Saturday, September 17, 2011

Beethoven, My Travel Companion

A major part of traveling is the getting there and the getting home. I select books carefully if someone else is doing the driving (or flying), and when I'm the driver I give thought to what is tuned in on the radio or inserted into the CD player. The recent drive home from the beach at the end of Labor Day weekend was bittersweet--the end of the summer season and all--but my classical station was finishing the much-anticipated Classical Countdown, or its top 30 listener requests. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony won the top spot.

My MINI Cooper has a great sound system and I often imagine myself in this bubble of high-fidelity moving through space. No. 9 never sounded so good as it did that day in all its layers and textures and contrasting movements. This may sound goofy, but that old favorite piece of musical genius sang to my melancholy soul. The third movement, the slow one, in particular seemed to take over my consciousness. This experience of full engagement in over seventy minutes of Beethoven caused me to think about his role in my life journey so far. From what I've read, I probably would not have liked the man very much, but his music is a touchstone for me.

As a Music Theory major in Music History class, I remember having the nicest professor for the one semester out of the four that we studied the Classical Era. Medieval/Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic/20th Century were tough. We endured bitter professors who displayed no passion for the subject matter and inspired us to rename those courses 'Music Misery.' I'm here to tell you, umpteen years later, their intimidating, no-nonsense approach was not any more effective than the kind and gentle professor. Having that sweet, knowledgeable Dr. Meyer guide us through the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporaries was pure joy. Lesson learned.

In graduate school for Music Theory, we focused more on form and interpretation than individual chords and themes. Dr. Archibald blew the roof off the place when he performed Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata (Op. 53) for us in class. This might have been the single most inspirational moment of any of my Music Theory classes. I sat in awe as we dissected the piece after that, labeling the chords, themes and sections of the piece and talking about what was going on in Beethoven's life when he was composing it. Wow. Dr. Archibald was also my thesis advisor. I chose Beethoven's Quintet for Winds, Op. 16, an early work, because there wasn't much scholarship on it yet. I worked for two semesters on that piece analyzing every second of it. I'll never forget Dr. Archibald coaching me to consider the piece of music, and my analysis, as an organic thing growing in time. True that.

That musical education I put so much time into attaining is usually packed away with utmost care in some storage area of my brain. The experience of the Ninth Symphony in the car caused me to go rifling through my books, scores, and notebooks to reminisce about my glory days as a music theory student. The hearing of the Ninth Symphony encouraged me to do some reading which reminded me how Beethoven was a master at using themes and motifs to create impressions. He called himself a 'tone poet' (Tondichter in his own German). His music did not tell a story literally, but these impressions emerge as fanfares and pastoral moments with foreshadowings, reminiscences, and developments of these moments to create form. The impression you get from your listening of the Ninth Symphony will differ from mine just as von Karajan's recorded interpretation will differ from Muti's. It may be simply an aurally pleasing succession of sounds to us, or it could tell us a story. Wilhelm von Lenz wrote that the story told by No. 9 is the history of the universe with the first movement representing Creation. Could be. One thing is sure even to anyone who doesn't understand German or read music: the symphony is an incredible seventy-plus-minute journey to a joyful destination.


WolfieWolfgang (Colin Bell) said...

Great stuff Margaret. I had no idea that you had studied music - it was about the only thing we didn't discuss when we met! It was my first serious further education subject too so I know just what you meant about those professors. Nobody does what Beethoven does any better and I suspect he is "about" all those different things that people imagine because he is tuned into that heroic progression from darkness to light, anguish to joy, depression to hope etc. that colours either our experience or at least our emotional hope for life even if we are less than optimistic about things ending happily. He always takes me "there" too - funnily enough nowhere more than in the 'Waldstein" so I can imagine how inspirational that performance must have been for you. I have fond American memories of the Ninth as I was lucky enough once to hear it performed on a sparklingly starry night by the LA Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn (who was very good) in the Hollywood Bowl - looking up at the sky during the music certainly gave it another dimension for me. Wonderful.

Margaret said...

Ha, Colin, you studied music, too?! That's very funny. Beethoven's music represents different meanings to different people. A true masterpiece like No. 9 can speak differently to the same person over the course of their life. I never compared the transformation theme to a journey before, but I'm liking how that turned out. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!