Unapologetic Heresy, As Usual

I heard the Beethoven Seventh live the other night. It was a superb performance, the Albany Symphony under the very energetic direction of David Alan Miller. I doubt that I’ve ever heard a Beethoven symphony so dashingly rendered live, so I’m sure the performance had nothing to do with the discomfort I felt. But there are passages in the first movement of that piece that I’ve always found rather stunningly slipshod, as though Beethoven didn’t take the trouble to write a convincing transition. The piece too often strips down to single repeated pivot notes, and in a couple of places the pivot note blankly segues to an unresolved harmony in a way that seems unmotivated and arbitrary. The second movement is a fantastic idea, possibly the first time in music that a melody was defined by its harmony, in which the inner voices carry more weight than the melody. But once the delight of that idea has been absorbed, the lengthy repetitions of it (probably necessary for the audience to “get it” at the first performances) seemed awfully tedious this time. I’ve never felt that Beethoven’s symphonies reach the artistic heights of his string quartets and late sonatas; you have to go to Mahler, I think, to find symphonies as subtle and dense with meaning as the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 111, the C# minor Quartet, or even “Les Adieux.” The Beethoven Seventh is a pretty fine piece, I guess, but palpably imperfect, and I was surprised at how little I got out of hearing yet another performance, even one this spirited.

Out of some numerological synchronicity, the next day I found myself writing program notes for a performance of Dvorak’s Seventh. Though I’ve been familiar with Dvorak’s symphonies since my teenage years, I’m not a big fan: there’s too much corn meal in Dvorak, too many blustery, unsubtle brass climaxes with the same rhythm over and over. (Brahms, they say, used to correct Dvorak’s carelessly written counterpoint, and I can imagine it.) All the reference works I looked into agreed: Dvorak’s Seventh is his greatest symphony, while the Eighth is too episodic, lacking in a main point, too much like a series of Slavonic Dances. But the thing is, the Seventh has always been about my least favorite Dvorak symphony, and it’s the Eighth I enjoy most. The Seventh opens with an instant harmonic ambiguity that I find off-putting, ungrounded, and the awkwardness it expresses infects the entire movement. According to all the holy books, the Eighth is a favorite of unsophisticated audiences. Yet for me, the Eighth sounds like Dvorak finally declared independence from his patron Brahms, quit trying to achieve the portentous tragic sonata form thing that he wasn’t very good at, let his hair down and created a kind of original continuity that was much more natural to him. Does that make me unsophisticated? I’m a classical music fanatic, but my tastes always seem upside down, my every opinion a minority one, never in sync with the community of connoisseurs. I’m always asking myself the question that tortured Charles Ives: Are my ears on wrong?

Though it’s not just music. The Shakespeare character I immediately gravitated toward, as a young man – Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which we do first deserve (and I’m quoting from memory) – was Coriolanus. And I read in my Riverside Shakespeare that Coriolanus is the one Shakespeare hero with whom it is impossible to identify, his least sympathetic creation. I fall in love with the great art of European history, but my reactions all seem upside down to everyone else’s. Is that why the Post-Classical world seems such a safe refuge? Because it’s always seemed to me, since adolescence, that we too easily glorify the classical world’s partial and superficial successes, and shy away from its rare bold strokes of truth?

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