For Even the “Most Stupid Persons”

For Even the “Most Stupid Persons”

Although the majority of my professional life is devoted to listening to new music and advocating for its greater dissemination (and when I’m not engrossed in the new music of others, I work at creating some new music of my own), I also try to devote time each week to listening to older music. This year I have gone on listening binges with music ranging from Monteverdi madrigals and Muzio Clementi keyboard sonatas to chamber music by York Bowen and Dora Pejačević. And, believe it or not, despite my periodic outbursts about how overplayed his music is, I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my listening time this year to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I began the year listening to all 32 piano sonatas in order, then the 10 violin and 5 cello sonatas, and most recently the 9 symphonies and 16 string quartets (plus the Große Fuge). It turns out that all that Beethoven listening was fortuitous since, believe it or not, I’ve actually been invited to talk about his music and the music of Shostakovich in Cleveland next month.

Shostakovich has been a composer I have admired since I was in high school. I still remember laughing the first time I heard the William Tell Overture erupt in the opening movement of his very last symphony (which seemed a sonic assault straight out of Charles Ives). And a tune worm I have never gotten completely out of my head is the calm, constantly repeating melody that keeps shifting instrumentation at the very end of his otherwise confrontational Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar,’ a setting of texts critical of Soviet social policies that was pretty much banned throughout the Eastern Bloc for nearly a decade. But I must confess that Beethoven had always been something of a bête noir for me. Most of his themes seemed insipid, little more than arpeggiated triads and scales. And mind you, I have loved In C, Einstein on the Beach, and pretty much all of minimalism since the first hearing! I think the difference with the minimalists, however, is that by the time this music evolved, tonality had evolved past its triadic fixation and seventh chords had become integrally woven into harmony. That was certainly true for most of the pop music playing around me growing up in the early 1970s, over two hundred years after Beethoven was born. Every song I heard seemed saturated with seventh chords, particularly major seventh chords (e.g. Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” “Day By Day” from the cast album of the Broadway musical Godspell, “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” or just about anything else ever done by Stevie Wonder, etc.). In fact, the first piece of Beethoven’s that I felt any affinity toward was the Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ which, as it turned out, has an inverted major seventh chord blare seven times at the climax of the development of the first movement. It must have completely unnerved listeners back in 1804, but when I first heard it, I just wished he would have kept repeating it even longer!

Beethoven's Major Seventh

Franz Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s entire ‘Eroica’ for solo piano, so grab a keyboard and bang out the amazing first inversion major seventh chord that repeats seven times at the end of this phrase. For my aesthetic sensibilities, it is a complete composition on its own.

Anyway, over the years I came to love many of Beethoven’s pieces—the Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastorale,’ the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and that Große Fuge. Still, whenever I took the time to think about the melodic content in just about all of his pieces, it was still all reducible to triads and scales. It seemed too easy and lacking in suspense. Most of the melodies that have stayed lodged in my brain over the years, whether those composed by others or those I have fashioned myself, are filled with surprise leaps. I remember reading years ago that the famous theme of the Ninth Symphony, which is all just ascending and descending scale fragments except for its third phrase, originally contained nothing but scalar movement throughout and Beethoven labored for years over the final version. And I thought at the time: Would that he had labored as intensely on his other melodies.

I’ve mostly gotten over my lack of appreciation for the way Beethoven constructed his melodies, which is ironically due to my John Cage-inspired goal to be open and welcoming of all possible musical constructions. But last week I came across a quote in an 1896 book about the Beethoven symphonies by George Grove (the original editor of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians) that made me think of Beethoven’s themes in a totally new way:

In many of the Sonatas and Symphonies […] the chief subject consists […] of little more than the notes of the common chord of the tonic repeated; ‘so that’ in the words of an eminent musician of the present day [Dr. Hubert Parry], ‘the principle key shall be so strongly established that even the most stupid persons shall be able to realize it.’

—George Grove, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (Novello, Ewer & Co. 1896), p. 6.
[Note: That eminent musician to whom Grove refers above is the composer Dr. Hubert Parry (1848-1918), whose comments, according to a footnote in Grove’s text, were first published in the Proceedings of Musical Association XV, p. 23. Thus far I’ve been unsuccessful at tracking down that volume, so any leads would be appreciated.]

Admittedly, the tone of these words might come across as somewhat pejorative to a 21st-century reader. (Who are those “most stupid persons” anyway?) But if you can get past the verbiage, I think there’s a real insight about composition here, one that is still relevant to composers in our own time. If in fact the goal of these melodies–rather than their being the goal in and of themselves–is to get us to hear all the at-the-time revolutionary things that Beethoven was doing with modulations, orchestration, etc., then they are a means to a far more significant end, at least for him as a composer. Had the earliest experiments in serialism or indeterminacy been as easy to unpack, as it were, perhaps there might be wider appreciation for this music among a much broader range of listeners. One of the only pieces of twelve-tone music I know which clearly states the row at the very onset is Roger Sessions’s Eighth Symphony, although how it develops from there is hardly discernible at first listening. Then again, many of Julian Carrillo’s microtonal compositions go out of their way to introduce listeners to the ultrachromatic scales they employ—many passages are nothing more than descending scales. And yet, Carrillo’s music never caught on the way Beethoven’s has. Of course, some of Beethoven’s music took a long time to catch on, but ultimately it did.

For my entire life I have tried to reconcile my devotion to experimentation with a desire to create things that people could instantly appreciate and love. It is a never-ending balancing act. At this late date, Beethoven might actually be a more valuable role model than I had ever realized before.

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13 thoughts on “For Even the “Most Stupid Persons”

  1. Bill Alves

    Hi Frank,

    I just downloaded a copy of the article with Parry’s quote. (The page number is incorrect. It should be 28, not 23). Email me for a copy.

  2. Benno Von Archimboldi

    Frank, what’s the point of this article? Beethoven wrote motifs based on scalar patterns and triads, so what. And that establishes the key in a way even the stupidest people in the planet can realize it. I don’t know about that one–depends in the level of stupidity. But that’s not the only reason why some (not all, or not a majority) of Beethoven’s themes favor conciseness and simplicity–and I guess YOU didn’t realize that. You talk about the Grosse Fugue and you tell me that his themes are insipid? What about the complex melodic lines in the slow movements of the late quartets and piano sonatas? Did you really listen carefully to all you said you did, or did you use Beethoven’s music as background for writing such insipid and insignificant pieces like this one here?

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      I knew I’d hit a nerve with some folks for writing that once upon a time Beethoven’s themes “seemed insipid” to me. There are some ideas that are still taboo to express in certain quarters even when expressed in the past tense. You certainly have the right to think that my essay above is “insipid” for describing how I felt about this music when I first listened to it, but I think you are missing the point of why i wrote this in the first place. The point is that, according to Parry via Grove, Beethoven’s seemingly insipid themes (again to me at the time) were intentionally designed to be as basic as possible in order for the more radical aspects of Beethoven’s music to be more readily discernible to people. My point was that there’s a lesson in this for any composer of an experimental inclination: Find a way to set up the new ideas you are trying to get folks to pay attention to. No one is bothered by those radical modulation etc. nowadays with good reason. THAT was my point.

      As someone whose pseudonym evokes one of the most innovative painters of the Italian renaissance, an artist who also got across complex ideas through simple means, it seems like a point for which you might have some sympathies.

      P.S.: Then again, since that pseudonym was borrowed from what has been described as one of the most densely layered novels of the early 21st century–an unread copy of which I see on my shelf every morning glaring at me, making me feel guilty (since all I have read of Bolaño’s writing thus far is the extraordinary Nazi Literature in the Americas)–maybe not.

      1. Daniel

        The idea that Beethoven consciously decided to make themes simple so that the more experimental things are more understandable is far fetched to me. I view his simple themes to be a result of his musical personality and style rather than an intentional attempt to keep them simple. Mozart had a gift for beautiful, ornamental, long melodies. Beethoven did not, but had a gift for developing smaller motives. To me it is simply a part of his musical personality.

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Thanks Chris (and Bill!),

      Interestingly, from what I have gleaned by just quickly skimming it, the original Parry quote gets into far more details about Beethoven’s modulation process and doesn’t really zero in on his formation of thematic material expressly for that purpose; so equating themes derived from scales or outlined chords with making the music somehow more accessible seems to be George Grove’s idea. When I wrote this essay I was reluctant to publish Grove’s remarks without stating that Parry was his source for them since that is what Grove claimed in his book (albeit only in a footnote offering an incorrect page number for his source, ah 19th century editing standards….). And since I had only read Grove’s comment and couldn’t find the original, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to write about it since it really led to an epiphany for me. As it stands, had I read Parry’s original and not Grove’s spin on it, I don’t think I would have reacted the same way and this essay might never have been written!


  3. John Borstlap

    The musical meaning and expression of Beethoven’s music does not reside in the material itself (scales, triads, harmonic sequences etc.) but in the rhetorical context in which they are placed. This context, which is psychologically constructed as a narrative or an argument, gives life to the simple material which then takes-on an expressive significance which seems to be an inherent quality of the triads and scales. It is as if a simple, basic object has acquired a magical glow, so that we want to look at it again and again (this is the reason that audiences want to listen to Beethoven again and again). But Beethoven’s motives and themes in themselves have also the quality of a concisely shaped form, a ‘Gestalt’, that sticks in the mind. So, both the brilliantly constructed argument / narrative and the strong characterization of the ‘simple’ motives reinforce each other. (The same process can be seen at work in Wagner.)

    The craft to handle this material and to make it ‘speak’, has developed over a long time…: the ‘classical tradition’ stretching from before Haydn to and including R. Strauss. The very neutrality of the simple tonal material in this kind of tradition, the triadic and diatonic nature, later-on extended with ample chromaticism, offers a great freedom to the composer to mould it according to his own taste, the margin for personal interpretation is very big.

    If / when the distinction is understood between the material level of a musical ‘language’, its style and grammar, and the psychological level (expression, narrative etc.), then we can better understand why music like Beethoven’s can ‘speak’ so convincingly, even over such long time span since its creation. The magic of genius becomes then something understood, and is then not less, but more interesting because more subtle and musically stimulating for other composers.

  4. Elaine Fine

    When I programmed music for a radio station many years ago, in my foolish relative youth, I made a point to just keep Beethoven in light rotation, so in the course of three years I might have played each of his symphonies once, if even that often. I did it because I knew them too well, having spent many a Beethoven Weekends at Tanglewood, and there was so much music I didn’t know that I figured should get air time. I reduced Beethoven to his triadic material, enjoying those major sevenths you mention, but otherwise found more substance in all that was not Beethoven.

    Then, at the age of 30 (!), I discovered the string quartets. Then I played in a string quartet and I got to grow as a string player through practicing and rehearsing some of them. Then I began to write music seriously. Then I got to play the viola parts of the symphonies, and I began to marvel at the orchestration all around me. Then came the piano sonatas, which I learned through Brendel and Richter. Practicing and performing the violin sonatas taught me more about music than I ever thought I could learn from a single composer.

  5. Richard Friedman

    I’ve always found that andy work of music, art, literature, needs to be experienced within the context of the world that produced it. So listening to Beethoven with 21st C sensibilities is not going to work very well. Sounds too much like a stuffed shirt. But within the context of the art/music/literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it makes perfect sense, and is supremely profound. For me, the late quartets and piano sonatas are profound works of art that reveal something new with each hearing. I discovered them (and my own resonance with them) in my early teens, and I have grown up with those works, even tho my listening and involvement currently tends to focus on living composers. Still, a chance hearing of the Op 135 quartet always knocks me off my feet.

    BTW, I highly recommend a “Beethoven: His Spiritual Development” by J. W. N. Sullivan, published in 1927 and reprinted many times. ISBN10: 0394701003

    It’s a book I constantly go back to.

    1. John Borstlap

      I don’t agree. Music from other periods carry, if they are good, a strong context in themselves, for which understanding / knowing the cultural context of the period is not necessary. Knowing things around the work definitely helps to understand the music, of course, but understanding is, as I see it, not dependent upon circumstantial information. I remember hearing pieces, then unknown to me when I was young, which made a very sporong impression, while I did not know where they came from – like Szymanowski’s ‘Stabat Mater’ or an unexpected Shostakovich symphony. On an ignorant but musically sensitive person a Beethoven piece mostly makes a strong impact because of the worked-through narrative and brilliant dynamics of tonalities, gestures and instrumentation. It happens that someone, totally ignorant of classical music and with only silly popmusic in the ear, is unexpectedly picking-up some fragment of a classical piece and has then the strange experience that the music ‘tells’ him or her something about him/herself. Those encounters can be quite touching.

    2. Michael

      Regarding the relevance of the Sullivan book, here are some personal comments I made about it recently:

      Whereas junior high found me lunching invariably with the same group of five like-minded friends, I had become more introspective upon entering high school, and took to a hasty noontime repast followed by immersing myself in the school library. Hungry for knowledge and new experiences, I hunted among the biography, history, poetry, music, arts, and travel volumes for material that promised to captivate my youthful intensity. One publication enticed me above all. It seemed more fantastical than any story in Greek or Norse mythology, or even the finest and most exciting films I had seen. It was an appreciation and aesthetic analysis of Beethoven, subtitled “His Spiritual Development,” by J.W.N. Sullivan. Never before had I heard or read such passionate and insightful speculation about the great challenges and promise one might attempt by pursuing what it meant to be a composer of classical music. Here was an unmatchable opportunity in life to unify spirit, intellect and emotion by melding into sound spheres of creativity that seemed to reach as far as endless space. And, above all, Sullivan managed to humanize Beethoven, rendering apparent that the composer’s accomplishments had much to do with training, practice, focus, and concentration, even though much of this was imparted by a brutal upbringing. Without a doubt, this book awakened in myself the idea of becoming a composer, a pursuit I began to follow from that day on with a new compass for my adventurous musical impulses.


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