Saturday, 5 November 2011


Listen to me and feel God bowing the strings of your heart.

I've stood by his piano in Vienna, read a few biographies, I know a few of  his symphonies inside out, a lot of his piano music, some late string quartets, the violin concerto in D minor, I know them fairly well and I'm familiar with lots of his other stuff, too. I probably know more Beethoven than   the average person, but then the average person has less than two legs; anyway, I know nowhere near enough.

It's a funny thing but the older I grow, the sadder I become at how much of my time I've wasted listening to popular music, how very little I know of shithot incandescent greatness.  I'd burn fifty years worth of  rock and blues and folk and jazz to power up a few bars of Beethoven's Sixth symphony, or his Fifth, or his Ninth, preferably on a booming Deutsche Grammaphon LP by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philarmonic.  

I started listening to what we call classical music in my early twenties, at the prompting of a kindly, older friend and although I've learned and loved a great deal of it I have nevertheless favoured twentieth century UK/US popular music. Too late, now, too old to redress the balance.  And I only recently discovered early music, Byrd, Pallestrina, Monteverdi, no chance of becoming remotely familiar with any of that.  

In the Hitler war my Dad made some money and my elder brother and sister both had piano lessons  but the money had gone by the time my turn came.  I've been able to auto-didact, teach myself a lot of stuff, but the piano isn't among it. And on top of family poverty denying me music lessons, at King Edwards, in the second form, I could choose between German and Music, and my Dad insisted that I do fucking German, a foul, guttural and complicated language, spoken by copraphiliacs in discreet  spectacles and smart shoes; to this day I know maybe a dozen words of German;  if I'd learned composition, harmony, musical appreciation, my life would have been wholly different.  I don't blame him, my Dad.  Most people do what they think is best for their kids. Even if it's shit. As it often is.

There's nothing wrong with popular music but as Ludwig remarks in this strange little film-cum-concert, difficult is good, the greatest compliment you can pay an artist is to say his work is difficult I Wanna Hold Your Hand is great stuff and so is Sultans of Swing, but neither are difficult,  they're both just singalongs for the Me generation.

The Eroica Symphony was completed as this old house of mine was rebuilt, in 1804;  none then here, of course, would have heard it; not for another hundred years would people be able to reproduce music at home, in their drawing rooms, their parlours, their kitchens;  and now music retrieval and reproduction are barely a breath away from being accessed via surgical implant.

The film purports to show the genesis of the Third Symphony and recreates the first public performance, a rehearsal, in front of his patron, his patron's family and servants and deploys  a proper orchestra playing those shitty old  18th. century instruments; the audience is   a handful of people, including the then Maestro, Herr Haydn and a widowed noblewoman who will not, cannot, for reasons of court etiquette, marry the composer, despite their mutual passion, Beethoven, a commoner, is verboten;  all  the audience talk through the performance - some of them disparagingly and contemptuously - and wander in and out of the orchestra, which is, like the composer,  nothing more than the servant of the rich, no awe, no reverence, no fucking respect..  Beethoven, at this stage was not widely considered to be great. By this account,  and according to  the words spoken by Haydn and by both master and servant, this piece, written to celebrate Napoleon's supposed egalitarianisme, transformed forever the nature of the symphony, putting, for the first time,  the composer's emotional maelstrom at the centre and throughout the composition. Everything is changed, now, grumbled a wearily moribund Haydn. Don't know if Haydn lived to hear Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, opus 130 but that is properly upsetting stuff, beside which the Third is a walk in the park.  But Haydn was correct, Beethoven, by inserting himself  so boldly, overturned the idea of artist as jobsworth servant of patron, making him or her, instead and properly, the servant of Art.

The production is really a filmed period concert with some dramatised inserts, but it's beautifully filmed and played especially tyhe First movement,  and is - in the nature of the relationship between artist and patron - revealing and heartrending.  The film closes with Beethoven's student informing him  that the egalitarian Boney has just, in Paris, had himself crowned Emperor, thus depriving himself of Beethoven's dedication of the symphony a Bonaparte, not, of course, that the wee fella would have given  un fuck de l'avion.

It's an old film now, this,  but if you haven't seen it, as well as being musically magnificent, it will provide a salutory illustration, a reminder,   of the now irritating  ubiquity  of all forms of music and of course of the devaluation attendant  upon  that questionable consumer blessing; part of the legacy of the late, odd, Jobs man.

Buy my shit. It'll make you feel clever.
But not as clever as me.


P T Barnum said...

Those rightly regarded as the creative Greats were one and all one step above a parlour maid and below a really good cook. Beethoven, Shakespeare (who competed for audiences with bear baiting and needed state approval for his scripts), Leonardo, Michelangelo, Goya (before he offended the eye of the Inquisition with pubic hair) all plied their trade for the pleasure and kudos of their patrons, cloth-eared, bat-blind, power-hungry inbreds.

Ebeneezer Moog said...

All the same PT, the cloth-eared, bat-blind, power-hungry inbreds of yestercentury made possible these works and there are not many of them around today.

Ishmael, be of good cheer for I bring glad tidings, there is progressive rock to think of as well. Bands like Yes, Jethro Tull and there are other rock artists like Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa. It's not all doom and gloom in the 20th century.

Edgar said...

From the instant of first awareness, the human spirit is assailed by the stultifying injunctions of Analysts and Classifiers, Codifiers and Regulators; by Legislators, Arbitrators, Grammarians, and Park-keepers; by Teachers and Tutors and Parents and Policemen, by Politicians, Priests, Doctors, and Lawyers; by Columnists and Commentators, Presenters and Producers, by Employers and Charities, by Patriots, Revolutionaries, Proseletysers and Dogmatists. What the fuck is it about human beings that thay have to be always telling others what to do, say, think, feel, eat, drink, look at, despise, love, and hope for? The oppressive power of this avalanche of admonition and requirement is all-but-almighty, and those who can break free from it deserve admiration and, often, protection: for many, I imagine, it comes at the price of their sanity. Those who have the passion of Beethoven, but lack the talent for its expression, suffer one of Nature's cruellest tricks.

lilith said...

Edgar "Those who have the passion of Beethoven, but lack the talent for its expression, suffer one of Nature's cruellest tricks."

If you came up with that you are an artist. Brilliant.

mrs narcolept said...

When I was young the only Beethoven I could bear was the Sixth and Seventh, and, after about five years of the night before the night before the Last Night, the Ninth; the rest sounded too hard. My dad used to urge me to listen better, but I thought he was only saying it for the sake of conformity. Maybe, though, some things are just meant to happen when a few more years have rolled by.

One of my friends was lucky enough to have been in time for the Inner London Education Authority's almost-free lessons at her comprehensive school; she was lent a violin and for five shillings had half an hour a week with some poor unfortunate who was forced to endure gangs of kids playing Three Blind Mice for weeks on end. But it worked; she loved it and went on to become a professional musician. She would never have gone anywhere near a musical instrument if it hadn't been for those lessons.

Opportunity was everywhere in those days. Was there ever such a world, and did we really live in it?

jgm2 said...

Ah yes.


The language of love.

mongoose said...

I think, mrs n, that the years thing is true. A kid - the normal run of kids - isn't able to decode all that malarkey. I "know" barely a handful of classical pieces but I can recognise lots now and frequently amuse my more cultured mates by guessing the wrong one. "Fifth", "Seventh", Ninth" - what mad blighter decided to number musical pieces, for goodness sake. Or it's "F-minor" or Q-major". Awww! And the pieces are often too long anyway for a young person to make contact.

Then again the other side of my mates tend to be hippy/biker/hedonist white trash who would not be seen dead listening to classical stuff. A few months back I persuaded a miserable two of them to go with to a things. Rachel Podger playing solo Bach in the bloody Sheldonian. They sat there silent, rapt, bought-and-sold converts. Two hours was all it took.