Ludwig van – Beethoven's legacy 200 years on…

Monday, September 5, 2011

In the October issue of Gramophone, Philip Clark interviews Riccardo Chailly about the Beethoven symphonies to coincide with the Italian maestro's first recorded cycle, for Decca; here Philip explores how Beethoven has freed, intimidated, or simply infuriated, composers who followed...

This theoretically never-ending stretch of cyberspace is scary: I have no idea how to start this essay. Ideally I would like to have snared you all in with a devastatingly smart, not at all crass, not boringly biographical, not riddled with stuff we already know, introductory paragraph that somehow encapsulated Beethoven’s significance and his unusually expanded compositional cosmology. But, so far, it’s not gone well. Beethoven knew how to start a piece like nobody else; Beethoven as music journalist would have grabbed your attention with a linguistic ‘der der der DA’, or with a digressive but tautly harmonised sentence that meandered with a purpose, the digressions digressing digressively, rhyming with sounds implanted earlier into the sentence as it headed towards its inscrutably inconclusive concrete conclusion, just like the first movement of his Moonlight Sonata. Whereas I’ve drawn a blank and must hide behind expressively done-to-death phraseology. As if you need me to tell you about Beethoven’s 'significance' and his 'unusually expanded' compositional cosmology.

There’s everything to say and nothing left to say. When the improvising guitarist Derek Bailey was asked by a long since defunct publication, along with about 30 other musicians, ‘what happens to your awareness of time during improvisation?’ he resisted the temptation to snowblind readers with theory. 'The ticks turn into tocks and the tocks turn into ticks,' he fired back. You want to know what happens to my awareness of time during improvisation? Listen to my improvisations! The question deflected with ego-deflating aphorism; a musician’s answer. It’s worth trying to empathise with Bailey’s reasoning. Inside his imagination he’d spent decades meticulously adding up an approach to music-making that questioned every assumption about what music was for, how it should be played and why people should want to play it. Did he now have to find language to illuminate an art that by nature was unstable, allusive, open-ended?

How to find a language, that’s the problem. Beethoven’s compositional strategy was to open up areas of doubt between his initial perception of a piece, and how during the process of writing, the material he had birthed might outgrow his imagination. Had he not subjected himself to the brain-ache of forensically reviewing ideas, shaving thoughts down to their dynamic essence, streamlined calls-to-attention like the opening bars of the Eroica and Fifth symphonies might have remained beyond him. He found comfort within discomfort. Composing wasn’t about music as he knew it could already function, creating archetypes of Classical perfection, giving the people what they wanted. Beethoven’s ideas obliged the language through which they were expressed to evolve and change; to tell us things about musical language we could not have known, because nobody had been bold enough to take us there before. 

Musicians answer questions about music with music; writers answer questions about music by cutting a V through the old narratives and finding language appropriate to the task, especially about music that itself is striving to advance musical syntax and grammar. And – good news! – this essay is starting to find structural legs. I’m thinking my essay ought to be about Beethoven’s contemporary resonance: how Beethoven sucked composers into his orbit and obliged them to deal with revolutions in language. I want to tell you about Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, Mauricio Kagel’s Ludwig van, Pierre Henry’s La Dixième Symphonie De Beethoven, Ornette Coleman’s The Fifth of Beethoven: about how Beethoven was a catalyst for Michael Tippett but a negative point of departure for John Cage – ideas I have that still need to find their place within the ache of writing. (Although, if this were music, I could bump that moment of realisation to the top as my devastatingly smart opening flourish and you’d never know. I’ve just edited a chunk of text out of the second paragraph in fact. When Derek Bailey died in 2005, the pianist Steve Beresford said in The Wire magazine 'When I think of the guitar, I hear Derek', which I thought would be a nice way of highlighting the pith of Bailey’s own sentence. Annoyingly, the paragraph became top-heavy. But, as Beethoven teaches us, once a structural context has been established, material can be shifted around. The narrative can comment on itself. Ideas can be placed inside brackets.)

In 2004 the Norwegian sound artist Leif Inge, inspired by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s film installation 24 Hour Psycho, did something extraordinary. He electronically stretched Béla Drahos’s Naxos recording of Beethoven’s Ninth over a 24-hour span: the Adagio lasted for 330 minutes, the whole symphony now 24-times longer than a ‘realtime’ acoustic performance. Inge called his piece 9 Beet Stretch, although this title has often been interpreted as  9  B e e t  S t r e t c h. 'Augmenting music, or what it would imply for music if the duration changed radically was in my mind for a long time,' Inge tells me by e-mail. 'But Gordon’s piece gave my ideas a conceptual frame.' 24 Hour Psycho reclaimed the materiality of Hitchcock’s movie as film. A victim of its own cult, Psycho is obsessively dissected to the point where viewing it as anything grander than a sequence of ‘must see’ set pieces glued together by ‘lesser’ transitionary scenes has become challenging. Its moment-on-moment integrity has been destroyed by overexposure; but by spiking its narrative and refocusing attention on the internal nuts-and-bolts of Hitchcock’s craft, Gordon reconnects Psycho with the idea of suspense.

The lessons for Beethoven are easily applied. Think ‘Choral Symphony’, think a memory-sludge of melodic hooks, harmonic sequences and stolen moments of orchestration. Our tendency is to cherry-pick that which is easily assimilated – those shower scene moments – from out of their formal context: ‘tunes’ that, to further muddy the distance between whatever Beethoven’s Ninth meant in 1824 and now, spiv advertising execs and compliers of Classical Chill Out anthologies abuse-use to shift their products, actively encouraging amnesia about Beethoven’s intended context. Serious-minded interpreters attempt to get ever closer to that intended context; Beethoven’s popular image takes us further away. 

That painting. An 1819 Beethoven portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler: Phil Spector hair, Superman square jaw, Harry Hill collar, Jason King red ruff – Google it to see how many later portraits are portraits of that portrait, rather than of Beethoven the man. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1970. John Cleese’s Beethoven yelling in a cartoon-Nazi voice ‘shut your face’ at Graham Chapham in drag, aka Mrs Beethoven, who has asked him to pass the sugar bowl. He’s fathoming the opening bars of his Fifth Symphony (of course) and couldn’t care less about sugar. Not that Beethoven had a wife. Mythology getting sweet on itself. 

'9 Beet Stretch is feasting in a very Warholian sense on the fact that Beethoven’s Ninth is the icon it is,' Inge explains. I ask how consciously his piece deals in the paradox idea that iconic pieces of art become submerged within tradition, thereby compromising what makes them iconic in the first place. 'I was stretching art history equally as stretching a specific piece of music,” he responds. “You are right that icons of this stature have a problem of reception, and I may well be seen as part of that problem. But icons submerged by tradition are very available for reworking. At best I can hope maybe to "de-submerge" the symphony. That said, the European Union’s attempt to make "Ode to Joy" its anthem is sadder for Beethoven’s Ninth than my stretching it. In my radical reworking, at least it’s unlikely to become an anthem.'

Inge tells me that 9 Beet Stretch can be absorbed in the abstract as a day-long soundscape, or musicians can plot its progress with a score: 'It is both a long step from its origin and a small one,' he says. When The Guardian quizzed Douglas Gordon about questions of authorship, he was in no doubt about whose piece 24 Hour Psycho really is: 'I wanted to maintain the authorship of Hitchcock so when an audience would see my 24 Hour Psycho they would think much more about Hitchcock and much less, or not at all, about me.' 

And the same is true of 9 Beet Stretch. In 24 Hour Psycho the slowed-down camera focuses for an age around Janet Leigh’s mouth as her character is knifed in the shower by Norman Bates. We become voyeurs of a transition between her normal life, her terrified realisation and her resignation to appalling fate: passive cinemagoers no longer. In Leif’s piece subliminal detail is similarly heightened: the whiplash of sticks against timpani becomes a sonic boom, spittle gargles inside the soprano’s windpipe, bows reverberate against strings not with conservatoire refinement but like a drill bit felling a tree. The change between consonant fundamentals and dissonant harmonic outposts in the Adagio becomes a glacial process, an utterly beautiful sound. Extreme angles that take us to the marrow of Beethoven’s art, his revolution in sound.

Inge merely stretches a symphony, but Beethoven stretched a whole civilisation’s understanding of harmony and musical syntax. In Mauricio Kagel’s film Ludwig van, Beethoven turns up at Bonn Station in 1970 to survey how the authorities are marking his bicentenary. At first it’s a laugh a minute. Beethoven himself operates the camera and all we see of the-greatest-composer-the-world-has-ever-known is his feet, daintily sheathed inside neatly buckled shoes. He arrives at the Beethovenhaus, but road works are obscuring his path and he hotfoots it over barriers to reach what was once his own front door, where an officious doorman insists he buy a ticket. Leaping over barriers to reach home, paying to visit a museum to a once living culture – oh, the symbolism!

Then Kagel’s film turns dark. To the person in the street nothing is as totemic of classical music as a bust of Beethoven; now this make-believe Ludwig stumbles into a room packed with rotting sculptures of his own likeness, crumbling and decaying. The camera leads Beethoven towards his own music-room and this fantasy about music magically turns into music. Haphazardly placed fragments of Beethoven scores are pasted around every wall and furniture surface. Different works dovetail through each other, a pleasing visual pun when ‘the music’ folds around a table edge but ‘the sound’ keeps moving forwards. A throaty ensemble plays these fragments by taking cues from the tracking of the camera; clefs and key signatures aren’t necessarily lined up against the appropriate piece, sonatas and symphonies sound together; sustained melody lines, snacked at by a sometimes clearly mismatched instrument, appear in the ‘wrong’ register. 

An interview with Kagel in 2003, both of us huddled into the book-lined snug of Amsterdam’s Ambassade Hotel, revealed something about this wanton need to play fast-and-loose with music history. 'Relating ideas to tradition but then starting again from the beginning provides me with creative energy and possibility for inventiveness,' he told me. 'There is an empty space, and in this space I am putting the remains of music. This is quite different from accumulating music as quotation; in a composition I consider each quotation a "mis-success".' Kagel muses that composers don’t bother quoting from works that nobody knows; Ludwig van is the opposite of quotation. Opportunistic quotation kills music stone dead by putting the compositional imperative 'inside inverted commas'. But the conceit behind Ludwig van liberates  raw Beethovenian matter from an overload of cultural debris which comes with 200 years of nonstop adulation. Beethoven is creatively fertile again. 


Ideas bunching together at the end of the First Symphony’s opening movement, the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata: when writing properly hits its groove, the thing you’re writing writes you. Two thousand words ago I was depressed and anxious, caught between having too much to say but not yet having defined a context in which to say it. But now the structural scaffolding is in place. The exposition of basic subject groups has been achieved, and now’s the time for a fugue of developmental fantasy. 

'There is an ‘oracle’ at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony – in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages.' In Amsterdam’s Ambassade Hotel, Maurico Kagel – who brought Ludwig van Beethoven back to life – is shiny bald and bearded all of a sudden. He starts talking about ‘his’ Concord Sonata and I realise I’m interviewing Charles Ives; my imagination is Kagelling Kagel. Kagel, who in his St Bach Passion made Bach the narrator of his own life story, who in Hétèrophonie divided his orchestra up into sub-sections determined by archetypal orchestral timbres explaining that, like an organ, the orchestra could produce a ‘Schoenberg stop’ or a ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune stop’ is channeling bits of Ives’s Essays Before A Sonata as answers to my questions about ‘his’ most famous piano piece, and its spiritual connection to Beethoven.

Charles, by the time you’d finished the first version of the Concord Sonata, sometime during 1920 I believe, the Transcendental poets to whom the work is dedicated – Emerson, Hawthorn, Alcott and Thoreau – had been dead for 50 years but your piece suggests that their philosophy endures? Kagel, forgetting himself for a second, begins replying in his utterly ‘him’ South American with slight German intonation voice, then gulps, pushes an ‘Ives’ stop and begins enunciating in the most spot-on Connecticut accent you ever heard. 'Sure.' The narrative fabric of your piece – those quotes from hymns, ragtime, Yankee folklore – is framed by references to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth and the Hammerklavier Sonata. Why Beethoven? What does he symbolise here?

'The beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth? Well, we would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater human-message of destiny, and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations, the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened – and the human become the Divine!' Emerson’s revelations? You perceive a lineage with Beethoven’s spiritual message? 'Although a great poet and prophet, he is greater, possibly, as an invader of the unknown – America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities. We see him standing on a summit, at the door of the infinite where many men do not care to climb.'

Ives becomes restless, troubled, as he presses his next point. 'You see, some accuse Brahms’ orchestration of being muddy. This may be a good name for a first impression of it. But if it should seem less so, he might not be saying what he thought. The mud may be a form of sincerity which demands that the heart be translated, rather than handed around through the pit. A clearer scoring might have lowered the thought.' Interesting. So a density of ideas, which some might term ‘muddy’, in fact is an explicit acknowledgement that ideas worth striving for are ambiguous and dissonant? Is that why the Concord Sonata is expressed not so much as a single stream-of-consciousness but as a stream of many simultaneously developing, colliding, mutually commentating streams of consciousness? A principle of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the scale of musical structure, like in the Eroica Symphony or Beethoven’s late string quartets? 

'It is true that art is founded on something that has to do with those kinds of human interests which we call knowledge and morality – knowledge, not in the sense of erudition, but as a kind of creation or creative truth. This allows us to assume that the higher and more important value of this dualism is composed of what may be called reality, quality, spirit, or substance against the lower value of form, quantity, or manner.' Ives tells me about Hawthorne, how, as he puts it 'he quite naturally and unconsciously reaches out over his subject to his reader.' He never 'shows his hand in getting his audience. His intellectual muscles are too strong to let him become over-influenced, as Ravel and Stravinsky seem to be by the morbidly fascinating – a kind of false beauty obtained by artistic monotony.'

But I’m still slightly puzzled by ‘why’ – why the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony? An ‘oracle’, fair enough, but, Charles, what was the message that Beethoven expressed that you’re trying to re-harvest? Am I right to hear Beethoven symbolising something beyond the everyday, rootsy atmosphere of your references to wayback Americana? Ives answers by way of anecdote: 'There sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony. There is a commonplace beauty about "Orchard House" – a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness – a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity – the self-sacrificing part of the ideal – a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa.'

And Charles, your harmony: the minor opening of Beethoven’s symphony transformed with graceful harmonies at the start of 'The Alcotts' movement; elsewhere heard as a tonal point of punctuation, melodic intervals stretched? “All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human faith melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively, reflecting an innate hope – a common interest in common things and common men – a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethovenlike sublimity, and with, may we say, a vehemence and perseverance – for that part of greatness is not so difficult to emulate.' Maurico Kagel answering Charles Ives’s unanswered questions.


A slow movement: TS Eliot, Michael Tippett, John Cage. Tippett on his Fourth Quartet: “When I asked TS Eliot why he had called his late poems Four Quartets, he told me the title arose from his passionate love and admiration for Beethoven’s late quartets. I shared his passion; and certainly my own Quartet 4 relates to that world of intimate and intense musical sound.' Eliot on his Four Quartets: 'I want to get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his later works, strove to get beyond music.' 

Tippett often described Eliot as his 'spiritual godfather'. They bonded over a mutual Beethoven obsession and became intimate friends. When Tippett was looking for his libretto for A Child of Our Time, Eliot was his natural first choice: but such was the poet’s sensitivity about appropriateness of language, he advised the composer to write his own libretto, fearing his poetry and Tippett’s music would trip each other up. Eliot loved Beethoven’s music unconditionally, and regarded the Coriolan Overture and Seventh Symphony especially highly, while finding the String Quartet No 15 in A minor 'quite inexhaustible to study'. In his 1991 autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues, Tippett recalls hearing Henry Wood conducting Beethoven symphonies when he was a student at the Royal College of Music: 'Their impact was devastating. Beethoven became my musical god and has remained so ever since.' To RCM professor RO Morris, Tippett declares 'only Beethoven’s quartets matter, there is little of interest in Mozart’s'. 

It’s a pity Tippett doesn’t reveal more about his conversations with Eliot – Eliot invites Tippett to tea at Faber & Faber where they talk about 'the nature of poetry and drama' and later Eliot tells Tippett that both have a 'second art', his being music and Tippett’s literature. But nothing else is said in his autobiography about their mutual love of Beethoven. 

Flip forward three decades and Tippett is at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival listening to Pierre Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli. Despite the surface ‘busyness’ of the textures, Tippett feels let down: Boulez’s harmonic thinking prevents the music from arriving anywhere from anywhere; it is 'static'. The philosophical chasm Tippett has identified between directional harmony, which as a Beethovenian he believes in, against various shades of atonal/serial/chance and texture-based composition where modulation through harmony becomes a theoretical leap of faith becomes the structural basis of a new symphony; his Third, in which he employs the terms ‘Arrest’ to indicate music of compressed energy and ‘Movement’ for the release, or ‘explosion’, of this energy. 

Tippett's Third Symphony today is remembered more for his English hipster tendencies: the written out blues, complete with cod-Miles Davis flugelhorn obbligato, that winds down active energy in the finale. But the symphony is also one of his most Beethovenian works. Quoting the opening bars of the fifth movement of the Choral Symphony during his own finale could, as Kagel put it, be viewed as a ‘mis-success’, but the flow of energy, torched by ‘Arrest’ turning into ‘Movement’, is the most stirring and inspired rethinks of what a symphony could be since Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. Beethoven handed Tippett a moral framework through which to view music, and a reason to write it.

As Pli Selon Pli was boring a symphony out of Tippett, John Cage was also reviewing his relationship to the European mother music. Rozart Mix, written the same year, and HPSCHD, completed in 1967, both used chance-based procedures to shred ‘Classical’ source material: Rozart Mix, for 88 tape loops, mulched Mozart inside a montage of spoken word and other pop and classical sources: HPSCHD (the computer code for ‘harpsichord’) flakes and breaks harpsichord music, or music played on a harpsichord, by Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Gottschalk, Busoni, Schoenberg and by the composer Cage hated more than any other – Beethoven. 

Early in his career, when Cage was reflecting on his music for percussion, he suggested that with Beethoven’s music: 'We are temporarily protected or transported from the noises of everyday life. In the case of percussion music, however, we find that we have mastered or subjugated noise. We become triumphant over it and our ears become sensitive to its beauties.' Subsequently Cage widened the scope of his critique and made it sting: 'With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and Webern they were defined by means of time-lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that we must now ask: was Beethoven right, or are Satie and Webern right? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, had been deadening to the art of music.' 

His message is clear: the problem with Beethoven is that, tracing the harmonic development of material through a work like the Eroica Symphony or Grosse Fuge, where Beethoven is purposefully crashing the thresholds of structure, you’re listening to the sound of Beethoven, not to the sound of sound. This critique of Beethoven was also a backhanded vote of confidence. Beethoven, who imposed his soul and personality so absolutely over the archetypes of Classical form was always going to bug a musician who believed that sound itself ought to be an objective phenomena; he hated Beethoven with the sort of awesome respect that Sherlock Holmes reserved for Professor Moriarty. 

Cage’s late period ‘number pieces’ – where musicians were handed self-sufficient pitch material to be played within a duration indicated in brackets above the stave, encouraging a randomised overlap of evolving parts – socked it to classicists big time, formalising decades of thinking about how sound might occupy space as a concept he labelled ‘anarchic harmony’. The raison d’être behind conventional tonal, directional harmony is precisely that it isn’t anarchic; no matter how ‘out’ the Grosse Fuge or Tippett’s Third Symphony go, the harmony can always return home, even it’s moved a few houses down the street. Cage liberated sound from any obligation to find its way home. A recapitulation of ideas before the brief finale and coda: as Beethoven stretched harmony, and Inge stretched Beethoven, Cage stretched music so that we could hear sound again. 


Finale: Beethoven everywhere. Another interview, Paris 2007, Pierre Henry telling me about his musique concrète soundscape La Dixième Symphonie De Beethoven in which he conjures up up a new ‘Tenth’ Symphony by mulching together the characteristic gestures and equivalent structural points of arrival from Beethoven’s original nine symphonies. The work makes connections between Beethoven’s propulsive rhythmic thrust and Techno beats, and Henry fakes the structure of a classical symphony, ending his occupation of this material by pouring electronically altered fragments of Beethoven over the finale of the Choral Symphony. 'I’m having conversations with Beethoven', he tells me. Helmut Lachenmann’s Gran Torso for string quartet, where string quartet conventions are twisted against themselves, sonorities written to the edge of our ability to perceive them, a title that rhymes with Grosse Fuge? Ornette Coleman’s The Fifth of Beethoven from his album The Art of Improvisers, a rare nod from radical Black America to Old World Classical Europe: Beethoven’s iconic opening with the fifths flattened. Leonard Bernstein marking the fall of Berlin Wall with a Beethoven Ninth; now Ode To Freedom, not Joy. Stanley Kubrick’s Beethoven-Kink in A Clockwork Orange; Beethoven caricatures played on Wendy Carlos’s synths, double tempo, a little bit of the old in-out in-out. Beethoven’s Second to a whole generation of children: a cartoon about a St Bernard puppy. 

Beethoven everywhere. It’s easy to miss the music. Double bar. 

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