Monday, March 14, 2011

3/14 Listening to Beethoven

Today's post is dedicated to the people of Japan in their time of hardship. 
(Above: Plum Garden in Japan)
How does one listen to Beethoven?  Or any piece of music for that matter? Lately I've been curious as to how most people experience music.  For pop or dance music, the beat is probably the most important thing, especially if it's in a dance club.  I don't usually ruminate over the deeper meanings of the lyrics, or marvel at the unusual cadences in these cases...  When listening to jazz, I tend to concentrate on the interaction of the soloists with the ensemble.  Jazz is very much a conversation in progress, and the unique thing about it is that no one really knows how it will turn out, or where it will go, since it is based on un-premeditated improvisation (actually if you listen to enough jazz you can eventually hear 'trends', but the details remain largely spontaneous).

But Beethoven's music is very different from rock or jazz and in the beginning it was almost like learning a new language for me.  There are no drums, electric guitars or saxophones, generally - so I had to retrain my ears to distinguish strings, brass and woodwinds.  In B.'s music, a good deal of patience is required, since most of his greatest works take up a solid 10 minutes or more.  Not only that, but the listener may be expected to hear a theme in the first minute - and then recall it 9 minutes later when it returns in a variation.  In fact, in the 5th Symphony a motif from the 3rd movement comes back in the 4th.  In the 9th Symphony the open 5ths motif from the 1st movement returns about 30 minutes later in the 4th movement.  B. expects alot from the listener, and unless one listens extremely carefully with score in hand, the first listen can never reveal more than a fraction of what B. is telling us.  I recall the first time I listened to his 32 piano sonatas - actually I DON'T recall - it's kind of a blur.  But now, a year later and a few dozen traversals later, each movement is like an old friend...

The thing that strikes me the most about classical music in general (and Beethoven's music in particular) is that each piece of music tells a story.  Not a story in that the harmonies are meant to symbolize horses and battles, but a journey through "abstract" realms of melodic and harmonic adventure.  Knowing sonata form (as well as minuet,variation and rondo form) helps reveal what kind of story it's going to be, and more or less what we can expect.  But then when B. deviates from this "boilerplate" plot - that's when it gets exciting!  It's kind of like riding a roller-coaster and when we hit a really bizarre modulation or cadence, it's as if 2 wheels of the cart are in the air and we're not sure how we're going to land.  Sometimes we'll find ourselves in a climax - the recap has come and gone, the orchestra has played a tutti on the main theme and we've hit a perfect cadence - but then an unexpected coda with a new theme appears. That's like in a James Bond film when the main bad guy is dead, but then Lotte Lenya suddenly reappears to kick 007 to death ("From Russia with Love").

So, purely from a "structural form" standpoint, there's alot to take in.  Then when one gets into motivic development, it's amazing how even in his 1st symphony, the very 1st theme is stated, then atomized into 4 parts, then each of these 4 parts is used to create new motifs, used in variation form, modulated and's makes me think of cellular mitosis or something.  A forest is made up of trees, and a tree is made up of leaves, and a leaf is made up of cells - Beethoven's symphonies can be viewed in much the same way.  Glenn Gould once gave a whole evening talk on just the first 4 bars of Opus 109.

Anyways, the main point of this ramble is just to talk about the great stuff lying underneath the first dozen or so listens of a Beethoven piece.  His music is truly a source of unlimited wealth....

Please consider donating to Japan's Relief Fund sponsored by Save the Children.


  1. I loved these comments, Ed, and your brilliant exposition of same. Very heartfelt, but erudite at the same time. Well done.

    Sue L

  2. "...each movement is like an old friend..."

    Love this, Ed. My feelings exactly! Thanks for this post---I agree completely with Sue L.

  3. very good post about listening to bethoven. .
    thanks for sharing

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