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”:

Conversation:

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

Inclyti sed victi

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

Countess Theresa of Brunswick

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

Ludwig van Beethoven

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

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

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

Ludwig van Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hector Berlioz

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

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

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

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

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

Hector Berlioz on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

The Making of an Icon: Symphony No. 5

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

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

In sculpture too.

Michelangelo, David
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

But there are also iconic images from film:

Casablanca
North by Northwest

The performing arts too are notable for many iconic moments:

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

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

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

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

1st Movement:

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

2nd Movement:

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

Third Movement:

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

Fourth Movement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludwig van Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E.T.A. Hoffmann

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

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

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

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

The Breath of Life: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

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

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

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

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

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

A few notes on the score:

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

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

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

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

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

Sander Marcus, Violinist.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Truth: The Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playlist: Searching for Musical Truth

A Bonus Conversation:

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

Soaked in Mozart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s Beethoven’s version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Misericordias Domini, K.222:

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

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

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

The Jupiter

We are now quickly coming to the end.  But before grief, utter brilliance. 

Mozart wrote his 41st and last symphony at the age of 33.  He had no idea it would be his final symphonic statement, but he could leave no greater legacy.  Again, there is too much to say about the remarkable “Jupiter” Symphony to do it real justice, so let’s focus in on the remarkable final movement—a farewell of sorts.  Here, Mozart fuses contemporary sonata form with Baroque fugue.  This “fugato” originated with Haydn—but not the one you think.  Haydn had a brother Michael, whose compositions have largely been lost to history.  But he was a significant influence on Mozart, who was forever asking his father to send him Michael Haydn’s most recent scores to study.  Tellingly, Michael Haydn’s 28th Symphony concludes with a fugato.

The four note melodic tag that repeats in Mozart’s finale (C-D-F-E) is one of the most famous in history, so it is hard to know where Mozart drew that inspiration from.  Josquin des Prez used it in his 1515 Mass, for example.  I’m sure I could dig out something from Bach too.  But Mozart likely got this from the Haydns.  Like so many of his greatest creations, Mozart took an idea pioneered by others and took it to places only he could reach.  Let’s take a look at this somewhat contemporary Conversation in greater detail.  First up, the finale from Joseph’s 13th, which features the same C-D-F-E progression to great and very similar effect.

Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 13 in D Major, IV. Finale-Allegro molto (use the link in the comments to skip directly there):

Now we have brother Michael’s 39th, which ends in a fugato, with prominent use of brass and timpani, sounding much more like Mozart.  Again, you can use the link in the comments to skip to the finale.

Michael Haydn, Symphony No. 39, III. Fugato:  Molto vivace:

Finally, we have the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, one of the truly glorious passages in music history and Mozart’s crowning symphonic glory.  Wow—serious déjà vu at the start, but then, oh boy.  The genius overflows. Again, the links in the comments allow you to skip to the finale.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 41, IV. Molto Allegro:

Be for us a foretaste

Mozart’s brief motet, Ave Verum Corpus, was one of the springs that fed the Romantic period.  Written in the last year of his life as a gift to a friend to thank him for a kindness, it is hard not to consider the prophetic words of the prayer: “Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, sacrificed on the Cross for man, whose pierced side overflowed, with water and blood, be for us a foretaste in the test of death.”

The Ave Verum Corpus is one of the great Conversation in history and ground zero for the lasting influence of Mozart throughout the generations, even though it is not among his most popular or most performed works.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (more about him later), transcribed this work—the best Romantic composer (in my view) giving direct credit for his inspiration.  Mozart’s harmonic innovations, subtle as they are, would influence composers for the next hundred years.  The opening is presented in a simple D major progression, a “happy” key for the birth of Christ, before the tonal center changes to A major and with its three sharps, more chromatic lines are added to create a density in describing the significance of the crucifixion and of Christ’s suffering.  The passion itself—the line “on the cross”—is presented in a perfect fourth by the soprano, rising above everything else in the music, before the Christ’s death and the implications of our own mortality are presented in Mozart’s favorite key of D minor. 

And all of this in about 3 minutes of music. Genius indeed.

W.A. Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus:

W.A. Mozart, (arr. F. Liszt), Ave Verum Corpus:

And, of course, Liszt wrote his own version, in 1871, demonstrating how small the step it is from Mozart to the height of the Romantic Period.

Franz Liszt, Ave Verum Corpus:

A Conversation Without End

Bach is the beginning and end of all music.

Max Reger

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.

Charles Gounod

As difficult as it was to do justice to the works of J.S. Bach in these pages, so too is it difficult to even scratch the surface of his monumental legacy. Bach did more than take the Baroque Period to the grave with him; his influence is ubiquitous in all music that follows. His legacy is everywhere, omnipresent, even if we don’t always recognize it. Mozart studied his scores; so too did Beethoven (a MAJOR Conversation to come). His music was a profound influence on Debussy and Schoenberg and, through them, his influence was amplified through jazz, pop, and the formal music of today.

This blog cannot begin to reckon with such a legacy. Instead, I have compiled a playlist that tries to show, in a limited and incomplete way, how Bach’s music remains with us, right up to that hit song from the other day.

Credo in unum Deum

The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Mass in B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.

Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Mass in B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.

So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.

In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.

I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.

Credo in unum Deum.

J.S. Bach, Mass in B minor: