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Beethoven: Beyond Ego

Note: In early 1995, I was invited to present a talk to members of one of the Madison Symphony Orchestra's support groups. It was shortly before the last concert of the season, on which the MSO's then-new music director, John DeMain, had programmed the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. I wanted to stimulate enthusiasm for the upcoming performance, but I did not want to generate any acoustic example of the symphony itself, lest it bias my audience toward some other sound-image. So I decided to bring along a few recorded examples of late Beethoven, relating those to the Ninth. Below is a transcript of the talk.

Good morning.

Before we begin, I'd like to thank Annetta Rosser for inviting me to talk to you in this lovely place today. Though there are topics on which I'm at least not a rank beginner, I think I will serve your interests best by not trying to speak as an expert. Instead, we can share the common ground of amateur, in the root sense of that word: one who loves music. As I understood Annetta's charge, I'm to offer you today some thoughts and insights into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

An hour is far too long a time to waste listening to me, so I've decided to give about half the time to listening to Beethoven, hoping that this will both inform and delight you. After all, it's hard to imagine going wrong with such extraordinary music as this great master has left us. Furthermore, I am not really a public speaker, so I feel a bit out of my natural element and ask for your forebearance that I have had to prepare remarks in advance and so must belabor you with the (I hope not too tiresome) process of reading them.

During my ten and a half years as the host of a popular classical music radio program on WORT-FM, I interspersed brief remarks -- stress on brief -- spoken between the recordings I featured, for I've always been a big believer in saying little and listening much, the more so when the topic is music. So I tried to limit announcements to saying, in my best FM radio voice, "this is such-and-such piece by so-and-so composer, scored for this instrumentation, performed by this-or-that renowned soloist or group," then let the music do the real speaking.

Few great works speak in such exalted and remarkable language as the Beethoven Ninth, as we will hear with our own ears when John DeMain mounts the podium Saturday evening and again Sunday afternoon to conduct the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in his first performance of this noble and titanic monument to art and humanity.

By the way, lest I forget to mention it, it is very significant in the history of the venerable MSO that there will be two performances, and I strongly urge you if at all possible to be present for both of them. Contrary to what we so often think, no two recorded performances, that is, two hearings of a single particular recording, are the really same, for hearing great music changes us as few things in life do, so that on the next hearing what takes place truly is different, as it exists only inside the now changed sensibilities we ourselves bring to it. So much the more so, dozens of times more so indeed, when it is two live performances, for all of the musicians and the conductor and all of the listeners are also changed by the very act of making and hearing music.

But as I was saying, in my radio days, I tried hard to stay out of the way, not to editorialize, not to intrude my ego into the process of presenting thousands of incomparable masterworks. During all those many hours of broadcasting -- it was probably something like 1,500 hours all told -- I seldom gave serious consideration to what I was going to say before or after the music. I just said something, whatever came into my head, completely unrehearsed and off the cuff.

But as many of you know, I have also for a long time been the principal writer on classical music topics for Madison's weekly newspaper Isthmus, and when it comes to writing about music and performances of music, I have accumulated over the years a certain experience and quite a lot of practice. Indeed I constantly tease my wonderful editor, Dean Robbins, that there's no good reason why he shouldn't give over just about all his review and feature space in each issue to me, because good heavens, there is so much to tell. But for some curious reason the paper's readers keep wanting to see those dance, theater, gallery, and movie articles too, and your scribe gets only about 750 words to say his piece each time.

No such limitations today! Today I have what every critic craves more than anything: ample space! And perhaps even better, a captive audience!

You probably don't realize this, but critics have a hard life. In the first place, nobody likes you, because of course nobody agrees with you. Your friends least of all, because they expect you to overlook things that any real friend should overlook. So friendships with musicians often go right out! But that comes with the turf. It's true, I think, that the role of critic is usually misunderstood. I'm not there to tell readers what they should think. So disagreeing is beside the point. Rather, I'm there to give one view of the musical event, and to that view I try to bring what I have in the way of training, experience, skill, and common sense.

Perhaps it is easy to overlook why I do it at all. The answer is simple. It is passion, plainly and simply loving the music beyond all restraint. So my main purpose, and indeed my main reward, is the chance to share my passions, as I'm doing here today, with you.

Another purpose, and this brings us to the main body of the effort today, is to talk a little about how music is made, what it consists of, and so forth, and to suggest, with some examples, why the great symphony that is our topic is such a good instance of art that transcends all notions of ego and truly does reach the exalted plane of the universal in the human spirit.

The reason I think this is so important is that we live in an age when ego intrudes into -- and in my opinion, badly distorts -- just about everything. Please forgive me, for I'm about to do a little scolding, not of this group, but of our society in general. When I was a boy -- we're talking half a century ago -- people did not talk during a concert. Even young children were perfectly still and perfectly silent. Today it's like sitting around over beer and pretzels while watching TV, in terms of how often your neighbor thinks what he or she has to say is so important that it can't possibly wait until those noisy people up on the stage are done with their business.

Then there's the issue of coughing. Not quite 40 years ago, I was a struggling student at the UW, and I found a wonderful way to get into concerts free: I convinced Prof. Fan Taylor, who was then the director of the Union Theater, that I was the perfect page turner for any concert that required one. Perfect was certainly stretching it, but she gave me the job -- bless her still -- and I did it for a number of years. In November of 1957, my great and good friend the pianist George Reeves wrote me to say that he had been signed by no less a diva than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to be her pianist for her American tour that year, and by the way, they were booked in Madison. I lost no time telling him I would be turning his pages and then nearly fainted from excitement that I would be in the presence of Herself, who at the time I thought could do no wrong.

November, mind you -- cold season, and colds there were. After a particularly noisy bit of hacking and carrying on out there in the auditorium during one song, Miss Schwarzkopf stepped forward and spoke to the audience. I was as stunned by this as anyone, I'm sure. What she said was: "You have a wonderful acoustic in this hall, it's a pleasure to sing in it. Unfortunately, it also enables me to hear you!" I'm here to tell you that backstage, her language was a bit saltier, but I'll spare you the details.

Why do I go on about these things? Because of ego. Because of what it takes to make music. Because of the importance of respect for the music and the people who make it. Music is very special, even among the specialness of other arts, in that it exists only from one tiny moment to the next tiny moment, then is gone -- utterly and completely gone -- forever. It exists not in ego, but in time, in fact is the most elaborate and sophisticated way of structuring time ever devised. It is the only thing that truly makes time something we can sense. Another feature of it is that wonderful paradox, that by engaging us fully as separate, sovereign individuals -- one would think that the quintessence of ego -- it transcends and eliminates ego.

Yet to make music requires ego, amazing amounts of it. Beethoven apparently had plenty. Can you imagine yourself saying, as he is supposed to have said to an errant orchestra musician, "Here I am talking to my God, and you expect me to be concerned with your miserable violin?!"?

But imagine if you will what it must take to write music. It is a creative task only just a little smaller than creating the Universe. The 9th Symphony is about an hour and a quarter long, a little more or a little less, depending on tempos, breaks between movements, and so forth. Comprising thousands upon thousands of notes, and by some miracle far beyond my comprehension, exactly the right notes -- albeit by some trial and error, since unlike Mozart, who got it right on the first try, Beethoven's manuscript hand was messy and his early drafts are full of cross-hatchings and blots and scratchings out -- and perhaps with no little help from the Great Spirit, there came to be this immense work, by far the longest symphony -- this was 1823 -- yet written. Perhaps more remarkable still, this vast sound was occurring in his mind, for his ears had by this time been mute for many years. Yet maybe it was not ego, for such a thing as this must surely signal some connection to the divine, if not to the entire cosmos of possibility, something far beyond the limitations of a mere mortal, human creature.

And think too of what it takes to perform music. Many of you probably had music lessons, and there are plenty of very accomplished musicians in our midst. I had a terrible nightmare once, about standing around on the wings of a stage in white tie and tails, waiting for something, with a full house out front, a large chorus and orchestra on stage, and five minutes to eight, when all of a sudden I realize that it's to be a performance of the Mozart Requiem, and I am to conduct it, and there have been no rehearsals, and I have no score. Talk about nerve! Thank god I woke up, for otherwise I would surely have died. But I have performed, perhaps about 100 concerts in all, as a soloist, a chamber musician, or an accompanist, on the piano or, for the past 22 years, on the harpsichord. I'm glad to say that there was quite a lot of rehearsal and I always had my score, thankyouverymuch.

It's odd, but when you hear great artists play music that you yourself know very well and have played many times, the miracle of their accomplishment is not smaller but quite a bit bigger. Because the player knows it's not possible, while the nonplayer just thinks it sounds impossible.

And this brings us to our first musical example. By the way, though we will talk about the 9th, we will not hear any of it today. Our purpose is to open our ears and our minds to what we will hear at the Civic Center Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and for that we will use other music by Beethoven written in his late period, hoping to cast some light on compositional and performance values. And I think it's important to have the freshest possible ears, the most open possible mind, for what will happen this weekend.

Much has been made, over the years, about Beethoven's constantly extending prevailing forms, pushing everything to and often well beyond any previous notion of structural limit. This is certainly true of the 9th Symphony, which is not only long, but also revolutionary as to form.

The classical symphony ordinarily had its main intellectual components in the first movement, generally embraced within a structure known as the sonata form. This term is often confused with the older sense of the word sonata, meaning an instrumental work, usually for solo or duo instrumentation, consisting of several movements. For instance, there are 32 sonatas for solo piano by Beethoven, 10 for violin and piano, five for cello and piano, and so on. But in the formal sense, the term refers to a three-part structure called sonata or sometimes sonata-allegro form. To simplfy this a lot, there is an exposition (the presentation of the thematic or motivic material), a development section (in which the materials are further elaborated, sometimes incorporating additional new material and usually involving considerable harmonic development), and a recapitulation (revisiting of the material from the exposition, similar enough to be recognizable, but clearly affected by what has happened during the development section). And the first movement of the Ninth is such a form, though more elaborate.

It's in the larger form, that of the whole symphony, that Beethoven is really revolutionary. In the more classical symphonies, Haydn and Mozart, for example, movements after the first usually consisted of a slow, lyrical movement in song form, plus one or two more quick movements, the last of which was often fairly light in character, a dashing presto or a rondo of some kind. Well, the Ninth follows its opening movement with a scherzo-like vivace second, followed by a long, incredibly lyrical adagio molto e cantabile, and then comes not something light, but something that makes light, monumental in scale and transcendant in concept, the Ode to Joy.

But before we get to the Ode to Joy, perhaps we should hear something else totally revolutionary. In the realm of piano music, nothing else remotely like it has been written, even to this day. Though it is a slow movement, it is, like the great choral movement of the Ninth, the close of a seminally important work. Furthermore, it is the close of a cycle of works that the pianist Claudio Arrau (rest in peace) referred to, in spoken notes to his complete recording of the entire cycle, as the greatest monument in all of Western Civilization -- he thought eclipsing even Michelangelo -- the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven, taken as an entire corpus.

Here then is the second, that is, the last, movement of the last piano sonata, Op. 111. It is marked Arietta, molto semplice e cantabile. Think about this: molto semplice -- very simple. Such is Beethoven's mind that this piece, certainly more complex than anything written for the instrument before and maybe after, is so outwardly simple -- the arietta can be heard throughout the variations, yet what must be done by the player to sound this for us is like nothing ever asked of a player nor of the instrument before.

For this reason I've chosen a recording that uses an instrument of Beethoven's own day, a piano quite unlike our modern instruments. What I call your attention to especially is that in pursuit of his expressive objective in music, the merely mortal never holds Beethoven back. At every opportunity for development of the motivic material, and at every opportunity for development of the means of expressing it through the particular instrument, Beethoven is, as test pilots like to say, pushing the envelope. This music is not especially fast, most of it is not loud, but all of the time it is moving forward into uncharted territory. I'm sure I need not tell you, it is fiercely difficult to play. This is the musical definition of extreme. We will see it again in the Ninth symphony.

[Op. 111, second movement, the Dutch pianist Paul Komen, piano Graf, 1830]

O friends, not these sounds
Rather let us turn to sounds more pleasant
and more joyful

With these words, following an instrumental introduction that starts with a chord containing all the notes of the scale sounded simultaneously -- the most extreme sound imaginable, total discord, and hence "not these sounds" -- begins the dramatic, indeed operatic, choral section of the final movement of Beethoven's symphonic testament, the Ode to Joy. In almost every sense one can imagine, this music is straining at the limits. Expressively, it is something of a cross between a symphonic movement, an opera, and a cantata. Although it is ardently spiritual, it is imbued with a distinctly earthly quality, in that it appeals directly to us as humans, as fragile, errant creatures, weighed down by all the concerns of our egos, as it seeks to bring us to sounds more pleasant and joyful.

Much of Beethoven's massive achievement remains unique down to our own day. In the arena of string quartet music, though there are great works in that format by the incomparable Mozart and many other fine composers, there is something so special about Beethoven that for many people, musicians especially, his sixteen quartets in essence define the form itself.

Music historians have traditionally divided the work of Beethoven into three periods, somewhat unimaginatively called Early, Middle, and Late. We might think of the early period as the truly classical Beethoven, full of energy, but alloyed already by considerable rebellion, putting his idiosyncratic stamp on the formal structures inherited primarily from Haydn and Mozart. As a performing pianist he was unequalled in all of Europe for brilliance, and in what can only be called a fairly massive display of ego, he delighted in showing up his comtemporaries, to use a phrase I learned from a very snobbish pianist friend, as "gifted amateurs." Middle Beethoven is the music of great brilliance, the fiendishly difficult Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the third cello sonata, the middle violin sonatas, and so forth.

But already in the middle period, his string quartet music was heading off in a new direction, experimenting with form, with ways of sounding the four instruments individually and in combination that no one had ever attempted before. Then in a creative outburst that forever changed the course of chamber music, there appeared the five late quartets, the last of which indeed marks the end of the whole miracle of Beethoven the composer, for it is the last of all his compositions, the String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. In addition to all its musical values, it poses a philosophical question, for the composer wrote in the score above the first three chords of the slow introduction to the 16th quartet's final movement, which rise questioningly: Muss es sein? -- Must it be? Here we are, four years after the Ninth Symphony, at the very end of his life, on the cusp of resignation. As the movement reaches its main substance, marked allegro, the main motif is again three notes, rising then falling, and there we find the affirmative answer to the question posed both verbally and musically, Es muss sein! -- It must be! Following resignation comes acceptance: it must be.

Here, as in the last piano sonata and in the last symphony, we find the conclusion breaking all previous expressive limits for the particular form. As we listen to this movement (it is short), perhaps we should focus on how the master uses the full resources of the quartet -- there is nothing extra in this medium -- to suggest a scope reaching beyond all known limits and achieving something universal for all human culture. It is no small miracle.

[Quartet, Op. 135, last movt., Alban Berg Quartet]

Joyful music indeed, is it not?

At the dramatically yearning and expansive climax of the Ode to Joy, the full chorus and orchestra together resound these amazing and moving words:

Receive this embrace, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!

With this startlingly passionate and humanly secular image of love, Beethoven moves us to the universal in the human experience and bids us to become one with the One and All, to make common cause not only within ourselves, but among ourselves and with the entire universe. As John DeMain told me in an interview two Sundays ago when I asked what aspect of the Ode to Joy spoke most poignantly to him: "Joy is love," he said, "expressed in the brotherhood of man, so difficult to obtain, underscoring the importance of striving for a Utopian ideal. Look how present it is for us today. Oklahoma. Bosnia. Racism. We still seem far from this ideal. This music serves as reminder against the dark forces within us. We need its healing and restorative powers."

Indeed we do. On Saturday and Sunday, we shall have it. Thank you for your kind attention.

Lecture-demonstration transcript, May, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson

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