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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Art is most known for its iconic images. There are many in fine art:
In sculpture too.
But there are also iconic images from film:
The performing arts too are notable for many iconic moments:
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:
Variation 1 (A)
Variation 1 (B)
Variation 2 (A)
Variation 3 (A)
Variation 2 (B)
Variation 4 (A)
Variation 5 (A)
Variation 6 (A)
Transition to last movement
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 Symphonyis 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 Liberté, égalité, fraternité–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. . . .
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.
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):
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:
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 PathetiquePiano 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Massin 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 Massin 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.
Fellow blogger BigMikeHouston of Classical Music with Big Mike (https://classicalmusicwithbigmike.com/) wrote this week about the singificant differences a conductor’s interpretation can make on how the music sounds. He’s absolutely right. And his observation gave me the idea of talking about the Period Instruments Movement, derided in some circles as being too egg-headed. Let’s see if I can make the case that period instruments and contextual interpretation can improve the music. And since we are still on Bach, this short entry gives me a perfect opportinity to look at yet another of my favorite Bach works: The Magnificat. No need to watch all of these vidoes, the first five minutes or so of each will be enough.
Let’s set a baseline, and this performance under the baton of Herbert von Karajan will do nicely. To my eyes, this is likely a late 70s performance (he did record the Magnificat in 1979 with the Berliner Philharmonic, but I can’t tell if this is a video of that recording or not). Regardless, this video presents one of the best, if not the best, conductor of the mid-20th century leading what was (and remains) one of the five best orchestras in the world, all playing on modern instruments and sounding very much like a work composed in the mid-Romantic period.
J.S. Bach, Magnificatin D Major
This next video presents one of my favorite conductors, Emmanuelle Haïm leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is better, bringing in a historically-inforrmed chorus, but paired with modern instruments. True to form, Haïm’s interpreation is spot on. Her Magnificat is taken a much better tempo and the singing is truly magnificent.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Moving on, let’s listen to Nikolaus Harnocurt, one of the high priests of the movement for period insturments, leading the Concentus Musicus ViennaWein and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Listen the difference that, in particular, the period-appropriate brass makes to the opening. That said, this performance is taken at far too slow at tempo and, to my eyes, the strings are modern–I think I can spy some tuning pegs behind the bridges on the violins and the bows also appear to be modern.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Finally, we have a more recent recording of the Netherlands Bach Society under Van Veldoven. This, in my view, is the real McCoy. Period insturments down to those great Baroque bows, historically-informed singing, and a proper (fast) Baroque tempo. And recording this in a church certainly helps–Bach would have considered church acoustics when considering the harmony. This is the one to listen to in its entirety–absolutely thrilling.
Going back to Berg’s maxim, which I quoted in the very first entry in this blog–“music is music”. There are no wrong choices. Miles Davis stopped his sextet from rehearsing at some point, declaring that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to explore other choices. And that’s fair. But for me, personally, I don’t Bach to sound like Mahler; Mahler is much better at that. And for that same reason, I don’t want Beethoven or Mozart to sound like Mahler either. That’s why I am drawn to historically informed performances. Communicating through music, across time and space, is a sufficiently difficult task without distrorting the artistic choices taken by composers hundreds of years ago. All four performances are beautiful, but I hear Bach most clearly in the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. And for me, that’s what matters.