You are currently browsing the Music category.
How did Beethoven become Beethoven?
“The ‘personality’ of such a man as Beethoven is a slowly developed synthetic whole. It is formed by the gradual combination of its constituent elements into an organic unity. For the development of a personality a rich and profound inner life is necessary, and for that reason it is usually only great artists and religious teachers who impress us as being complete persons. Amongst the elements constitutive of Beethoven’s personality we must include his lack of malleability. This quality made him almost immune from purely external influences. Thus he was impervious to criticism; his manners were atrocious; he ignored conventions; he was permanently subject to no social passions, not even sexual love. The low standard of education he achieved seems to have been as much due to his lack of plasticity as to his lack of opportunities. He was not an educable man. He accepted none of the schemes of thought or conduct current in his time; it is doubtful whether he was even fully aware of their existence. He remained utterly faithful to his own experience. It is for this reason that his affirmative utterances, as in the Credo of the Mass in D, have such unexampled weight. Such utterances spring solely from his own personal and tested experience.”
Source: J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 44. A rough e-pub version is online here. (Parts of Sullivan’s description of Beethoven read like a description of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Sullivan’s book was published in 1927 and Rand’s in 1943.)
Creative geniuses as selfish — Rachmaninoff version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Richard Wagner version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Maria Callas version.
How great artists became great (Beethoven and Michelangelo).
Posted 3 weeks, 3 days ago at 7:55 am. 7 comments
A fascinating passage, reported by a young woman named Elizabeth Brentano, who was a friend of Goethe and who met Beethoven in 1810. Here are Beethoven’s own words, according to Brentano:
“When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses
out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. When they are again become sober they have drawn from the sea all that they brought with them, all that they can bring with them to dry land. I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves.”
“Music, verily, is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life.
“Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
That’s from J. W. N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development. Sullivan reports that Brentano was intelligent and artistically sensitive but not known for her strict truthfulness, so how close the passage is to Beethoven’s actual views is unknown.
But it’s an important passage, Sullivan argues, because it “is almost the only evidence we have as to Beethoven’s conception of the function of music.”
Sullivan’s own thesis about Beethoven is that “the development and transformation of Beethoven’s attitude towards life, the result of certain root experiences can, I believe, be traced in his music.” That is, Beethoven became a particular person as a result of his life experiences, experiences that “do not happen once for all” but “have a life of their own” and “continue to modify the man’s whole attitude towards life.” Becoming the particular person that Ludwig van Beethoven was as a man was then integral to Beethoven the composer: “in his greatest music Beethoven was primarily concerned to express his personal vision of life.”
The Beethoven passage seems to suggest that Beethoven sees himself as a sort of prophet revealing higher truths — that is, Beethoven’s music is a statement of truths drawn from a religious dimension, perhaps from God himself. Sullivan’s passage, by contrast, seems to suggest that Beethoven communicates Beethoven’s own philosophy — that is, his music is an expression of Beethoven’s view of life as he experienced it.
It’s the difference between (a) Beethoven’s being a reporter who gives creative expression to truths revealed to him by another source, and (b) Beethoven’s being a creator who expresses his own beliefs about what’s true.
An issue of emphasis, perhaps, and the passage from Beethoven is open to interpretation; but it takes us into the deep questions about music.
 Some have speculated that Elizabeth was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, e.g., Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (Schirmer Books, 1977), Chapter 15.
 J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 3-4. A rough e-pub version is online here.
 Sullivan, p. 5.
 Sullivan, pp. vii-viii.
Related: “Beethoven’s romantic fatalism” and my other music-related posts.
Posted 1 month ago at 7:55 am. 2 comments
To start — three sensitive commentators on the meaning of Beethoven’s music.
* Hermann Hesse, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, in Steppenwolf, contrasting Mozart to Beethoven (and to Kleist, who committed suicide at age 34):
“You have lent a deaf ear to those that plumbed the depths and suppressed the voices that told the truth of despair, and not in yourself only but also in Kleist and Beethoven. … [Mozart's] The Magic Flute presents life to us as a wondrous song. It honours our feelings, transient, as they are, as something eternal and divine. It agrees neither with Herr von Kleist nor with Herr Beethoven. It preaches optimism and faith.”
* J. W. N. Sullivan, the art critic and mathematician, in his classic study, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development:
“To Beethoven the character of life as suffering became a fundamental part of his life outlook.”
“To compare the ninth symphony with the fifth is to realize how greatly this man had grown in stature. That early, almost boyish idea of fate has become a much profounder conception in this first movement. Fate is no longer personified as some sort of powerful enemy that sufficient courage can defy, even if hopelessly. It is now a truly universal destiny, too complete to evoke any thought of resistance. The brooding mystery from which the theme emerges is, like the primeval darkness that preceded creation, something that conditions the human world, but which is not part of it. And this extra-human power, as presented to us here, has nothing benevolent about it, necessary as it may be for the moulding of the human soul. As the answer to this fate theme Beethoven gives us no more than submission and resignation.”
* Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher, responding to a question, What do you think of the work of Beethoven?:
“He is a great composer, but I can’t stand him. Music expresses a sense of life — an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man’s heroic fight against destiny, and man’s defeat.”
I am not a music professional, but I can report that I always find Beethoven’s music to be both very powerful and very saddening. At the same time, his music has surging and uplifting elements with great energy, and I respond positively to those elements. So, like many others, I wonder how that fits with the experts’ claim that his music is negative and pessimistic.
My only contribution is a philosophical hypothesis in two parts. One is that Beethoven’s music engages with the great themes, and when we listen we too engage with those themes, which elevates us as humans. We respond positively to any profound statement or experience of the human condition, even if we do not agree with it fully intellectually or emotionally.
The other part is that philosophical art involves two interrelated elements: a deep theme (a metaphysics) and an evaluative response to that theme (a value judgment). Beethoven’s major music combines two elements: an expression about the truth about the universe and an expression of his human response to that truth.
Suppose that Beethoven’s music tells us that the universe crushes everything, as our sensitive critics above suggest. That’s negative metaphysics. But how does one respond to that negative truth? That’s a value choice. Does one give in quietly — or moan and groan and bitch about it — or divert oneself with other activities — or take on the universe in glorious battle?
Interestingly, while our critics agree that Beethoven’s musical universe is malevolent, they differ over his value response: Hesse speaks of despair, while Rand speaks of a doomed, heroic fight against destiny, while Sullivan speaks of suffering, hopeless defiance, or resignation depending on which period of Beethoven’s music one is considering.
Compositionally, the longer pieces develop the elements separately (e.g., movements about Fate manifesting itself, other movements focused on gathering one’s strength and resolve), and then bring them together (e.g., movements in which the battle is joined). So it makes sense that one would respond positively to the positive elements when experienced in isolation. We respond humanly to the approach of great challenges, inner strength’s waxing and waning, the give-and-take of an all-consuming battle. All of those are powerfully expressed in Beethoven’s music, and any vital human will respond affirmatively and even thrillingly to them. What Beethoven adds, though, is an ultimate resolution of defeat, and that is the broadest framing context for his major music.
My label for music like Beethoven’s is romantic fatalism. One is condemned to a tragic fate, but one accepts it and asserts oneself against it, all the while knowing that one will be crushed. Dying while fighting a hopeless cause is the greatest value, and life is the most hopeless cause of all. But one simultaneously asserts one’s life and embraces its dissolution.
 Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963), pp. 106, 107.
 J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 43, 143. A e-version is online here.
 Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 226.
 A clear example is the opening of the Fifth, which Beethoven referred to as “Fate knocking at the door.” This excerpt works with a graphic representation of each instrument group.
 Nietzsche’s amor fati strikes me as a philosophical expression of the same theme as Beethoven’s music.
Related: Other music-related posts.
Posted 1 month, 2 weeks ago at 8:45 am. 26 comments
The philosophical nature of art, as illustrated by Dmitri Shostakovich’s comments on the purpose of his music, from his autobiographical Testimony. Shostakovich’s words in quotation marks are followed by my gloss in brackets.
“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. But there are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray.”
[An artist's subject should be: how most people are. Morally, most people are a mixture of good and bad with the bad dominant.]
“And it’s in that vague middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.”
[History is made by the average.]
“It’s a huge ant hill in which we all crawl. In the majority of cases, our destinies are bad. We are treated harshly and cruelly. And as soon as someone crawls a little higher, he’s ready to torture and humiliate others.”
[Humans are insignificant creatures like ants. Life usually ends badly. Our social relations are predatory win/lose. (See Genghis Khan and Sigmund Freud.)]
“You must write about the majority of people and for the majority. And you must write the truth — then it can be called realistic art. … . To the extent of my ability I tried to write about these people, about their completely average, commonplace dreams and hopes, and about their suspicious tendency toward murder.”
[Realism is defined as art for the majority about the majority. I put all of my artistic talent and energy in the service of portraying the grubby ordinary.]
By implication, aesthetic Romanticism’s emphasis on life as an adventure, on real heroes and villains, and its sense that good should win over bad — is simply wrong metaphysically.
Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 94.
Posted 1 month, 3 weeks ago at 8:54 am. Add a comment
When Mstislav Rostropovich was already an accomplished cellist at age 19, he began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory:
“But it was also obvious to me that the most important priority was to educate my pupils to love music. And parents should aim to stimulate in their children a love for music and not a love for exercises. Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev always said that he was eternally grateful to his mother because she didn’t force him to practice the piano, but, being a good pianist herself, she played marvelous music for him, and a lot of Chopin in particular. As a small boy, he composed his opera The Giant out of love towards music, and not as a revulsion to forced practice and study.”
What is true for music education is true for all education.
Elizabeth Wilson, Rostropovich, The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008), p. 57.
How great artists became great (Beethoven and Michelangelo).
More on how great artists become great (Liszt).
Yet more on how great artists become great: Rodin.
Objectivism and Montessori education.
Posted 2 months, 2 weeks ago at 8:45 am. 2 comments
Dmitri Shostakovich tells this story of Alexander Glazunov’s astounding musical memory. Glazunov was one of Shostakovich’s teachers in St. Petersburg, and by all accounts his ability to retain and recapitulate music was perfect. Here’s the practical joke played upon a visiting composer, Sergei Taneyev:
“Taneyev had come to Petersburg from Moscow to show his new symphony, and the host hid the young Glazunov in the next room. Taneyev played. When Taneyev finished and rose from the piano, he was surrounded by the guests, who congratulated him, naturally. After the obligatory compliments, the host suddenly said, ‘I’d like you to meet a talented young man. He’s also recently written a symphony.’
“They brought Glazunov from the next room. ‘Sasha, show you symphony to our dear guest,’ the host said. Glazunov sat down at the piano and repeated Taneyev’s symphony, from beginning to end. And he had just heard it for the first time — and through a closed door.”
[Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 68.]
Posted 9 months, 3 weeks ago at 11:40 am. 1 comment
According to Shostakovich:
“Rimsky-Korsakov used to say that he refused to acknowledge any complaints from composers about their hard lot in life. He explained his position thus: Talk to a bookkeeper and he’ll start complaining about life and his work. Work has ruined him, it’s so dull and boring. You see, the bookkeeper had planned to be a writer but life made him a bookkeeper. Rimsky-Korsakov said that it was rather different with composers. None of them can say that he had planned to be a bookkeeper and that life forced him to become a composer.”
[Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 65.]
Posted 9 months, 3 weeks ago at 9:26 am. 1 comment
A charming anecdote about his commitment to music, as reported by cellist Yulian Poplavsky, who knew Tchaikovsky at the time.
The event was a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Capriccio, which was to be conducted by the composer himself in a concert for the Russian Musical Society. The great Tchaikovsky was in attendance for the afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.
Most of the musicians in the orchestra were German and very good, but in rehearsal, as Poplavsky tells it, “a heavy and sleepy German in the orchestra took up the castanets. He played them so lazily and out of rhythm that the lusty dances of Andalusia were utterly lost, and all of the color disappeared. Rimsky-Korsakov simply dropped his hands, and his face clouded over.
“In the evening, they began the concert. During the intermission, before the Spanish Capriccio, I saw Tchaikovsky backstage. In great agitation he was trying to convince Rimsky-Korsakov of something. I approached.
“‘Listen [said Tchaikovsky], that was nothing like castanets; it was Bismarck chewing nuts. He’ll ruin us! I’ll play myself.’
“Tchaikovsky took the music and the castanets and stood in the back of the orchestra, behind the timpani. The capriccio began. The heavy German was nowhere to be seen. When the musicians saw that Tchaikovsky himself would be playing the castanets, they were dumbfounded. They began. It is impossible to describe the performance. Germans are, after all, excellent musicians and they were so shocked by this that they tried as hard as they could.”
I love the image of Tchaikovsky’s playing castanets, and his being able to inspire a whole orchestra to great effort by doing so.
(One quibble with Poplavsky’s telling of the tale, as he ends it by saying of Tchaikovsky’s action, “Only a great artist can sacrifice his personality to art in such a manner.” I suppose Poplavsky means something like this: playing the castanets at the back of the orchestra should be seen as beneath the dignity of a great composer like Tchaikovsky, so his dignity was sacrificed to make the performance work. I think, by contrast, the castanets were not beneath anyone’s dignity but importantly critical to this performance, and that Tchaikovsky’s willingness to play them was not a sacrifice of his personality but an expression of his personality’s commitment to making musical excellence.)
Excerpts from Poplavsky’s memoir in Alexander Poznansky’s Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 236-7.
Could Tchaikovsky play Tchaikovsky?
Posted 1 year, 3 months ago at 9:45 pm. 1 comment