Thursday, October 6, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Here is a previous posting concerning Beethoven.

Everyone who encounters “classical” music sooner or later is going to encounter Beethoven. This abused child, whose father routinely beat him around the head with a variety of makeshift clubs, who grew up in the shadow of the fame of Mozart, who struggled against many adversities, a few of which he made for himself, rose to become if not the greatest composer of all time, at least one of the most celebrated. The greatest mystery is how one who became profoundly deaf at least 16 years prior to his death achieved so much in music. It was and is a kind of miracle, the kind that used to appeal to traditional Americans who still believed in self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the idealism to believe that anyone despite their handicaps could succeed.

Matters that were easy for Haydn, he had a steady job most of his life, or Mozart, who was just taking dictation from the beyond and rarely made corrections of any kind, were hard for Beethoven. His manuscripts show many corrections, he worked hard on many passages in order to get just the effects he wanted, he wrote far less than either of his older contemporaries. But it is clear from contemporary reactions, that Beethoven was regarded as the leader among those who were interested in extending the capabilities of the then relatively new keyboard instrument, the pianoforte, which was what they were called before we shortened the name to just piano. It's the Italian for soft, the forte, or loud, was eventually dropped from popular use.

Beethoven was also considered a leader in expressing the new direction music was taking at the time toward emotional realism, which was then and still is wrongly called “romanticism” (thereby directly implying something fanciful or fictional, rather than realistic).  Although there was much more of that too; fantasy, as people then as now have to find ways to come to grips with their often excruciating existence, by seeking whatever salve through musical entertainment, the emotions behind the art often were considered from a far different perspective by the composers themselves.  For Beethoven, composition was about making something to last forever, as impossible as that is . Some of these realistic emotions were considered revolutionary in the political as well as the artistic sense, and Beethoven was certainly in accord with those sentiments; a democratic rather than aristocratic outlook, despite the fact that many of his close friends and supporters were among the aristocracy.

In terms of output, Mozart had written up to 68 pieces which could have been termed symphonies. The accepted 41 symphonies for him is still almost an unbeaten record, except for Haydn's 106 symphonies, the record. Beethoven, setting the standard for all that would follow, wrote only 9 symphonies. Some historians have remarked that when political revolution appeared during the last quarter of the 18th century, orchestras and large noble households were of economic necessity broken up and the opportunities for performing symphonic music became limited. Beethoven's symphonies became the mainstays they are in part because there wasn't any significant competition during Beethoven's lifetime.  I'd also like to point out an obvious fact, that by Beethoven's time and certainly afterword, most of the symphonies that would ever be written had already been written.  It has been said by some that Beethoven's new standard for symphonies really made all future symphonies mere extensions or heirs by comparison; in future symphonies would be longer, might be programmatic including choirs, pipe organs and singing, would be far fewer in number, would swell the ranks of the orchestras required by far more than Beethoven required. 

Likewise Beethoven's output of piano concertos was only 5 to Mozart's 27, his string quartets 16 vs. 23 for Mozart and 68 for Haydn, his piano sonatas 32 vs. 52 by Haydn but only 18 for Mozart, only one opera whereas the other two wrote many, Working harder at composition than the other two gives us a different kind of music built upon the structures developed by the other two, particularly Haydn but with unique features and an inventiveness of timeless musical effects.

Beethoven's music is also full of much humour and jesting as well as more serious and sombre moods some of unique depth. He extended the playfulness exhibited by Haydn in particular that in turn would be picked up by future musicians. We have in Beethoven a transitional character between two worlds, the old world of princely patronage was giving way to the changes brought about by political, technical and economic revolutions. It was and is never easy to make one's life as a musician. But even if one had talent, what would have happened if one became deaf? How could one have succeeded? It is clear Beethoven had promotional help during and after his lifetime. He notably had help copying music, but they all had access to that back then.  Beethoven was widely regarded as a great and daring artist who had many admirers and a few who considered the great man so temperamental and impossible that they would scarcely have any dealings with him. His increasing deafness tended to enforce his isolation, encouraged eccentricities and despite help from his nephew Carl, led to his last eventual exhaustion of health and perhaps premature death. Beethoven's personal story is certainly heroic and tragic, but it was all too often used as an excuse in later years to attempt to encourage the notion that great art always requires struggle and hardship, and perhaps also as an excuse to treat musicians as badly as they have ever been, especially as regards remuneration.

There are many great masterpieces that all share the unmistakable Beethoven touches, “a fist in every phrase” as one of my now long deceased mentors often described it. The symphonies are routinely reviewed by everyone. You simply cannot escape them, so much so that many have grown bored listening to them, which is truly unfortunate. A few more people get to know Beethoven's piano concertos, and most know of his 5th piano concerto subtitled “the Emperor” which it was never called during his lifetime.

But I have decided for many reasons, such as that this is my favourite Beethoven concerto, to feature his Piano Concerto #4 in G Major Op 58 as a work far more people should know better. It is being played here by the 15 year old George Li  who is, let's face it, a child prodigy somewhat after the familiar Mozart pattern. His younger brother Andrew is coming along as a pianist too. This seems to be an organized family intention; to produce concert pianists out of their outstandingly talented sons. The rest of us should take encouragement from this, whether we can devote as much time and energy to our music making as these brave young men can or not. Though I have not met the Li brothers in person yet (somehow I think I eventually will), I am already aware that what their family and teachers have created for them and are bringing them up into is the “classical” definition of the best of all possible worlds for encouraging musical talent and its development. What's startling about the performance I am sharing with you, is how mature it is. Regarding the technique required, it should be quite obvious.

But that is only the beginning. Music is a living breathing thing while it is being played live by living breathing musicians. That's why attending live performances is so important. We have of course relied upon recordings for much of our musical appreciation, regardless of genre or form. That in turn leads to a more static view of musical performance, after all no recording will sound any different no matter how often it is played. If the music appeals to us differently each time we hear a recording we are long familiar with, that is a reflection of other things in our lives or in ourselves at the time we are hearing it again.

Theater an der Wien
This concerto was written around 1806 and first performed as part of that mammoth concert on December 22, 1808 when Beethoven would likewise première to the world his 5th and 6th Symphonies as well as the Choral Fantasy at the Theater an der Wien. This marked the last time Beethoven was featured as a pianist in public, playing this concerto. It's in the traditional 3 movements, fast, slow, fast:

I. Allegro moderato (G major)
II. Andante con moto (E minor)
III. Rondo (Vivace) (G major)

This performance by George Li and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra of the New England Conservatory under the baton of Maestro Zander took place at Jordan Hall in Boston on December 15, 2010, note just a day before Beethoven's birthday, which many people actually celebrate as others might Christmas.

Part 1: Most of the first movement
Part 2: The first movement continues with the cadenza and continues with the 2nd movement
Part 3: The breezy 3rd movement Finale

We certainly look forward to more from George Li and his brother over the next few years. In case it wasn't stated more emphatically, with all that's going on in the rest of the world, the motives, character and value created by those like the Li's, is really what civilization is all about and without it just where would we be? This inspiration, to create a civilization based on brotherly love and art, was in fact much closer to the heart of this great composer than most these days would care to admit. Beethoven was in all respects somewhat of a revolutionary.

After the concerto, we are treated to one of George's encore pieces, not by Beethoven, no, this is one of the most famous pieces by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) who was the opera composer in favour at the Imperial court in Vienna, a spot Mozart aspired to. But worldly success isn't everything, for few there be who have ever heard of a composer called Gluck, despite many knowing of this one piece, The Dance of the Blessed Spirits from his most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice


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