Repeating Beethoven

In a comment on my last post, Steve (he doesn’t give any

last name) writes:

Maybe you’d like to riff on this a bit:

[D]o we really return to experience the music we value in

the hope an expectation of hearing something new each time?  On the

contrary, I believe we return because we hear nearly the same thing each time.?

(Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 1995, p.164)

I hadn’t known the Burnham book, and I’m grateful to Steve

for telling me about it. Thanks to Google Books, I was able to look up the

context of this passage, and I’ll quote it at length a little later.

But my reaction? I think it’s silly. Especially when I read

the fuller text! There’s an old pop-spiritual adage, “You can’t step in

the same river twice,” and even though this sounds by now like a shallow

cliché, I think it’s right. (I’m sure there are many people who’ve made the

same point in more depth. One of them is C. S. Lewis, who has a charming take

on it in Perelandra, the second volume of his Christian science fiction


We can’t have the same experience twice. Each time we try to

repeat an experience we had before, we add our memories and our expectations.

And the fact of repetition gets added to the experience. We know we’re

repeating it. Often — certainly in classical music — there’s a great comfort

that comes from this. Especially when you’ve got an entire subculture, as we do

in classical music, in which the central act is repetition, performing the same

masterworks over and over. Everyone knows that this is what’s going on, and a

subliminal sense of this becomes as compelling (at least in my view) — as much

a central part of the experience — as whatever we get from the music itself.

One sign of this was something I remember a critic writing

years ago, about how he went to the New York City Opera to “bask” in Le

nozze di Figaro. He feels that way because he’s heard the piece so often,

and knows how much he loves it. He knows what to expect. He wants to repeat a

feeling that can only exist because he’s repeating it.

In everyday life, this is harmless. If I’m flipping channels

and I come across Independence Day, I always watch a few minutes of it,

basking in my favorite parts — Will Smith yelling “alien asshole!”

and, later, flying the alien spaceship and saying, “I gotta get me one of

these.” Or the moment that got such a big laugh in the movie theater when

I first saw the film, the bit where the US president says the Roswell UFO crash

is a myth, and the creepy national security advisor clears his throat, and says

(I’m paraphrasing), “Well, as a matter of fact, Mr. President…”

I love these moments more each time I see them, but I don’t

think there’s anything wrong with that. I spend very few minutes each year

basking in them, and I still see new movies. The problem comes when an entire

art form consists mainly of basking. Now, I know I’m exaggerating — I know

that new works are in fact performed, and that lesser known old music is done

as well. But I think my exaggeration tells more truth than the many pious

statements about “our great art form” that I’ve heard recently from

people in the orchestra world. (Sorry, everyone. But I really think we need to

look at this.)

Besides, even unfamiliar music can make us bask. You can

hear a Haydn symphony you don’t know, and bask in it because you’ve basked in

other Haydn symphonies. You can hear a Zemlinsky piece, and even if you’ve

never heard Zemlinsky before, you can bask in it because you’ve heard Strauss,

Mahler, and Gurrelieder. The classical music business, as we know it

today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we

want, but we shouldn’t confuse this with art.

Compare movies, where we do plenty of basking (me and Independence

Day), but we also see new films — and, most important, these new films can

hit us where we live, because they mesh with the world we live in.

Here’s a fuller Stephen Burnham quote, for those interested.

Why do we keep listening to our favorite musics? This is a

very simple question that has never been answered adequately by the process

model of the musical experience. Do we really return to experience the music we

value in the hope and expectation of hearing something new each time? On the

contrary, I believe we return because we hear nearly the same thing each time,

because the music becomes for us a magical presence we are eager to experience

again. That we are enabled to enjoy an experience repeatedly precisely because

it remains basically the same may seem a paradoxical argument, and

anti-intellectual in the extreme. But the musical experience is no ordinary

experience; I would go so far to suggest that it is closer to the sense of

uncanny presence felt by Hoffmann than it is to the tracking of a coherent

process, however compelling that process may be.

 Of what does this presence consist? Sustained engagement is

obviously an important part of such a listening experience, registering as a

sense of involvement that persists, in the case of the heroic style, even when

we start to hear Beethoven’s voice assume a narrator’s distance from the

musical process. As noted in chapter 2, being engaged by the present moment

translates into being faced with a presence. This is the source of the music’s

authority: the presence in Beethoven’s music is simultaneously the uncanny

effect of an actual presence and the engaging effect of being acutely alive to

the present moment–at bottom these are the same. Music performs this merger of

subjective presence and objective presence like nothing else. Thus our

expectation of keeping cumulative track of the musical process and then

reporting on it is epiphenomenal to the idea of our involvement in the present

moment. This is not to deny that any present moment in music takes much of its

meaning from what happened earlier and from a sense of what will happen next.

But the primary experience is one of presence.

 This is why we can listen to the music we value so often: it

always brings us to the same place, always invokes the same uncanny presence.

Thus it functions like the unveiling of a Grail whose magic is never

attenuated, no matter how much one analyzes its details. The musical experience

seems to become timeless, because it involves a repeatable sense of place, of

presence. In other words, the thrill of listening to music may be more a matter

of simply being in the world of the piece, being in the presence of the piece.

This is comparable to the pleasure of watching a favorite movie repeatedly. It

is certainly true that we might pick up new details of the unfolding of the

plot with each viewing, but what really keeps us there is the world the movie

creates: we like being there. 

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  1. says

    I’m intrigued by the quasi-judgmental language you use here about the “baskers.” You say “in everyday life, this [basking] is harmless,” with the clear implication that too much basking is harmful to the art. Two quick observations:

    1) The fact that basking is part of the experience doesn’t mean the experience can’t also be rich in many other ways. It’s unfair to oversimplify and suggest this becomes the only or primary purpose of the listening experience. When I heard the recent Rachmaninoff 3rd that I mentioned in another comment, there was certainly basking involved. There was also awe at the jaw-dropping virtuosity on display. There was also a sense of pride in the marvelous execution by a shared community of musicians. There was also a lot else that is hard to articulate. [Insert “dancing about architecture” quote here.] You wrote in response to a previous comment of mine, “We need to specify exactly what those rewards from repeated listening might be. What are we thinking and feeling as we repeatedly hear the piece?” Why do we “need” to be so specific? I get tremendous satisfaction from all sorts of repeated exchanges (such as hugs) with my 3-year-old daughter every day. I feel no need to put the reasons for that into specific words. Maybe bringing a toddler into the equation is a cheap trick, so returning to music, my experience tells me that repeated basking experiences can bring new, unexpected, and meaningful pleasures. I was once giving a listening quiz for a class that included the opening 30 seconds of the 2nd mvt of Beethoven’s 5th. In the moment of the quiz, I found myself so drawn into the unfolding of the opening idea that I couldn’t resist letting it play through the first 50 seconds. In that moment, I heard something new about the way in which the music is put together, but the funny thing is that I’d talked about that process before in class – I’d articulated its power in words, but only in that moment did I feel so completely drawn into it. That’s just the tiniest of examples.

    2) Forgive me for bringing this up again, but isn’t basking a hugely important part of the pop/indie worlds that you seem so intent on having classical musicians understand? I’m guessing you’ll suggest that such basking is more meaningful because it’s part of a connection with a current culture, but I don’t see how that connection is necessarily more important or meaningful than connection with music of the past. For many of us, the reason we keeping returning to Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, etc. is that we believe the meanings transcend their historical time and place and can be felt today – albeit felt differently. (I see no reason to apologize for the fact that I might enjoy Beethoven’s 5th differently than his contemporaries would have. In fact, it would be absurd to pretend that its enormous cultural impact (V-day, etc.) hasn’t become a part of the music. That’s how culture works.) I completely agree with you that the current cultural marketplace makes these experiences a harder sell, but I don’t agree that the experiences are less meaningful or relevant because they have roots in a different time and place. Note, by the way, that even though fans of film and pop music also readily embrace new works, this is partly because they’re still basking in the familiar: familiar actors, stories, conventions, soundtracks, etc. For reasons much too complex to go into here, that’s harder to achieve with new musical works, although it’s worth mentioning that familiar actors (performers) tend to help ease the way.

  2. AR says

    “The classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn’t confuse this with art.”

    What about repeatedly listening to the same recording, especially of a long and complex piece? To fully appreciate the piece and the performance it can take more than one go, just as rereading books will foster a deeper appreciation of their literary value, as opposed to concentrating mostly on the storyline. On the third rereading of Proust I had a much better idea of what the book was about. When I was a teen I went through a period of listening to the 1942 Pinza-Walter Don Giovanni three times a day for a few weeks in a row. No doubt, this was “basking,” but towards the end of these weeks the Don Giovanni I heard was different from the one I had heard the first time. Knowing the music inside out and enjoying a familiar version of it can still be an active artistic experience. Repetition and the familiar are not antithetical to art, they are part of learning and responding to it and become a problem only if/when they suffocate exposure to new works.

    In the previous post a point was made that a personal, original performance is needed for each performance and that a standard mainstream performance is by definition undesirable. I would say that a good and committed performance is needed. When I heard Norrington’s Eroica for the first time I was very impressed by its fresh approach, now I am quite impressed by Pletnev, but it’s because I had already heard many other performances and I can appreciate their input. If these were the first/only performances in my experience, I would have not been able to appreciate the originality. The listening abilities and interests of people knowledgeable about performance history are different from those who listen to the music for the first time. To qualify as art, music demands a committed and sweeping performance, but not necessary a novel one.

    Repeated listening of the kind you describe isn’t basking. I’ve done it many times, most recently with Philip Glass’s astounding new solo cello pieces. And also with almost all of Bob Dylan’s albums, which I put on shuffle on my iPod, so I could be confronted at random with both classic and later Dylan songs, to study their relative strength in the most unbiased way I could think of.

    Of course I agree that only an experienced listener can judge the originality of any performance of a standard work. But that doesn’t mean that the originality — or, maybe to put it another way — the very individual commitment — involved in a performance won’t strike an unseasoned listener. Someone might go to classical concerts occasionally, and hear very good but not especially striking or original or committed performances. Then along comes a concert that just blows this listener away. What changed? Something about the performance, maybe its originality. The unseasoned listener doesn’t know why the performance is different from other performances, but feels that something very different is going on. Example: When I was music editor at Entertainment Weekly, the Three Tenors were on the pop album charts. A photo researcher with no knowledge of classical music was assigned to go through the video of their first concert, to look for possible stills to use, in case we did an article. She hated the performance, and broke off from watching to ask me why possible could possibly like it. The next day I brought in a Franco Corelli CD to play for her. Thirty seconds into “Nessun Dorma” her jaw hit the floor. This she could listen to. She loved it. And fine, she already had the beginnings of a standard of comparison, but if the video had been Corelli instead of we know who, I think her first reaction would have been very different as well. Corelli could wipe the floor with those guys.

  3. Yvonne says

    How then, do we account for the experience of discovering something afresh in music (any music) on repeated listening?

    Just staying within classical music, I add to the riff with a longtime music lover:

    “In the alley behind the [cinema] I learned – happily without realizing I was actually learning something – that I did not need Mickey Mouse…or even the beautiful images of darting violin bows…to make the music enjoyable. I learned that music repaid repeated listening. Most music anyway. The Dance of the House did not get more interesting (though it continued to be fun), but the Bach and the Pastoral Symphony did, and The Rite of Spring, whose sounds I had adored from the beginning, started to reveal intelligible and remembered shapes and patterns. I learned to pay attention, because if I missed something it was gone, at least till the next afternoon. I learned that my focus changed from details to at least something like the whole, from the raisins to the cake. and I learned that there was a lot to head in some of those pieces and that they did not cease to be full of surprises. I could of course not have articulated any of this then.”

    [Michael Steinberg, “How I Fell in Love with Music”]

    And with someone who “switched at 23”:

    “With a classical piece you will always find new things, and they are often dramatically new. In fact, until you’ve heard a piece at least ten times, you pretty much don’t understand it at all. … The complexity results in a much more elongated, extended, and intimate relationship with each piece – you’ll be listening to your favorite pieces for years and still discovering more of their hidden facets.”

    [Ben Smith, “7 Reasons Why Switching to Classical Music is like Switching From Windows to Linux”]


    Generally speaking music is going to demand (and, we trust, reward) repeated listening. Which is what Steinberg at 11 and Smith in his 20s are recognising.

    And they are not alone. There are plenty of us who value being able to return to a performance work – whether it’s music, dance, theatre – not because we want to hear “nearly the same thing” as Burnham suggests, and not because we want the simple comfort of basking in a familiar experience. We really do expect to hear something new that we had not noticed or properly understood previously; to gain some new insight from the context of the programming or the character of the interpretation; perhaps even to have an earlier assessment turned on its head. And our expectations – while not always met – cannot be dashed.

    So this is our challenge: a performing art form in which the new works demand and reward repeated listening (while too rarely getting repeat performances) and the old works demand and reward repeated listening too. The culture and practice of repetition is built in to the character of the music that has been composed and that, if we are honest, many “classical” composers want to write. (Who among us aims for the ephemeral, unless they are confident it will make them a LOT of money?!) But where are we to find time for all this repetition and revisiting while continuing to live in the present? We don’t.

    And so the disconnect widens. All the while the underlying driving motivations remain unchanged and there’s always a Ben Smith who’s discovering Shostakovich and Beethoven or Prokofiev and Haydn for the first time and the next time and the time after that.

    Well, of course good music is worth hearing more than once! See my reply to another comment, where I talk about my recent repeated listening to Philip Glass and Bob Dylan. And when I was young, and learning music, for a while (just for example) I listened to the Beethoven Missa Solemnis every day, in the early Klemperer recording, with Ernst Makjut (I think that was his name) sounding so awful in the tenor solos that I’d wince whenever he’d sing. Not to mention playing long sections of Verdi’s Otello through on the piano, over and over again.

    But repeated serious listening isn’t the same thing as basking. And we don’t know what goes on among classical listeners — what kind of listening they’re doing. I also notice that in most comments about the benefits of repeated listening to classical music, what we get are explorations of the music’s intricacies, not its meaning. Compare rock critics. See how they write about music they’ve heard over and over again. It would seem — from reading writing about both rock and classical music — that repeated classical listening takes you inward, to tiny musical details and your own observation of them, while repeated (serious) pop listening takes you outward, into the world around you.

    And Michael Steinberg, if you ask me, is a very sad example to cite. His later writing is (in my view) insufferably smug, though certainly full of insights. See his program note for Beethoven’s Fifth, where his penetration (or what he thinks is his penetration) into tiny details of the music leads him to commit the intentional fallacy (which I was strongly warned against, when I first began writing, by my rock-critic editors). He thinks he knows what Beethoven thought when he wrote certain passages. In fact, he seems to think he knows it better than Beethoven did.

    The Ben Smith blog entry that Yvonne quotes is wonderfully sweet. You can read it .

  4. Yvonne says

    A postscript re “basking”. A lovely stranger sitting beside me in a concert some years ago nearly made me cry by beaming at me and saying how much she loved to come to orchestral concerts and “just let the music wash over” her. (A shift nurse, she promptly fell into semi-slumber for most of the first half.) I nearly cried because I had programmed the concert.

    When I got to your Haydn sentence I felt a real need to substitute another, more active, verb:

    “You can hear a Haydn symphony you don’t know, and revel in it because you’ve revelled in other Haydn symphonies.”

    Exactly as I did last month when I encountered one of the Op. 20 string quartets at a concert.

    Someone I know tells a sweet story about a woman she observed at a chamber music concert in New York. The program might have been Beethoven – Lutoslawski – Mendelssohn, though maybe i’m misremebering the classic composers involved. Anyhow, the woman slept blissfully through the Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and fidgeted through Lutoslawski, complaining to her friends afterwards about “that ugly modern music.”

    Let me say this again: I’m not saying any kind of listening is right or wrong. Let people enjoy muisc any way they like. But when an entire art form gets into the cultural trouble classical music is having, we need to ask what the problem is.That makes it reasonable to wonder about what’s really going on during a classical performance, and what peoples’ reactions to the music might mean.

  5. robert berger says

    Of course,we all have certain favorite

    works,and favorite recordings of them.

    But listening too much to the same old

    works can make one jaded.I am extremely

    curious to hear works I have never heard

    before,old or new.I thank my lucky stars that

    there is such an incredible variety of

    obscure but interesting music available

    on CD on labels such as Chandos,Naxos,CPO,

    etc.And orchestras and opera companies are not

    just doing the same old things any more,

    but offering enormous variety of old and new music.I feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store.

    So do I!

  6. says

    “I also notice that in most comments about the benefits of repeated listening to classical music, what we get are explorations of the music’s intricacies, not its meaning.”

    That’s because a given piece of music means different things to different people, and for the most part, we don’t really care what other people might think about its meaning. (except for maybe the composer him/herself…but is that line of inquiry not precisely what brings the intentional fallacy into play?)

    I don’t care to read “explorations of the music’s intricacies” either; I’d rather hear them for myself. Nevertheless, it seems both intuitive and well-established that repeated listening leads to a heightened familiarity with the “intricate” details of a piece, so what other description is there to give when asked?

    Stefan, with all respect, what you’re saying here could only be written about an art form which — as practiced today — doesn’t discuss the meaning of what it does, and also leaves listeners in isolation, with everyone finding a private meaning of their own. If, by contrast, this were pop music, where the meaning of things is exuberantly discussed, I think you might say something different.

    So the best answer to your question — “what other description is there to give when asked?” — would be to refer you to some classic rock criticism. Try Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train,” or, in the book “Stranded,” Ariel Swartley’s essay on Springsteen and Lester Bangs’s on Van Morrison. Or Greil’s book on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” an entire volume devoted to a song the author (and the whole world) has heard over and over and over and over again. Or Dave Marsh’s recent book on the second Beatles album (that’s its title). Or Carl Wilson’s reevaluation of Celine Dion, in the 33 1/13 series, “Journey to the End of Taste.” To give just one example of what goes on in these books and essays, Greil goes back to the impact Joan Baez had when people first heard her, discussing music that he (and I) have known for more than 40 years, and finds layers of meaning in it that would escape any purely musical analysis, answering a question I never thought to ask back then in the early ’60s — how can early British folk ballads, sung in a pure soprano voice, implicitly talk about social change to people in 1960s America?

  7. says

    I am surprised you trace the “same river twice” only to C.S.Lewis when it would seem fairer to acknowledge either Heraclitus, Socrates, or Plato, who attributes it to the first of these via the second in his dialogue Cratylus.

    Thanks for filling me in. I knew I didn’t know the original source(s) of the line, and only used the C. S. Lewis take on it as a favorite example. Lewis, as it happens, doesn’t talk about rivers. He has an Earthman alone on Venus — depicted as an Edenic paradise — eat an astounding fruit, and then immediately eat another one, only to learn that he couldn’t repeat the first experience. Lewis (an old-school Oxford don) of course would have known Heraclitus, Socrates, and Plato, and would have known the antecedents of his lesson, though he interprets the idea in a Christian context.