Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beethoven's String Quartets, Part 1

I've heard it is bad form to start a presentation (so, by extension, a blog entry) with a caveat, but in this case it is part of the info, so I'm just going to go for it. When it comes to Beethoven's music, some musicologists divide his works into three periods. These are named, simply enough, Early, Middle, and Late periods.

I've seen this designation only in reference to his string quartets, but there are doubtless other places where it is used. The caveat, here, is that the dividing lines between these periods have works crossing over from one to the other. The periods have to do with Beethoven's growth and development, which seems to align with the musical styles of the various periods' works.

The difference between the Early and Middle compositional styles is quite stark and unmistakable.

The early quartets consist of one opus, Op. 18, but it contains six quartets. Only this, and his next set, the Razumovsky Quartets of Op. 59, contain multiple works published under one number. The remaining works, which are quite complex, are single works under a single opus number.

First, let me address the Early work, Op. 18, Nos. 1-6. The recording I have is of the Tokyo String Quartet. The quartets, on the surface, sound much like works of Mozart or Haydn, though I have seen references to how these quartets "stretch" the boundaries of Classical form. They are quite pleasant in much the same way as those of Classical composers, with emotional restraint and sticking to recognized forms.

The Op. 59 quartets were commissioned by a Count Razumovsky, who was the Russian ambassador to Austria and a patron of Beethoven. These three quartets sound like they come from a different composer in a different era. It is said that when the Count's standing quartet first played them, they thought Beethoven was playing a joke. These quartets completely abandon the Classical style, with an expression of emotion that sounds pre-Romantic. For example, the first movement of the first quartet have a sense of motion to them, motion that serves as a dialog amongst the strings. There was probably nothing that sounded like them anywhere up to that time, and must have been considered avante-garde, if not somewhat confusing.

The difference between these two sets of quartets is striking, though not shocking to modern ears two hundred years later. Between the two sets, I prefer the Op. 59, though I admit fondness for both.

There are two more quartets that are considered "middle" quartets, followed by a handful of "late" quartets, which I will cover next.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beethoven's Symphony 9 in D Minor (Choral) Op. 125

I've written how Beethoven brought to western music the idea that musical compositions should be vehicles of self-expression. Musical forms are used when they serve that purpose, or altered when they did not.

Called the most important and significant musical work of the 19th century, Beethoven completed his ninth symphony more than a decade after his popular eighth symphony. By this time, he was completely deaf in one ear, and was clinically deaf. But the genesis of this work went back all the way to the late 18th century, when he toyed with the idea of setting the poem An die Freude ("Ode to Joy"). The poem shows up from time to time in his journals. These dates come from Robert Greenberg, who tells us that it was the 1803 version of the poem that is finally used.

But, to start off, the first three movements portray the conflict between the tragic key of D minor, and the heroic theme of B-flat major. D major will also play a role as well. Beethoven will use themes from earlier movements as part of the the development section of later movements. This is especially true for the fourth movement.

While it is the fourth movement is the most famous, an appreciation of the earlier movements enhance enjoyment of the last. The first movement is a very large piece of music. It begins with the playing of two notes that could be the notes to either a major or minor chord, hence there's an ambiguity asto what key is being played. Soon, however, the key conflicts begin between major and minor keys. During this movement, a hint of the Ode to Joy will be played.

The second movement begins as the first one ends, in D minor. In this scherzo, the time signature will change in the trio section.

The third movement has some of the most beautiful, lyrical music in all of Beethoven's symphonies. It just gets shadowed by the fourth movement.

The fourth movement has a bit of drama. A loud, crashing dissonance is followed by a "hero" who comes in on the low strings. A series of themes from earlier movements follow, interspersed by rejection of the "hero". It isn't until the orchestra suggests the Ode to Joy (in German, Freude) that the hero finds a desirable theme. But the hero gets cut off by the repeat of the opening crash. Once played, there's a brief pause until a baritone barks out "Freude!, and begins to sing part of the poem. The theme gets a lot of play, as Beethoven sets nine of the eighteen stanzas of the ode. There is a chorus, which from here on out sings along with the orchestra.

Having a chorus in a symphony was new to western music, and forever cemented the principle that music should be self-expressive. If a chorus is needed to make a musical statement, then one is included. (Later composers, such as Gustav Mahler, would also use a chorus).

Listening to this work over the last week, I finally found myself understanding just what Beethoven was trying to put to music. What started out as a back-and-forth winds and low strings in the last movement became an expression of emotion that I can't quite name. Perhaps one part is the struggle Beethoven suffered having lost his hearing, while having his life-role being a composer. But a complex piece like this lends itself to discovery with each playing.

At the end of the premier of the symphony, the audience jumped to its feet and roared its approval. As Beethoven had been sitting in a part of the theater with his back to the audience, he had no idea of the ovation for his work. Someone had to turn him around so he could see the crowd.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beethoven in "Peanuts"

Since we are on a Beethoven theme, I thought this article in the New York Times would be appropriate.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — In a “Peanuts” strip from the mid-1950s, Charlie Brown walks through the first panel and finds Schroeder sitting in front of an adult-size hi-fi, his ear to the speaker. “Shh,” Schroeder says, “I’m listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.” Charlie Brown inspects Schroeder’s outfit. “In an overcoat?” he asks. Schroeder leans even closer to the speaker and responds, “The first movement was so beautiful it gave me the chills!”

In the world of “Peanuts,” of course, Schroeder was the Beethoven-obsessed music nerd who lost patience when Lucy interrupted his practice and who called time-outs as a baseball catcher to share composer trivia with the pitcher. Yet musicologists and art curators have learned that there was much more than a punch line to Charles Schulz’s invocation of Beethoven’s music.

“If you don’t read music and you can’t identify the music in the strips, then you lose out on some of the meaning,” said William Meredith, the director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, who has studied hundreds of Beethoven-themed “Peanuts” strips.

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

“The music is a character in the strip as much as the people are, because the music sets the tone,” Mr. Meredith said. To understand what gave Schroeder chills, he said, you have to listen to the musical passage. “When you actually hear the symphony, the whole thing feels completely different.”

That linkage is the central theme of “Schulz’s Beethoven: Schroeder’s Muse,” an exhibition at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center here, which was jointly organized with the Beethoven center. (It continues through Jan. 26 at the museum and will reopen on May 1 at the center in San Jose.)

Mr. Meredith spent more than a year identifying the compositions, gathering recordings and reinterpreting the strips; Jane O’Cain, the museum’s curator, researched Schulz’s artistic process and music-listening habits.

In the resulting show visitors can gaze upon the Beethoven strips, then tap a number into their audio guide and hear the music Schroeder is playing.

In a strip from 1953 Schroeder embarks on an intensive workout. He does push-ups, jumps rope, lifts weights, touches his toes, does sit-ups (“Puff, Puff”), boxes, runs (“Pant, Pant”) and finally eats (“Chomp! Chomp!”). In the last two panels he walks to his piano with determination and begins playing furiously, sweat springing from his brow.

The eighth notes above Schroeder’s head are from the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata (Op. 106), a piece so long, artistically complex and technically difficult that it is referred to as the “Giant” Sonata. When Beethoven delivered it to the publisher in 1819, he is believed to have said, “Now you will have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years from now.”

According to the exhibition notes, classical music was as much a priority for Mr. Schulz as drawing was when he attended art school in the 1940s. He once said of his classmates, “We all collected classical albums, which we frequently shared on evenings when we got together to listen to music and challenge each other in wild games of hearts.”

Sue Broadwell, who worked as Schulz’s secretary from 1963 to 1967, said he played classical and other records — “he had a weakness for country western,” she said — in his studio while he worked. “He encouraged me to take a music appreciation course, which I did,” she said. “Every once in a while, as I was learning different pieces, he’d whistle some for me and I had to guess them.”

Mr. Schulz also regularly attended classical music concerts here with his family.

“He could sit almost perfectly still the whole time, without squirming, without crossing his legs,” said Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, who helped found the museum and serves as president of its board.

During concerts, she said, “he would pull a notebook out of his breast pocket and write something down,” adding: “Later in the car, he would say, ‘How would it be if Marcie and Peppermint Patty were at a concert, and ...’ He was always thinking about his characters.”

Although Schulz greatly admired Beethoven, his favorite composer was actually Brahms. He simply found that the name Beethoven — the way it sounded and the way it looked on the page — was funnier, the exhibition notes remark.

Accuracy and authenticity are hallmarks of the strips, whether they deal with music, sports or medical conditions, Ms. O’Cain, the museum’s curator, said. “With figure skating, he would carefully study books to make sure the jumps or spins that he had characters portraying, that they were correct,” she said. He would add subtle twists or inside jokes for readers familiar with skating or surfing or shorthand.

Mr. Schulz also mined Beethoven’s life for material. He had numerous books in which he underlined details about Beethoven’s love life, clothing, even his favorite recipe (macaroni with cheese).

“I have read several biographies of Beethoven — being strangely fascinated by the lives of composers, much more so than the lives of painters,” he said in 1975. As a result, Schulz fans like to point out, the strips are as educational as they are entertaining.

“What you thought was a funny tagline was an absolutely true story out of Beethoven’s life,” said Karen Johnson, the Schulz museum’s director.

Beethoven’s birthday was a perennial “Peanuts” event. Schroeder appeared in “Peanuts” for 49 years, and the composer’s birthday was acknowledged in 27 of them. Sometime in the 1960s Mr. Schulz hosted a real-life birthday party for Beethoven in his home in Northern California, according to Ms. O’Cain’s curatorial research. He drew Beethoven sweatshirts for each of the guests, two of which have been tracked down. One with the composer’s portrait is in the show.

The other, owned by Lee Mendelson, the producer of the Peanuts animated specials, features a full-body drawing of Beethoven — in a Schroeder sweatshirt.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8

While Beethoven's life was in an emotionally downward spiral, 1813-1814 saw him see his greatest popularity, due to some patriotic music.

The piece is entitled Wellington's Victory. In the work, you can hear the British troops marching to a drum cadence and patriotic music. Then, the French army follows suit. What follows is a lot of booming and banging which is supposed to represent the cannon and gunfire.

What made this such a hip piece was that Wellington beat the French in Spanish Victoria, and the French, under Napoleon, had been a bit of a bother to the Austrians. Everybody who was anybody played in the orchestra and percussion, and apparently a great time was had by all.

That same evening saw the premiere of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. Perhaps because the seventh is such a movin'-and-groovin' work, it came to be associated with Wellington's Victory.

Robert Greenberg, who has been my guide through Beethoven's symphonies, posits that this is a dance symphony, and after dozens of time listening to it, I found myself tapping my foot every time. There is, however, a slower movement, movement two. This movement became so popular that it was occasionally inserted into his other symphonies in performance.

Symphony No. 8 has its own bit of fun. It seems that a certain Johann Nepomuk Malzel (who was a sort of co-writer of Wellington's Victory) invented the pendulum powered metronome and presented Beethoven with one. Though I've played a few instruments in my past, I've never used a metronome. However, Greenberg insists it is a kind of torture vehicle. In any event, the second movement of the eighth symphony is a play on this device, where we hear the device being wound up, ticking, and then coming to a stop; wound again, and, hmm, it seems to be broken. In the end we hear the poor device destroyed, tossed, pounce upon, folded, spindled, and mutilated.

The Eighth also includes a minuet and trio, something he hasn't really composed since his first symphony. This occurs as the third movement.

I've heard from a number of music lovers that Beethoven's Eighth is their particular favorite, and it is a great work. For Beethoven, he didn't write another symphony for a very long time. That work, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, would turn out to be a doozy, which Greenberg states is the most important work since Monteverdi's Orfeo, of the entire 19th century, and with nothing being as altering of the art form as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1912. It's a long work, and that's what I'll be working on next.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60

As Beethoven was putting the final touches to his Symphony No. 5 at the country estate of a patron, he received a commission to compose a symphony "in the style of Symphony No. 2." He considered just dedicating his fifth to his new patron, but he had already shown much of it to his host. So, he decided to halt his work on the fifth and start a new work for Count Oppersdorff. Essentially, the fourth and fifth symphonies were composed concurrently, with the bulk of the fifth completed before work on the fourth began.

Robert Greenberg dedicates a full four lectures to this symphony, claiming it does not get the performance or air play that it deserves. After spending a few weeks with the work, as well as his lectures, I have to agree.

The symphony starts with a quiet, mysterious introduction that gives no hint to what is about to follow. Theme one then comes out like a shot, starting with a "masculine" melody followed by a less enthusiastic, "feminine" scale, a combination often heard in the classical works of Mozart and Haydn. This is followed by a "theme group" which is essentially two additional themes, the second of which I find the most pleasing. There are also measures featuring clarinet and bassoon. Greenberg finds the bassoon part to be a bit humorous, but he seems to feel that way about the bassoon in general.

The trio in the third movement evokes the sounds of a rustic, village band, much like the one heard in his sixth symphony.

There are other Classical period-style passages to the symphony, however Beethoven twists and bends them to fit the self-expression mantra he began in his third symphony. Other Romantic era composers, such as Brahms, will follow in Beethoven's tracks, using Classical forms and techniques to the extent they serve the purpose of the composer's intent.

It's a great symphony, and Greenberg points out that, had anyone else written it, it would be considered one of that composer's masterworks. But it gets overshadowed by the fifth, sixth, and ninth symphonies to a great extent, as well as to a minor extent of the post-third symphony era. There's a lot in the symphony, which is why I've spent so much time with it before blogging.

Speaking of which, if I keep going at the rate I'm going I'll never get through the collection. I hope to speed things up in the future. In the meantime, search out a copy of Beethoven's Fourth; it is a fun work. I'm sure Count Oppersdorff was pleased.