Friday, March 15, 2019

Beethoven the Control Freak

I entitled my lecture yesterday "Beethoven the Obsessive" but a blunter, more contemporary approach might have been the title above.

Last week Kristen and I went on one of our Frank Lloyd Wright tours. We've been on several, and as it happened, were on vacation in a part of Florida near to the campus of Florida Southern University, which happened to be the architect's one opportunity to pretty nearly design an entire city, or, at least a dozen buildings on a single college campus.

To say Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the world's most famous architect, wanted things his way is an understatement. He didn't just design the building, he designed the furniture to go in the building. And he placed it where he wanted it to go. Woe unto you if you moved the furniture and he found out.

Another thing you weren't allowed to do was to buy and install your own light fixtures. If the room got dark before five it was because he had designed it that way. He put windows in the parts of the house that he wanted you to use when he wanted you to use them. Kitchens (which he dismissively referred to as "work space") were small and only for making sandwiches and getting out of there. He didn't like basements, and he didn't do garages. Cars were made for carports. Natural lighting was the way to go. Don't get him started on air conditioning.

On campus there were several spaces made for just passing through, made as narrow and as unattractive as possible. Then the buildings, in which a narrow entrance suddenly broadened to an expansive room (a favorite trick of his), said to everyone: here is were you want to spend your time. There was probably a brood of single-paned windows near by. Wright, the designer of indoor environments, wanted you to spend as much time out of doors as possible, or at least feel like you were outside even when you weren't.

Wright had a theory about life, and the way it should be lived, where you should go and when you should go there, what should be stored where, and what just didn't belong. So yes, he had pretty much decided on everything. If you bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house you had to accept those conditions. Once he even designed a dress for the woman of the house to wear so she didn't clash with his decor. Let's call him, even if we admire his art, a little controlling.

Inevitably, given my series of lectures this month, I began thinking of how he compared to Beethoven.

Beethoven's musical architecture is just as renowned as if he had designed buildings. True, the roof won't collapse on a poorly executed musical composition, but there is a tremendous effect when the structure of every phrase of music adds up to a significant whole. If you read the musicological literature on Beethoven you will often come up against analysis that holds him up as a brilliant designer of musical forms. Single notes, gestures, planted on the first page, return on the last. Things surprise, then seem inevitable. Nothing is wasted, nothing goes unexplored. If Beethoven says he will talk about it, he does. Once he said thirty variations on a single waltz.

Even the endings are important. The stereotypical crashing chords aren't there when they aren't needed. Many years ago I pointed out to my roommate that the theme of the first symphony was a study in acceleration: two chords a measure apart, followed by three at twice the pace. At the very end of that movement, the final chords followed the structure of theme, sans melody, exactly. And then, a full twenty minutes later, at the end of the entire symphony, the same pattern, only twice as slow, concludes the whole essay. Beethoven, had he been an author, would have even made sure the words "the end" bore a direct connection to the materials explored throughout the piece rather than just tacking them on.

It may be easier to control the flow of a piece of music than it is a building, simply because you need less cooperation to pull it off. But in terms of design neither man left anything to chance. Everything that is there is made to connect with everything else. Both have their favorite themes, but the miracle is how those themes have been made to harmonize with everything around them.  For Beethoven it is also about how each possibility is explored, and each theme is developed, a study in variety that is not simply an exercise in diversity but also has one overarching purpose. Like the persons on Frank Lloyd Wright's ideal campus, we are going exactly where he is taking us.

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