Every summer I undertake a creative project that either moves me into a totally new conceptual landscape or else takes me back to one that I’ve been to before to let me rediscover it anew. Last summer my project was Beethoven, specifically his symphonies—all nine of them to be exact. I took nine weeks of my summer and gave one week to each symphony, not only listening to the symphony-of-the-week at least once each day, but also throwing myself into everything I could read about the symphony, including scoring, contemporary reviews, biographical notes, and historical commentaries. I could write a book out of my musical notes from that summer, but this is obviously not the place to do that. Instead, here are a few points to ponder that emerged from my encounters with Beethoven.
1. We need to stop using the term “classical music.” It gives the wrong impression. Instead, I suggest we refer to it simply as orchestral music. Classical music gives rise to the stereotype that everything that came before the modern era is somehow “old timey” music, the music of intellectuals and elites, the music of dead white men, the music of a bygone era fit only for conservatives, scholars, and anti-modes curmudgeons. Aside from the fact that people are still scoring orchestral music today (which means it is not a genre only of the past), we have a tendency to generalize orchestral music into one historical genre, as if somehow orchestral music was created at the moment of the big bang and continued until we rebellious moderns overthrew that stale musical relic of the past. Orchestral music, like fashion, has its own historical trends and developments. One can follow new developments even just going from Beethoven’s first symphony to his last. In short, regardless of which type of music you like, orchestral music deserve a fresh listen. It’s a tonal wonderland.
2. While we might like to think that rock n’ roll came and smashed grandpa’s music to bits with its brash and noisy musical uprising, Beethoven was in many ways just as much of a rebel in his own time, orchestral music’s version of the rebellious bad boy, so to speak. Long before Pete Townsend smashed his guitar to pieces, long before Jimi Hendrix deconstructed and recreated the national anthem, long before Johnny Rotten preached anarchy as the new anthem of disaffected youth, Beethoven was taking pretty much every part of orchestral music (and not just symphonies) and pushing them in directions they were never meant to go. Several performances of his music were met with screams and protests from the audience, much like the ones that greeted Bob Dylan the first time he hit the stage with an electric guitar.
3. Although we often divide music into one of two, mutually exclusive categories, instrumental versus vocal, Beethoven gleefully dissolved the wall between them in his last symphony. Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony, the Chorale, made the emphatic statement that humans don’t just either play music or sing. We are music. We are living musical instruments. Our voice is our muse, and everyone carries a different tune in a different key.
4. Beethoven was disabled. Not all of his life, but there was a point around middle age when he realized he was going deaf. It scared him, too. Beethoven wrote about the experience of going deaf in many of his writings, and what one sees is another disturbing chapter in the sad history of discrimination against persons with disabilities, and the internalization of shame he felt as a result of that discrimination. He withdrew from society and into his music. One can even listen to his symphonies as a form of performing his disability. The middle symphonies, for instance, often favored lower registers in their scoring (think of the well-known opening of the Fifth Symphony), since Beethoven’s deafness first affected his ability to hear higher notes in higher registers. By the Ninth Symphony, when Beethoven was almost completely deaf, he had overcome the diffidence that the onset of deafness had originally set in motion and recaptured a sense of faith and confidence in the notes that he alone could hear inside his head. The higher notes have returned as something of a giant middle finger directed at his deafness and the social discrimination toward it. Beethoven could hear the high notes, as it turns out, just not in ways those outside the deaf community could understand.
CODA: I note with interest that in the most recent episode of Fargo, each character has been paired with a specific orchestral instrument (which is explained by a narrator at the start of the episode). It’s worth watching for this musical touch alone, for it speaks to the enduring power of all forms of music, orchestral music still very much included, in building our emotional soundscape.