Although the majority of my professional life is devoted to listening to new music and advocating for its greater dissemination (and when I’m not engrossed in the new music of others, I work at creating some new music of my own), I also try to devote time each week to listening to older music. This year I have gone on listening binges with music ranging from Monteverdi madrigals and Muzio Clementi keyboard sonatas to chamber music by York Bowen and Dora Pejačević. And, believe it or not, despite my periodic outbursts about how overplayed his music is, I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my listening time this year to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I began the year listening to all 32 piano sonatas in order, then the 10 violin and 5 cello sonatas, and most recently the 9 symphonies and 16 string quartets (plus the Große Fuge). It turns out that all that Beethoven listening was fortuitous since, believe it or not, I’ve actually been invited to talk about his music and the music of Shostakovich in Cleveland next month.
Shostakovich has been a composer I have admired since I was in high school. I still remember laughing the first time I heard the William Tell Overture erupt in the opening movement of his very last symphony (which seemed a sonic assault straight out of Charles Ives). And a tune worm I have never gotten completely out of my head is the calm, constantly repeating melody that keeps shifting instrumentation at the very end of his otherwise confrontational Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar,’ a setting of texts critical of Soviet social policies that was pretty much banned throughout the Eastern Bloc for nearly a decade. But I must confess that Beethoven had always been something of a bête noir for me. Most of his themes seemed insipid, little more than arpeggiated triads and scales. And mind you, I have loved In C, Einstein on the Beach, and pretty much all of minimalism since the first hearing! I think the difference with the minimalists, however, is that by the time this music evolved, tonality had evolved past its triadic fixation and seventh chords had become integrally woven into harmony. That was certainly true for most of the pop music playing around me growing up in the early 1970s, over two hundred years after Beethoven was born. Every song I heard seemed saturated with seventh chords, particularly major seventh chords (e.g. Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” “Day By Day” from the cast album of the Broadway musical Godspell, “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” or just about anything else ever done by Stevie Wonder, etc.). In fact, the first piece of Beethoven’s that I felt any affinity toward was the Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ which, as it turned out, has an inverted major seventh chord blare seven times at the climax of the development of the first movement. It must have completely unnerved listeners back in 1804, but when I first heard it, I just wished he would have kept repeating it even longer!
Anyway, over the years I came to love many of Beethoven’s pieces—the Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastorale,’ the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and that Große Fuge. Still, whenever I took the time to think about the melodic content in just about all of his pieces, it was still all reducible to triads and scales. It seemed too easy and lacking in suspense. Most of the melodies that have stayed lodged in my brain over the years, whether those composed by others or those I have fashioned myself, are filled with surprise leaps. I remember reading years ago that the famous theme of the Ninth Symphony, which is all just ascending and descending scale fragments except for its third phrase, originally contained nothing but scalar movement throughout and Beethoven labored for years over the final version. And I thought at the time: Would that he had labored as intensely on his other melodies.
I’ve mostly gotten over my lack of appreciation for the way Beethoven constructed his melodies, which is ironically due to my John Cage-inspired goal to be open and welcoming of all possible musical constructions. But last week I came across a quote in an 1896 book about the Beethoven symphonies by George Grove (the original editor of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians) that made me think of Beethoven’s themes in a totally new way:
In many of the Sonatas and Symphonies […] the chief subject consists […] of little more than the notes of the common chord of the tonic repeated; ‘so that’ in the words of an eminent musician of the present day [Dr. Hubert Parry], ‘the principle key shall be so strongly established that even the most stupid persons shall be able to realize it.’
—George Grove, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (Novello, Ewer & Co. 1896), p. 6.
[Note: That eminent musician to whom Grove refers above is the composer Dr. Hubert Parry (1848-1918), whose comments, according to a footnote in Grove’s text, were first published in the Proceedings of Musical Association XV, p. 23. Thus far I've been unsuccessful at tracking down that volume, so any leads would be appreciated.]
Admittedly, the tone of these words might come across as somewhat pejorative to a 21st-century reader. (Who are those “most stupid persons” anyway?) But if you can get past the verbiage, I think there’s a real insight about composition here, one that is still relevant to composers in our own time. If in fact the goal of these melodies–rather than their being the goal in and of themselves–is to get us to hear all the at-the-time revolutionary things that Beethoven was doing with modulations, orchestration, etc., then they are a means to a far more significant end, at least for him as a composer. Had the earliest experiments in serialism or indeterminacy been as easy to unpack, as it were, perhaps there might be wider appreciation for this music among a much broader range of listeners. One of the only pieces of twelve-tone music I know which clearly states the row at the very onset is Roger Sessions’s Eighth Symphony, although how it develops from there is hardly discernible at first listening. Then again, many of Julian Carrillo’s microtonal compositions go out of their way to introduce listeners to the ultrachromatic scales they employ—many passages are nothing more than descending scales. And yet, Carrillo’s music never caught on the way Beethoven’s has. Of course, some of Beethoven’s music took a long time to catch on, but ultimately it did.
For my entire life I have tried to reconcile my devotion to experimentation with a desire to create things that people could instantly appreciate and love. It is a never-ending balancing act. At this late date, Beethoven might actually be a more valuable role model than I had ever realized before.