Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony Number 5 in C Minor

It is hard to write about the most well-known piece by the most famous composer of all time. The four opening notes of the first movement have passed into both the collective unconscious and conscious, at least in the West. When my children were young, we bought a cockatiel, named him Bruce, and the first tune that I taught him to whistle was the opening of this symphony. Unfortunately, I also taught him the theme from the late 1960’s television show Hawaii Five-O.  He eventually scrambled the two, producing what we referred to as Beethoven’s Five-O.

I really didn’t pay attention to the Fifth Symphony however, until my best friend in seventh grade, Kerry Wade, loaned me a comedy album by Peter Schickele, entitled P.D.Q Bach on the Air. The record had a track called New Horizons in Musical Appreciation-Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Shickele had the incredible genius of fusing a broadcast of a symphony orchestra on a public radio station with a sports commentary. His two announcers, who sounded like a White Sox sport announcers, provide a blow-by-blow account of the Fifth Symphony in which the conductor plays against the orchestra. For example, they critique the individual players. At one point, the oboist in the first movement plays a little solo and the announcers yell: “What’s he doing? He thinks its an oboe concerto! I wouldn’t be surprised if he receives a fine for this.” At other points, they critique the music itself: “And they’re off with a four note theme. I don’t know whether it’s slow or fast, folks, because it keeps stopping.”

Now some people might call this blasphemous. Beethoven is a god, after all. But what I think Schickele was trying to show—and I once heard him do something similar with Beethoven’s Third Symphony on his radio show—was how revolutionary Beethoven’s music would have sounded to an audience around Beethoven’s time.

I do not know much about music theory, but I am told that Beethoven’s music was considered to be quite dissonant at the time it was written. Some people have attributed that to his deafness, which was complete by the time he reached 48. He had to compose without the benefit of even being able to play a chord on a piano to see if it sounded Okay. Literally, then this music was unheard of before its performance. What I find amazing is that his contemporary critics often labeled his music “incomprehensible” and even lacking melody.

The second movement has a beautiful lyrical melody, which foreshadows his Pastoral Symphony. And that of the third movement to me has a dignified and quite majestic tune, that I have no trouble whistling. The end of the third movement is quite exciting. It gives you the feeling of moving over a rainy landscape through the fog and suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds as it rushes without a pause into the joyous finale. Once again, Beethoven, despite his rapidly encroaching deafness refuses to be crushed by it and takes us to glimpse the splendor of nature and human creation.

Beethoven Biography

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Ludwig Van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D

After having worn out my copy of the Brahms violin concerto (see second to last post here), I turned to Beethoven’s. My ex-wife, who was British, ance told me about the BBC radio show,”Desert Island Disks,” which was aped for a while by Robert Aubry Davis of WETA in Washington, DC. Should I ever be asked to appear on such a show, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D would be my first choice, hands down.

I don’t know what acoustic properties make it so, but I find the violin one of the most appealing and expressive of all the instruments. That you find it used in nearly every type of music in almost every country–from classical to country, from Indian to Arabic, from gypsy to jazz–bespeaks of its versatility. Maybe it has to do with its ability to express a wide range of emotions. Indeed, the violin can sound happy, sad, haunting romantic, energetic, precise, lush, sparse and above all joyous.

Beethoven’s complex use of this instrument in his concerto seemed to capture and distill for me so much of what it was like to be alive during my last few years of high school–40 years ago. I find the piece passionate, but unlike Brahms, whose Romanticism sometimes seems almost over the top, Beethoven managed to keep things under control. Not quash them, mind you, just manage them.

It starts out with four ominous sounding drum beats, on whose heels quickly follows a statement of the theme by the wood winds. The orchestra then picks up the theme, introduces a second one and plays variations on them for a good three minutes before the violin begins. It immediately launches into a number of variations that embroider around the four drum beats and the melodies stated earlier. It seems for a while that the movement will have a sad tone to it, but eventually the violin becomes more and more soaring and you realize it will rescue the piece from wallowing in sadness.

To me the second movement, though slow and full of long, slow and lyrical violin work, still manages to remain upbeat. It conveys a kind of spiritual sense, the kind you get walking along a brook by yourself or watching a beautiful sunset. It is calm, dignified, and intensely beautiful

As for the third movement, marked Rondo (Allegro), I can’t think of a more exciting piece of music. The violin just skips along, threading its way in and out of the melody around the orchestra with endless variation. I find it so life affirming. When I lie on my death bed, breathing my last, I want someone to put this movement on. It will make the going so much easier.

I do not say this to be morose. To me it would be a perfect cap on a life well lived. Think about Beethoven. He was devastated by his deafness. Up until it struck him, he had a career as a successful pianist-with the status of a superstar of today. But his deafness ruined his career as a performer. After his last concert as a performer, which was reportedly a disaster, he sank into a non-productive depression for two years. When he emerged he went on to write his greatest works, starting with the Fourth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Rather than sink into self-pity, ruing his fate, he just said “Yes” to life and became great.

Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela

OK. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I spent a good deal of my life wallowing in self-pity. Looking back now, after all these years and with children of my own, I wonder what my parents thought about my plunge into classical music. Until then, I was known at school as a happy-go-lucky sort, always telling jokes, very active and being a boy scout, brave, clean and reverent. Suddenly I start reading Dostoyevsky and hole up in my room for hours on end listening to lugubrious works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Sibelius. No wonder my mother once said to me: “you think too much, and about the wrong things.”

Maybe she had a point, though, I can think of worse hobbies and obsessions, (such as video games, macrame, and Pro-Football), that do more damage to the soul.

The Swan of Tuonela was one of these pieces I used to resort to in one of my more abject bouts of wallowing self-pity. It is a tone poem by the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). It is inspired by a story out of the the Finnish national book of mythology, the Kalevala. Sibelius said “no” to the dissonance and  atonality of the 20th Century and did not abandon melody and harmony like many of his European peers. In fact, as this piece shows, he almost went of in the direction of hyper-Romanticism. Maybe this has something to do with the long Finnish winter nights.

Tuonela is the Hades in Finnish mythology, which a swift dark river encircles. On this river, a majestic swan swims and sings. In Sibelius’ tone poem, the swan is represented by a melody played on the English horn. The tune moves slowly and gracefully, looping around and above the lush harmonies of the orchestra. The river is represented mostly by the violins, which use soft and shimmering short bow strokes to capture the dark, quiet feeling one watching the last rays of daylight playing on the ripples of the water’s surface. Toward the end, the full orchestra wells up and plays forte, filled with anguish. This harmonic tension eventually resolves itself and a cello carries the swan’s theme off to the end.

I chanced upon The Swan of Tuonela by accident. It was in a group of used records I bought in a garage sale for about a quarter a piece. The same disk held a performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. These two pieces reflect Sibelius’ love of nature and its mysterious sounds. They remind me in a way of Bartok’s string quartets in which he tried to capture the sound of night. Listening to it again after all these years, I still find it haunting and beautiful.

Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D

Serendipity has always played a large role in determining the direction my interest in classical music would take. For example, when I went in search of Brahms’ Piano Concerto Number 2, a friend suggested a double album that contained that work played by Rubenstein as well as the work for violin played by Jascha Heifitz. On first hearing it, I was smitten, and for a long time, it was the only piece I listened to.

Brahm’s Violin Concerto contained so much passion and seemed to resonate with so many emotions, which–as an adolescent in high school–I experienced at the time. Indeed, it became a kind of vessel into which I could pour all my emotions. Usually I was sad because of some crush on a girl, about which I could do nothing because I was so paralyzed with fear of rejection. I would then retreat to my room and put on the Brahms.

In researching this piece, I found an interesting story about Brahms, which might explain a bit my affinity for this piece. It seems that Brahms was discovered playing piano in beer halls by the virtuoso violinist Joachim. The violinist introduced him to a number of his friends, among them Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Supposedly, Brahms became quite smitten with Clara, but even after Robert Schumann died, Brahms was not able to come out and declare his love to her. He remained a bachelor all his life.

Maybe this is why I find the concerto full of yearning and unfulfilled passion. In effect, I had often had the same hang-dog personality in high school. Later I realized this went back to something that happened in first grade. My mother used to baby sit a neighbor girl with me when I was little. I grew up thinking of her as my girlfriend, which she was until second grade. The other boys in class used to make fun of me for having a girl friend, but I’d known her so long and she was such a good friend, I just knew we’d grow up to be married. One day, however, she announced to me, in front of a good number of my classmates, that henceforth her boyfriend was a boy named Jeffry who went to another school. I was crushed, and because of that, I dreaded rejection for most of my life.

Brahm’s Violin Concerto starts out deceptively calm with the woodwinds playing the melody, but the orchestra then comes in full of passion. It quietens down for a moment but then it states the main violin theme, which a few moments later, the violin launches into full of energy and anguish. Eventually, the violin then soars into a lyrical section that has to be an expression of love.

Being a typical American male, I was taught that crying was unmanly. “Save your tears for when you really need them,” my father once said to me. Despite that, the second movement of Brahm’s violin concerto, always brings me to the brink of tears. It still strikes me as sad and beautiful. An oboe starts out playing a hauntingly beautiful melody, with a few instruments punctuating its pathos. When the violin starts, it immediately starts improvising on the melody, making it even more poignant. By the time the movement ends, you feel like you’ve watched a Vittorio DeSica film. Fortunately, after being led though the drama of the first and the anguish of the second, the third movement, upbeat and rousing, always seemed to resolve all the tension and make me feel happy. Before the days of Prozac and Zoloft, music was my seratonin reuptake inhibitor.

I’m interested in this phenomenon. Nowadays, when we hurt, we go to a doctor to get a pill. Poof! The hurt goes away. In Brahm’s time, he just wrote music. The music reflects his anguish, sadness, pain, his love and tenderness. Yet by writing, he turned the suffering around and spun the dross into gold.

So many of us today simply try to run from our pain, we are so scared of it. What if you stayed with it for a while, experiencing it, trying to find its cause, and worked through it? Of course, I’m not saying you should tough everything out. I’ve known lots of people who were too proud to do so when they could have saved themselves–and their loved ones–so much unnecessary suffering. But sometimes if we pay attention to pain and fear it can wake us up out of our complacency and inspire us to do great things.

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Bagatelle No.25 in A- ‘Fur Elise’

Recently, I performed a search for “Fur Elise,” on The search returned over 624 hits, and it was listed on diverse albums from Christmas compilations to albums to make your baby a genius.  From that I almost concluded it’s one of the Western world’s most popular pieces, but then I heard it played on a Sitar on an album called “Who Killed Beethoven with a Sitar?” Why does it have such appeal, I wonder.

Several years ago, the best friend of my daughter, Claire, started piano lessons. One day, I walked into Margy’s house to pick up Claire, and I heard Margy playing this piece. That surprised me. First, because it was Beethoven–whose works I thought only virtuoso pianist could master–and second because the girl had only been playing several months. When she stopped, I went over to the piano and saw that she had played it from a beginning Suzuki method book.

Well that must be one reason–so many people who’d taken piano had to learn it.  And since it was in a beginner’s book, it must be easy enough to play. True the tune starts out with nine notes, followed by a rest, four more notes, and then repeats the rest and the four again. This run of notes sounds as easy as “Mary had a little lamb.” If you look at the sheet music, though, here, you’ll see that it teaches so much–arpeggios, rests, the minor scale–that it’s a simple yet holistic piece. That is it doesn’t sacrifice any musical integrity–by being watered down–and therefore it allows a beginner to learn and integrate various different musical concepts without breaking them down mechanistically. Rote might be well for mastering physical dexterity and storing facts into long-term memory, but real learning when the brain integrates all the component parts into a meaningful whole, and such beautiful music can make the rote enjoyable.  Something which is lost in our “teach to the test” approach to education these days.

Despite the simplicity and ubiquitous nature of this piece, however, I suspect there is something else which makes it so popular. Quite simply, it is a lovely, romantic piece of music. It made me week-kneed when I heard it as a high school boy with hormones raging through my body and a crush on nearly every cheerleader. Beethoven, after all, invented Romanticism, moving away from the airy intellectualism and rigidly structured rules of classicism. True it is sometimes hard to tell Beethoven’s early works from late Mozart, but because of Beethoven’s strong temperament, virtuosity and genius, as he matured he brought passion back into serious music. Indeed, he influence nearly every composer of the 19th century–Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bruckner and Mahler–and 20th century music was touched by him almost in reverse: it was a revolt by the intellectuals to wipe away the hyper-romanticism of fin de siecle Europe. The intellectuals then returned to rules of composition so rigid, it took nearly another century for the pendulum to swing back.

“Fur Elise” in the end remains so popular, I think, because people love a good tune after all. And good tunes give serious music more mass appeal and that makes them outlive the popular songs which lack the complexities of serious music. Who, after all, would cue up Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunnaire,” at a cocktail party? Whereas a pianist tinkling away at the “Moonlight” sonata or “Fur Elise,” will always be welcome.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 41 in C-Major “Jupiter”

“A phenomenon like Mozart always constitutes a miracle that defies all explanation. But how could divinity find time to make miracles if it didn’t conduct its research by creating from time to time extraordinary individuals whom we admire and can not understand?” Goethe

Mozart wrote the Symphony Number 41 in C-Major in 1788, just three years before his death and in an outburst of energy that saw him also writing it along with the 39th and 40thin a period of three weeks.

On the sleeve of my old vinyl recording, conducted by Karl Bohm, the anonymous notes describe the first movement thus:

“The masculine, self-confident first motive and its gentle, feminine continuation which make up the principal subject are representative in their duality of the mastery of this Symphony, in whose classically clear structure there is a place for both strength and lyricism, for “gallant” and learned elements–truly a concluding work of Olympian greatness!”

I used to read this quote and laugh. There certainly are two “flavors” to the first movement between which the orchestra moves. However, the author calling one masculine, strong and gallant, the other feminine, lyrical, and “learned” seemed a bit beyond the pale. Of course, now that I study Tai Chi, which is based on the principal of Yin and Yang, I can see how these two elements are woven in an out of each other in a perfectly balanced way. I’m just not sure that I want to call one “Hoss” and the other “Betty.” And why is “learned” feminine and not “strength?” Referring to the Olympian greatness also smacks a bit too much of Germanic scholasticism.

I don’t want to criticize too much fellow musical journalists. What I do want to say is that Mozart’s genius can be proved just by looking at his prolific output during the year 1788. In that one year, he wrote symphonies number 39, 40, and 41, the 26th piano concerto, and numerous dances, songs and minuets.

Let’s see, he was 32 at the time he wrote the Symphony Number 41, and from all accounts this was a difficult time period for him. In June, Mozart’s fourth child, Theresia, died of intestinal cramps. Despite the unhappiness in his life at this time, the 41st was one of the most ebullient symphonies he wrote. It stands in contrast with to the 40th, in which you hear more struggle. The 41st just soars!

Nowadays, all many of us have to do is break a fingernail and it spoils our whole day. Maybe the lesson Mozart was channeling from divinity was that art is a way of dealing with the events that life sends our ways. Sure you can be a victim when something bad happens, or you can create something beautiful that will last for centuries.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 40 in G-Minor

What’s not to like?

Sorry, I don’t mean to be so cavalier, but Mozart’s music sometimes strikes me that way. It lilts along so effortlessly. You can imagine that that’s what’s playing right now on the 24-hour all hits classical music station in heaven. Again, no blasphemy intended there. I think back to the play, Amadeus in which Salieri transcribes Mozart’s Requiem. Salieri describes Mozart as almost channeling the music straight from God.

The Symphony Number 40 was another piece that the M*** family introduced me to in high school, and I became so smitten with it that I had to have a copy of it. They suggested one on the Deutsche Grammophon label, conducted by Karl Böhm. He and Von Karajan were the two heavies on that label during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Usually Karajan got the Beethoven and Böhm did the Mozart.

Mozart wrote this symphony along with the 39th and 41st during the summer of 1788, completing all three in a span of six weeks. The first movement contains a restless melody, which sounds a bit dark, perhaps because of the minor key. A lovely serenade graces the second movement, which retains some of the darkness of the first movement. The third starts out with more of the anguished feelings, but then a nice quiet uplifting melody, punctuated by the flutes and horns, takes over for a while. You think you’re home free for a while, but then the anguish of the beginning returns. The feeling of a storm or some great struggle starts off the finale, which is full of drama. It stops midway through, a little fugue then starts off which recaps the main theme, but then it leads to a full resolution. At the end, you have the feeling that you just went through some great emotional struggle, and though you came out alive, you bear a few scars for it.

Here’s the full thing with Harnancourt conducting, about twice as fast as Bohm.

Giuseppe Verdi: “Celeste Aïda” from “Aïda”

In 2000, when I started The Musical Almanac, I couldn’t decide whether culturally, we were better or worse off than a during the 1800s. The US had just seen the impeachment of its president after a witch hunt of many years that exposed his amorous indiscretions.  The opposing party came in shortly after that and we had September 11, the War in Iraq, a global economic crisis, and what seems to be a tide of rising fundamentalism in the West.  Despite the fact that the ice caps are melting, there are stronger storms, worse droughts, and increase in certain disease, many people still deny climate change.

In other parts of the world the Internet has brought information and instantaneous communication to even the remotest parts of the globe.  As we have seen with the Arab Spring uprisings, this technology has caused an absolute explosion of ideas.  The times they are a changing.  Since it all started in North Africa, let’s look at an opera set in Pharaonic  Egypt.

Radames a young warrior in Pharaoh’s army sings the aria, Celeste Aïda (heavenly Aïda) at the beginning of the opera. The army is about to go to war with Ethiopia, and he will lead the campaign. In the aria, he declares his love for the slave girl Aïda, who is the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia. Aïda serves Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter, who is in love with Radames. (You can see where this is going.) In Radames’ aria he hopes that he can lead his troops well and win the battle so he can say to Aïda, “I’ve fought for you. I’ve won for you.” Then he sings:

Celeste Aïda, forma divina, Heavenly Aïda, divine shape,
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.
Il tuo bel cielo vorrei ridarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol :
Un regal serto sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol,
Mystic garland of light and flowers
you are queen of my thoughts
you are the splendor of my life
I would like to give you your sky back
the sweet breeze of the fatherland:
to put a regal garland on your heart
to build up a throne for you next to the sun

Such grand themes!

I wonder what connection this story had with the people of Verdi’s day.  Aïda is based on a story created by a leading Egyptologist of the day. The previous century Napoleon had campaigned in Egypt, and his troops discovered the Rosetta Stone. With the spoils he sent back and Champollion successfully translating hieroglyphics, Europe came under the spell of Egyptiana. Both England and France were busy building empires during the 19th century, which some might argue did more damage than any McDonalds at the foot of the Great wall of China.

Verdi wrote Aïda in 1871 for the Khedive of Egypt to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi was 58 at the time and of such a stature that he was able to command the equivalent of $200,000 in today’s money, to write the opera. It premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve and in Milan about a month and a half later. It was met with immediate success and remains a standard of the repertoire.

When Verdi died in 1901, the entire population of Italy went into mourning for him. I used to marvel at this, until I moved to Naples in 1980. When I first arrived, a friend of a friend put me up in an old 18th century palazzo that had been turned into apartments. He had a daughter who was about 9 or 10 at the time. My room was next to the bathroom. One day, I awoke to the sound of this little girl, who during her morning ablutions, stopped to belt out a rousing popular Neapolitan song of the day. On another occasion, while sitting in a restaurant in the back streets of Naples one Sunday morning, a middle-aged man drove up on his Vespa on which he had affixed a crate for carrying the bottles of seltzer water he was delivering. When he alit, he stopped and suddenly burst into a beautiful love song that echoed throughout the narrow streets.

Sometimes artists put down the common people as being philistinic and unappreciative of their art, but the fact of the matter is that how technology and education is used and who uses it is a political decision with serious economic underpinnings. Before we go name calling, it’s important to figure out who’s pulling the strings.

Gioacchino Rossini: Mi par d’esser con la testa from The Barber of Seville

This, the last aria from the Barber of Seville that I’m going to write about never ceases to amaze me. It did so when I first heard it about 40 years ago in high school, and did today when I gave listened to it on Youtube. It makes me think of a line from the movie, Amadeus. Mozart, speaking about his opera Le Nozze di Figaro says that opera is the only art form in which you can have four different people speaking at the same time, each presenting a different point of view or even having an argument. What’s wonderful though is that what in real life would appear pandemonium, in opera sounds heavenly.

The piece in which Rossini illustrates this fact, Mi par d’essere con la testa is a quintet for Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Basilio and Bartolo. Almaviva has succeeded in infiltrating Don Bartolo’s house by pretending he is a drunken soldier who has been billeted there. Don Bartolo won’t have any of it: he says he has a letter that exempts him receiving billets. As he goes to produce it, Almaviva slips Rosina a love note. Bartolo catches sight of it. Almaviva makes Bartolo drop his letter and Rosina drops hers. He then manages to mix them up handing back to Bartolo nothing more than a laundry list.

Rosina’s presence inflames Almaviva which makes Bartolo suspicious. Now angry, the doctor again tries to get the count to leave. Almaviva starts to threaten him with a sword, telling him he will kill him when Figaro arrives. The barber and Rosina try to calm the two suitors down, but they all become so loud that the local police come knocking at the door. They enter and demand to know what is going on as the din has attracted a crowd in front of the house.

Bartolo explains that he is affronted in his own house by a drunken soldier. The police chief is about to cart Almaviva away, when the count secretly shows him a letter that reveal his true identity–Count Almaviva, a nobleman. At this, the police chief is thunderstruck. Back then, nobles were inviolate. The others sing in wonderment at how something suddenly struck dumb the police chief. When he comes to his senses, he tells them to stop arguing. When Bartolo tries to get him to arrest Almaviva, the chief implies that if he doesn’t drop it, he might have to arrest him. That would have been within his powers.

This confuses everyone even more and they begin to sing:

Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un orrida fucina.
alternando questo e quello
pesantissimo martello
fa con un barbara armonia
mure e volte rimbombar, si
I feel as if I’ve stuck my head
into some dreadful smithy
Alternating one with the other
The heavy hammer blows
Make a barbarous harmony
That shakes the walls and rafters

To me this piece demonstrates once and for all Rossini’s mastery of matching his music to the words. Again, like La Calunnia it starts out soft. In the background the violins play quick triplets, punctuated by a triangle which imitates the sound of the crashing hammers. It is funny, clever, upbeat, and incredible as each voice surfaces for an instant and then is drowned out by another.

You know how the opera ends: After more intrigue and humorous scenes in which he and Figaro dupe Bartolo, Almaviva gets the girl. Not because his is any better a person, but because he could pay more than Bartolo. Maybe it’s more fitting that he is younger than Bartolo, but that’s not the main theme. The theme is that Figaro–a common barber–is clearly more clever than any of them, and idea that was revolutionary for Rossini’s day.

When you think about all the people in positions of power–US generals involved in sex scandals, corporate executives like those in Enron whose greed brought the company down, politicians who line their pockets while shafting the polity–have become our new nobility, maybe it’s time once again for some revolutionary action.

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