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January 20, 2008

Starting with nothing

It's hard to believe it, but I've never told you this story before. It's my favorite story about going to a concert. When I was in college, my roommate and I bought tickets to a recital series with Claude Frank playing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. This was a big deal. Frank was a well known pianist, and it wasn't that often that anyone performed the complete Beethoven sonatas -- all 32 of them, in 8 concerts.

After most of the concerts, Frank would play an encore. At one concert, Frank returned to the stage and stood there, looking very elegant in his tuxedo, left hand resting on the top of the piano. The hall fell completely silent. Frank grandly announced the encore: "Schumann's Arabesque." At that, the old woman sitting right in front of my roommate and me broke the silence in the hall with the loud remark, "THAT old thing??"

My roommate and I couldn't stop laughing, and as soon as the encore was over, we darted out of the concert hall, where we could laugh without embarrassment.

I told you that story to tell you this one.

One of Frank's endearing little practices was to start the second half of the concert with a discussion of an aspect of the music. It's all too rare these days for performers to speak to the audience, and I've never really understood why the performers don't offer the audience some insights about the composer or the specific piece or the performer's own approach to the music. But they rarely do.

In any event, during one of the concerts, Frank raised the question of what makes Beethoven great. He did it as a dialogue with himself and used the slow movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 to illustrate. (If you don't know the Seventh Symphony, you can get a video of the complete symphony here, conducted by von Karajan. A video of the second movement alone is here, conducted by Charles Latshaw. Listen closely to the theme, played softly in the low strings after the initial orchestral chord.)

What makes Beethoven great? Frank asked. Well, he said, it's his melodies, right? And he sang the opening of the theme of the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony: C, C-C, B, B, B, B-B, C, C.

Well, it's his rhythms, right? And he sang the theme: Long, short-short, long, long, long, short-short, long, long.

All right, well, maybe it's his harmonies. And he sang: Tonic, tonic-tonic, dominant, dominant, dominant, dominant-dominant, tonic, tonic.

And he had made his point -- that Beethoven was able to create the most sublime music out of the most rudimentary materials.

While I was looking around for a link to a performance of the Seventh, I stumbled on this composer's description of Beethoven's genius:

Before Beethoven, composers vied for beauty. They wrote great counterpoint. They wrote beautiful melodies.

Beethoven changed all that. He rarely relied simply on good material to write great music. His work was architectural. He was the first one to show that great music could be written with common materials. His vision went far beyond the nuts and bolts.
And again, I told you that story to tell you this.

I've been listening to the complete set of Beethoven string quartets on CD (Alban Berg Quartett). As any Beethoven aficionado will tell you, there's nothing that can top the late quartets. That said, the quartet that really blows me away whenever I listen to it after a long absence is the first of the middle quartets, the Op. 59, No. 1, especially the second movement.

I've linked the sample of that movement from Amazon so you can hear the opening. [UPDATE: The Amazon link seems dead, so here's the movement on YouTube.] As in the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven starts with the most rudimentary materials imaginable. The opening phrase, for cello unaccompanied, is a rhythmic repetition of a single note, B-flat, sort of like this: Da da dum dum, da da dum dum, da da da da da da, dah. Listen to it; that's all there is. The second violin follows, unaccompanied, with a short melodic phrase. Then, the viola enters, unaccompanied, repeating the cello's rhythmic phrase, this time on an A-flat. Last, the first violin, unaccompanied, answers the melodic phrase of the second violin.

It's hard to describe. Listen to it.

(I seem to recall reading many years ago that the cellist who was to play the premiere of the piece was so infuriated by the da da dum dum opening of the movement that he threw down his music and stormed out of rehearsal. But you never know how many of these stories are apocryphal.)

Immediately, the rhythmic, repeated notes begin to build up and, in no time, are being played fortissimo. Beethoven takes these rhythmic notes and the bits of melody offered at the beginning and creates an amazingly powerful movement out of them.

Last month, I made fun of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony for the insipid theme in its famous slow movement and for Haydn's failure to do anything with an interesting harmonic move. If you listen to the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony or the second movement of the Op. 59, No. 1 string quartet, you'll hear how a brilliant composer makes use of very basic materials to create an incredibly complex work of genius.