Armageddon: Beethoven’s Final Statement

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

And now, the end. Like Bach before him, Beethoven ends (at least for this history) with a fugue. Beethoven had written a grand fugue to close his String Quartet No. 13, but the fugue was not well-received and, on the advice of his publishers, Beethoven ended up writing an alternative, and less satisfying, ending movement for that piece. The Grosse Fuge was posthumously released as a standalone statement of intent. It is wild, complex, dissonant, beautiful, heart-wrenching and absolutely, cataclysmically, epic work.

For me, the Grosse Fuge is not only the greatest work Beethoven ever wrote but just about the most astonishing piece in musical literature.

Glenn Gould

Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

Oskar Kokoschka to Arnold Schoenberg

The Grosse Fuge is not birth marked by its age, but forever contemporary.

Igor Stravinsky

The Grosse Fuge opens with a roughly 1 minute Overtura, in which Beethoven presents the four themes that he will revisit, in reverse order. The rest of the composition can be summarized as First Fugue, Second Fugue, March, Third Fugue, March (reprise), and Coda, with each of the fugues and the march based on one of the four themes. These themes are somewhat similar to each other, but vary considerably in rhythm and tempo. They are also quite dissonant (more on that later). The First Fugue begins at roughly the 1 minute mark, with Theme IV. This is no standard fugue: After a recitation of the theme, Beethoven presents three variations on that theme. At around the 5 minute mark, the tempo slows–meno mosso e moderato–and Theme III emerges in the violins. At around the 8 minute mark, the tempo noticably speeds up–allegro molto e con brio–and Theme II (the March) is heard. Less than a minute later, the dark and foreboding theme which opened the Overtura returns for Fugue Three.

And then, Beethoven really takes off to undiscovered lands. In what some call “an orgy of trills”, Beethoven takes the composition into what can only be described as a “development” section. For those keeping score, Beethoven has now combined a fugue with a theme and variation AND a sonata form, while not respecting the rules of any of them. In this quasi-development section, we can discern fragments of the three fugues, mangled nearly beyond all recognition. At last, at around the 11 minute mark, Theme III (the March) returns in what many have called a “recapitulation” of sorts before transitioning to a coda at around the 13 minute mark. Cycling through each of the themes, the fugue finally comes to an end as Theme IV seemlessly leads to the perfunctory, and unsatisfying, closing chords.

[T]he end of the Grosse Fuge contains a deeply personal valedictory message. After taking a simplistic and unattractive theme through the extraordinary paces of his imagination, Beethoven provides a final audience-pleasing fillip, but he dares us not to believe it for a moment, as such a brief gesture cannot possibly serve as a genuinely satisfying conclusion after such an outpouring of profound creativity. . . . Rather, Beethoven has laid out the pieces of a complex puzzle in the overture, shown us a few possible solutions and then sets out the components once again in the coda, shuffles his cards, hands them to us and challenges us to embark on our own creative quest. Having pushed music as far as he could to the farthest reaches of his own extraordinary invention, Beethoven simply leaves us his materials, shrugs and walks off, daring us to expand music yet further into realms where not even he was prepared to venture.

Peter Gutmann

The Grosse Fuge would take the better part of 100 years to enter the canon. Its first public performance would not come until 1859 and its extreme dissonances and complex structure continue to devide audiences to this day. In compositional circles, however, the Grosse Fuge started a revolution. Having erected his musical edifice surreptitiously from the inside, Beethoven’s new world fully burst forth in this great fugue, shattering the facade of Western music in the process. Theme I, a chromatic motif comprised of eight notes, is a harbinger of atonality and the twelve-tone serialism developed by Arnold Schoenberg For those who decry the atonal music of the 20th century, the Grosse Fuge is nothing less than Armageddon.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge in B-Flat, Op. 133:

In an age dominated by pessimism amidst the chaos of existence, Beethoven, particularly in his late period works, presents us with divine hope—lingering underneath the brutal chaos of his compositions is a tightly controlled order. Writing at the dawn of the breaking of European society, by reason of the Enlightenment as much as by the coming Industrial Revolution, Beethoven presents us with works of art that are the perfect summation of the human existence.

Here endeth Beethoven. We shall not see his like again.

A Thanksgiving

The Te Deum hymn traces its origins back to the 4th Century and is traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose, who is said to have written it for the baptism of the future St. Augustine in 378. The Te Deum melody is one of the oldest in the Gregorian tradition and has inspired composers throughout history. Today, a journey of Thanskgiving across the rich landscape of Western musical history.

This year, I am thankful to the composers whose music has stimulated my mind and fed my soul over the last year, which fittingly started with Bach and will conclude with Beethoven. And since Beethoven is still very much on my brain, I will note that he composed a song of thanksgiving to celebrate his recovery from illness. The song lies at the heart of the third movement of his 15th String Quartet, which was composed a year before his 14th, the subject of the last entry. Happy Thanksgiving!

Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132: III. Molto adagio–Andante, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart“:

The Greatest Music Ever Written

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”

The Ninth was not the end for Beethoven.  Having scaled to the very summit of what symphonic composition can achieve, he retreated into his own private world, composing smaller chamber works in his final two years.  The so-called “late quartets” are, in my humble opinion, the greatest music ever composed, by anyone, at any time, anywhere.  The sound that Beethoven created was unlike anything that came before and truly unlike anything that would come afterwards.  They are not Romantic in any way, shape or form.  They are not Classical or Baroque.  I’ve heard them along-side some of the most daring music of the 20th century, inevitably coming away with the view that it was the Beethoven that was the most avant-garde.  When I say that Beethoven started out his career as a Classical composer and then evolved into Beethoven, these are my Exhibits A through E.  They are, quite simply, the greatest achievement in all of art. A teaser of just how powerful this music is:

That’s the sixth movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (by the way, ignore the opus numberings, this was his second to last composition).  Beethoven remarked that it was his favorite of the late quartets and considered it to be one of the very best things he had ever composed. The 14th String Quartet would not be performed publicly for nearly a decade, well after Beethoven’s death. But, in 1828, the 30-year old Franz Schubert asked for a performance of the quartet in his home. Stunned by what he heard, he said: “After this, what is left for us to compose?” And then he died the following day.  Robert Schumann proclaimed that the quartet exists “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.” Richard Wagner, who called the first movement “[t]he saddest thing ever said in tones” also found inspiration in the final movement, a major influence on his operas Tristan und Insolde and De Vliegende Hollander. Virginia Woolfe cites this quartet in The Waves and was the inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which happens to be my favorite poetry. And the list goes on.

In this remarkable composition, we find Beethoven at his most revolutionary, completing blowing apart the form as established by his teacher Joseph Haydn. It is difficult to think of another work that was so revolutionary. As one critic noted: “I can’t think of any other music which so profoundly negates all sense of sytle and previous influence. It leaves behind everything whcih came before . . . it feels eternally contemporary.” The roughly 40-minute work is presented across seven movement, played without any breaks, as opposed to the usual four, with breaks. Utilizing at least six different keys (as opposed to the usual two or three), Beethoven, over the course of a performance, takes us on a journey to different soundcapes, produced by wildly divergent harmonics and time scales that are yet all interconnected by a thread that is, even upon repeated listening, impossible to discern in the absence of a score. Let’s consider the movements in turn.

The First Movement, called “the most superhuman piece of music that Beethoven ever wrote” introduces us to this unique soundscape with a slowly unfurling fugue. From Perotin through to Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi and finally to Bach, this mighty fugue reveals its influences before taking off for far away lands first rediscovered in the 20th century. Setting aside the technical brillance of the fugue, it is the slowly revealing polyphonic textures that suck me into the music. Deceptively simple, the movement requires careful listening to understand what is going on with the two themes that coil around each other like snakes across the first six plus minutes of the quartet. Shades of Messiaen, from Vienna circa 1826.

Notably, for the first time since the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven has opened a composition with a slow movement. This is not the only link with the Moonlight Sonata, which was also written in C# Minor and which makes frequent use of Neopolitan chords. In short, the Neopolitan chord is based on a flattened second tone. Thus, D natural reoccurs frequently throughout the movement (a semitone lower than the expected D# that normally would feature in C# minor). This helps Beethoven set up the tonality of the Second Movement (D Major) and the overall harmonic structure of the composition.

It is here, right at the start of the quartet, that intepretive choices by performers matter most. Nearly all quartets approach late Beethoven as a Romantic and load up the music with a vibrato that would have been unknown in Beethoven’s day. These quartets also eschew portamento–a slide between notes, which was frequently used by string musicians of the time. Even so, the best recordings reveal Beethoven’s inspiration in the music of the past, as well as anticipating the music of the future. It is a Big Bang, from which the balance of the Quartet will evolve.

Here is one typically overdone performance by the esteemed Julliard String Quartet, full of vibrato and other Romanticisms that have no place here.

The mighty Hagen Quartet tamped down on these distortions in their not-quite-definitive recording from the 1990s:

In the Hagens’ performance, the scope of Beethoven’s influences start coming to the fore. But it took a group of young adventerous musicians from Brooklyn, NY to complete the journey. Here is the Brooklyn Rider’s version, which elimiates vibrato completely and restores the use of portimento. The effect is like removing old and discolored varnish from an old master painting. My god, what lies underneath.

The First Movement ends in an octave leap on C#, rising by a semitone to a glorious D to open the Second Movement in pure sunshine. A brief Third Movement leads to the heart of the composition, a 15-minute long movement, which takes the simplist of themes and mediates on it over seven inventive variation. Beethoven remarked to his publisher that he had assembled the quartet from “odds and ends”, but this was false modesty. In fact, he had labored extensively over the Fourth Movement in particular. Mixing the sublime with the profane, Beethoven’s music begins to have a sense of inevitability about it–despite the strange and new soundscape he is showing us. He’s leading us, but the destination–if there is one–is beyond our comprehension. As the music slows during the adagio variation, Beethoven shows us the future again. But while the first movement took us to nearly up to the present, here Beethoven anticipates his symphonic successor, Gustav Mahler. Indeed, Mahler sought to orchestrate the quartet for the Vienna Philharmonic, but sadly never did so.

A brief Fifth Movement scherzo follows in all of its childlike innocence. Here, Beethoven uses two rather rare techniques: pizzacato and the use of “sul pont” or ponticello bowing. By moving the bow right next to the bridge, the strings produce higher secondary and tertiary harmonics, creating eerie tones. Virtually, if not completely unknown in Beethoven’s day, ponticello bowing became a favorite technique of Arnold Schoenberg’s. Beethoven again appears to be anticipating the 20th century.

Which brings us to the remarkable Sixth Movement, one of the strangest Conversations in all of music.

By 1825, Beethoven had been completely deaf for a decade and yet, for reasons no one has been able to satisfactorily explain, Beethoven opens the sixth movement with a clear and unmistakable quote from the Kol Nidrei from the start of Yom Kippur services:

All vows, and all the things we have made forbidden to ourselves, and all our oaths, and all consecrated items we have pledged; all explicit promises and all abbreviated promises, that we have vowed, sworn, and dedicated: from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur — may it come at an auspicious time! — we regret having made them. May they be forgiven, eradicated and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer. Our vows shall no longer be vows, our resolutions shall no longer be resolutions, and our oaths shall no longer be oaths.

More information here:

Beethoven was not a stranger to the Jewish community. There had been a thriving Jewish community in Bonn for more than 1,300 years. While they had been historically consigned to live in a ghetto, Jews were granted the right to live outside of the ghetto in the 1790s and, after the occupation by Napoleon, granted full civic rights. Jewish life had been more restricted in Beethoven’s adopted home in Vienna, but, again, following French occupation in 1809, Jews were granted full civic rights and erected a temple in the first district by the early 1820s. Schubert famously composed music for the congregation and rumors persisted that Beethoven had been contracted to do the same. But even if this were true, Beethoven wouldn’t have been able to hear the Kol Nidrei in the 1820s and there is nothing to suggest that Beethoven ever studied Jewish faith.

More than likely, Beethoven had heard the tune in his youth, retained it, and recalled it at the end of his life. It insertion here, in this most profound of Beethoven’s works, further suggests that he knows something of its meaning. Facing his mortality, Beethoven no doubt reflected on the mess of his life, much of which had been self-inflicted. Having sought love in all the wrong places, Beethoven never married and never had any children. His efforts to adopt his nephew, and his subsequent treatment of said nephew, were shameful and a stain upon his character. Beethoven was vindictive, spiteful and, at times, cruel. His temper was legendary. And I am certain (sharing many of those flaws myself), he deeply regretted much of what he had said and done. Here, at the very bitter end, Beethoven is asking for forgiveness in the best way he knows how–through his music. In this aspect, the Julliard String Quartet’s version is sublime, giving full voice and credit to the haunting, sighing melody.

Now, knowing that, watch that Band of Brothers clip again. At the end of WWII, as the Germans pick up the pieces of their ruined lives and homes, they reach for that highest of high Germanic art–the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. And what do they play? A prayer for atonement. That Spielberg guy really knows a thing or two about cinema.

Just as Beethoven’s song of grief, loss and regret concludes, the finale brings forth music of such stunning ferocity and intensity that, compared with the deep and languid emotions of the Sixth Movement, audiences are routinely shocked, even if they know it is coming.

Tis the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering, the lightning flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler who bears and bounds it all, who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlwind, to the brink of the abyss — he smiles at himself, for to him this sorcery was the merest play — and night beckons him. His day is done.

Richard Wagner

Based largely on a fugal structure, Beethoven quotes the opening theme from the First Movement–further cementing the idea of total music, connected by structure, harmonics, rhythm and, now, melody. Beethoven is leading us far afield across a vast harmonic landscape without end. And yet it must end and Beethoven has one more trick up his sleeve. In one of the greatest examples of a picardy cadence in the canon, Beethoven closes his great C# Minor quartet with short C# Major chords. The effect is a true triumph of misdirection. Do we achieve harmonic resolution? Yes, and yet, not really. And on this supremely ambiguous, if not somewhat hopeful note, Beethoven’s great quartet ends. Where does this note of positivity come from? The shift from darkeness to light is so sudden, so unexpected, that you wonder if it was really there at all. The audience is left shocked, stunned, and questioning exactly what has just happened. What does it mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is, in my humble opinion, is the Mount Everest of music, the single greatest composition of all-time. At times I can hear Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, while at other times I perceive chords that wouldn’t emerge until the jazz age.  I hear the spatial silences of Avro Part, the combustible and colorful dissonances of Messiaen, as well as music that anticipates the great adagios of Mahler.  Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is, in effect, a time machine that shows us the entire history of music through to our present day.

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op.131:

The Friday Symposium: Assessing the Recorded History of Beethoven’s Ninth

One of the great joys of classical music is delving into the often rich recorded history of a particular composition. Conductors, often lampooned in popular culture, are all very serious students of the music they perform and their directorial decisions significantly shape the music we hear. How? Tempo is the most obvious lever, but so are dynamics, and how the various parts are woven together. Some conductors will ask you to be more forceful on certain notes or, speaking as a former string player, use your bow to create more or less stacatto, legato or other techniques that help to shape the color of the music the audience hears. Then there is the very abstract notion of feeling–what is perceived as a march by one conductor is a dance to another. And, it must be said, the frequent and highly debatable practice of “correcting” the score.

There is, I submit, no symphony capable of such a wide range of interpretive choices at Beethoven’s Ninth. This is, of course, typical of Beethoven’s Late Period compositions–Beethoven forces peformers to make interpretive choices. Here is a very, very short overview of some of the highlights.

Furtwängler/Berlin (1942)

Where to start? Easy: Wilhelm Furtwängler. The revered former chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (1922-1945) appears to have had a supernatural connection to Beethoven and the Ninth in particular, bending Beethoven’s will to his own, as the dozen or so recordings he left to posterity will attest. So let’s start with the most famous, from March 1942. This performance was part of a celebration for Adolf Hitler’s birthday and, accordingly, a few words about Furtwängler and the Nazi regime are in order. There is no question that Furtwängler cooperated with the Nazis and was held in high esteem by them (although perhaps somewhat less so than party member Herbert von Karajan, see below). Yet historians suggest that Furtwängler sought to oppose the Nazis from within. I have not studied this issue and offer no opinion on the matter, save for the evidence presented by this recording. It is, quite simply, the most unique in history. Beethoven’s Ninth is nearly always uplifiting in spirit. Not so here. Furtwängler transports the mustic inot something angry, tragic, full of dread, and, somewhat amazingly, utterly without the feeling of hope and redemption than appears to be hard wired into the finale. This is Exhibit A on how a great conductor can meld even the most formidable music to his purpose. This is the stuff of nightmares. Instead of radiant joy, we get “we are screwed.” This performance is iconic, but to get a sense of how Furtwängler could manipulate the music, compare this recording to those he did in 1951 or 1954. Like Beethoven, Furtwängler is speaking in tones to those in his audience and if the murderers in his 1942 audience knew what he was saying, he wouldn’t have lived long afterwards.

Toscanini/La Scala (1946)

For many Americans of a certain generation, the epitome of conducting was embodied in the great Arturo Toscanini. Certainly, grounded as he was in the operatic tradition of his native Italy, Toscanini knew how to best amp up the drama–fast tempos. But Toscanini was not simply a clock watcher, his belief in the power of simple, unadorned peformances that hewed closely to the score was the seed that bore fruit in the Period Instrument Movement. You will be hard pressed to find a more exciting performance than this one.

Klemperer/Philharmonia (1957)

To be fair, there is only so much historical sound I can take and my favorite recordings nearly always are from the digital era. That said, the great Otto Klemperer, recording at the dawn of the stereo age, is always at his best with Beethoven. And this recording with the London Philharmonia, while a bit slow for my taste, is one of the true imperious recordings of the Ninth out there. The Ninth starts at track 42 on this compilation.

Karajan/Berlin (1962)

Let’s get this out of the way: Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi. Party member and beneficiary of the regime, his crime against humanity is a permanent stain on his character. That said, no serious overview of the recorded history of Beethoven can ignore him. Along with Furtwängler, he reigns supreme in this material and recorded the Ninth about a dozen times during his very long career (I did manage to catch him at the end live at Carnegie, even though my father would have prefered me to be protesting outside). Here he is, at the peak of his very forbidable powers, totally in control of both the Philharmonic and the Vienna Opera Chorus. Karajan viewed this as his best recording, and the public agreed. It sold more than a million copies.

Gardiner/L’orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (1994)

The Period Instrument (or Historically Informed Practices) Movement took the baton from Toscanini and ran with it. John Eliot Gardiner’s 1994 account has long been my reference standard for the work–until I started writing this blog. While I nearly always prefer period instruments for music composed prior to 1830, the exception just might be Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven simply wasn’t recording for the 1820s during his Late Period–he was composing for the final evolution of the orchestra. Nothing was too big or loud for Beethoven here and I suspect that he would prefer modern instruments for this work. Nonetheless, Gardiner’s incredibly brisk pace injects a ton of drama into the proceedings and remains a firm favorite.


The Gardiner recording has been my favorite since its release nearly 30 years ago. But Chailly has supplanted Gardiner, much to my amazement. I cannot deny that the sound production is a major reason why–it is just perfectly recorded: Open and spacious, while perfectly balanced. The fine details shine through in this supremely elegant performance. Also, Chailly strikes the extact right tempos while Gardiner is, on balance, a bit too fast for me (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it is true). My one quibble would be that the naturalist soundscape of the trio in the second movement isn’t as perfectly realized as elsewhere, but it is a tiny complaint, reflecting that a truely definitive recording of the Ninth will forever elude us. Interestingly, the historic Gewandhaus orchestra traces its roots back to Beethoven’s time and was the first orchestra to perform a cycle of his symphonies. It seems fitting that 200 years later, they should be the ones to get closest to the ideal.

The foregoing scratches just the very surface of one of the richest catalogues in the history of recorded music. A few others to consider:

Fricasy/Berlin (1957)

Szell/Cleveland (1961)

Solti/Chicago (1972)

Kebelik/Munich (1975)

Harnocourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991)

Norrington/Stuttagart Radio Orchestra (2000)

And when you are done with those, there are about 200 more.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, a great red wine is capable of tantalizing depth and broad scope of expression, vintage after vintage. Brunello di Montalcino, from a lovely town in southern Tuscany, is probably my favorite wine. It is made entirely from one specific clone of the sangiovese grape and remains one of the most frustrating wines on the market. Young Brunellos are absolutely delicious. For a year or two after release, they are an explosion of fruit and flowers, most notably cherries, but plenty of blackberry and other black fruits at the back end that hint at pleasures to come with time. Brunellos are highly acidic and very tannic on release, and that tart almost astringent note at the end upon release will soon come to dominate the wine, rendering it practically undrinkable for a decade. A decade on, the wine enters its prime drinking window. Those fresh fruit and flower flavors are no longer present, but the wine has turned sweeter with age, bringing forth notes of candied cherries, figs and nuts. Those harsh tannins (the drying flavors so prominent in black tea) have mellowed into a chocolately goodnesss, while the acidity has also mellowed and the end notes seemingly go on forever. Old Brunello is just magical–as good as Italian wine gets.

As a rule, the better the bottle, the less good it will be on release and the more time it will need in the cellar. Happily, Brunello had fantastic years in 2010 and 2012, which are now just coming into their own. A few bottles to look out for:

Ciacci Piccolomini, Brunello di Montalcino, “Pianrosso”

Altesino, Brunello di Montalcino, “Montosoli”

Casanova di Neri, Brunello di Montalcino, “Tenuta Nuova”

Each of these will run around $125 retail in a well-priced shop, but each also produce less expensive Brunellos. The most important thing is vintage. 2010/2012 should be the target this year.

The Answer is Joy

Beethoven is the ultimate progressive, believing that the world exists for us to improve. While his own circumstances were miserable – loveless, pain-stricken and frustratingly deaf – he retained to the last a shining faith in peace and understanding.

Norman Lebrecht

At the end of his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven asks great and terrible questions. Why are we here? What is the point of existence? How can we achieve peace, both for ourselves, our society and our planet? These questions have vexed the greatest philosophers in history and Beethoven could be excused for simply ducking out the back door and leaving us all with the questions raised by that faux-unresolved chord at the very end of his great mass.

But that really wasn’t Beethoven’s style. Even as he was polishing up his great mass, Beethoven was already hard at work on something he hadn’t done in more than a decade–composing a symphony. In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven resolved to leave no doubt as to his purpose; for the first time, Beethoven would speak directly to his audience in a language other than tones. And in this symphony, Beethoven would conclusively answer these great questions.

The Ninth Symphony is a work on a massive scale, laying down a marker so daunting that composers for the next 100 years spent the better parts of their lives wrestling with it. Indeed, it was the Ninth Symphony that gave rise to the formal discipline of musicology. While composers frequently studied the scores of their predecessors and contemporaries, the formal academic study of music was unknown in the West. Whether it was its message—a sonic wrecking ball of humanist ideals, advocating for social change, hope for the masses and prefiguring the political reforms to come over the century—or the chaotic music tied to a central coherence that seemingly slips through your fingers every time you think you’ve found it, academics across multiple disciplines have never tired of examining this remarkable work.

How to even begin taking about, in such and abridged fashion, this iconic symphony?  Even the great composer, Hector Berlioz, considered that offering an opinion or analysis of it was a fool’s errand. Well, fortunately, I am exactly that sort of fool.

The Ninth Symphony was written on a grand scale, for an orchestra far larger than any that had come before it. Of course, Beethoven was completely deaf by this point–so it is worth stating that Beethoven was imagining a sound in his head that he was unable to test in practice, unlike any other composer in history. And it’s not like Beethoven had dumbed down his music–if anything, the Ninth finds Beethoven at his most revolutionary. Timpani solos? Yes, please. A full chorus? Absolutely. Complex fugues? Of course. A symphony composed on a vast scale, not equaled until the operas of Richard Wagner and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler? Naturally.

But that vast scope isn’t immediately apparent. In contrast to so many of his great symphonic works, the Ninth doesn’t open with a statement of intent. Instead, we are presented with music best described as “orchestrated silence.” Barely perceptible, the first theme begins to emerge from this primordial ooze–strings playing open fifths, As and Es, for 17 measures. This is music at its most basic–it is as if Beethoven is reaching back to the dawn of Western music, before the invention of the triad, to build his harmony. Some have compared this to the orchestra tuning up, since violins tune first on an A and E, but Beethoven has a deeper purpose here. Removing the third from the chord, allows Beethoven’s symphony to opens ambiguously, since a fifth is neither major nor minor. This is an idea that Beethoven will repeatedly return to: Ambiguity is part of the key to unlocking this score.

Beethoven builds his music gradually, through dynamics and rhythm primarily, and harmonics secondarily (by adding descending fourths to the score). We get the sense that Beethoven is building the music to something big, and the rhythm suggests both anticipation and nervousness in equal measure. Slowly, Beethoven brings in more instruments, almost imperceptibly–and when the horns and timpani announce themselves, we get the first theme, in glorious and terrible D Minor, the key of despair. Beethoven has added the third to his fifths, completing the chord and resolving the ambiguity. but theme is jagged and decidedly unmelodic. Rather, it is a command: Beethoven has orchestrated the moment of creation.

And then the music repeats, but the fifth is now a D and an A, giving us the sense that we are moving to something different. The second theme (in heroic B Flat Major, a third below D Minor) is sweet and stands in sharp contrast to the angry first theme. Beethoven begins to develop the second theme in a series of variations on the original motif (which includes a remarkable synthesis of the second theme’s harmony with the first theme’s rhythm).

The music is becoming more complex–and a more realized soundscape emerges. D Minor reemerges and struggles with the new key for supremacy. At times, it appears that Beethoven is developing both themes, albeit in fragments (even presenting part of the first theme in the key of the second!). And just as B Flat Major appears to have conclusively won the day, the primordial music returns and we enter the development section another third lower, in G Minor. Angsty and rage-driven music takes over, drowning out the sweetness. Repetitive, almost obsessive, Beethoven’s angst appears to recede, but it is a false dawn–the recapitulation comes, shocking and without warning (and with a barely perceptible key change to D Major, the key of triumph, breaking the rules about the restatement of the theme).

This key change to D Major is one of the more incredible moments in a work filled with them. Again, we are dealing with intentional ambiguity and this barely perceptible key change is important both for the resolution of this movement and the overall theme of the symphony. First, why is the key change so hard to hear? Because Beethoven puts the third that defines the key, F Sharp, in the lowest register (bassoons and basses), making it both difficult to hear and highly unstable. The struggle between minor (mostly D) and major (mostly D and B Flat) is an idea that Beethoven will repeatedly return to over the course of the symphony. And by shifting here, from minor to the parallel major, Beethoven hints at the meaning: The Answer he promised will be one of hope. But, at least for the moment, this hopefulness is lost amidst music filled with despair and defiance. Opinions differ on whether this opening chord of the recapitulation is terrifying or triumphant. To me, it is neither. I hear Beethoven’s defiant hope, despite everything. Defiant hope amidst a world filled with misery and despair would not be stable, it would be tenuous at best. And that’s exactly what Beethoven gives us. The instability of D Major is soon apparent as the mood darkens with a return to D Minor. At the close, a funeral march emerges, and Beethoven’s foul mood consumes all in its path, building to the final, inescapable, and inevitable resolution. But what is it? The final chord is an unharmonized D–our ears are tuned to D Minor, so that’s what I inevitably here. But it also could be D Major. This ambiguity is the Question, restated.

By the time we get to the end of the movement, it feels as if we have heard an entire symphony. Beethoven has said so much–this would be impossible to top, right? And yet, Beethoven does so, flipping the script and deferring the traditional slow second movement. With a motif that nearly as recognizable as the four-note motif that opens his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven unleashes a scherzo of incredible power. This movement is about Earthly Pleasure. Typically placed as the third movement, the scherzo evolved out of the minuet, so is supposed to be at least notionally a dance. But this is no light dance–the frenetic energy and angst of the first movement gets even more intense here, no more so than in the famous four attacks that open the movement. This motif is a black comment on the serene opening of the first movement. There, the descending tones were peaceful and undisturbed; here, they are jagged and threatening. The opening motif evolves into the first theme, which is really an echo of sorts of the principal theme of the first movement. But there is no doubt that we are firmly in D Minor this time around, as the timpani, given a solo of sorts, is tuned to F. Beethoven thus links these two movements together, harmonically, and rhythmically. The theme evolves into a fugue, which leads to the first climax, a wild and uncontrolled dance that reminds me of a 90s era mosh pit. And by the time you can get a handle on what is going on, Beethoven flips the script, moving to C Major and unleashing another frantic dance. Following a transition, the fugue repeats, allowing Beethoven to show off. The theme had been originally presented in four beats, now it returns in a rhythm of three beats. Then the fugue returns to four beats, but becomes more complex, overlapping every two bars. This is superior stuff, a master at play. The main theme returns, more terrible than before, leading to wild celebration alternating between D Major and D Minor.

The trio, the second half of a scherzo movement–opens with a simple country dance. This theme recalls the B Flat Major theme of the first movement, while prefiguring the pastoral idyl of the next movement. And just as we’ve settled into this pure and simple music, as the scherzo returns with a fury. The movement ends with a joke (scherzo of course means joke in Italian)–just as it appears that Beethoven is about repeat the trio, he pulls the rug out and the entire movement comes to a crashing stop. Again, the movement ends with unharmonized Ds. But this time around, Beethoven has tuned our ears to D Major–something hopeful this way comes?

Hope comes in the form of a “sublimely beautiful” adagio. I will confess that, beautiful though it may be, my finger more often than not starts slipping to the skip track button here. This movement just slows everything down just as I’m ready for it to take off. But if I’ve learned anything over the last several weeks diving into Beethoven’s music it is this: He knows best. So what is Beethoven getting at? Why this languid slow movement?

Let’s recap what brought us to this point. In the first movement, Beethoven presents a epic struggle with the fundamental questions of existence. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life (the universe–everything!)? You can hear Beethoven raging against his faith, against divine Providence, against fate in this monumental movement. The second, while more playful, retains that sense of a man shaking his fist at the universe. And by the time we’ve reached the abrubt ending to the second movement, we’re about half an hour in. Simply put, Beethoven is exhausted. The orchestra is exhausted. The audience is exhausted. We are all emotionally drained.

Here in the third movement, Beethoven stops shaking his fist at the world. He’s poured out his emotions to us for 30 minutes and now, at long last, music’s great angry man appears to have accepted his fate. This–Beethoven’s great chorale–is nothing less than acceptance of the world by a man who is close to the end of his life. He’s done fighting. The choice of a chorale (a harmonized hymn) is surprising–this is the first time that Beethoven has used this form in one of his symphonies. Perhaps Beethoven is recalling the Lutheran tradition here, or perhaps he’s simply making fun of the chorus, which has been on stage for over half an hour without anything to do while calling our attention to the dozens of singers sitting on stage.

Structurally, the third movement is composed as a double theme and variation. The first theme (B Flat Major) seems to waft along at its own pace, disappearing into nothingness. This recalls the second more peaceful theme of the first movement, again tying the symphony together harmonically. A second theme (D Major–the other primary hopeful key in the symphony) emerges at a faster tempo, leading to the first variation on Theme A, the first variation on Theme B (in G Major), before arriving at the second variation of Theme A in the significant key of E Flat Major. And this is where Beethoven starts to go off on his own, ignoring the bounds of theme and variation. Beethoven elongates the A Theme and the choice of key darkens the mood. The pizzicato from the second variation of the B Theme reoccurs, questioning whether the two themes have merged. The music becomes nearly black and the despair of the first movement threatens to return, but the A Theme returns (perhaps with traces of Theme B) in a joyful, floating dance. A loud intervention–a fanfare of brass–is heard but ignored as the A Theme dance returns. But the brass will not be denied. The fanfare returns, even more insistent than before. And yet, the A Theme returns, leaving that dramatic chord hanging in the air, unresolved.

And, just as the A Theme threatens to take the music away into the ether, Beethoven brings us crashing back down to earth with terrifying intensity. The fourth movement, the most famous movement in all of symphonic music, has started. Wagner called this the Schreckensfanfare–the “horror fanfare”. It is, without question, supremely dissonant and shocking. How does Beethoven produce this effect–and why? Unpacking the music reveals that it is a chord that combines the two primary keys of the first movement–D Minor and B-Flat Major. This is conflict on a massive scale.

The low strings emerge, seemingly insistent on saying something. The orchestra recalls the opening of the first movement, but the low strings interrupt the theme, rejecting it. In doing so, Beethoven rejects his despair–that is not the Answer. The orchestra then offers up the fugue from the second movement, but the low strings reject that theme also. Earthly Pleasure isn’t the Answer either. Then Theme A from the third movement reappears but is also rejected. This is just too tender and languid–our souls need lifting. We are looking for something else. The orchestra suggests a new simple, yet easily recognizeable melody in D Major. And this new melody is accepted by the low strings. We have found the Answer.

A few words about this theme. First, as I noted several weeks ago, Beethoven borrowed this idea from Mozart–listen starting about 0:55 in the below.

Beethoven loved this theme. He used it first in an early song called Gegenliebe–listen to the below starting at 2:55:

And, again, in his Choral Fantasy–skip to 5:20 in the below:

Beethoven builds his great theme slowly. First come the basses. Then the other strings, the woodwinds, and, finally brass and timpani. The music revolves around the interval of a fifth–recalling the open fifths that open the symphony (it was D Major, after all). And careful inspection of the score reveals numerous instances where Beethoven has been prefiguring this theme in fragments, unknown to us. Those idyllic passages from the first three movements (the B Flat Major theme in the first movement, the opening theme of the trio in the second movement, Theme A of the third movement)? They are all related and all lead up to this moment when Beethoven pulls back the curtain. Beethoven has been training our ears to accept this theme too as the natural culmination of the symphony–it is as if Beethoven wants us to recognize that we all knew the Answer all along.

But just as glory appears to break out, the Schreckensfanfare returns and the music seems to be headed back into the muck. After a pause (pauses are so important in Beethoven!), a lone bass-baritone rises from the chorus and puts a stop to the gloom and despair:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!

These are Beethoven’s words:

O friends, not these tones!

Let us intone more pleasant ones.

More filled with joy.

And thus begins the Ode to Joy. There is so much to say about the remarkable fourth movement, but some things should be experienced first and analyzed second. Here, Beethoven resolves the conflict between his three principle keys in favor of the key of triumph, D Major. He unites the entire symphony, harmonically, rhythmically, and, for the first time, melodically. He calls upon the most secular of music (the Turkish march) and the most sacred (a hymn based on Palestrina). Into this musical vortex, all ideas are being consumed. There are no more questions. Only the Answer.

At the conclusion of the symphony, the orchestra races out in front (Beethoven notes “as fast as possible”), leaving the chorus behind. It is as if Beethoven is racing out ahead, leading us all to a better world. As one critic summarized:

That final movement itself is then an enactment of a victory for humanity, as individuals come together in joy and love: a community of choir, vocal soloists, and musicians that isn’t led by great men or even by God, but rather is built on the bonds between “brothers” of Schiller’s poem, as this new, true heroism of humanity creates its own destiny and fashions the world in which Beethoven wanted to live. That world symbolically includes geographical and ethnic diversities just as it encompasses the secular and sacred, in the Turkish music that interrupts the finale and with which the whole symphony noisily, joyously, overwhelmingly ends; as well as its virtuosic counterpoint, its sensuous polyphony and its cantata-like – but terrifyingly challenging – choral writing.

Tom Service, The Guardian

The power of Beethoven’s music and his message of unity, peace and hope for all mankind has not dimmed across the centuries.  It is the official anthem of the European Union.  Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall—a concert that featured musicians not only from West and East Germany, but also from each of the four occupying powers of the US, France, Britain and Russia. The Ninth is performed every year in the penultimate concert of the BBC Proms, the greatest of all music festivals.  It is performed annually across Japan every New Year.

I could fill an entire book with inspiring quotes about the Ninth, but I think it really does speak for itself.  Schiller’s original German is more poetic, I like to think that this part of the Ode is Beethoven’s final message to us:

Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he who never managed it should slink
Weeping from this union!

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us and grapevines,
A friend, proven in death.
Ecstasy was given to the worm
And the cherub stands before God.

Gladly, as His suns fly
through the heavens’ grand plan
Go on, brothers, your way,
Joyful, like a hero to victory.

And that is The Answer. In his last public appearance, Ludwig van Beethoven took only one character more than Deep Thought to provide the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

The Answer is Joy.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, “Choral”, Op. 125: 

On May 7, 1824, Beethoven premiered the Ninth in Vienna. It was a typically fraught affair. Frustrated by Rossini’s success, Beethoven had threatened to premiere the new symphony in Berlin before being convinced to remain in Vienna. Securing a hall and performers was also challenging, and Beethoven had to settle for a group of amateurs who really weren’t up to the task. It didn’t matter. Beethoven’s fans turned out in droves, some being carried in on their deathbeds. One last time to see the master in the flesh.

Much has been made of Caroline Unger, the alto making her debut that night, tugging on Beethoven’s sleeve when the performance was over to turn him around towards the cheering crowd. It’s a nice story and one that is likely true. But there is another detail about this concert that often goes overlooked. The Ninth wasn’t the only work on the program that night. Beethoven also debuted some music that Viennese audiences hadn’t heard before. Three “hymns”, as they were billed, were performed right before the Ninth. In reality, they were the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis. If Beethoven was going to provide the Answer, he was sure that everyone first heard the Question.

From the Heart: Beethoven’s Great Question

From the heart – may it return again – to the heart.

Ludwig van Beethoven, as written on the autograph score

In the last decade of his life, Beethoven turned his mind to composing an oratorio–a mass to celebrate the Archduke Rudolf’s appointment to Archbishop. Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron, student, and friend, commissioned the work, but Beethoven delivered the score four years later (which was three years too late).

It had been seven years since Beethoven had undertaken a work of this size and scale.  To prepare for the composition, Beethoven studied dozens of oratorios, from Christian plainchant to Palestrina and right on through through to Haydn and Mozart’s Requiem.  Handel’s Messiah was a particularly strong influence, as Beethoven quotes it significantly, paricularly in the Dona nobis pacem section (compare with Handel’s “And he shall reign” from Messiah ). But the dominant force here is Bach. Similar in structure and intent to the B Minor Mass, Beethoven here also composed a work that was far too long for liturgical purposes. Both Bach and Beethoven used these latter-day compositions to work out their own personal struggles with faith, delivering deeply moving music grounded in the many innovations that marked them as two of the greatest composers in history.

Before diving into the music, let’s address the elephant in the room. Many later-day historians have suggested that Beethoven was an atheist, but I see little in the record to justify this view.  Certainly, he was profoundly influenced by and contributed to the Enlightenment movement and was not overtly pious in a way that Bach was.  It may also be that he struggled with his faith.  Milton may have been able to reconcile his loss of sight with his faith, but Beethoven sruggled mightily with his disability and had seriously considered suicide as early as 1802. True to his nature, Beethoven’s faith was deeply personal. I read somewhere that Beethoven, a Catholic, had replaced the Trinity with God, Humanity and Nature.  This makes sense—ultimately, Beethoven sought to reconcile his faith with the ideals of the Enlightenment around the concepts of respect for nature and peace and love for all mankind. 

To the music: Let’s begin with the undeniable fact that the score cannot possibly be performed as written. By now, Beethoven had achieved notariety for composing music (particularly in his Late Period) that was beyond the technical skills of contemporary musicians. While these works still remain challenging, the Missa Solemnis alone retains is aura of being unplayable. First, there is the incredible taxation Beethoven extracts from the human voice–the sopranos, in particular, are called upon to sustain notes at the very top of their range (high A and high B Flat) for what seems like an eternity (and at full volume no less). Instrumentalists are faced with similar challenges. The most notorious example may be the contrabassons, which are commanded to open the Gloria section at fortissimo for 42 bars of rapid fire eight notes. They are later expected to hold a single note for 18 measures, at least half a minute, at full volume without breathing. And yet these extraordinary challenges profoundly affect both the performance and quality music created. Peforming at the very edge of what is possible, striving for what is technically impossible–well, that’s something I can actually relate to. Your playing can never be relaxed or assured. There is always a frenetic energy to what you are doing. Terror lurks at the heart of the music as if things could go off the rail at any time and Beethoven’s mass derives at least part of its strength from this inherent strain and tension.

The formal sections of a mass are, in order, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Let’s take them in order:

Right off the bat, Beethoven’s Kyrie announces that things are going to be quite different from any mass written up to that date. After an opening fanfare, Beethoven starts his grand mass from nearly nothing at all, building the harmony, bit by bit, until–the full chorus enters, Kyrie! This part of the mass–Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy)–is traditionally set, with polyphonic medidations on the very brief text. But there is a power lurking behind the chorus that prefigures what is to come.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

And that power is fully revealed in the Gloria section. No one ever wrote a Gloria like this one. Not for the last time, Beethoven turns up the orchestra and chorus to 11 boldly proclaiming: Gloira in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest). Here, Beethoven unleashes the full range of his bag of tricks. Complex fugues, which have come feature regularly in his Late Period music, are used to convey the praise of the masses, while Beethoven tunes up the melodic, harmonic and dynamic elements of the music to better explicate the text. And if that opening stood your hair on end, that doesn’t have a patch on the finale of the section–two massive fugues on the final line of the text (in gloria Dei Patris. Amen) followed by an instrumentally-led section of unsurpassing power and beauty and the chorus shouting Gloria! at the close. The one and only time I’ve seen this live, the performers wisely took an extended break here.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te. Adoramus te. Benedicimus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, rex coelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris:

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus:
Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

That break is needed, because it is the next section–Credo–that the mass gets down to business. This is the Creed, as first set down by the Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea in 326. Setting aside the very complext theological and political debates that were settled by Constantine, the Nicene Creed has endured at the heart of the Catholic mass, with some minor alterations, ever since. This statement of the Christian faith also lay at the very core of Bach’s Lutheran faith and the old German master treated each and every word with equal reverence. Not so Beethoven, who is ever true to himself, first and foremost. Recall that the entire purpose of this mass was to celebrate the ascension of his good friend and patron to Archbishop of the Catholic Church. And yet Beethoven, ever contemptuous of organized religion in general, buries the part of the creed that proclaims belief in one Catholic Church. Instead, Beethoven focuses on themes of suffering and salvation, especially the concluding text Et vitam ventura saeculi (And the life of the world to come). This is the biggest clue yet as to as to what Beethoven is getting at here. Throughout his life, Beethoven has seen suffering. Suffering on the European plains in the many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Suffering in the cities, whether during the persecutions of the Terror in Paris or by the aristocracy in Vienna (indeed, Beethoven was on a police watch list at this time). And, perhaps most keenly, the suffering of the fledgling European democractic movement that was so near and dear to Beethoven’s heart. Is it any wonder that his concerns are for future generations? Recall his inscription on the autograph score–“from the heart–may it return–to the heart.” This is the Catholic Creed, edited by Beethoven.

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, not factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: ET HOMO FACTUS EST. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus, et sepultus est. Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas. Et ascendit in coelum: sedet ad dexteram Patris. Et iterum venturus est com gloria judicare vivos et mortuos, cujus regni non erit finis.

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit. Qui cum Patre, et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per Prophetas. Credo in unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Etvitam ventura saeculi. Amen.

The Sanctus and Benedictus lie at the heart of the mass, as they introduce the miracle of the Eucharist–the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Here we find Beethoven at his most introspective and spiritual, even as he collapses these two sections into one seemless movement. In particular, the slowly evolving harmony of the Benedictus is among the most beautiful Beethoven ever composed. Not content to wait in silence for the elevation of the Host, Beethoven takes care to slowly evolve his music, from the lightest of touches–violin and flute–to a more robust, yet gentle, entwining of brass, timpani and voice joining one of the great solo violin parts in all of orchestral music. It is like a mini-violin concerto in the middle of a mass. That violin speaks to me with such tenderness and compassion that I can only concluyde that this is Beethoven’s homage to his best and greatest friend, who quite literally comes now in the name of the Lord.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Osanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Osanna in excelsis.

Which brings us to the end, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Again, this is unlike any Agnus Dei previously composed. While prior composers uniformly paint this great prayer for peace in bright and uplifting tones, Beethoven’s version is decidedly unsettled, more anxious, and completely uncertain–after all, he has already indicated his concern for future generations here on Earth. Ultimately, I think that Beethoven’s plea for peace is for us, not him–his notes to the closing line–Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace)– is annotated to underline that this prayer is for both inner and outer peace. And it has to be said Beethoven does not appear to be particularly hopeful. This section is full of melancholy music. Practically merging opera with oratorio, Beethoven amps up the drama in a heartwrenching duet and robust choruses. And the closing? Unprecedented. Over an hour of what might just be the most glorious music ever composed ends abruptly on a very simple cadence that doesn’t fully resolve the harmonic tension. The effect is among the most shocking in music history. Often, the Dona nobis pacem is described as a prayer for peace amidst the drumbeats of war: It is a warning from Beethoven that faith alone is not enough. Without the ideals of the Enlightenment–liberty, tolerance, equality–there can be no true peace for mankind. And Beethoven’s music questions whether mankind can ever truly achieve those ideals. That, most of all, is why the ending of this great mass is so profoundly unsettling for me.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Dona nobis pacem.

Bach and Beethoven thus reach different conclusions at the end of their great masses. For Bach, that radiant light that comes at the end of his B Minor Mass, among the most trancendent moments in music history, is an affirmation of his faith, a perfect resolution to much more than just 90 minutes of music. This is the Answer to all of the questions he raises, both harmonically and spiritually throughout the mass.

Beethoven, however, leaves us with only a question, rather than an answer, at the end of the Missa Solemnis. I cannot put that question into words, for it is far too great and terrible a question for mere language to convey. In no small irony, Douglas Adams got closest (a feat largely uncelebrated, given the lavish attention given to his “answer”):

O Deep Thought computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”
“The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Beethoven’s audience would need to wait for that answer (although not quite as long as Fook and Lunkwill’s descendants did). But, oh, what an answer! Let’s just say it was a sight better than “42”. Tune in next week.

It is often overlooked in the history of music, but Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a capstone work of sort, the end of a long and glorious musical tradition. Bach’s B Minor Mass put the first crack into the edifice, signalling that the mass need not be usable for a religious service. Beethoven goes further, questioning whether the religion bit was necessary at all. And that ended it. Other major composers would continue to produce religious works, but the Missa Solemnis is the end of the road, the last full-scale mass composed by a historically significant composer. Here, it is.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Op. 123:

There are so many wonderful recordings of the Missa Solemnis, each of which provides their own joys and insights. Like much of Beethoven’s Late Period music, there can be no one definitive version. I chose the recent video of Kent Nagano and the Concerto Köln here because the YouTube sound quality is excellent, it is a period instrument performance, the tempo is driven the way that I like it, and he absolutely nails the ending. The fact it was recorded in a church, so the acoustics are appropriate, is the icing on the cake.

Other recommended recordings include, no shock here, John Eliot Gardiner’s two recordings, Nikolaus Harnocourt’s two recordings (the second is a sonic marvel, but I find the tempos to be too slow for my taste), Philippe Herreweghe’s recording with the Collegium Vocale Ghent (who I saw live!), Otto Klemperer’s recording from the early days of stereo with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1960ish recording live with the NY Philharmonic (as opposed to his later versions that are just too slow and devoid of the manic energy of this recording). Bruno Walter’s version is legendary, but incredibly hard to track down, while Eric Kleiber’s version suffers from particularly bad sound. Give a pass to James Levine, star-studded as that version is, Levine manages to strip all of the energy from the work with his characteristically show tempos. But whichever version you choose, be sure to crank the volume. This is not background music.

The Friday Symposium: Beethoven Swings

It should not be a surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I consider Beethoven’s chamber works to be his most significant compositions, and his piano sonatas in particular to be among those where my connection to Beethoven is strongest. Beethoven’s final piano sonatas are breathtaking in their beauty and inventiveness and, perhaps, in the fullness of time I might come back to explore some of them in greater detail. But if I am ever going to get to Schubert (currently stalking Beethoven around Vienna like the shy fanboy that he was), I’m going to have to make some cuts. The Godfather took me to task for ignoring the Fourth Piano Concerto. Fair point–but ignoring any of the late sonatas or quartets is a far worse crime.

Beethoven’s Late Period works fill me with equal parts awe and dread. Reaching back through time, right to where this blog began in the 1300s, Beethoven’s music begins to incorporate techniques that had been long abandoned, while at the same time thrusting form and harmonics forward–so forward that these remarkable compositions naturally coexist with so much of the music that is being written today.

A few examples:

Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata is not nearly as famous as the one it succeeds, but in many ways it is my favorite of his Late Period works for solo piano. Most analyses focus on the third movement–a grand theme and variation that rivals anything that Bach produced–and rightly so, but my interest today lies in the theme from the first movement, which repeats regularly as part of the sonata form. It is instantly recognizable, at least to me–I dedicated an entire entry here to the endless appeal (and reuse) of Couperin’s theme Les Barricades Mysterieuses. Let’s refresh our recollection:

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses:

Beethoven takes this timeless tune and jazzes it up.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109:

Jazz you say? Yes, jazz. And if there is any question about whether Beethoven could swing, what he let fly in the second movment his final piano sonata leaves absolutely no doubt (skip to 6:40 in the below if you are impatient):

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

Whether Beethoven invented boogie-woogie in 1820, nearly a century before the jazz age, is really besides the point. By this point in his life, Beethoven could be forgiven for slipping permanetly into the blackest of moods. Robbed of his most prescious sense, a complete failure in matters of love and family, denied the stable income his benefactors had promised, and, with the final defeat of Napoleon, the liberal dreams of his youth dashed against the authoritarian rocks of monarchy–very little had gone Beethoven’s way in life. And yet, his ideals and profound optimism endured. Beethoven wrote this final work for his instrument roughly contemporaneously with the start of his work on the Ninth Symphony. Rhythmically adventurous, harmonically complex–this is a triumph of optimism over the very depths of nearly absolute despair.

Beethoven’s Late Period demands scotch, the most contemplative of spirits. Unfortunately, spiking demand, thanks to increasing interest from Asian markets and collectors, has driven up the cost of scotch to frankly ridiculous levels. The next few entries in this series will be devoted to Late Beethoven and Scotch, a match made in heaven.

Today’s selection is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail. Like Late Beethoven, just reading it can be scary–how the hell do you play/pronouce that? For the record, it is something like Oog-a-dal. Playing Beethoven is considerably more difficult. But also like Late Beethoven, it presents as one thing (classically tonal/full of fresh flowers and fruit on the nose), but is decidedly something more different (chromatically adventurous/tasting clearly of smoke and the sea). Most importantly, the scotch is just perfectly balanced, across all of its various components, high strength (do add a drop or two of spring water to your dram), and . . . ok, this analysis is getting a bit strained. Let’s just say that Ardbeg’s Uigeadail is one of the best value scotches on the market today, about $75 in a liquor store that prizes customers equally with profit.

Beethoven Unleashed

Here’s a sonata that will challenge pianists and that people will be able to play in 50 years.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Now that Beethoven was writing for himself, he undertook to compose a piano sonata of such incredible power and complexity that it can only be described as symphonic. What became his 29th sonata for piano remains at the very summit of music written for piano, not only because of its technical difficulty, but because of the significant interpretive choices Beethoven demands of his soloist. No work of music more challenges the body and the brain in equal measure. To get the most out of this score, the pianist must solve the many riddles Beethoven buries within the music, making key choices as to tempo and coloration.

This is such a formidable challenge that, upon publication, no one dared perform it–the first public performance would be in 1836, nearly a decade after Beethoven’s death. The site? The Salle Erard in Paris. And the pianist who dared scale Mount Olympus to confront Beethoven face-to-face? Only the greatest pianist of all-time: Franz Liszt.

Before diving into the music, a short comment on the sonata’s common sobriquet: Hammerklavier. Despite the wonderful visual that name conjures, the formal title of the sonata is Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier. The hammerklavier as its German name implies is a keyboard instrument that uses a hammer to play the strings–a fortepiano. Beethoven’s title reveals two things. First, that the era of the harpsichord is dead (sorry, Gert–we’ll find you again in the 1960s). And second, his inspiration–a new piano from the British Broadwood firm. Beethoven’s new piano provided the composer with a greater range–six octaves and 73 keys in all (the modern piano, seven octaves and 88 keys would not emerge until the 1880s). Although Beethoven could no longer hear his new instrument, he fully understood its capabilities and, perhaps, how the instrument would continue to evolve.

Back to the music: Part of the challenge here is determining the correct tempo. Beethoven uniquely included a metronome marking of “half note = 138” in the score, rendering the first movement all but unplayable, even two centuries later. This has led, perhaps more than any other of Beethoven’s compositions, to the myth that Beethoven’s metronome was “faulty”. Nonsense. Pianist Andras Schiff, arguably the foremost interpreter of Beethoven’s music on the scene today, did the only sensible thing and examined the metronome himself. That’s right–despite generations of pianists and musicologists peddling the “faulty metronome” story, no one had actual gone and tested the thing. And it’s not like the metronome is hard to find. It resides in the greatest music hall on the planet, Vienna’s Musikverein. Spoiler alert: It works just fine. So what are we to make of Beethoven’s notation? Personally, I think that this is one of the many things left open to pianist to explore–but in doing so, it is simply wrong to reject Beethoven’s notation as “wrong” or “faulty”–you must reckon with Beethoven on his terms.

To the music: Like may of his symphonies, the first movement opens with a series of thundering B-Flat minor chords.

From here, Beethoven takes us on a harmonic adventure, first to D major (a third higher) and then to G major (a third lower). And this sets up the predominant harmonic theme of the entire sonata. Since John Dunstable, the triad had formed the foundation upon which Western music had been constructed. In this sonata, Beethoven explores the entirety of that mighty edifice through the repetition of thirds. In nearly every bar, we hear thirds. Rising thirds. Descending thirds. And tenths (extended thirds). Yet this composition is by no means conventional. As I have written previously, Beethoven is doing a gut renovation of the musical landscape from the inside out and the key to this remarkable sonata is to pay attention to what Beethoven is doing tonally. He starts to explore unconventional tone pairings, siding up B natural to a B flat, which creates a very unsettling feeling. These two tones, and their respective domiants in F and F#, clash repeatedly throughout the first movement. Beethoven resolves this conflict in favor of B flat, conventionally confirming the tonic structure of the sonata. How the pianist reveals this harmonic struggle is what separates a great performance from a simply competent one.

We know by now that Beethoven is taking us repeatedly between dominant and tonic by thirds, so we continue to expect that throughout the sonata. But it is these unconventional side-steps to distant tonal landscapes that anticipate the great harmonic revolutions of the later 19th century. To avoid completely shocking us, Beethoven cleverly disguises a lot of what he’s exploring here. In the Classical Period, trills had been used solely as ornamentation–often by an improving keyboardist. Beethoven, however, recognizes a more utilitarian purpose for the trill, which he uses to modulate between far flung keys. We are predisposed to consider a trill as something beautiful and so adjust to unusual harmonic relationship through these repetitive devices.

While each of the four movmements that comprise Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata are worthy of attention, let’s skip the second (a scherzo) and the third (an adagio that has been called “a mausoleum of collective sorrow”) to focus on the remarkable finale. Here Beethoven gives us, in full, the various elements he would explore in his Late Period. Most importantly, at the heart of this remarkable movement lies a fugue–which Beethoven notates as Fuga a tre voci con alcuna licenze (“fugue in three voices with some license”). Beethoven had been studying Bach, primarily in the library of his patron, the Archduke Rudolf. Interest in the old master had been on the rise and publishers had reissued Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, Goldberg Variations, B Minor Mass and The Art of the Fugue. Copies of the latter two were found in Beethoven’s possession after his death. Bringing back counterpoint to Western music reintroduced some of the harmonic complexities that had been lost during the Classical Period, but Beethoven’s fugues are decidedly unlike and far more forceful than Bach’s.

Beethoven also breaks apart chords–the opening of the movment is simply a deconstructed chord–while looking for usual harmonics based on altered overtones. In doing so, the doors for the harmonic revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries have opened. The classical structure, built as a preconceived journey from harmonic conflict to harmonic resolution, is beginning to crumble around the new and glorious structure that Beethoven has created, a world where harmonic galaxies can be explored without an obvious plan or pattern. Stravinsky called this movement “exhausting and inexhaustible”; it ranks among the most daring and complex music Beethoven ever composed.

Two years before his untimely death in 1985, Emil Gilels recorded one of the more introspective interpretations of Hammerklavier. Gilels is, for me, the best interpreter of Beethoven and I have long consider this recording to be Gilels’ very best. But it is not definitive. The genius of Hammerklavier is that it cannot be reduced to a single definitive interpretation. It takes a great pianist to master its technical demands. But if you are able, Beethoven shows remarkable generosity of spirit, allowing the artist to truly share equal billing with him.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Op. 106, Hammerklavier:

And yet, having listened to more than two dozen recordings over the last few weeks, I now find Gilels’ version to be almost painfully slow–some of less generous spirit might say ponderous in the extreme. Schiff makes a compelling case for respecting Beethoven’s notations on tempo, both intellectually (are we really to second guess the greatest composer in history?) and, ultimately, musically. In Schiff’s hands, the Hammerklavier seems more alive and vital–and much more revolutionary. Gilels takes nearly 50 minutes to traverse the same score that Schiff dispenses with in about just over 42 minutes. Here is Schiff live at Wigmore Hall in London performing the Hammerklavier, but I also highly recommend his most recent studio recording of the sonata.

History records that over the course of the last 15 years of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven composed only one symphony, his Ninth. This, in my view is wrong. In his Opus 106, Beethoven composed what should be called his “Symphony No. 9 in B-Flat Major, for Hammerklavier”.

And Now We Will Talk to Each Other in Tones

What does a deaf composer write? Simply the greatest music ever composed.

Had Beethoven stopped composing in 1812, he still would have found a place in the first rank of composers in history. But what Beethoven did between 1817 and 1827 is simply remarkable, even setting aside his disability. Looking back from our 21st century vantage point at these works mutes just how revolutionary Beethoven really was. He slammed the door on the Classical Period, but instead of evolving into the first Romantic composer, he simply skipped Romanticism entirely. It is tempting to say that he was the first Modernist, but that’s not exactly right either. In 1817, Beethoven simply evolved into the first and last of his kind. He became Beethoven. And we will never see his like again. Here is the story:

By 1816, Beethoven’s life was in shambles. His “popular” compositions were no longer attracting crowds and his deafness was all but complete. A true virtuoso who had initially gained acclaim as a performer, Beethoven hadn’t performed live in two years and his disability would prevent him from ever doing so again. His family squabbles had all ended badly and he was now resigned to never marrying. His patronage had all but dried up, he was living in abject squalor, and actually had been arrested, having been mistaken for a vagrant. Beethoven’s friends and patrons began to despair.

Beethoven’s muse, however, was far from done with her greatest disciple; music, once again, proved the path back. One of Beethoven’s pupils and staunchest supporters, the Baroness Dorothea Ertmann, convinced Beethoven to write a new piano sonata for her. And in composing what became his Opus 101, Beethoven began to unlock new doors. The prodigal had returned.

Beethoven’s Late Period would see the composer fully fuse his art with his own emotions. Great performances of these remarkable works connect you, as the audience, with Beethoven’s soul in such a profound way that it appears to be truly mystical. Forget mass. If you want to have a true religious experience, get to a concert hall and see on of these remarkable works performed live.

Beethoven opens his 28th piano sonata on a tender note. Abandoning the generic Italian tempo notations, he instead instructs the pianist: Etwas Lebhaft und mit der Innigsten Empfindung (somewhat lively with the most intimate emotion). What does this mean? Consider his relationship with the Baroness. As relayed by her confidant, Felix Mendelssohn:

When she lost her last child, Beethoven at first did not want to come into the house; at length he invited her to visit with him, and when she came he sat himself down at the pianoforte and said simply: “We will now talk to each other in tones” and for over an hour played without stopping. She remarked: “He told me everything, and at last brought me comfort.”

Felix Mendelssohn

The piano (still called a fortepiano during Beethoven’s life) was still evolving further away from the harpsichord. The pedal had been invented, which allowed for the suspension of notes over time and Beethoven had been the first composer to make extensive use of this new innovation. The keyboard itself continued to grow–now to over six octaves–and Beethoven notes a low E in the score of the 28th sonata in fortissimo as if to say “look what we can now play!” It is also notable that Beethoven’s fortepiano contained a pedal that no longer exists on modern instruments. Then, and now, each hammer of the piano strikes three strings. But Beethoven’s pedal, if I understand this correctly, could shift the hammers over so that they struck only one string, creating a thinner timbre. Much of the third movement in the 28th piano sonata is notated to be played with this “sul una corda” pedal. Sadly, that sound is now lost to us.

Beethoven’s harmonic language in the 28th piano sonata hews closely to the Classical traditions, but he begins to stretch the rules at the margins. The opening theme outlines the tonic key of A major, largely by defining the scale around the fifth (or dominant) tone of A major. We naturally expect a resolution to the tonic–an A major triad–that will relieve the harmonic tension. Instead, Beethoven provides a deceptive cadence that allows him to modulate to the subdominant key, F-Sharp major. Over and over again, Beethoven creates the expectation of A major, only to frustrate the audience with something else. In the final measure, Beethoven finally give us a low A, which merely suggests the resolution that arrives a beat later at the very end. Between those tones, Beethoven contemplates the end of tonal harmony. But he’s not there yet. The Late Period has only just begun.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101:

There is so much to say about this remarkable first work of the Late Period. Following the dream-like first movement, Beethoven presents two further movements that seemingly have little to do with each other–a march followed by a hymn. But out of the final trills of the third movement (starting at around 13:50), the finale bursts forth, unifying everything that has come before. The structure of this movement combines the typical sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation) with Baroque fugue. Beethoven, it seems, had not been a complete dilettante as he pursued popular fame. He had recommitted himself to the study of great composers–Palestrina, Handel and Bach, most notably. But Beethoven was not merely looking backwards. With two eyes ever focused on the future, Beethoven set about laying down a marker for posterity.

The Friday Symposium: Beethoven Sells Out

The year 1812 began in the flower of spring for Beethoven–he was in love again. The identity of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” has been debated endlessly, including by Hollywood in the risable film that bears her sobriquet. For those unfamiliar with the story, following Beethoven’s death, his executors found a set of letters Beethoven had written to an “Immortal Beloved.” Although the letters did not bear a date, they did specify the location where they were drafted–and those movements correspond to Beethoven’s whereabouts in early 1812. Regardless of her identity, I think the key fact is that Beethoven never mailed the letters, suggesting that once again Beethoven had set his sights on the unattainable, either due to her position or her marital status. Regardless, by mid-1812, the relationship appears to have been over and Beethoven emerged in a particularly foul mood.

The loss of love was bad enough, but Beethoven’s finances were failing as well. Having signed an annuity agreement with the Archduke Rudolf and two other princes in 1809, Beethoven assumed that he would be well-provided for indefinetly. Fate, however, had different plans. Although the Archduke was able to easily keep current on his share of the annuity, the other two princes fell behind. Austria, following years of war with Napoleon, was experiencing runaway inflation, ruining one of his other benefactors. The other prince died–and the estate refused to adjust Beethoven’s annuity payments for inflation. So Beethoven sued them–stopping all payments for years.

Not content with fighting with his benefactors, Beethoven set his sights on his family. His youngest brother had entered into a scandalous relationship with his housekeeper. Beethoven used his connections to force the woman to move away–but his brother married her instead. Foiled, Beethoven set his sights on his other sister-in-law (who he long despised). His other brother had recently died and Beethoven was not going to allow his much loathed sister-in-law to raise their child Karl. So Beethoven sued for custody. Incidentally, through this court case, it became known that Beethoven had been misrepresenting the “van” in his name as “von”, insinuating that he was German royalty. Fortunately for him, The New York Post was only publishing local stories at the time and passed on this tasty bit of scandal.

Distracted, Beethoven’s compositional output slowed to a crawl, the most notable of which are his lovley and light Eighth Symphony and the Tenth Violin Sonata, which was dedicated to Pierre Rode.

I will say no more about Beethoven’s personal life–but include these brief stories as a way of explaining what happened next. In one of the most perplexing shifts in all of music history, the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who had spent a career challenging (and often alienating) his audience, sold out. Bigly. And it began, naturally, with Napoleon.

While the Emperor was engaged in his ill-fated Russian campaign, the Duke of Wellington defeated Joseph Bonaparte’s army in Spain at the Battle of Vitoria in June 1813. As the news spread through Europe, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel convinced Beethoven to compose a “symphony” for his panharmonicon, a mechanical orchestra.


Beethoven did so, composing a work of stunning banality. It was, however, a hit. The success of Wellington’s Victory likely led to the organization of the benefit concert at which his Seventh Symphony had also premiered. Wellington’s Victory proved every bit, if not more, popular than anything Beethoven had ever written–and it was lucrative as well. This led Beethoven to compose more “popular” works, the best known of which is Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”). It is as awful as the name suggests.

I don’t actually recommend listening to any of this music. But if you choose to do so, there is only one drink to have. For relaxing times (and for contemplating the fine art of selling out), make it Suntory time.

Fortunately for all of us, Viennese music fans deplored what had become of their greatest citizen and the popularity of Beethoven’s popular music waned. Facing ruin, Beethoven turned inward and channeled his complex web of emotions into his music. The world had turned on Ludwig van Beethoven and now the great composer would no longer seek to appease the crowd at all. Starting in or around 1817, Beethoven was writing solely for himself and, he hoped, for posterity. The music he would produce over the last decade of his life are among the most remarkable compositions in history. Next week, the Late Period arrives.

Beethoven Exits Stage Left: The Archduke Trio

On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate. It is a great misfortune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair? From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me .

Ludwig Spohr, on the premiere of the Archduke Trio

The singular relationship in Beethoven’s life was with the Archduke Rudolf, the youngest son of the Emperor Leopold II. Beethoven’s student, benefactor and friend for more than 20 years, the Archduke was an avid patron of the arts and Beethoven dedicated no less than 14 compositions to him, including the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Missa Solemnis, which was written to celebrate the Archduke’s elevation to Archbishop, and the Grosse Fugue. This is not to say that Beethoven’s views on the aristocracy had waned in his maturity–he was still very much the revolutionary firebrand who penned the Eroica in hopes that Napoleon would bring French liberty to all of Europe. His views on the aristocracy can be summed up thusly:

Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Perhaps it was the Archduke’s admiration for Beethoven, or more likely the fact that the Archduke treated Beethoven as a peer and not as a servant, but the Archduke Trio isn’t about those great subjects of liberté, égalité, fraternité — it is clearly about the true nobility of his friend.

While the Seventh Symphony is the culmination of his “heroic” or middle period style, the contemporaneously composed Archduke Trio is the first clue as to Beethoven’s next evolution. Here, Beethoven begins to truly explore the outer realms of harmony. Beneath the lyricism lies some remarkable bits of compositional daring. There is so much strangeness in the first movement, which for me recalls this Beatles’ masterpiece of dissonance:

The Beatles, I Am The Walrus

For example, there is this moment (1:44 of the first movement in the below), which is a cadence where Beethoven notates V7-I. This is as basic as white bread. But as musicologist Bruce Adolphe points out, Beethoven’s spacing of the chord is unique: He removes the dissonant tone from the bass and makes it the leading tone in the violin. So instead of an ordinary V7-I cadance, we get something distinctly modern–as Adolphe notes, something that immediately recalls Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. During this period, Stravinsky’s music centered on rhythmic and harmonic displacement–taking up where Beethoven left off more than 100 years earlier.

Many trios have performed the Archduke, including the so-called Million Dollar Trio, compirsed of Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky. But for my money, this early Beaux Arts Trio performance is truly definitive. The audio quality is terrible, so I’ve linked to Spotify as well (in which case the chord mentioned above happens at 1:41).

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 97, Archduke:

Beethoven premiered the Archduke Trio at a concert given on April 11, 1814. It would be the last time that Beethoven would play in public. The ensuing years were not kind to the great composer. Having overcome thoughts of suicide a decade earlier, Beethoven produced a remarkable series of works in his middle period that form the core of the classical repertorie. But as his deafness finally overcame him, Beethoven retreated into solitude and despair.

Beethoven’s Symphonic Masterpiece

The work of a madman.

Carl Maria von Weber

We’ve already heard Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Sixth. The Ninth is still to come, but today’s selection, his Seventh Symphony, is my personal favorite.  I’m not alone.  Berlioz declared it to be Beethoven’s “masterpiece.”  Wagner wrote rhapsodic essays about it.  And it was extremely popular with Viennese audiences from the get-go.  While audiences needed time to warm up to many of Beethoven’s prior works, the Seventh was insanely popular upon its premiere, especially the second movement, which the audience applauded until the orchestra agreed to immediately encore it at the premiere. I can’t disagree: I’ve probably listened to that second movement more times than any other work of music, full stop.

I was fortunate to take a Master Class with Leonard Bernstein on this piece, so I’m cribbing from what I remember about his analysis combined with some acquired insights of my own. If you really want to understand what Beethoven was doing here, listen to AC/DC or The Rolling Stones. Because at the beating heart of those two bands lie the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time, Malcolm Young and Keith Richards–and their obsession with rhythmic motifs (or riffs)–finds its root in the symphonies of Beethoven’s heroic period. Let’s start there, with one of the most obsessive riffs in rock history:

AC/DC, Hells Bells

Now, let’s see how a real master does it. In his most proto-rock symphony, Beethoven simply tears the roof off. To help walk through this remarkable work, I’m including references to points in the Carlos Kleiber recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. You can use the YouTube clip below, but the time markings after the first movement need the separate tracks from the CD or streamed versions available on Spotify or Apple Music.

The first movement (A Major) opens with an introduction that is one of if not the longest that Beethoven ever wrote–bringing us to about the 3:15 mark when the music, which had been grand and soaring up until that point, appears to break, settling on an E. This resolution is deeply satisfying, since E is the resolving note to A Major. Beethoven hammers this idea home by repeating this E–varying only the rhythm. And for what must be the first time since early medieval music, the same note repeats more than 30 times in a row, taking us to about 3:50. Where this will go? Beethoven speeds up the pace to vivace–building our anticipation–but what we get is just more Es, repeating the same exact note for a total of 61 times, before the theme finally breaks out at 3:55. And these Es set out Beethoven’s great galloping riff, which figures in nearly every bar of the movement.

Once the theme enters, the momentum begins to build–and you can feel the power of the music straining the break free, which it finally does, like a great wave crashing over the audience, at around 4:21. If there is more joyous music in this world, I don’t know what it is. And yet, like a great Rolling Stones song, Beethoven’s accompanying rhythm is persistent. The harmony barely changes. Just by controlling the dynamics, Beethoven creates music where no music should really exist.

Then, just when you’ve surrendered the power of that riff, Beethoven starts ripping everything apart–we don’t get a true second theme here, just a reexamination of the dominant theme from different perspectives. All with that persistent rhythm driving the score forward to the end of the exposition. The exposition ends with scales (starting around 5:57) that recalls the introduction. First we get the customary repeat of the exposition with those endless Es, but, the second time through, Beethoven changes the tonality, which takes us into the development (around 8:20). The end of the exposition features two jarring pauses, breaking the rhythm and hence the momentum of the movement. This will need to be resolved. Thankfully, that’s what the development is for–and for what may be the first time in history, the development is going to be primarily about rhythmic development, not harmonic development. The profound satisfaction achieved through rhythmic development and resolution was not lost on rock bands either, although few can pull it off convincingly. Here’s one good example:

Rush, Jacob’s Ladder

Back to Beethoven: The development begins in pianissimo, with that persistent rhythmic motif in the strings: Of the 101 measures of the development, only two do not feature this omnipresent rhythm. Beethoven sets winds, brass and strings against each other, each trying outplay each other on the same rhythm. Those two measures without the rhythmic motif appear at around 9:05–leading to Beethoven changing the rhythm in the string section, while the winds retain the original. This polyrhythmic dissonance, surely the first in symphonic music, must be resolved. And resolve it Beethoven does, with heapings of brass and timpani (starting around 9:40). As the various components of the orchestra begin to get into sync, the music arrives . . . yes, no surprise here, on that dotted E rhythmic motif (10:03). And, just like that, we are in the recapitulation, with the main, joyous theme breaking out in the strings (10:07). Then those scales come back at the end (12:12), leading us into the coda this time after two bars of silence. The coda starts with what can only be described as a music shrug (12:20). The violins take up those persistent Es, while the lower strings play the chromatic scales from the introduction, melding the two great ideas of the movement–all supported by the omnipresent rhythm–before breaking into another moment of pure joy (12:59) to wrap everything up in a bow. The first movement is all about balance. The introduction and the coda are each 62 measures. The exposition and recapitulation are 115 measures each, bookending a development section of 97 measures. It is a triumph in A Major.

Which is why the next movement, starting in the parallel key of A Minor, is so jarring emotionally. After an A Minor chord in the winds and brass, the strings enter with some of Beethoven’s most iconic music. Naturally, it’s another rhythmic motif on an E:

While Beethoven surely didn’t know this while composing the symphony, its premiere would be at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers. It’s hard not to think of the horror of war during this opening march, but the music invites the imagination to run wild here. Beethoven’s music isn’t bound by any formal structure I can determine–at times it seems like a theme and variation or alternatively as a rondo. And, in another break from tradition, it isn’t a traditional slow movement (although some conductors reprehensibly slow it down to nearly an adagio)–it is allegretto.

Everything in this movement again revolves around this rhythmic motif. And even more than the first movement, the motif dominates. As Bernstein said, there is little remarkable about this music if you break it down into its constituent elements. It’s barely a melody. The harmonics are compressed into no more than a 4th. Even the rhythm is pretty basic (and much, much easier to play than that dotted E rhythm in the first movement). But everything is just perfect. From the proportions of line to the dynamics. And as I recall Bernstein saying, Beethoven more than any other composer in history knew the perfect next note. Even though he struggled with composition, the end result was beyond anything even Mozart or Bach could put forth, because of his singular genius of knowing the next right note, even when the music is at its most unexpected. This singular genius is on no greater display than during THAT MOMENT, where the brass finally enters in full (2:10), which is unquestionably my favorite moment in all of music history. Everything in this movement is music at its most basic, and yet the effect that Beethoven produces is truly transcendent.

The movement takes a detour back into A Major (listen for the clarinet), before the serenity of A Major is abruptly and forcefully resolved (again) on a series of Es (4:22). The rhythmic motif reappears in the winds, supported by a nervous accompaniment in the strings. The 16th notes in this accompaniment mutates into a fugue on the main theme (5:20), before returning in full (6:10). Eventually, the music will die away–the rhythmic motif been passed by diminishing winds, brass, and strings playing pizzicato before concluding on the same A Minor chord on which it opened.

The third movement is a rollicking Scherzo. Beethoven invented the idea of a scherzo (joke in Italian) to replace the traditional minuet movement pioneered by Haydn. This Scherzo has it all–an addictive theme that retains much of the dance ethic of Haydn’s minuet (albeit faster and much less courtly), as well as a lovely trio that was based on an Austrian folk song. The movement is in the key of F Major, as the opening chord announces. F is the diatonic mediant of A minor, which enables Beethoven to seamlessly modulate from the final chord of the second movement (A Minor (A-C-E)) to the opening chord of the third movement (F Major (A-C-F)). This is a very thickly textured movement, which recalls the opening movement from the Sixth Symphony, as Beethoven uses multiple rhythmic motifs to build his dance. The result is infectious. If I have one complaint with Kleiber’s account it is that the trio (starting at 2:12) is taken too slowly. The effect is to transform a languid passage into something of a slow dance. Beethoven ends the movement with a joke. The A theme returns three times in the movement, but as the B theme returns for a third time, Beethoven rudely cuts it off at the knees with a series of jarring chords.

So, how to resolve such a monumental work? Beethoven’s solution was to present a movement of unprecedented propulsion and joy. There is barely any theme here, and virtually no melody to speak of. Beethoven has, to borrow a phrase, completely surrendered to the rhythm–and music would never be the same again. This is all riff, no fluff. In fact, the same music appears in Beethoven’s setting of a contemporary Irish folks song. Listen to the piano, starting at 1:50 in the below:

Ludwig van Beethoven, 12 Irish Songs: 8 “Save me from the grave and wise:

Beethoven uses the same music for both an Irish folk song and the conclusion of what is arguably his best symphony. I began this blog with a quote from the composer Alban Berg, who told George Gershwin that it didn’t matter that Gershwin’s music wasn’t as complex or elevated–“Music is music,” Berg said. Yes–but that’s only because Beethoven deemed it so. After Beethoven, the lines between formal music and popular music become blurry–who writes the more “elevated” music today, Philip Glass or Radiohead? Does that question even matter?

The “bacchanalia” of this final movement is created intentionally, with sforzandi coming on the off beats of each measure, as well as more dotted rhythms that recall the theme of the first movement. So much of this movement is just pure rhythm, which strikes us as perfectly natural after a century plus of rhythmically-driven music. But think about what has led up to this point, as catalogued here–is there anything remotely like this? Even the Romantics, with all of their wild and wondrous inventions, would never dedicate an entire major work to an examination of rhythm. The elevation of rhythm over melody was uniquely Beethovian and the secret of his enduring appeal.

But that’s not all what’s going on in this remarkable movement. Entire essays could (and likely do) examine what Beethoven is doing harmonically, as the music runs far afield of the tonic A Major. And Beethoven seems to blend the sonata and rondo forms, especially in the development sections where the theme repeatedly emerges before returning triumphantly at the start of the recapitulation (5:15). The coda is more of the same. As the music builds frenetically, with the rhythmic motif of the movement being handed off like a baton around the various sections of the orchestra, the key becomes totally lost (at least to my ear). Tonally adrift in raucous celebration, final resolution emerges in the lower strings, which find, what else, but an E. And this is the point: The Seventh Symphony may be in the key of A, but it is all about movement to the dominant E. That’s what the rhythms are driving us to. We know this intuitively by now–Beethoven has spent the better part of 40 minutes training our ears to expect that E. And when it arrives, it is like the gates of heaven open before us. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Beethoven notates fff–triple forte–for the first time in music history. At the time, fortissimo–ff— was understood to be “as loud as possible,” so here, in 1812, Beethoven is quite literally dialing up his orchestra to 11.

In the 1960s, The Who would smash their instruments at the end of their set, while Jimmy Hendrix set his on fire. In the 1980s, AC/DC would fire off cannons during their final encore. But nothing–NOTHING–compares with this: Quite simply the greatest mic drop in music history.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92:

Under Siege: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

In 1809, Vienna was under siege by Napoleon and Beethoven, now more or less completely deaf, was hiding in his brother’s basement.  Terrified and feeling, perhaps more than others, the constant percussive effect of war, Beethoven produced one of his best compositions, the Emperor concerto.  It would prove to be his final statement on the genre.

The Emperor is in many ways different from the four that preceded it. In each prior case, Beethoven had been booked to perform with an orchestra and required a new concerto for the occasion. By 1809, that was no longer the case and the Emperor appears to have been composed without thought of a premiere. It is likely that Beethoven realized that he could no longer perform with a full orchestra.

The concerto is composed in the now familiar “heroic” style that defined Beethoven’s middle period. But what about that name? Surely, not a reference to Napoleon; then, what? My view, which you should immediately discount, is that this is Beethoven’s declaration of the piano as the Emperor of all musical instruments.

Consider the first movement. As he did in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, he opens with three power chords: E-Flat (the tonic), A-Flat (the subdominant) and B-Flat (the dominant). Over this tonally anchored orchestral accompaniment, the piano presents a chromatic contrast, while matching the dynamic range of the full orchestra, from piano to fortissimo. Deploying a technique pioneered in his Violin Concerto, the piano comments around the edges of the orchestral themes, presenting dizzying runs of scales and arpeggios, to the point that a final grand cadenza was deemed superfluous–Beethoven notes in the score “Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s’attaco subito il seguento”. (“Do not make a cadenza here but attack the following immediately.”). Beethoven’s decision changed the genre of the concerto forever–while cadenzas had traditionally been written (or improvised on the spot) by the soloist, future composers would leave nothing to chance, scoring their own cadenzas in their published scores.

There can be no doubt anymore. Here, at the threshold of the 19th century, the piano had assumed its primacy among instruments–one which it would never fully surrender through to the present day despite the robust challenge from the guitar.

Nearly every great pianist has recorded the Emperor Concerto, including my father’s (and my) favorite, Emil Gilels.

But, as great as Gilels’ version is, and as great as some of the others are, the choice here is Vladimir Horowitz. Long considered to be the greatest pianist of his generation and a musical superstar equal to that of the greatest pop stars of today, Horowitz suffered a mental breakdown at the peak of his career and stopped performing. After a decade away from the stage, Horowitz made his return at Carnegie Hall in May 1965. The Beatles aside, this was the musical event of the decade in NYC. Nearly half the population of New York attended that concert (or so they would have you believe). My father, who loved reminding me that he had seen everyone from Callas to Heifetz to Bird in their prime, was downright giddy at having attended this. There are recordings out there, but, much like the Beatles at Shea, they are largely terrible. His Emperor with Fritz Reiner and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra is anything but. The Emperor playing the Emperor–what could be better?

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”:


Leonard Bernstein looms large in my understanding of Beethoven, as will be revealed next week. He was, by all accounts, one of the greatest conductors in history–a singular musical genius whose interests were unfortunately too widely dispersed to leave as profound a legacy as he should have. Lenny will be forever linked with the legacy of Gustav Mahler and his restoration of Mahler’s symphonies to the world stage is his greatest achievement in music. But Lenny was also a Beethovian and, a wonderful pianist in his own right, likely dipped into the Emperor when scoring one of the singular tunes from West Side Story. Listen to the opening of the second movement and then to this:

Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story: Somewhere

A Mass Made Operatic: Fidelio

When I look back across my entire life, I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced on me.

Richard Wagner, on Fidelio

In 1950, one of the greatest conductors of all-time, Wilhelm Furtwängler led a production of Beethoven’s lone operatic effort, Fidelio, in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg. And what a cast too, led by Kirsten Flagstad as the heroine Leonora and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the jailkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with her. Say what?

Yes, that’s not a typo. The plot of Fidelio is among the silliest this genre has to offer–and that’s saying quite a lot. The opera centers on a heroine, Leonora, whose husband, Florestan, is being held prisoner by his political enemy, the despotic Don Pizarro. Leonora disgues herself as a young man named Fidelio and obtains a job at the prison, determined to rescue her husband. The prison warden, Rocco, has a young daughter, Marcellina, who throws over her suitor, Jaquino, because she has fallen in love with Leonora. Rocco, despite being a pretty decent guy, is starving Florestan on the orders of Don Pizarro. But when Don Pizarro learns that his prison is to be inspected, he decides to kill Florestan himself and gives the order to dig a grave. Leonora, disguised as Fidelio, overhears the plan and asks Rocco to accompany him to Florestan’s cell. The second act opens in Florestan’s cell. Although Florestan has just sung an aria about Leonora coming to save him, he does not recognize his wife when she in fact arrives to save him. Rocco and “Fidelio” begin digging the grave. When Pizarro enters to do the deed, Leonora springs forward, pulls out a pistol and reveals her true identity. At that moment, the governor arrives and Rocco confesses everything. Pizarro is arrested, the prisoners are freed, and they join Florestan and Leonora in a joyful celebration as the curtain falls. (Somewhere along the way, Marcellina learns that her Fidelio is acutally a woman, but for the life of me I can’t recall how that works out.)

Again, say what? The greatest composer in Europe, the composer of six mighty symphonies to date that changed the musical landscape forever, the composer of piano sonatas of such emotional depth they have inspired composers nearly 200 years after his death, the composer who would go on to write music of such transcendental beauty that we have only begun to really wrestle with them . . . this is the opera he produced? What was he thinking?

Well, in the first instance, let’s take a look at Beethoven’s operatic history. As a young man, Beethoven played viola in the Bonn opera company, so he was very familiar with the genre. His favorite opera composer was, surprisingly, not Mozart or Rossini, but rather Cherubini. Despite the fact that Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Brahams all held Cherubini to be among the first rank of opera composers (if not the “greatest living composer” as Beethoven wrote to him), his 35(!) operas are rarely performed today. That said, the Metropolitan Opera is putting on a production of Medea this fall, which will give New York audiences a rare opportunity to hear, firsthand, the man Wagner called the “greatest of musical architects.”

Beethoven admired Cherubini as much for the music in his operas as the morals of his librettos. That’s clue number one. Beethoven’s perference for The Magic Flute over either Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro is another. Dismissing Don Giovanni and Figaro as frivolous, Beethoven embraced what for many is the silliest of Mozart’s operatic output. Beethoven didn’t really care about the plot–he cared only about the theme, the triumph of true love against all odds. He was a cuddly romantic after all.

So why this story? We know that the libretto was based on a French “rescue” play by Jean Nicholas Bouilly called Léonore ou L’amour congugal, which the author claimed was based on actual historical events during the Reign of Terror. French composer Pierre Gaveaux had turned the play into an opera, which had apparently made its way into Beethoven’s hands. Not only did Beethoven take the plot from Gaveaux’s opera, he also cribbed many of the themes and details from Gaveaux’s instrumentation. Beethoven also liberally borrowed from the various operatic traditions, melding the dialogue of German singspiel with the dramatic arias of opera seria and the grand finale of opera buffa. Which is to say, the resulting opera is a bit of a mess.

Much has been read into this opera. Beethoven was clearly attracted to the theme of a rescue from political tyranny, as we find that inspiration dotted throughout his work of his second period. Others suggest that Beethoven connected with Florestan’s plight–the prison serving as a metaphor for Beethoven’s deafness. Others suggest that Florestan’s dreams of being rescued by Leonora (a somewhat preposterous notion) reflected Beethoven’s own fruitless search for love. And yet I focus on a different element–Florestan’s rescue after taking communion in the form of bread and wine. Is this an allegory for salvation? Well, I’m not alone in thinking so. Very much still in the shadow of WWII and Nazi Germany, Furthwängler wrote:

Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’, which we never found so beautiful, or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera…. Independent of any historical consideration … the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply. We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.

Wilhelm Furtwängler

Why does Fidelio stirs such emotions in us? Well, it certainly isn’t the plot: When Gaveaux turned the play into an opera, he chose to make it a comedy. Furtwängler hits the nail on the head–it’s Beethoven, always Beethoven and his incomparable music.

So let’s turn to the music. The first act is largely forgettable. There is a much admired quartet (Leonora, Jacquino, Marcellina and Rooco) and a good aria or two, but the real meat comes in Act II. In the last production I saw at the Metropolitan Opera, the second act opens in absolute darkness–I have never seen the Met stage so completely black. The prelude that introduces the scene is some of the greatest music Beethoven ever wrote. This is a composer who can effortlessly pull on your emotional strings at will; here, he pulls on all of them at once. All of those innovations we heard in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are present here–Beethoven’s use of repetitive use of rhythmic motifs, dramatic dynanimsm, powerful brass, and perhaps most notably, music that turns on a tritone (A-E flat). We feel it all. Despair as well as hope; anguish as well as elation. Before Florestan even opens his mouth, we’ve been transported into Florestan’s soul–his aria confirms what we already know: This is a man at the literal end of his rope. There are other great moments as well. The Leonora-Florestan-Rocco scene in which Rocco realizes the great injustice he is helping to facilitate. And the moment just after Leonora pulls her gun on Pizarro — “one more step and you’re dead” — the music suddenly falls away, as if Leonora was threatening the orchestra too. Silence, as ever in Beethoven, provides much of the dramatic tension.

But then we get the finale–a pedantic oratorio on the joys of matrital fidelity. Sure, the music is great and Beethoven cranks up the emotion-machine to 11 here, but the messaging is all wrong. In many ways, Beethoven finally found the finale he was looking for at the end of his Ninth Symphony.

Contemporary audiences hated the opera. And Beethoven, supremely frustrated by the process of composing opera, never finished another. Interestingly, Fidelio was neither Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera–an abandoned effort called Vestas Feuer was abandoned in 1803 (some of the music found its way into Fidelio)–nor his last. Beethoven tantalizing planned to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but his librettist Joseph von Collin died in 1811 before completing the libretto and Beethoven never found a substitute.

Over the centuries, Fidelio has tapped into our need to express our desire for liberty, perhaps like no other work of art. In 1814, a much revised version was premiered to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat. In 1933, the great Arturo Toscanni left Nazi-occupied Baytheuth to conduct Fidelio in Salzburg to protest Hitler and his regime. In 1941, a cast of European refugees again turned to Fidelio to mount a protest performance, this time at the Metropolitan Opera. And when the Vienna State Opera reopened, it was Fidelio on the bill. More recently, a small opera company in New York used Fidelio to examine the injustices that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Fidelio isn’t an opera–it is the greatest hymn to liberty that we have.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Fidelio, Op. 72:

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