Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Beethoven, My Brother

"Beethoven is not my friend . . . and I don’t always like him. He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with. That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me. He’s my brother, and so I will always love him."

Don't miss this thrilling post from the music blog The Big City.


Betty Duffy said...

Absolutely love this article. Fits so well with what we've been talking about.

Betty Duffy said...

"Classical music is different in that it doesn’t tell us very much at all, it instead appeals to totally abstract ideas of time and form. It asks questions rather than offers answers, and so does not appeal to all, but its appeal is enduring since it’s always an intriguing, often beautiful mystery to solve. We never actually find the solution, but there is marvelous pleasure in the process."

"In the Violin Concerto, we hear what he thinks about sonata-allegro form, and how he likes to solve the puzzle of finding his way home after a long journey, and this is appealing and satisfying to those who find spirit and beauty in those questions "

Interesting that this blogger is very matter of fact about the lack of appeal that classical music has for the masses. I still want to say that it would appeal to MORE people if we could escape from pop music and technical distractions. But I like to create problems that I can't solve.

Pentimento said...

That is a big problem, Betty. But I think the decline of classical music, as is being discussed in your combox right now, has a lot to do with the rise of technology -- going all the way back to the television, or maybe even the telephone -- that has the end result of isolating us from one another.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Loss of interest in classical music is not all one thing to begin with, but it has hardly anything at all to do with technology, which has brought more music to more people. Classical music, even into the early recording era, was elided with popular music - the dance bands played pop songs, jazz, dance styles and band arrangements of classical music, including Wagner. The cylinder record preserves this,

Listening had a lot to do with the decline in personal music-making, however, but that's different than personal isolation. Instead of learning piano and buying classical arrangements, people started listening to records. On the other hand, this had some effect in democratizing the concert hall.

I want to be clear, too, I love pop music. I love all kinds of good music. But pop and classical have different appeals. Classical music is not for people who are uncomfortable with anything other than the answers, which is usually going to be a plurality. But people don't need to escape from pop music, and escaping technical distractions is within each person's power. Be an active agent, or don't, but don't blame something else for one's own lack of agency.

Pentimento said...

Well, let me clarify. In my opinion, the technology of recording did not just coincide with the decline of personal music-making; there was a causal relationship there. And recording and sound amplification technology also drew a line between professionals and amateurs. The advent of the home audio theater not only created a democratization of listening. I think it also inspired an inferiority complex in listeners, who began to think it more prudent to leave music-making up to "professionals."

On a related note, a lot of the music I do in performance was actually written for amateurs in the nineteenth century. Being an amateur back then did not imply any low level of skill. It simply referred to someone -- usually a young lady of breeding -- who did not need to sing to make a living.

Maclin said...

I wanted to comment on this last week but was too busy: I think your description of the connection between recording technology and the decline of personal music-making is surely true. There's an interesting slight swing in the other direction now, with recording technology having become so cheap that anyone willing to add a few hundred dollars worth of gear to a laptop computer can produce a listenable recording. But of course that's not the same as the family singing madrigals together.

On the Beethoven, My Brother post: I wish I could understand classical music on the level of the bit Betty quotes in the 2nd comment above. But I'm not knowledgeable and experienced enough to get these formal things, and at this point in my life most likely never will be. Still, I love it, even though I know I'm missing a lot. It seems likely that the majority of classical listeners who are not trained musicians are in my situation. So I think there's something other than "abstract ideas of time and form" in classical music that will always keep people returning to it. For most of us, those things undoubtedly have their effect, but we aren't conscious of them.

Pentimento said...

Well, not all classical music is abstract. For instance, Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the "Pastorale," has an explicit program that Beethoven specified for each movement, so the music is actually a concrete narrative telling the story of some peasants going on a picnic in the country. There was a conflict among cognoscenti in the nineteenth century about whether "program music," like the 6th Symphony, or abstract music was superior. I think that in the end, we all are going to associate classical music (and other genres too) with all kinds of things -- emotions, places, etc. There probably is no such thing as purely abstract music.

Maclin Horton said...

Yeah, I wasn't talking about the music itself--its abstractness or lack of--so much as the approach to it. The formal structures are there and important, but one pretty much has to be a well-trained musician to be able to learn, for instance, what Beethoven thinks of sonata-allegro form by listening to the violin concerto. But the music still has a lot to give to those of us who aren't able to discern those things. And I daresay they have some effect on us even though we aren't consciously aware of them. I'm just saying that technical expertise in handling the materials is not the only reason the music continues to live. That's probably not what The Big City meant to be saying, but it sounded that way in a couple of places.

As a sometime poet, I probably notice formal things in poetry that the average reader wouldn't (well, if the average reader read poetry anymore). For that reader, what keeps the work alive is what it says and the grace with which it says it, and that's true for most of us with music, too, though what it "says" is not in words.

This is a discussion I've had off and on over the years with people who champion, say, twelve-tone music on technical grounds. To which I always say, fine, you're a highly trained musician, and you can hear and understand what's going on technically, and I accept what you say about its historical importance. But I can't hear that stuff, and the only thing it says to me is "spooky" (or something along those lines). Not that I dislike all music which is abstract in the sense of being seemingly formless to the less discerning ear. "Pierrot Lunaire," for instance, was one of the first classical pieces that really knocked me out. But the whole idea there was to create a weird atmosphere, and it works. And of course it's not really abstract, because of the texts. I don't suppose I'd find it very interesting without them.

Pentimento said...

I agree, Mac, the music has a lot to give everybody. Especially Beethoven, who, regardless of whether you can discern what he thinks of sonata-allegro form (or whether you care), is everyone's brother, one of the great humane figures of the modern age, and someone in whose music I dare say we can all hear a bit of our own unanswerable longings.

About twelve-tone music: historically of course it's very important, but I wouldn't want to listen to an entire program of it, though I have in the past. I think one approach that helps with understanding unfamiliar music is to take it in the socio-historical context and explore how it's an expression of its time and place. When I think of the Second Viennese School in that light -- as the logical outcome of the crisis in thought manifested in thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud at the end of the nineteenth century -- it becomes exciting, even humane.

Very cool that you like "Pierrot." I have a close friend for whom it's been the piece that has opened many doors; she's sung it all over the world, not only because she totally rocks, but also because so few other singers can do it convincingly or even learn it.

Dave said...

Only have time to skim a bit on your terrific blog Pentimento and wanted to make a quick note.

Recorded music not only has discouraged personal music making but also makes it popular for most people to discourage everyone else from merely singing. When someone sings anything however quietly there's almost always a comically challenged person nearby to say something like "Keep your day job."

The subtleties of fine musicianship mostly elude me, but humble singing by ordinary people is very moving to me. I like to sing myself.

Pentimento said...

I'm with you, Dave.

Julygirl said...

Basically, one needs to explore what people use music for.......to relax after a hectic day, to excite, to inspire, to explore differing musical genres, etc. For example, my husband enjoyed only 'modern' classical and jazz, the more dissonant the better, because he was interested in how musical notes could be combined to challenge the ear. I like most all music and listen to various forms based on my mood. And anyway, this post was about Beetoven, whose music inspires and challenges.