and, perhaps, smaller voice) has too long kept her from singing in the US consistently. Her 2006 album, Opera Proibita, fits the bill in both respects.

Opera Proibita features music that had been banned in the 18th century in Rome by the Church, fearing (perhaps with just cause) that the opera houses were dens of corruption and immorality. The album features some of the best known hits of Baroque opera–just the perfect thing for a late summer’s evening.

The album also happens to be one of my wife’s favorite, so I thought I would pair it with her favorite cocktail–The Little Grey Lady. Vanishing few people have heard of this drink, but I can’t take credit for it–I found the recipe in a magazine several years ago. It is a lighter and altogether more refreshing riff on The Last Word, a classic cocktail built on four equal parts and which will no doubt feature later on in this blog. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like this drink.

Quick story. We used to go frequently to Nick and Toni’s, the famed East Hampton restaurant, when the great Kevin Grillo manned the bar. One night, I asked Kevin to make The Little Grey Lady for us, only to find that, of the four components of the cocktail, he only had one (the lemon juice) and he even lacked the bitters that give cocktail its distinctive grey/pink hue. Eventually we found some substitutes and renamed the cocktail The Maidstone Mist (as the cocktail is named for the pink/grey hue of the fog that sometimes settles over Martha’s Vineyard). In any event, here’s the recipie.

The Little Grey Lady

  • 1 oz Plymouth gin (do not substitute a London Dry gin, which throws the favors off)
  • 1 oz Cocchi Americano (you can substitute Lillet Blanc, although it is not as good)
  • 1 oz St. Germain (we now use St. Elder if you can find it)
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • healthy dash of Peychaud’s Bitters

Shake well and serve in a coupe with a twist of lemon.

The Breath of Life: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

I can’t recall if my father owned a copy of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Our resources were limited and he most concerned himself with collecting the recordings of great pianists performing the highlights of the late Classical and Romantic repertoire. So it is entirely possible that my first brush with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came in 1983 when I went to hear Gidon Kremer perform it at Carnegie Hall. I was a kid, no older than my daughter is now, and so had no idea that I was walking into a hornet’s nest of controversy.

Why? Well, like most concertos, Beethoven’s features multiple cadenzas–periods where the soloist plays unaccompanied by the orchestra. While these cadenzas were originally composed, if not improvised, by the violinist, modern soloists generally use cadenzas that were written by another composer or a noted virtuoso from a previous age. Eugène Ysaÿe, the great violinist, wrote a set, as did Heifetz and Milstein. So did composer Camille Saint-Saëns. They are rarely performed. As he did with so many concertos, the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler wrote what are probably the most-often performed set of Beethoven cadenzas. For this concert, however, Kremer had chosen to perform a set composed by contemporary Russian composer Alfred Schnittke on the heels of having recording them with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The conservative NYC audience was outraged, my father first and foremost among them.

I, on the other hand, loved it, much the consernation of the older gent sitting next to me. The music was so daring–contrasting modern harmonic language with Beethoven’s (and finding that they had plenty to say to each other). In my view these new cadenzas worked, even the infamous cadenza in the third movement that sounds like a swarm of bees. My reaction at the time was purely visceral, lacking in any real understanding of what Schnittke was doing.

On repeated listening, however, something deeper began to emerge. In his cadenzas, Schnittke quotes endlessly from centuries of great music–and, in particular, music written for the violin. The long candenza at the end of the long first movement is a prime example. Schnittke starts with a quote from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as if to say: “yes, let’s start here, with heroic Beethoven.” Then he moves on the Brahms, a natural succession. But then he jumps forward to Shostakovich (his first violin concerto) and Bartok (his great second violin concerto), before moving on to the Berg concerto. Far from the travesty these candenzas are often made out to be–Kremer retreated back to playing Kreisler’s if memory serves–Schnittke is paying homage to Beethoven. It’s as if he’s saying: “This is the source of everything.” Tonal and atonal music cooexist seemlessly here. This is one of the greatest examples of The Conversation in music.

Back to Beethoven. The score was dedicated to French violinist Franz Clement, who debuted the concerto. Characteristically, Beethoven was behind schedule, so Clement had to sight read a good chunk of the score (and likley improvised the cadenzas on the spot). This is not a good recipe for success under the best of cicrumstances, let alone at a time when Beethoven was attempting to push audiences away from the cozy, refined countours laid out by Haydn and Mozart. In the Classical tradition, the concerto was a polite conversation between soloist and orchestra, all pulling in the same direction: The soloist develops a theme; the orchestra repeats it later on. Beethoven shattered that expectation here. Just as the Kreutzer Sonata is really a duet for piano and violin, the orchestra is an equal partner to the violinist here.

A few notes on the score:

The concerto opens with a solo timpani, which plays four unaccompanied notes. Prefiguring his Fifth Symphony and reflecting parts of the Appassionata covered last week, Beethoven obsessively focuses on these four notes, which repeat in virtually every measure of the first movement. It is the central idea of the opening movmement, and as simple as you can get. The same note repeated in a basic 1-2-3-4 rhythm. Indeed, one of the only legitimate critiques of the Schnittke candenzas I can think of is that they abandon this otherwise omnipresent pulsing five note motif.

Now, it is tempting to say that it is a four-beat motif (which nearly everyone does), but it is actually five beats. The fifth beat coincides with the first beat of the next motif. Listen carefully to the opening–the timpani plays five notes, not four. This has a profound effect on the ear. To explain:

On beats 1-4 you inhale; on the 5th beat you exhale. And the tempo corresponds to a normal breath that one could call an ordinary, everyday sigh. So there is a feeling – a visceral physical experience – of a release of tension on that 5th beat, each and every time it occurs (which is most of the movement).

But that is also the beginning of a new inhaled breath. So you get an overlapping effect of a buildup of tension and a release of tension on the same beat – beat #1 of the measure. And it happens throughout the movement. There is this constant juxtaposition of inhaling and exhaling.

And so you may actually hear it and experience it differently every time, because on any given measure, sometimes you’re exhaling and sometimes you’re starting to inhale – buildup and release of tension – constantly and in ever-different sequences. Even that famous measure with the 3 beats of rests, when you think about it, is actually part of a 5-beat “motif” of silence. . . . It is, I believe, the breath of life that Beethoven captured, and this, more than anything else, is what gives this 1st movement an olympian sense of serenity.

Sander Marcus, Violinist.com

This is the key to this work and fully in line with Beethoven’s knack of presenting something that appears very simple but is in fact something quite revolutionary–in his quest to knit his musical lines together, Beethoven is writing overlapping motifs. And if this sounds baroque, it is. Indeed, the music of past masters would increasingly inform his compositions as Beethoven aged. This is not to say that Beethoven retreated to earlier forms–to the contrary, Beethoven used techinques pioneered in earlier periods to better develop his revolutionary ideas.

And these revolutionary ideas are present here too. There are also the now-expected dissonances–the D# in the first movement, for example. The movement opens in D Major, which should allow the violin to play on their open strings, creating a lush sound. But when the violins actually enter, they play the four note motif on D#, immediately introducing harmonic tension and shattering that expectation. Following the transition, Beethoven introduces a second theme. Like he did in the Appassionata, this theme essentially summarizes everything we have heard so far, rather than a entirely new theme. This is yet another step in the Beethoven’s development away from formal structure. In fact, as the melody falls away, all that is left are those insistent four notes–echoes of the Fifth Symphony.

And then the soloist enters, playing one of the most difficult passages ever written for the instrument. For once with Beethoven, it isn’t the rhythm that gets you–it’s the octaves. While pianists (like Beethoven) don’t think twice about their perfectly tuned instruments, octaves played on the violin expose lapses in technique and intonation like nothing else. Even the slightest error leaves you totally exposed, especially since the violin enters solo. I note that Beethoven surely knew this to be the case. In addition to playing the piano, the young Beethoven played viola in his Bonn orchestra. (As always, viola sections are hard to fully staff.). Although he was not a great violist, Beethoven surely knew what posed the greatest challenges for a string instrument. Writing for the great Clement, therefore, Beethoven sought to pull out all the stops.

Yet Beethoven does something truly startling here–he doesn’t give the violinist the theme. In fact, the violin rarely gets to play the theme at all (this, incidentally, was Clement’s complaint about the work). Instead, the violin serves as a second conductor, jostling with the other sections, commenting on the themes, and providing accompanimet (!) for the woodwinds. Putting the soloist through dizzing runs of scales and arpeggios, the violin part reads more like an etude (a study piece used to develop technique) than a true concerto part. The harmonies produced between the violin and the warm strings are stunning–only together, as equals, does this section really work.

In the development, Beethoven shifts gears from D Major to A Minor. And it appears that Beethoven in simply restating the opening themes in a different key. Nothing remarkable to look at here, right? Well, Beethoven, as always, has something else up his sleeve. The arpeggios for the soloist tell the tale–this is something new. After an elongated cadence, and as he did in Eroica, Beethoven introduces a new theme in the development section–in G Minor. It is a stunning turn of events–for me, the signature “wow” moment of the piece. But the music starts to fade away, melody being replaced by that four note rhythmic motif that opened the movement. It is up to the soloist to bring the music back. And in a flourish, that’s what happens–with a subtle (and easily missed) modulation the orchestra returns, seemingly by magic, to the tonic D Major and the feeling of fulfillment is hard to deny.

Reaction to the Violin Concerto was decidedly mixed. Clement received much praise for his playing–if only to compensate how shabbily he had been treated by Beethoven. The concerto, however, was quickly forgotten. Even Clement (as noted above) had little good to say of it. And so, like so much music of the time, the concerto slipped to obscurity until it was given new life by Felix Mendelssohn some decades later (with Joseph Joachim on violin!). Today, however, Beethoven’s lone effort at this form stands at or very near the summit of any list of the greatest violin concertos.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (cadenzas, Alfred Schnittke):

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Hard_Day%27s_Night_(song)

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: