Where One Looks for It, Evidence Will Be Found

As research for next fall’s Beethoven class, I just finished reading Barry Cooper’s Beethoven. Excellent book: crisp, intelligently revisionist, scrupulously factual, devoid of any retro sentimentality. I highly recommend it. I’m going to take exception to examples in it of the way we talk about classical music, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing Cooper, or even disagreeing with him. He does something we all do, and it’s not necessarily a wrong thing to do, but I think we should think about the ramifications.

In his thumbnail analyses of myriad Beethoven works, even the most humble, Cooper is constantly drawing out interesting key relationships. For instance, the Op. 77 Fantasia, not a very characteristic work for Beethoven, nor in my opinion a very compelling one, opens in G minor and ends in B major, a surprisingly distant key – but Cooper notes that in the progression of tonalities (g, Bb, d, b, B), each tonic triad shares a pivot note with its predecessor (p. 202). Even when dealing with separate works, he finds key correspondences among the three Razumovsky quartets, and notes that the third of them begins with the melodic notes E and F, which are the keys of nos. 1 and 2 (p. 174). Nothing wrong with that, I do it myself. We all know to use that disturbing C# at the beginning of the Eroica as a pointer to the long passage in Db later in the movement, as a kind of structural resolution.

But the unacknowledged implication is that these seemingly coincidental correspondences, many of which no listener would ever notice (and in fact, Beethoven doesn’t even use those available pivot notes when modulating in the Fantasia) are subtle evidence of Beethoven’s mastery. The argument in the back of the classical-music mind seems to run something like this:

1. We all know that Beethoven was a great composer.

2. Great composers presumably know profound secrets of how to make music great.

3. One can find aurally unnoticeable long-range correspondences in Beethoven’s music.

4. Those correspondences must be Beethoven’s secrets, and therefore evidence of his greatness.

5. Ergo, Beethoven, even in his lesser works, was a great composer.

There’s nothing necessarily untrue about any of this, except that the argument begins with, as premise, the conclusion it sets out to prove. To make my point, I could do this very thing with the music of any number of recent composers. I could go through Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, find an Eb and F# in one, then find it in another, and, with little more than an implied raised eyebrow pointed at the reader, silently plant the idea in the reader’s mind that that’s why Duckworth is a great composer. All that’s missing to complete the circle is the tacit premise accepted by the reader that Duckworth was a great composer. For that matter, consistently changing tonalities via pivot note is something I’ve sometimes done myself, most ambitiously in my chamber opera Cinderella’s Bad Magic - and without any idea that Beethoven had ever done such a thing.

Ergo, if Beethoven’s use of pivot tones to control a series of distant modulations is evidence of his greatness as a composer, my independent use of that identical technique must of necessity be evidence of my greatness as a composer as well. If you are inclined to accept that argument, then I’ll thank you to read no further. But it might be more accurate to say that, in a piece that wanders far from its opening tonality, having some kind of control over the tonal shifts is a stabilizing technique, and that Beethoven and I happened to chance on the same one – and it doesn’t prove “greatness” for either of us. For all we know, many, many pieces by second- and third-rate composers may well use the same device. Either Beethoven or I might have decided on a different one without our respective pieces suffering (or improving) for the change.

It is part of the classical-music mind that certain composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – are assumed great from the beginning, and so everything found in their music must be evidence of that greatness. I once read some celebrated musician’s explanation that “the reason” Beethoven’s quartets are so great – the reason – was that he uses the entire range of each instrument. That sent a chill up my spine. Does my quartet music, I thought, use the entire range of each instrument? On the other hand, all I have to do in my next quartet is use the entire range of each instrument, and then it will be great! Right? But by knowing in advance that the composer is great, and assuming that every device we find will constitute evidence for that greatness, we musicologically heap more and more greatness over the decades on Mozart, Beethoven, & Co., and make it more and more impossible for current and future composers ever to live up to that exalted standard. Myriad other composers, in whom we could doubtless find similar devices, are denied that rank merely because they lack the initial presumption of greatness.

We poor composers are all, on some level, in competition with Beethoven, and it doesn’t help that so many music writers are willing to pile their thumbs on his side of the scale. His large-scale structural techniques, his harmonic correspondences, are of course of interest, as are those of many, many other composers. They are not automatically the reason for his greatness, which is more likely to reside in the surface elements that millions of listeners have responded to. I enjoyed the Eroica long before I learned about the C# (which I never thought was that shocking) and the ensuing passage in Db; if that passage was in D-natural, would I love it less? Every composer needs some kind of conceptual scaffolding to build a large piece upon, and composers have an interest in learning what kinds of scaffolding have worked for other composers. That doesn’t mean that the scaffolding makes the piece. Dull pieces have been written on sound theoretical principles, and fantastic ones on pure, whimsical inspiration.

Part of the problem, I think, is that critics and musicologists (Richard Taruskin being the outstanding exception) rarely know enough about composing and theory to distinguish a brilliant structure from a standard one, and either of those from an underlying design that the composer relied on conceptually but never expected to be perceived. What feeds into it is the rather maudlin adoration that classical-music types love to pour onto a few long-dead heros, against which more recent music will always be at a disadvantage. I could write this way about recent composers, too, but I wouldn’t have the reader’s ingrained sentimentality to back me up; to the classical music world, every article praising a recent composer is fundamentally a defense. We could level the playing field somewhat by not overinterpreting the evidence in only a few selected, invariably ancient cases. And maybe just by retiring the concept great.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Something I have been thinking about recently is that there are different kinds of greatness. For instance, the achievements of the great rock/pop song writers are not really open to classical composers. A classical composer would never write anything that has the immediacy and uniqueness of songs such as Strawberry Fields Forever, Good Vibrations. I Can’t Go For That, Deacon Blue, Fashion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Fire And Rain, and hundreds of other such songs. It is almost as if the classical style prevents such an approach unfortunately.
    I think I read somewhere that Brahms said it was easier to write a great symphony than a great waltz.

  2. Gene says

    It’s not even as if E and F are the first two notes of op. 59, no. 3. You have to skip the introduction. And they’re in the opposite order of nos. 1 and 2’s keys. Cooper’s claim here seems silly.

    KG replies: I didn’t state what he said verbatim, and there was more context. I never want anyone else blamed for my attempts to paraphrase. It may have been something Beethoven thought about, but I agree that it’s not something any listener would pick up unaided.

  3. says

    I want to thank you particularly for this (though I may be drawing a conclusion you don’t endorse!): “His large-scale structural techniques, his harmonic correspondences, are of course of interest, as are those of many, many other composers. They are not automatically the reason for his greatness, which is more likely to reside in the surface elements that millions of listeners have responded to. I enjoyed the Eroica long before I learned about the C# (which I never thought was that shocking) and the ensuing passage in Db; if that passage was in D-natural, would I love it less? Every composer needs some kind of conceptual scaffolding to build a large piece upon, and composers have an interest in learning what kinds of scaffolding have worked for other composers. That doesn’t mean that the scaffolding makes the piece. Dull pieces have been written on sound theoretical principles, and fantastic ones on pure, whimsical inspiration.”

    I’ve been trying to get behind a certain 20th C work thought by many to be the pinnacle of one composer’s symphonic achievement. I think it’s a magnificent piece of music, but I wouldn’t say it’s THE pinnacle. Rather, I’d say it’s one of many thrilling works. To understand what my elders and betters already know, I resorted to reading, much above my pay grade, the acknowledged definitive scholarly study on the piece. While I understand about 1/20th of it, I do see why it’s thought to be definitive, and I think I get the drift. I’m not by any means sure of this, but it seems to me that the study is trying to make the case that the work hews to recognized standards for excellence in symphonic composition, whatever they may be, whereas my questions have to do with whether the symphony takes me on a transporting journey, whether when I listen again and again that continues to be the case, whether the composer’s voice is compelling and his or her own. Whether the first movement is a beautiful example of sonata-allegro form is perhaps interesting, but as a listening experience seems somehow beside the point. (The symphony in question is Shostakovich’s 10th; the study is David Fanning’s The Breath of the Symphonist.)

    KG replies: Well, Susan, I’m with you. I don’t like commenting on Shostakovich – I find him often interesting, often disappointing, every once in awhile magnificent, and I suspect there’s a sensibility needed there that I don’t have. (And I had no idea that people thought 10 was the best – I’ve tried almost every other one first.) But I started suspecting that all I needed to say was, I learn to love a piece by listening to it, and all the background stuff you can learn from books or a classroom may deepen my appreciation of a piece, but it rarely alters my affection for it significantly one way or the other.

    • says

      Yes, it makes good sense to me that the loving comes from the listening. Understanding something of how a work is made can certainly enrich the listening experience (and is valuable to composers and performers in additional ways, as well). In the end, though, my thought is that what makes a piece “great” is necessarily ineffable and subjective, and that this applies to the long-dead heroes, too. The only difference may be that, in the case of the long-dead heroes, a consensus of subjective positive responses may build up around a composer or a work that begins to feed on itself, thus securing its position, for example, at the top of every year-end WQXR countdown list and encouraging the tautological thinking you describe here.

      • says

        I believe it is the structure that makes the piece compelling. There are other composers of the Classical period who also wrote beautiful melodies and harmonies but the pieces do not make the impression that other works make. The structure may be subliminal but it is sensed.
        It is like a building, you don’t see the stanchions or structural techniques but if they were not there the building would fall down. The same with films, the acting, photography and script of individual scenes may be good but if the story or form does not hold together, the film will not be as satisfying as more unified films.
        However this the obsession with definitive performances of definitive masterworks is one of the things I don’t like about classical music.

        KG replies: I was afraid someone would thing I was denying something that basic. Of course, but you can hear the structure, especially in Beethoven. You perceive the story in a film. It’s not subliminal. I’m talking about far-flung harmonic relationships that indeed may have been in the composer’s mind as a design element, but that are only pieced together afterward by analysts.

        Also, this “there were other composers of the classical period but they weren’t Beethoven” is another clichéd part of the classical narrative. Beethoven himself was an admirer of Clementi’s sonatas, which are sadly underrated today. Dussek was in some ways more forward-looking than Beethoven. But it is IMPERATIVE among classical musicians that we NEVER allow any other composer of the 1810s to share that stage, and so other composers are condemned to mediocrity without so much as a hearing.

        • says

          Thanks for mentioning Dussek. Recently I turned on the car radio in the middle of a string quartet. Clearly classical but couldn’t peg the composer. There were so many interesting ideas per minute that it sort of left me breathless. Turned out it was Dussek.

          KG replies: And Beethoven’s high-school friend Anton Reicha pioneered meters like 5/8 and 3+2+3/8. I teach all this stuff in my Classical Sonata class, but unfortunately I get a bigger student enrollment when it’s just a Beethoven class.

          • says

            Thanks for the tip on Anton Reicha! That’s some pretty wild stuff – if anyone else is interested, a bunch of his music is on IMSLP. I know I’ll be reading through some soon!

        • says

          Hi Kyle, I was replying to Susan Scheid’s comments, not your original post which I entirely agree with.

          “and all the background stuff you can learn from books or a classroom may deepen my appreciation of a piece, but it rarely alters my affection for it significantly one way or the other.”

          I may have misunderstood what Susan is saying but I interpreted that statement as suggesting that structure was of little inportance in making music effective.

          However I can understand why my post was confusing, I really admire composers such as Clementi, Hummel and Spohr and I rarely listen to the so called masters such as Beethoven and Mozart. If I could only listen to a few composers it would be Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell, Maderna etc., certainly not Beethoven.
          The context of my remark was a violinist friend was involved in a recital of really obscure Classical period composers, who are now almost completely forgotten. His comment was that the melodies and harmonies were every bit as good as Beethoven’s but the pieces did not stand up as complete works and seemed to be a collection of unrelated sections. And he was not condemning them, merely pointing out it is a pity such beautiful writing did not hold together. But of course, with Stockhausen’s moment form and random techniques maybe these pieces could be appreciated by audiences now, if they ever got heard. After all many composers go in and out of fashion.

          It feels strange being considered a traditionalist for once. Usually I am considered someone who doesn’t have any respect for our great European tradition, and has no idea what classical music is meant to be about.

          KG replies: Sorry, I get it. You know, on my little control panel Arts Journal gives me, there’s no signal as to whether a comment is in response to my post or to a comment thereon. Sometimes I later see the comments in their intended threads and get a shock. It’s not the first time I’ve replied mistakenly.

  4. says

    I don’t wish to wear out my welcome, so, with apologies in advance, this will be the last. I’m struck by Ian Stewart’s point, and thinking back on what I wrote earlier, would it be possible to say that it’s the effect of the structure on the listener, whatever it may be, and whether subliminal or identifiable, that makes a piece compelling? For example, Babbitt’s work has nothing if not structure, but for this listener, his work lacks interest. On the other side, there do seem to be many contemporary pieces that focus on a “sound world,” rather than an identifiable structure, and in such cases, I find myself yearning for some architecture to carry me through. Please forgive, as I know this is an aside to the more subtle points raised here. I just want to say thanks so very much for this thought-provoking article. I hope the conversation will continue, as I’m eager to listen in.

    KG replies: Susan, you say it so well I can’t add anything. I think you should just keep talking.

    • says

      Well, Kyle, those are kind words. I see from Ian Stewart’s subsequent comment that I definitely wasn’t clear the first time out, so I’m grateful to have had the spur of his comment to try to better articulate my thoughts.

      To Joe Kubera: I’d be interested in knowing which Dussek String Quartet, if you recall.

      • says

        Hi, Susan, and thanks for your insights. I thought I heard the announcer say Opus 50, but after a bit of research, I see he must have said Op. 60. There are three quartets in Op. 60, and I can’t recall which I heard, but you can sample all of them on Youtube if you wish, all the movements. They’re all interesting; I’d start with Op. 60, No. 3. I think they’re all from c. 1806.

        • says

          Hmm…sorry to respond to my own post, but now that I’ve listened a bit more, I’m pretty sure it was Op. 60, No. 1 that I heard.

  5. says

    This reminds me somewhat of the main thrust of John Spizter’s “Authorship and Attribution in Western Art Music,” which vividly (and kind of horrifyingly) demonstrates just how much more highly people value a work when it is attributed to a “brand name” composer such as Mozart, Beethoven, or Haydn.

    Among many other examples, Spitzer takes the Symphonie Concertante for Winds in E-flat, which had been attributed to Mozart for over a century before being expelled from the Kochel catalog as dubious and spurious. Spitzer found over a hundred written references to the work, ranging from scholarly articles to program and liner notes, and finds concludes that there is a strong correlation between praise for the work as masterful when it was attributed to Mozart, and condemned of the work as poorly written when it was no longer believed Mozart wrote it.

    He finds the same thing with a number of other works, such as Hofstetter string quartets that had been previously attributed as the Opus 3 of Haydn, and concludes that:

    “If people could continue to listen to the Opus 3 quartets – now as Hofstetter – and to derive just as much satisfaction from them as when they were of Haydn, this might suggest that there was never anything so special about Haydn’s authorship in the first place.”

    But rather than enjoy the music regardless of byline it’s almost as if the preponderance of the classical music audience and academia is more interested in consuming (and professing the superiority of) brand names than in listening to music as music, which is quite a depressing prospect for those of us non-brand name composers.

    KG replies: Fascinating examples, and very well said. Thanks for the information.

  6. jk says

    “…more likely to reside in the surface elements that millions of listeners have responded to.”
    This is a great point. I think we’re often mislead by our training to think of musical form as an abstract, pitch-driven thing–when really (in my opinion, at the moment) it’s a kind of drama. If that C# went eventually to D natural–so much the better! The musical drama would remain intact. I think that’s a big part of why operas “work,” despite there often being no rational tonal relationships from one number to the next.