Tag Archives: symphonies

Happy Birthday, Beethoven!

This year on December 16, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrates his 250th birthday. That’s a lot of candles on the cake. If he were alive to blow them out. His music, however, is very much alive and well. And I’ve been thinking about his music the last few weeks, as I’ve turned to it more and more during this year of pandemic, civil unrest, important election, and climate change weather.

When did I first hear Beethoven’s music? I don’t know, really. I think it was in the background of my childhood probably from the beginning. But I do recall the first time I heard his symphonies as specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. I think it was either the summer between 9th and 10th grades or between 10th and 11th grades. My piano teacher generously loaned me her complete set of Beethoven symphony recordings on 78 rpm vinyl records for the summer. Fortunately, our summer house had a record player that could play those records; and being summer, with open doors and windows, I could play them as loud as I wanted. I could not tell you now how many times I listened to them all, but I’m certain it was more than ten times. The first two symphonies are full of sunshine, youth, and optimism before Beethoven decided to go off in his own direction, different from everything that had come before. He began his Third Symphony with two loud chords. Heaven forbid! The Fourth is full of humor and slyness. And of course, the Fifth, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it and still makes me laugh. So full of Sturm und Drang!

The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in a live orchestra concert was in Vienna, Austria at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was on a big national holiday, and I managed to get a seat way in the back of the balcony. The Austrian President was in attendance as well as other government officials. I wondered if hearing Beethoven in Vienna would be a different, special experience compared with hearing him in concert in America. He had lived and worked in Vienna. You can walk around Vienna in the First District and note the number of decorative signs on buildings that announce Beethoven had lived there and composed such and such there. He had been well known in the city, and it was still possible when I was a student there, to hear stories about Beethoven. But I still wondered what the music would be like performed there. Well, I remember it being crisp, with that opening phrase in the Fifth Symphony demanding everyone’s attention. (Yes, I did giggle.) It said, “Listen to me. Now. I want your undivided attention.” Then Beethoven takes the listener on a journey through determination, a pleasant lilting stroll from shadow to sunshine (2nd movement), a five-minute scherzo of heroic music followed by one of the most amazing crescendoes in music that crosses the bridge of the scherzo to the triumphal joy of the final movement. I remember getting goosebumps when that crescendo began, and I realized that there really is nothing like Beethoven live in concert. Anywhere.

I have walked along the path in Heiligenstadt where Beethoven walked, inspired by the nature that he saw all around him to compose his pastoral Sixth Symphony. Then he turns his attention to the universe, that which is larger than any one life, in his last three symphonies. Again, he breaks rules right and left of musical composition, and especially with his final, Ninth, symphony, the Choral Symphony. I have this delightful memory of sitting in a half-filled movie theater watching Immortal Beloved, the movie about Beethoven’s mysterious love affair late in his life, when a scene of Beethoven’s nephew Karl, who lived with him, sitting in a cafe with a friend, telling his friend about his uncle’s obsession with a melody that was driving Karl crazy. And he sings the melody of the famous “Ode to Joy” that is in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. He sings it with derision, though, and I laughed. It amazed me that I was the only one in the theater who got the joke.

To play Beethoven’s music is to spend time inside his beautiful soul. During my college years, I played some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and to this day they are favorites. I came late to his string quartets, and I’m still a student. His piano trios are especially sublime, and I am partial to the “Archduke.” I attended a performance of Fidelio, his only opera, at the State Opera in Vienna, and it’s the only Beethoven music that hasn’t filled me with awe. And believe it or not, I’ve not listened to his Missa Solemnis. I guess I’m holding that for a future moment of discovery.

After all this music, you’d think I’d have read a biography of Beethoven a long time ago, right? But no. I don’t know why. I know the general outline of his life, I have a copy of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and I heard my share of Beethoven stories when I was a music student in Vienna. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I began reading a biography of Beethoven, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. It’s considered the definitive biography, the work that everyone else cites. I decided that I needed to celebrate his 250th by learning more about the man himself. Not the myth.

And maybe when I’ve finished reading the biography, it will be time to listen to his Missa Solemnis.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.  (Ludwig von Beethoven)

The last few weeks I’ve had Beethoven and his music on my mind.  I finally bought my own personal copy of the revered biography of the composer, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven.  Suddenly, it feels like I’m holding the totality of Beethoven’s life in my hands when I hold this book.  His life was no walk in the park, either.  He struggled with poverty, evictions, family, health issues and deafness.  And yet, he continued to compose music.  That makes me feel like a total wimp and whiner.  When I think of Beethoven’s music, the music that I return to over and over, I think of perseverance and defiance.  I think I could use a lot of both right now, as well as courage.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about classical music here, and Beethoven’s life and music are fertile territory for me.  So what pieces in Beethoven’s library am I drawn to right now to listen to as I work?  From what do I draw sustenance and comfort?  Wait, Beethoven’s music comforting?

Yes, comforting.  The “Archduke” Piano Trio, for example.  The first movement’s theme is a simple ascending line that lifts and soars.  Its major key gives the music a positive, confident sound.  Immersing myself in this music makes me feel good and comforts me.  Then I wonder how on earth Beethoven thought of that theme.  How do I come up with my ideas for stories?

I first listened to Beethoven’s symphonies when I was in high school.  My piano teacher loaned me her complete set on vinyl LPs for a summer.  I listened to them, one after the other in order, 1 through 9, over and over.  At the time, I didn’t have enough knowledge of music to put these symphonies in context or to understand how much of a destroyer of musical conventions Beethoven was.  With his symphonies, Beethoven moved away from me and stayed at a distance for many years.

Beethoven circa 1802 by Christian Horneman

Beethoven circa 1802 by Christian Horneman

I had learned about his deafness, about “The Heiligenstadt Testament,” and his alleged rage at the world. A musician going deaf? I could not comprehend his pain.  And had he really composed all that gorgeous music while deaf?

While the Ninth Symphony is an uncontested masterpiece, and its hope continues to astonish me, I prefer the Seventh Symphony’s Second Movement or the Third Symphony’s Marcia funebre.  The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in concert, I was in the Grosse Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, listening to the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Boehm.  It was at that moment of the opening notes that I laughed, and remembered how I’d always laughed at this dramatic theme.  It’s always sounded to me like Beethoven pounding his fist on a table…or a door, perhaps?  I still laugh at that theme.  I have no idea why, except that there is something irresistibly funny about it.

Beethoven’s music that I know the best involves the piano because I played the piano.  I performed his Piano Sonata No. 10 in G-major, Op. 14, No. 2, in the

Palais Kinsky Ballroom

Palais Kinsky Ballroom

Ballroom of the Palais Kinsky in Vienna where Beethoven had premiered many of his works, and studied most of the rest of his 32 piano sonatas.  I dreamed of playing the First and Fourth Piano Concertos.  It was through his piano music that I began to see glimpses of Beethoven’s good heart, his childlike personality.  Piano was his instrument, after all.  I spotted and enjoyed his jokes, his musical pranks, and the pure joy in the music.  Beethoven found tremendous joy in music.

He was not born deaf.  For the early part of his music career, he could hear just fine.  Then, he began to gradually lose his hearing.  It was an incredible challenge for him as a musician, but he continued to compose, refusing to be defeated by a physical restriction, even one so crucial to his life.  He had known music’s sound before and he held that sound within his imagination.  He persevered.  He defied what Fate had visited upon him.

I could not wish for a better role model as an artist and writer.


Dancing Joy!

Such exciting news!  The Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of the Sibelius Symphonies 1 and 4 conducted by Osmo Vanska has won a Grammy for best orchestral performance!  Congratulations!  So happy for them!

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

Why I Love Classical Music: a Minnesota Orchestra Concert

Bruckner circa 1860 (from Wikipedia)

Bruckner circa 1860 (from Wikipedia)

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, famous for his massive “wall of sound” symphonies, began his professional life as a teacher.  He continued to study to improve his position, and eventually became organist in St. Florian, Austria.  He had loved the organ since childhood, and the organ’s sound would influence his music.  Known for being a devout Catholic, for his love of beer and his belief in his inferiority, Bruckner was also always tinkering with his symphonies, and did not always leave clear indications of which version of each he preferred.

I’d heard Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and his Ninth in the years after I graduated college.  His music sounded muddled to me, bombastic, clearly influenced by Richard Wagner (it was), and intensely unpleasant to my ears.  I hated it.  Then someone told me — I cannot remember who now — that the devout Bruckner had dedicated each of his symphonies “An Gott” or “To God.”  I thought that was somehow grandiose of Bruckner and only added to my distaste for his music.

Then in November 1989 Klaus Tennstedt, former Principal Guest Conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, returned to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra for two weeks — the first week was Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and the second, two Beethoven symphonies.  It would be the only time I saw Tennstedt conduct in concert.  He had an excellent relationship with the MO musicians.  I bought my ticket to the Beethoven concert immediately.  Friends had to persuade me to go to the Bruckner concert.  I was glad they did.  With this symphony, Anton Bruckner took me on a journey in sound through an astounding emotional landscape, recreated by Tennstedt and the MO with such precision and discipline, I thought maybe this was Heaven on earth.

Music alters human consciousness.  I’ve had peak experiences in symphonic concert halls so powerful that I have not remembered at all how I returned home afterward.  The Bruckner Eighth Symphony was a peak experience.  From that point on, I would slowly learn about Bruckner’s music, learn to appreciate it even if I didn’t understand it, and to open my heart to it.

This past Thursday evening in St. Catherine University’s O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul, the MO once again played Bruckner out of this world, this time the Fourth Symphony, “Romantic,” conducted by noted Bruckner expert Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.  This symphony has the title of “Romantic” because Bruckner gave it this title, seemingly in a desire to fit in with the times — 1874 — and the Romantic era in the arts (remember his inferiority complex).  His abundant use of the French horn also fits with the Romantic era in music.  This is a symphony of powerful sound, amazing crescendos, and for the string players, a real danger of developing a repetitive motion injury.  The sound, the symphony, were sublime.

I love classical music concerts — all kinds: recitals, chamber music, chorales, symphonic.  From a very young age, sound affected me emotionally and set free my imagination.  With Bruckner, I hear thunder and lightning, the booming of cannon, sweet folk melodies and rhythmic folk dances of Austria.  I hear a huge organ in a cathedral, inflating the air with sound, lyrical melodies, plaintive harmonies, the power of conviction and faith.  The sound enters the human body, vibrates the molecules, stimulates the brain, alters consciousness.  It is my drug of choice and always has been.

Each composer, in the way he or she uses the tools of composition and the language of music, creates a distinct voice and speaks to listeners.  Music communicates, for me, pure emotion.  Did Bruckner feel the same as I felt Thursday evening listening to his Fourth Symphony?  Each listener brings to a concert all her experience, her life, her emotional knowledge, so the experience can be unique for each with a thread of common experience — listening to sound specific to a composer’s musical voice.  The oldest musical instrument is the human voice, the vocal cords that produce the sounds of the voice whether singing or speaking.  Of course humans would be sensitive to sound and music teaches us how to listen with an open mind, open heart, and all of our intelligence.  That’s why I love classical music.  It has the power to transcend differences and to unite us.

But the MO’s concert this past Thursday evening saddened me, too.  The musicians remain locked out by the MOA Board of Directors, and recent communications from executive management has only driven the two sides farther apart, I believe.  They say they’ll do something, then they back out.  Or they invite the musicians to a Board meeting but allow them only fifteen minutes to speak.  I’m shocked, totally astonished, and completely flummoxed by the MOA Board’s behavior during the last year.  Does no one serving on the Board love classical music?  Or do they only love money?  Control?  I think of the Minnesota Orchestra I gave Evan Quinn to conduct in Perceval’s Secret and I fear that what I extrapolated into the near future is in the process of actually happening.  It chills me to the bone….