Thursday, October 13, 2005

novelty post: late beethoven

We've mentioned the late Beethoven quartets many times in class, and I just thought I'd point out that they're in the news recently. Appearantly a Philadelphia librarian discovered a previously lost manuscript of the (in)famous Grosse Fugue.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Beethoven is Huge

Ludwig Von Beethoven is huge. He’s in the library, he’s on the Internet; he’s on my computer. He lurks about a third of the way down the playlist on my iPod Shuffle, like an extraordinary dinner party guest, strangely placed between The Beatles and Belle and Sebastian. He’s everywhere. And I just can’t stop thinking about him.

His Symphony No. 5 in C minor opens with possibly the most famous line ever written in Western Classical music – the sudden, ominous, dun-dun-dun-dun – a phrase that Beethoven himself described as “destiny knocking at the door,” (Tovey 143). But Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has so much more going for it apart from that overused and often-appropriated phrase. The symphony’s many living elements are a testament not only to its structural complexity, but also to the myriad of musical moments that the composer creates. The 3rd and 4th Movements flow into each other with the poetic ease and monumental scope of a Greek Tragedy. And while the same themes return, each time they do so it is in a slightly different form, making them increasingly interesting to mull over in one’s mind for hours.

Brooding rock ballads and shiny Brit. Pop hits from the Nineties will often creep into my subconscious and stay there for days, but never has a piece of classical music occupied the number one spot in my mental Top 40. There are several nuanced themes, motifs, and melodies that float through my head on a regular basis from the 3rd and 4th movements alone. I want to say, “it’s just so catchy!” or “it’s just so musically complex,” but that would not explain it. Beethoven’s 5th symphony is a whole piece, a complete work. There is no cutting Beethoven into smaller, more digestible, segments; it doesn’t have the same effect. I recently tried using the 3rd and 4th movements as the soundtrack to an art video I made (much to the chagrin of my art video class). Upon screening, all that could be said about it was that the score itself was truly a masterpiece; the video, in comparison, definitely needed some more work. Of course, my work as a videographer will never be able to measure up to Beethoven’s talent as a composer.

That extraordinary talent is one reason Beethoven continues to resurface in our cultural consciousness. You can spot the references in such popular fare as the 1992 children’s movie about a dog that bears his name (Plot summary: “A slobbering St Bernard dog becomes the center of attention for a loving family but its vet secretly wants to kill him.”)
(www1) He also appears on the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, amid incessant disco beats, Moog synthesizer sounds, and funky Wah guitar licks in a Walter Murphy track that shamelessly samples the famous, ominous opening phrase, calling itself (appropriately), “A Fifth of Beethoven” (Walter Murphy).

The song is indeed appropriately titled: for no art that attempts to imitate, sample, or borrow from Beethoven can hope to meet him on equal footing. Beethoven changed the way people think about music; even today, he continues to do so. I sit in awe, and listen.

Tovey, Donald Francis, “The Fifth Symphony,” Norton Critical Scores Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Ed. Elliot Forbes (New York: 1971), 143.
Plot Summary, “Beethoven (1992)”, Plot Summary,, The Internet Movie Database,
Walter Murphy (based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), “A Fifth of Beethoven,” on Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack (1977), Polydor 825 389-2.

(previously titled A Fifth of Beethoven)

Monday, October 10, 2005


Clara Schuhmacher
28 September 2005

Somewhere – and I am not sure where, exactly – we seem to have lost sight of the beginning – of the music, really – and ended up in a tangled mess of words that attempt (dare I say, in vain) to smooth out the superficially incoherent elements characteristic of Berlioz and to place his Symphonie Fantastique in a neat [if boxy] category. The music as such – judgments of quality aside – has been obscured by a desperate attempt to theorize its existence, to qualify our labeling it as ‘problematic’. Still, Berlioz and his works continue to defy categorization, and apparently unacceptably so, judging from the countless words that have been thrown at La Symphonie Fantastique in an effort to hammer the work into something more familiar. Perhaps Boulez said it best when he said “Berlioz’s compositions exist in a sphere that is difficult to define, for they do not respect, and do not claim to respect, the usual conventions in the process of creation and transmission” (Boulez, 212). It is, of course, a natural impulse – this desire to define, and I suppose I should not judge such honest cultural attempts at understanding and appropriation too harshly. But even so I find that this long-winded discourse on definition borders on the ridiculous. Partially because it has become infuriatingly redundant, but mostly because – well, today, at least – the thought of applying to Berlioz but one label, of placing him within a single set of parameters, seems rather counterintuitive.

In his The Poetics of the Open Work, Umberto Eco argues that “a work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood” (The Role of the Reader, 49). He continues with “every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste or perspective or personal performance” (The Role of the Reader, 63).

If one is to take this concept as true, then our struggles to place Berlioz within a meta-narrative that would justify, or at very least attempt to contextualize, his existence are but wasted words, for what is important here is your interpretation of the work, and not how your interpretation stacks up against the interpretation of others, and not where your interpretation falls within musicological and aesthetic discourse. Furthermore, to squeeze Berlioz into a definitive category would be to do the composer a severe injustice, for denying the work its multiple readings would be to deny the work its “aesthetic validity”, to borrow a term from Eco. True, one cannot ignore the cultural when rationalizing a work of art, for what is a work of art if not a cultural product. But to read a musical text from a personal or contemporary slant is not to deny the cultural and historical elements that informed its musical production. Eco would argue that “a work of art is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterable specificity” (The Role of the Reader, 49). And I would have to agree.

And therein lies the Genius that is Berlioz (although I admit that by calling him thus I am assigning him to the very categories I would wish see done away with).
By creating – unwittingly or by design – a work that defies categorization, Berlioz has created the ultimate open text, thus ensuring its permanent relevance. His music, then, is problematic only insofar as we allow it to be. Rather than pull at our hair over the semantics of a description, why not shed our antiquated concept of musical categorization – which has been tried and is not true, and furthermore is simply tired –and embrace Berlioz as a curious entity to be read as your moment dictates? I dare say it’d be more fun that way.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique : Les Images Auditives

Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique : Les Images Auditives
Fitzhugh B. Karol – September 25th 2005

Music comes to our ears as sonic ether. Indeed notes and melodies exist as waves in space but we perceive and enjoy them in an entirely less scientific manner. Images and colour appear in sound often just as vividly as they do in painting. The notes of a symphony are painted on the perpetually unfinished canvas of the mind’s eye. These notes are received at once by our combined faculty; auditory vision. A case could be made that all music processes as colour and image but let us look at our poster child case. Let us also stir the cauldron pot of the Witches Sabbath and assume that we the listeners are instead observers and as such subject to all prescribed Freudian and Mulvenian scrutiny. (Joel’s Paper. Delivered 9/22/05) Hector Berlioz painted musically with a personal palate of stirring colour, brushing his fantasies and nightmares into one cinematic masterpiece; Le Symphonie Fantastique.
Just as any artist must be rooted in theory in order to sensibly extrapolate emotion through their medium, Berlioz creates what may have seemed like chaos, from order. It is only from an understanding of rules that a successful abstract representation may be made. A creator must understand the manner in which they go about challenging their respective canon – as Berlioz did.
The images put forth by Berlioz in his phantasmagoric executions’ staging have our eyes as well as ears on the march. Is it too obvious now to mention the dark tonalities and shades of grey lingering like a fog around the scaffold? The blade waits in unhurried suspense at the end of the fourth movement’s visionary scene. Just as “the beloved” idée fixe flitters once from the background of this section the guillotine also has a musical shine to it. How can we not be blinded by the sun’s brief refraction from that heavy blade as it falls? Isn’t it easy to see the growing haze emitted by the underworld’s beckoning horns as the procession rhythmically pounds towards the city’s square? What should we think of Berlioz if he could not have provided us with such vivid landscapes through which to fly? This is programme music and it should show. There is no doubt that Berlioz must have also been influenced by the aesthetic debate of the mid 19th century surrounding realism and the desire to mimic emotions and reality in art.
In examination of this synaesthesia, that is to say, “the production from a sense-impression of one kind of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind.” finding colors and images attached to specific orchestral sounds is in fact quite common. Some composers have even documented their associations between color and key. Just as painters like Kandinsky and Whistler affixed musical titles like, “Nocturne” and “Improvisation” respectively, to their works, Berlioz himself in his Treatise of Instrumentation refers to “colouring the melody.” (Oxford Companion, Ninth Ed. p. 200)
Berlioz the painter seems destined to work in a palate not so soothing to an untrained viewer’s eye. His subject matter becomes increasingly dark and fantastic as his reveries continue. The pith of his confusion and love-worn insanity bears itself in a not so French manner. The traditionally German genre of dark and storm shrouded moors becomes Berlioz’s haunting ground. It wouldn’t surprise to find Nosferatu, Dr. Caligari or any number of early German cinematic characters lurking in the shadows behind the witches of the fifth movement. And so the composition finishes. Brush down.
The beautiful thing about Berlioz’s painting style is that it’s representational and wholly abstract at once. Music is the ultimate abstract art, existing in theory until its’ moment of interaction with the world. The listener as viewer is then provided with what exactly? Is the music actually Berlioz’s image encoded for us to reconstruct provided we have this auditory visual sense? At what point do we become the viewer? These personal judgments make musical mockery of the concrete. Even the most conceptual of visual arts is definite compared the hall where Berlioz’s painting hangs.