Friday, April 26, 2019

Beethoven the expressive

At the final Beethoven lecture on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I pointed to what I felt was a rather odd little one-note trumpet dotted figure sandwiched between phrases near the opening of the first movement. It seemed to recall the music of an earlier generation, the public musical flourishes of Mozart in many of his symphonies or piano concerti. It was a tiny detail, easy to ignore, a simple musical glue amidst what could have been construed as the more interesting string figure, the theme of the third movement in embryo. But I spent a few moments fixating on the passing trumpet comment instead.

At the end of the same movement is a ghostly chromatic figure over which the woodwinds trill in the style of a funeral march. It also seems to come out of nowhere, a strangely powerful moment that has not been set up by any of the preceding material.

What both of these moments have in common is that they don't seem to be connected to the musical fabric. Beethoven, the master of motivic transformation and large-scale connection, seems to have gone outside the logic of theme and pattern and embraced pre-made musical elements, fragments that would suggest ideas, moods, occasions, because of their ubiquitous use in Viennese musical life, and not because he had defined them via his own symphonic context.

Beethoven's willingness to do that should jolt us out of any cliched view of the master as one who simply worked within his own musical ambit, fashioning meaning from a manipulation of very economically distributed blocks. It might also tell us, that at least in this symphony, he felt the need to push outward into the realm of the program, the philosophy, the idea, to stretch his compositional methods to the breaking point because what he wanted to say was vitally important and he needed every compositional resource available.

That he embedded these arresting glimpses of a symphonic beyond amidst logically connected motivic elements on a huge scale is an incredible testament to his variety of approach. This is the composer who is known for working in small musical segments but who could, on occasion, write a beautiful, long-breathed melody. Transitions can be condensed to the point of nothing, or spray the unwary listener with gallons of supercilious notes. Tension can build to a mighty climax, or the ending can simply evaporate in a puff of humor.

The Ninth Symphony is overwhelming. The first two movements are staggering, over half and hour of loud and dramatic, unrelieved by a slow movement of such beauty and intensity that the listener is close to exhaustion before the final movement, the architectural omega, with its celebrated Ode to Joy, even begins.

Beethoven had a lot to say. It took him 12 years to say it.

I've been thinking about Douglas Adams's quote that the music of Beethoven "show us what it is like to be Beethoven." I think he's right. And very wrong. This music shows us far more.

If I had five more lectures I still wouldn't be able to unpack that idea. Gustav Mahler, one of Beethoven's symphonic heirs, said that a symphony "is like the world. It should embrace everything."

He owes that idea to Beethoven, who started composers on that path. The result is to stretch expression to the breaking point, filling it with contradiction after contradiction, each new method overthrowing the old, while shedding light on everything that came before and everything that is to come after. Take that too far and we are on the cusp of meaning nothing at all.

A small composer expresses him or herself, and that only. Adams thought that rather than Beethoven it was Bach who "shows us what it is like to be the universe." Which is apt in that Bach lived in the age before artistic self-expression was even a current in the ocean of ideas, though inapt if you consider the universe to be cold and lifeless and enormously beyond expressiveness. It was Adams's admiration for Bach which kept him from seeing something else about Beethoven, something which does not negate his power to reveal himself any more than a stained glass window shows us its beauty by blocking the rays of the sun.

Beethoven shows us what it is like to be alive.
you know the drill: 

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