Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Writing on Music

I don't run across too much good writing about music in the mass media. There are good places to go for the latest news, like Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc or the Arts Journal. But while the stories may be interesting, the writing does not delve very deep. Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise site promises good writing about music, but almost never delivers--his good stuff is in the New Yorker, but I find that too awkwardly pretentious to be actually interesting.

My standard for "good writing about music" probably derives partly from examples like Richard Taruskin's occasional forays such as this one in which he does a fine job of exposing some of the excessive claims of the Early Music movement. I like writing about music to be something you can get your teeth into instead of the froth that usually passes for writing in the mass media.

But I did just run across another writer on music that has been doing a good job for quite a while: Jan Swafford, a composer and writer who has a regular column in Slate Magazine. His most recent outing was on beautiful melodies and he points us to quite a few interesting examples from Monteverdi to Brahms to the Beatles. Another fascinating column was about how he learned to love Mozart's The Magic Flute and how he learned to dislike Philip Glass.

In another column he explains why Leonard Cohen is a great lyricist and songwriter and is quite probably better than Bob Dylan. Here is a touching piece on the last music composers wrote before they died. Here is a wide-ranging survey of what composers are up to these days, A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music. Oh, note that the clip attributed to "Eight Songs," by Jefferson Friedman is actually something else. You can find the correct clip, if you really want to, on YouTube. Finally, here is a brilliant little essay on the power of silence.

Jan Swafford always has something interesting to say and he manages to say it without becoming too technical. Just one problem with the older pieces: the musical examples seem to be the wrong ones or they are missing entirely. You will have to search them out on YouTube.

Let's end with an artist that Taruskin cites as being "premodern", i.e. before the trend towards the literal, the impersonal and the lightweight, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1952 in a performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony:




Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Music Professors

I ran across an interesting chart this morning. It lists the average faculty salaries by discipline and shows what the "opportunity cost" is of teaching instead of working in the private sector. Universities have to pay professors in business and management over $100,000 annual salary to compete with the money they could make working in the business world. Way, way, way down at the bottom of the list are Music and Fine Arts. Now why is that? Here is that chart:

ACADEMIC DISCIPLINEAVERAGE FACULTY SALARIES (ALL RANKS) AT US PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES, 2012-2013
Business and Management$104,141
Economics$92,070
Computer Science$88,704
Health and Medical Administration Services$79,292
Natural Resources and Conservation$78,711
Engineering$78,357
Political Science$76,349
Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender and Group Studies$75,919
Physics$73,987
Average$73,838
Psychology$72,274
Mathematics$72,116
Nursing$71,508
History$71,197
Foreign Languages$69,549
Education$68,349
English Language$67,542
Philosophy$66,114
Chemistry$65,794
Biology$65,075
Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Services$64,736
Sociology$64,434
Social Work$62,728
Communication and Media Studies$59,244
Theater Arts$58,332
Music$57,120
Fine and Studio Art$56,526

Yes, some musicians like Jay Z or Justin Bieber make fabulous amounts of money, but a music theory professor at a college can't exactly quit his job and start working as a pop star. People in the upper levels of business and management seem to have a lot of mobility, though. Economist Larry Summers, for example, has been President of Harvard University, Secretary of the Treasury of the US, Chief Economist of the World Bank and is now being considered as the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve. But what is his actual expertise? What does he do?

I can't think of any examples of composers or theory professors or musicologists moving around like that. Some might gravitate towards administration in the university and some move from one university to another, but usually professors stick to the same university and merely aspire to getting tenure or, if they have tenure, to moving up from assistant to full professor. Not too many want the job of Chair of the department or Dean of a major division of the university. Composers like Philip Glass just do one thing their entire lives.

I'm not quite sure what the lesson to be learned here is, but it is pretty clear that Western societies do not value expertise in music very highly. That's a bit of a puzzlement to me as I personally view expertise in music as a very high value. Higher, on average, than the value highly-paid economists seem to bring to the table. At the end of an economist's career, what does he have to show for it? Is the US or world economy any better? Does the US have less or more debt? Is the unemployment rate better or worse?

But a composer at least has left a body of work that hopefully does have lasting value and will give deep enjoyment to following generations. Isn't that worth more than screwing around with the economy?

Obviously I am profoundly biased and have no understanding of Higher Economics!

Now here's some expertise that you can marvel at. Bach, Cantata 66:


Monday, July 29, 2013

Beethoven as a Song Composer

For a hundred years after Beethoven died, composers were terrified at the thought of trying to live up to his example in the genres of the symphony, string quartet and piano sonata. Brahms wrote and destroyed several examples of each before he finally allowed his Symphony No. 1 to be performed. Feeling keenly the weight of expectations created by Beethoven's symphonies, Brahms worked on his First Symphony from 1855 until it was finally completed and performed in 1876. Of course the conductor Hans von Bülow immediately dubbed it "Beethoven's Tenth" which captures the relationship pretty well.

But no opera composer lost a single night's sleep worrying about Beethoven's Fidelio.

Now why is that?

Beethoven's powers as a composer are undisputed, but his greatest accomplishments are in the field of instrumental music. He was able to make the instruments speak to us powerfully, expressively and intimately in a way no composer previously had done. But his accomplishments in the area of vocal music are on a different level. True, he did write the first song-cycle in 1816, his An die ferne Geliebte, which is a charming enough work. But Franz Schubert, at age seventeen, had already written "Der Erlkönig" and "Gretchen am Spinnrade" a couple of years earlier on texts by Goethe. Though it has an interesting tonal structure and was the first to link all the songs together, Beethoven's song-cycle is not nearly as significant an achievement as those of Schubert. To Beethoven, this song cycle was a single, extraneous work, probably inspired by biographical events, and of no more significance in his output as a whole than his chamber music for winds. Schubert, on the other hand, was a hugely gifted lieder composer who wrote some six hundred songs and inspired a century of great lieder by Schumann, Wolfe and others.

You could not ask for a finer lieder singer than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Here he is performing An die ferne Geliebte:


That is pleasant and enjoyable music, but hardly on a level with any Beethoven string quartet or piano sonata. You might not want to put it much above lieder by popular composers of the day such as Heinrich Marschner:


This post comes out of my examination of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. I am about to do a post on the last movement which poses a number of aesthetic problems because of the presence of vocal soloists and a choir.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Footnote on Beethoven's Metronome Markings

A comment on my last post reminds me that the controversy about Beethoven's metronome markings is not perhaps as widely known as it should be. Rickard writes:
Interesting, I had no idea the performances were so much slower than what Beethoven intended. And I also used to think (and think to some extent now) that it's a kind of mysterious movement. It's the only movement in the symphony that isn't so bombastic and it's pretty calm compared with the rest. Maybe it makes more sense when it's performed at the speed Beethoven wrote (I don't know as I haven't listened to such a performance I think). 
The metronome was newly invented in the early 1800s and at first Beethoven (and Salieri) were quite enthusiastic about it as it offered a more precise way of indicating to performers exactly the tempo the composer had in mind. In the late 18th century there were various tempi ordinari being used--that is, "standard tempos" that were widely known. Charles Rosen has an excellent discussion of this in his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas [pp 45 et seq.] But Beethoven came to understand that the metronome did not exactly solve all the problems. In a note written on the manuscript of his song "Nord oder Süd" he wrote:
100 according to Mälzel, but this must be considered applicable only to the first bars, for sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.
Ah, sentiment! The question of "sentiment" or what we might rather call "expression" applies most strongly to slow movements. The problem I see with Beethoven's metronome markings in the slow movement of the Symphony No. 9 is that the opening section,  Adagio molto e cantabile [quarter note = 60] is very difficult to reconcile with the contrasting section Andante moderato [quarter note = 63]. Sixty versus sixty-three is almost no difference at all and if there is no difference, there is no contrast. So in my mind the tempo words Beethoven chose are at odds with the metronome markings. Either the Andante has to be a lot faster (which would be silly) or the Adagio a lot slower (which is the choice Barenboim and a lot of others make). It is not the crudely simplified question of either following Beethoven's metronome markings or ignoring them, it is rather a question of whether you think the metronome marking is more important or the tempo word. Both are viable options, but give different results. Here is a performance conducted by Paavo Järvi of the Symphony No. 9 that sticks pretty closely to the metronome markings. The third movement starts at the 28'00 mark:


I find this an excellent performance, by the way. I really enjoy the rhythmic 'groove' in the faster movements, especially the scherzo. But the adagio does sound a bit, ah, 'jaunty', does it not? And in point of fact, there is virtually no tempo contrast between the B flat opening section and the Andante section in D major. This, to me, is a serious interpretive problem. But you pays your money and you takes your choice. All interpretations are questions of choices. I think that Järvi has an interpretation that works--in some ways more effectively than Barenboim's, but I also think that Barenboim has an interpretation that works--in some ways more effectively than Järvi's.

I often talk about ideology and the unfortunate effects it can have on aesthetics. If I were to make my own choices in this symphony I think I would tend to go along with Järvi for the first and second movements, but with Barenboim for the third. I think the contrast between the Adagio and the Andante is more important than whatever number Beethoven wrote down for the metronome marking. In other words, I think interpretive choices should be based more on musical than ideological considerations. Lurking behind a lot of "movements" in the arts are ideologies. The rule that "Beethoven's metronome markings must always be followed rigidly" is an ideology, not an interpretation.

And by the way, Beethoven left no metronome markings for his late quartets so there the performer is entirely on their own...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, third movement

The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, was always the one I found the most difficult to understand. I sensed that it was beautiful, but how was a bit of a mystery. This was one of the first Beethoven symphonies that I listened to a lot, and my understanding was fairly limited. The faster, more bombastic movements were more to my liking back then. But since then, I have listened to a great number of Beethoven slow movements and sets of variations, so I am better equipped to hear what is going on.

The movement begins with a brief introduction for the winds that simply outlines the key, B flat:


Then the violins have the melody:

Click to enlarge

Beethoven's metronome marking here, quarter note at 60, is quicker than most performances, though some conductors, following the "historically-informed performance" principles, and playing on original instruments, do adhere pretty strictly to Beethoven's tempi. This opening melody is a classic period, meaning that it is an eight-measure phrase divided in two four-measure segments. The first ends on the dominant, a half-cadence, and the second with a perfect authentic cadence on the tonic. I wrote about this kind of musical architecture here. Now you may have noticed that there are actually NINE measures in the theme, not eight. The reason is that there is an extra measure inserted between the two segments in which the winds add to their brief introduction. This kind of procedure, internal expansion of a conventional phrase, is a fruitful one and we will see it again.

When we listen to the performance, you will notice that Barenboim takes this movement much slower than quarter note = 60. His tempo is somewhere around quarter note = 30 or 35. Remember Beethoven's tempo is adagio molto e cantabile. This continues for a few phrases, then a new theme in a new tempo is introduced: Andante moderato, quarter note = 63. Which is absurd, of course. The difference between adagio molto and andante moderato is considerably greater than the difference between 60 and 63 beats per minute! Barenboim's choice, to slow down the adagio to something that really sounds like adagio molto, makes sense. Here is the new theme, given to the second violins:


Sorry for the break: it's a long theme and takes up a couple of lines in the score. That final F# is the link to a repeat of the phrase. The key is now D major and this is another eight measure period. There is no clear half cadence after the first four measures, however as the whole phrase tends to alternate between I and V with a dominant pedal. This section modulates back to B flat and we hear a variation on the first theme, in the original tempo with a lot of delicate filigree in the first violins.

Then the Andante moderato returns, but this time the flutes and oboes have the theme and the key is G major instead of D. On the next return to the adagio, the key is E flat and the winds have a variation on the original theme. The horn gets some nice solos and the strings have a pizzicato accompaniment. In the next section, modulating back to B flat, the first violins offer another variation in filigree, this time with a change of meter to 12/8, which is identical to simply doing triplets (or sextuplets). This has been prefigured in the strings as their pizzicato was in triplets in the previous section. After more and more elaborate variations in the first violins, the winds return with a simpler statement of the theme.

A loud fanfare in the winds and brass introduces yet another variation, mostly in the first violins. I have talked about "delicate filigree" which is a feeble attempt to describe the wonderful expressive things that are going on here. It is very tempting to simply refuse to talk about this sort of movement, but I have tried to give a bit of an idea of what is going on in case it might open a door for you.

Here is Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms last year in 2012:


Friday, July 26, 2013

Quality? No Thanks!

A few decades ago I remember thinking that most of the serious musicians of my acquaintance were not audiophiles. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but I recall seeing a couple of photos. One was of a Mahler enthusiast and audiophile who was sitting in front of his awesome home stereo set up. The other was of a famous musician--I honestly can't remember who it was, but it was someone like Leopold Stokowski or Pablo Casals. In any case, the musician in question was listening to a record playing on a small, cheap, box system. My conclusion was that the audiophile was listening to the quality of the recording and the musician was listening to the music.

Mind you, when I was taking a seminar on Shostakovich symphonies in graduate school, I soon discovered that when Shostakovich was writing separate lines for the cellos and the basses, my system wasn't clear enough in the bass to really distinguish them. So I went out and bought a set of Cerwin Vega speakers that solved the problem.

The reason I am mentioning all this is that the New York Times has an article about the New Audio Geeks that is rather interesting. Here is an important passage:
The Internet and digital technology have upended the music industry over the last decade or so, but high-end audio has arguably suffered an even greater blow. The industry’s very raison d’être — the nitpicky pursuit of superb sound reproduction, no matter the cost or complexity — is irrelevant to many music listeners today.
People download MP3s from iTunes or Web sites and play them on their smartphones or laptops. They share songs with friends by e-mailing YouTube links. Sure, the music sounds flat, tinny, supercompressed; it’s an audiophile’s hell. But convenience and mobility rule the day.
Flat, tinny and supercompressed... You know, if you are listening to Jay Z and Eminem, I'm not sure it makes much difference. But I'm pretty sure it is not the ideal way to listen to a Beethoven symphony.

The fact that vinyl seems to be reviving might be an indicator that some people are demanding better sound. That's probably a good thing, or at least the article seems to think so.

My standard of sound has never come from a speaker, though, but from the instrument. I spend part of my day hunched over a guitar, my ears about ten inches from the soundboard, so that's what my standard of what a guitar sounds like is. My idea of higher fidelity is splurging on more expensive strings.

But that's just me...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, second movement

The second movement of the 9th is a scherzo of a kind we have become familiar with in Beethoven's symphonies, but this one is the mother of all scherzos. First of all, it is almost twice as long as the longest symphonic scherzo he wrote previously. Most Beethoven scherzos run four or five minutes (the scherzo to the 7th Symphony is longer at eight minutes), but this one is a monstrous thirteen minutes long! Using the devices of fugal texture, hypermeter and some brilliant writing for winds, he pretty much exhausts the scherzo genre, leaving very little for any subsequent composer to do.

Here is how the opening theme goes:


and here is the continuation:

Click to enlarge

The theme is presented in four strict fugal entries. It consists of two parts: the dotted octave figure which is a kind of introduction, followed by the stepwise passage that follows. Beethoven will take that single measure motif and use it extensively throughout the scherzo. Here is a typical passage:


Sometimes, just so the players don't forget, he marks nearly every note with an "f" for "forte". That octave dotted motif is also heard frequently on the tympani--probably the first time where percussion plays a thematic role.

As you might expect, rhythm is an important structural element in the movement. It provides us with a great example of "hypermeter". Hypermeter is a term coined in the 1960s by the theorist Edward T. Cone to describe a situation where measures are grouped to create a larger scale meter. We can see this in a situation where a section ends with one or more measures rests--they are there to complete the hypermeasure:

This also explains the odd instruction in the score of "Ritmo de tre battute":


What Beethoven is telling us here is that he is changing from a hypermeter of four measures making up one hypermeasure to three measures. In the example above, the six measures make up two hypermeasures. Later on he changes back:


The above example is two hypermeasures, each with four measures. Beethoven is calling this a "rhythm of four beats" because, at this quick tempo, each measure is a beat.

He even manages to create a "rhythmic cadence" with hemiola (grouping pairs of quarters to create half note beats). This is how he ends the scherzo and transitions to the contrasting trio which is in D major, alla breve with smooth, flowing lines. Here is that "cadence":


Then, after the trio, the whole scherzo comes back again. A truly remarkable movement based on some very simple basic ideas, with the maximum possible extracted from them. Here is the movement performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis:


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Yesterday and Today

I know what you are thinking, "He's going to talk about that Beatles' album with the withdrawn cover."


Au contraire, mon ami! Actually I'm just going to do a very brief comparison of the music scene two hundred years ago with the music scene today.

Who were the most famous musicians in the world (well, actually, Europe) two hundred years ago? There will certainly be those who might argue for the opera composer Rossini, but in 1813 he was only twenty-one years old and still to achieve his great renown. I think it would be a fairly easy case to make that the three most famous musicians around 1813 were Mozart, who had passed away in 1790, but was still very well-known and more highly regarded than during his life; Haydn, who passed away in 1809 and was at the time the most highly-renowned musician in Europe and Beethoven, forty-three years old and with the triumphs of his Third, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies just recently in the public's ear.

But who are the most famous musicians of today, 2013? Ah, that is where it gets interesting. You could certainly argue over this a lot, but just looking at album sales, the biggest selling albums since 2010 were by Adele and Eminem. Let's add a third artist: Jay-Z? Rihanna? Beyoncé, Katy Perry? Take your pick really, it won't affect my point.

Now let's compare them. I'll just pick the first individual piece that comes up for each artist/composer on YouTube. First, Mozart, Symphony No. 40, first movement:


Haydn, Symphony No. 94, "Surprise", 2nd movement:


Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, first movement:



Adele, "Rolling in the Deep":


Eminem, "Not Afraid":


The best-selling single so far in 2013 is apparently "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk:


Any questions?

Any doubt that music certainly and civilization probably is in decline?

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, first movement

Finally we come to the last completed symphony by Beethoven. I talked a bit about the effect this symphony had on composers for the next hundred years in this post. But I have not discussed the piece in any detail. The Symphony No. 9 was completed in 1824, twelve years after the 7th and 8th Symphonies, both completed in 1812. It is the one symphony that falls within the period we often call "late Beethoven" and heralds that astonishing group of quartets he composed at the end of his life.

Beethoven was striving more and more to reach out to the listener in the most direct and intimate way. For this reason, his language intensifies and he uses every resource, especially the voice. In the quartets we find naive folk tunes and dances, passages like recitatives and others that sing. This is why Beethoven took the unprecedented step of bringing voices, in the form of a quartet of vocal soloists and a choir, into the last movement of his last symphony. Though never done before, it would inspire a host of other composers doing the same, from Mahler to Shostakovich.

As this is a very long symphony, over an hour in performance, and a very important one, I am going to divide it up into four posts, one on each movement.

Here are the four movements of the symphony:


  1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
  2. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Presto
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato – Tempo primo – Andante moderato – Adagio – Lo stesso tempo
  4. Recitative: (Presto – Allegro ma non troppo – Vivace – Adagio cantabile – Allegro assai – Presto: O Freunde) – Allegro molto assai: Freude, schöner Götterfunken – Alla marcia – Allegro assai vivace: Froh, wie seine Sonnen – Andante maestoso: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! – Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto: Ihr, stürzt nieder – Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato: (Freude, schöner Götterfunken – Seid umschlungen, Millionen!) – Allegro ma non tanto: Freude, Tochter aus Elysium! – Prestissimo, Maestoso, Molto prestissimo: Seid umschlungen, Millionen!

The opening of the first movement, in sonata form, is justly famous. Here is the composer's manuscript:

Click to enlarge

And here it is in a modern edition:


That's a little easier to read! Simplicity itself: the dominant of D minor, but given just in bare fifths, A and E, without the third. Then outlined in the violins. Then, fortissimo, a theme in fierce dotted rhythms. I said that Beethoven was trying to reach the listener in the most direct way and this is an example. Instead of harmonic complexity, the most basic harmony possible: basic, but very powerful. Beethoven never liked to admit it, but he owed quite a lot to Haydn, including the idea of this opening. Back in 1798, Haydn completed his oratorio The Creation and the opening depiction of chaos, before there was form, looks like this:


This is not as bold as Beethoven's opening, but it does begin with just a unison on C, and slowly adds other notes. Here is a performance of that opening.


Though composed in a different way, it has that same feeling of something emerging from nothingness. Let's listen to the Beethoven first movement for comparison:


At nearly 18 minutes long that is a long first movement! Nearly as long as many whole symphonies from the 18th century. 

Here is that fierce dotted theme, played in unison by all the instruments:



Notice that that is not quite the chord we expected: B flat instead of D minor, but the D minor arrives, in root position, on the downbeat of the next measure. The second theme, appearing first in the flute, is in the key of B flat:



Towards the very end of the movement, the final statement of the theme is preceded by this enigmatic passage:


Enigmatic, somehow frightening and very ominous. But again, it is using the simplest means: a chromatic descent from the tonic, used in innumerable pieces since the Renaissance to signal torment, then a simple return via the melodic minor scale. It couldn't be simpler. But Beethoven has achieved such mastery of his tools--melody, harmony and rhythm--that he can use the simplest of means to achieve the most powerful effect. Perhaps this is what Donald Francis Tovey was talking about when he referred to Beethoven's tendency to 'normality'. Beethoven has transcended the odd, the individual, the quirky and found the means to speak to all of humanity in the most direct way. It is one of the mysteries of the aesthetics of music that when most other composers use these simple devices, it is merely boring. But when a master like Beethoven does it, it is deeply moving...

Now let's listen to another performance of the first movement. Here is Otto Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw in a 1960 recording:


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

I have to say that one of my favorite things about this excursion through all the Beethoven symphonies is exploring the even-numbered ones. It's like finding an extra chocolate bar you didn't know you had! I was having a rehearsal with a good friend of mine on Sunday, a violist and violinist, and asked her what she thought of the Symphony No. 4. She has played in orchestras her whole life and could not recall if she had ever played this symphony! I don't think I had ever even listened to it before doing the post. Amazing!

So now we come to the last even-numbered Beethoven symphony: No. 8. This was written immediately after the Symphony No. 7. Beethoven had a special fondness for the 8th Symphony and told his student Carl Czerny that the 8th Symphony was less popular than the 7th because it "is so much better." The symphony has had a number of significant admirers including George Bernard Shaw who was a famous music critic as well as a playwright. Another admirer was none other than Igor Stravinsky who particularly admired the third movement for its "incomparable instrumental thought". Tchaikovsky thought the last movement was one of Beethoven's great masterpieces.

All this might seem a bit puzzling as in our time we exalt the 9th Symphony to the skies while barely admitting the 8th exists. But this is a remarkable symphony. Beethoven is more or less inventing neo-classicism a hundred years early. What Stravinsky was up to in the 1920s, a kind of re-imagining of the lightness, clarity and elegance of 18th century music, Beethoven had already done in the Symphony No. 8 and the last string quartet, op. 135, also in F major. The trio to the minuet, that Stravinsky so admired, may have been one of the inspirations for his Octet and Symphonies of Wind Instruments.


The obstacle for our appreciation of the Symphony No. 8 is very likely an aesthetic prejudice that we have learned from other pieces of Beethoven. His aesthetic range was so wide, as was Stravinsky's, that it is hard for us to reconcile the hard-charging drama of the 5th Symphony with the playful elegance of the 8th Symphony. Here is how it begins:

Click to enlarge
The choice of 3/4 time signature gives the movement a waltz-like lilt, as does the inverted turn figure in the theme. I'm one for seeing a lot in the basic character of the initial theme--though of course, Beethoven, and others, likes to deceive the listener sometimes, especially if there is an introduction. But here, he launches right into the movement and the initial mood is not deceptive. Note how the first four measures are answered with a fluid phrase in the winds. This is also characteristic of this movement and the symphony as a whole.

In the "slow" movement which comes next, it is as if Beethoven is trying to compose against every expectation of a slow movement. First of all, the tempo is allegretto scherzando, a moderate rather than slow tempo. Then the movement has a mechanical kind of feel to it due to the constant ticking of the accompaniment. This movement is thought by some to be a parody of the recently invented metronome.  Then there are the ubiquitous staccato notes which also go against the grain of a typical slow movement which is supposed to be slow, flowing and sentimental. This movement, again, has a kind of artificial, wry, neo-classical feel to it. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge

And now the third movement: a minuet and trio, which by this point in the early 19th century is nearly an archaic dance. Here is part of the second half of the trio, whose orchestration Stravinsky so admired:

Click to enlarge

The last movement is the weightiest of the symphony with an intense rhythmic figure that begins with repeated triplets that turn into little turnlet eighths. Here is how that looks at the beginning of the movement:

Click to enlarge

This figure, which we see in the violins in the above example, has some real rhythmic impetus. There is a harmonically striking effect in the coda where a D flat is turned into a C# which interrupts the theme and is hammered insistently until its function is revealed as the dominant of F# minor, which leads to an episode in D major, hammered down into D minor, the relative minor of F, which gets us back into the right key. Here is that passage:


This really is an amazing symphony, though it is never going to have the widespread fame of the Symphony No. 9, whose aesthetic virtues are so much more likely to appeal to the majority of listeners.

Here is a lovely performance with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the 2012 Proms. Here is a guide to where each movement begins:


00:05 1 - Allegro vivace e con brio
10:12 2 - Allegretto scherzando
14:23 3 - Tempo di Menuetto
19:35 4 - Allegro vivace


Monday, July 22, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Beethoven in 1815
How do composers think about what they do? I think some of the basics are that once you have completed an earth-shaking work like the 5th Symphony, there is the need to regroup, to step back and look in a different direction. This is certainly what Beethoven did in the "Pastoral" Symphony which was actually a piece in a very established style, the sinfonia characteristica. But what next? One thing was to pause: after the enormous outpouring and effort that produced the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the Razumovsky Quartets and so many other remarkable works, during this decade (1800 - 1809) of immense productivity, the next decade (1809 - 1819) produced much less. There were fewer pieces and they, with the exception of an isolated work like the Quartet in F minor Serioso, were on a smaller scale.

But there were important advances bubbling below the surface for Beethoven, after a promising youth and a spectacular "middle period", was going to have a "late period" that continues to amaze us to this day. The Symphony No. 7 was written in this decade of introspection and it goes in a new direction, though one that fits very well within one of Beethoven's fundamental interests: rhythm. Wagner was one of many to notice this aspect of the work when he called it the "apotheosis of the dance". Yes, this symphony dances and dances more than any other before or since.

It begins with a splendid and expansive introduction that is both lyrical and dynamic. Here is the first page in the original copyist's manuscript:

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For some reason this introduction always reminds me of "Hello, Goodbye" by Paul McCartney from Magical Mystery Tour, probably because of the ascending scales:


But it is what comes after this introduction that is unusual. Here is the beginning of the Vivace:

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What is so strange about this? It's the time signature. Every Beethoven symphonic first movement up to now has been in either some version of duple time (2/4, 4/4 or alla breve) or in 3/4 (the 3rd Symphony). This movement is in 6/8, which is a dance time signature found most typically in gigues, originally an English dance, the jig. It is also a popular time signature in Spanish dances like the Canarios and Zapateado. Beethoven does not explore all the possible hemiolas that the Spanish do, instead he focuses just on two rhythmic variants: the dotted version we hear at the beginning in the example above, and the simple undotted version. That's it. Rhythmically it is a very focused movement and most of the variety comes from the harmonies which tend to veer towards C major and F major, rather remote for the tonic key of A major.

The second movement is one of Beethoven's most popular and had to be repeated at the premiere. It is in the tonic minor, which relates to the harmonies of the first movement. It has the kind of simple, haunting beauty that few composers seem capable of. But since this is a symphonic movement, not a pop song, there are some elaborations, in particular a fugato on the theme. Here is part of the opening with a particularly lovely tune in the violas:

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The third movement, a scherzo, is in F major and very quick, a presto. Here is how it begins:


The phrase "whirling dervishes" comes to mind. There is a contrasting trio in a slower tempo with sustained chords in the unusual submediant key of D major. Everything in this symphony seems to avoid the simple fifth relationships in favor of mediants and submediants.

And in the last movement even more "Bacchic fury" in the words of Donald Francis Tovey: even more dance energy. Here is the opening:


In the finale Beethoven outdoes the rhythmic energy of the previous movements, which is certainly what one would hope for!

Let's go to Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the 2012 Proms:


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"

As I just wrote a post devoted to this symphony back in March I will send you to that post. But here is a different performance of the work. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by
Paavo Jarvi:


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Civilization in Decline?

Here is a succinct thought about the various efforts to "popularize" classical music.

Any solution proposed to help classical music find new, younger listeners that panders to them rather than asking them to step up to the challenges of the music is simply contributing to the decline of civilization.

You're either on the train or off the train. Pick one.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

This is the most famous, most successful symphony ever written and there is a lot of competition! Along with the Symphony No. 9, its only serious competitor for "most famous" symphony and the "Moonlight" Sonata, also by Beethoven, it is the very paradigm for a piece of classical music.

Why is this? Certain characteristics of the music were noticed by E. T. A. Hoffman very early on in 1813, only five years after the premiere. He wrote:
The internal structure of the movements, their execution, their instrumentation, the way in which they follow one another--everything contributes to a single end; above all, it is the intimate interrelationship among the themes that engenders that unity which alone has the power to hold the listener firmly in a single mood.
The whole symphony grows, like an oak, from this single seed:


Those four notes, in that distinctive rhythm, first on the tonic (C minor) and then on the dominant seventh (G7) are the essence of the whole work, on both the micro and macro levels. It was this that was Beethoven's great discovery: how to dramatically unify in an organic way, the whole of a lengthy instrumental composition. Even though every composer since has tried to duplicate this success, hardly any have succeeded. Though it is safe to say that anyone writing a large instrumental work is likely to be using some of the techniques Beethoven discovered.

This motif, even when reduced to a simple rhythm, permeates the whole symphony. It even functions as an accompaniment to the second theme when it appears. Let's look at the page of the score where the second theme is presented for some examples:

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Here we have the ending of the previous section and notice how Beethoven beams the violins to bring out the rhythmic motif. That is in the first four measures of the example. Then we have the horns with a variation on the motif and the second theme begins in the violins in mm. 63. But notice also how the same rhythmic motif appears in the cellos. Here is another example from where the theme of the Scherzo returns in the last movement where both the melody and accompaniment feature the motif;

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Notice that the oboes have a theme very similar to the horn theme in my second example above. Then the clarinets have the same rhythm as an accompaniment, joined by the horns. Other examples, perhaps less significant, have been found. There are even some critics, including Donald Francis Tovey, who disagree that the symphony is unified in this way. I hate to disagree, but the reasons he gives, for example, that the last example has no relationship to the original motif because the accents are in a different place does not convince me. What I see here are a 'family' of rhythmic motifs that share certain similarities. Shostakovich was another who made use of this kind of structuring. Many of his string quartets use a characteristic anapest or dactyl to tie together various movements.

There are hints of the rhythmic motif in the second movement, but it also permeates the last movement, though in a subtle way. Let's take a look at part of the last movement for some examples:

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Take a look at the first violins from the 4th measure of the example: the eighth-note line is segmented in  sections of three upbeats to a downbeat all the way up to the high C. This may not look quite like the motif, but again, it will sound like a member of the same family. Look too at the cellos and basses who are stressing the same grouping. It is the way the notes are grouped that is creating the effect.

Another very significant element in the symphony is the tonal structure. The whole "story arc" is one of movement from darkness (C minor) to light (C major). This structure, which may owe a bit to the opening of Haydn's Creation, arrives at the moment of light as the last movement begins. The Scherzo ends with a long, long sustained dominant harmony. The fact that the dominant of C minor and the dominant of C major are exactly the same chord allows the blaze of C major (aided by the use of trombones for added power) to be both entirely logical harmonically, but at the same time unexpected. This moment is one of the greatest and most powerful moments in Western music.

After all that introduction, let's listen to the whole symphony. This is the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Paavo Jarvi: