Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Aussiegirl's thoughts on music -- especially on her beloved Beethoven

In going through the emails that Helen had saved, I came across this exchange of emails from August 2002 with veritas, an internet friend. [The spacing is irregular, but that's because the emails came from her WebTV archive, and I didn't reformat them.] I don't know what the occasion was, probably something on Lucianne.com that sparked their interest, but it gave rise to some very interesting ideas and thoughts, e.g. Helen's very original thoughts on Beethoven's use of the trill. Helen loved music, loved it passionately -- indeed, she loved life passionately -- especially the music of the members of her personal musical pantheon: Beethoven, Chopin, Verdi -- just those three, no others. But Helen was also an intensely spiritual person, and whatever she wrote or thought about, thoughts of life and death, of God and the afterlife, are never far from her mind -- as in these emails.

Helen wrote a lot about politics and other related topics, but I think that to really understand her and how essential things of the spirit were to her, you have to read what she wrote and thought about music, and about the Divinity that she thought only music can let us glimpse. You will find quite a few posts about music that she did publish in her blog, but I've found a few more things that she wrote and put into emails. I don't think she will mind my publishing them.


Thoughts on Beethoven

Monday, August 19, 2002

I am an "amateur" in the true Latin meaning of the phrase -- i.e.
"lover" of music. Also amateur pianist --- enough to make me truly
humble and amazed at the technical prowess, talent and sheer openness to
a higher power that a true interpretive genius possesses.
But back to my beloved Beethoven ---- where to begin???
Firstly --- I have always found Beethoven to be very funny!!! Funny in
the sudden explosive ha-ha way, as he catches you off guard and
surprises you with joy and naughtiness at the most unexpected times. I
once told my husband this and he was quite shocked --- for his reverence
for the master was of the worshipful and very serious variety (as is
mine). I find myself reveling in the sheer joyousness of this amazing
man --- who suffered so much and had so much to be bitter about -- and
yet --- was never conquered but produced such transcendent music. I had
never run across this idea -- but that never stops me from trusting my
own reaction to things of the soul. Then I read a review in the
Washington Post by their music critic, Tim Page, who ALSO found
Beethoven to be very funny, and chastised a recent performance for being
too deadly serious and missing the rollicking fun. But this is of
course, just one little element in the universe that is Beethoven.
As to the discussion regarding Frank Lloyd Wright --- as I re-read the
thread it really seemed to me to boil down to an essential question that
remained unanswered ---- the posts seemed to break down into two main
ideas ---- Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius architect well ahead of his
time who had revolutionary ideas ----- and ------ that he was basically
a rotten human being. My own post was somewhat informed by this idea,
even though unspoken --------- this is why Beethoven is so high (really
highest) in my personal pantheon (I rate Verdi as the greatest Opera
composer, and Chopin in a class by himself vis-a-vis the piano.)
The question is: Can a man (or woman) be rated a true artist and genius
who is basically a rotten human being?
This is probably a matter of personal opinion --- to my way of thinking
--- to me -- the composer, (or architect, artist, writer, etc.) is
giving us a glimpse, not only of his soul, but especially in music ----
a window into ---- shall we call it heaven? ---- God???? ---- the
secrets of the Universe --- Life??? --- Death???? Ultimate Meaning????
(By the way --- Ann Sophie Mutter --- in an interview had this same
---- interestingly your pick for the Trios --- as well as the
decent human being, Rostropovich --- who braved the Soviet system and
sheltered in his home both Shostakovich AND Solzhenitzyn. Let me know
your reasons for picking these performances if you can, as well as the
reason for the Tokyo String quartet.)
They have somehow been given this gift --- this quirk of their brain,
this genius of the soul that enables them to see things that we, mere
mortals, cannot on our own. But through their genius, (yes, and hard
work, and tears and suffering and toil) we can glimpse and experience
these snatches of paradise through their eyes.
That is why I cannot really get excited about the music of Wagner ----
what I hear is basically his rotten soul and monumental ego --- and I
don't really want to go there. If a man's creations do nothing more than
glorify the man --- his own ego----- that is ultimately the vision that
we see --- it stops with him --- and goes no further.
When I read about the lives of my favorite composers I usually discover
that the music (not suprisingly) is a reflection of the man. Puccini for
example, was rather a show-off, dandy sort of guy, who was rather
trivial in some of his personal life. Unfortunately, so is his music
very pretty, but not very profound. La Boheme, closest to his heart and
his impoverished student days, is his best work IMO.
Likewise, Bellini --- a talent truly dead way before his time----- but
still --- a wastrel and gambler --- ultimately composer of pretty tunes.
But Verdi --- ahhhh ----- Verdi ---- the OTHER titan --- titanic not only in his music, but his uncompromising honesty and generosity and greatness of character.
And Chopin ---- unfailingly modest, polite, thoughtful and tender
never cruel --- never boastful ------ loathed playing in public ----
where Liszt --- the supreme showman and superstar of his day failed to
achieve the heights of composition that the frail Chopin attained.
So ------- thanks for posting your email ------ you may be sorry reading
such a long response from me ---- but my husband and I are delighted to
find a fellow soulmate along the highway of Beethoven ---- so many times
people who are professional musicians can be very snobby about these
things ---- we ---- as it sounds you are too ------ are simply passionate!
Hope to hear from you sometime ------ a lifetime is not enough to
encompass Beethoven ---- Artur Schnabel, after a lifetime of performing
his music, wrote that as an old man he was just beginning to understand
it! That's why I really hope there is life after death ----- so we may
go on learning and understanding ---- and know that people like
Beethoven were not just random conglomerations of cells --- but little
bits of God, rained upon humanity to illuminate and gladden our hearts
through this difficult journey we call life!
Our best to you ---- please write --- so nice to share thoughts with
another thoughtful soul ---- Aussiegirl

More Thoughts

Wednesday, August 24, 2002

Well my ---- what a conversation ---- thanks for your two replies --- no
apologies necessary ---- time and plumbing wait for no man, as was once
famously said by someone. As for your design projects --- how lovely to
be doing something tangible, creative and useful!
We also get that satellite channel --- 2 of them actually (with all the
other garbage they have on you think they could come up with a few more
---- like one exclusively for the keyboard, or chamber music, or one
type of music, or opera, etc. --- but nooooo --- there are a hundred
other junkie ones that I have to eliminate from my remote so I won't
have to waste time scrolling through them ---- oh the petty aggravations of the modern world!
But why waste time with such trivialities --- it occurs to me that we
live not only like kings of old but have luxuries even undreamed of by
the richest of ancient men. The old aristos used to employ musicians who
could be summoned at a moment's notice --- even in the middle of the
night when the fancy struck the old goat --- to play a ditty or two. We,
at the touch of a button summon, up the geniuses of the ages played by
the finest artists of the last 60 years or more and can compare,
contrast, criticize, etc.
In olden times "chamber music" was created and played in the "chamber"
for selected audiences ---- Bach evidently was never fussy about
transposing works from one instrument to another ---- he was quite
comfortable to say ---- "we have a horn, but not a fiddle, you say ---
here -- let me just rewrite this quickly for the instruments at hand,
etc." Likewise -- Liszt (and others) transposed symphonic works to
the piano, so that smaller audiences could hear these works. In Verdi's
time there were huge organ-grinder kind of things (without the monkey)
that cranked out the latest of Verdi's top ten --- so the sausage
merchant could learn "La Donna e Mobile" and sing it out as he sliced the morning salami.
So --- aren't we lucky ???? I am feeling rich as Croesus and lots like
old Unca Scrooge when he would run his fingers through all his piles of
coins because today, upon returning from a shopping trip, the hubby and
I discovered a little package gracing our front door ------ my 9!!! CD
set of Wilhelm Kempff playing the complete Beethoven Sonatas (Sonaten) Oh joy!!!
But I'm off the subject -- sorry. As to your interesting comment about
the Carl Haas ---- I wish I had heard that lecture. Yes --- I agree ---
that is one of the astonishing things about Beethoven --- his
unexpectedness ----- one thing I have just started to notice is his use
of the trill ----- it's hard to describe this without humming what I
mean but I'll try ----- you know how in earlier music, BB (before
Beethoven) --- there was a conventional ending to many phrases that
begins with a trill and then goes da-da-dum. like ----- trrrrrrrrrrr
da-da-dum. Oh dear, hope you know what I mean. But Beethoven starts
a trill ---- you can hear this especially in the one violin concerto,
and also in the Appassionata which I just listened to most recently
----- he starts the instrument trilling ---- and the trilling continues
-- and you wait for the conventional da-da-dum ------ but no ----- wait
------ the harmonies under the trill start doing magical things and
changing subtly ---- shivers start running down your spine --- you wait
for the resolution --- surely it must be the end of the phrase -- but no
----- the trill continues and and the tension builds and builds and
suddenly it is like a window slowly opens onto a new horizon and we
slowly are raised to a newer, higher plane and it resolves --- not as an
end --- but as the beginning of a new idea. It is truly stupendous!
As to similar figures in other fields --- I would have to think about
that for a while ---- and my knowledge of other fields is quite general
---- but ----- what an idea. Perhaps it is that music, unlike any other
fine art (literature, painting, architecture --- the other arts
pertaining to the various senses) is so immediate, mysterious,
spiritual, and ------ organic. Like laughter, it is a truly human and
spiritual thing. It is essentially unknowable and undefinable ---- like
God --- if you believe in something like that --- or the universe ----
it appeals directly to the emotions without the filter of our intellect
and brain --- I think that they have discovered that musical experts
listen to music with a different part of their brain --- they are
analyzing it intellectually -- someone like you or me or anyone else who
simply listens and is moved, probably listens with the emotional side.
Why is a particular piece sad??? Why happy??? What makes it so?? Why
does it have the powerful impact on us emotionally that it does?? I
don't know ---- but it is also universal and cross-cultural --- at least
Western Classical music is --- witness the Tokyo String Quartet playing
the best Beethoven quartets, Yo-Yo Ma, etc. etc.
Probably Shakespeare qualifies in his field ---- but again --- he is
pretty limited to the English-speaking world ---- he is hard to
translate ----- ANYBODY is hard to translate properly (and being
Ukrainian and doing some little translating of my own I really
appreciate the difficulty).
Likewise the visual arts ---- they don't have the gobsmacking impact on
emotions (at least to me) that music does. I mean --- Beethoven just
gets inside your head and sets you on fire ---- even Michaelangelo can't
do that for me -- as beautiful as his works are. They still have to pass
some filter, or something and don't go directly to the heart of thematter.
But perhaps this isn't the question --- there surely are people
throughout history who were indispensable --- I'll leave that for
another time and let you get back to your life. It is great to lay
thoughts out on "paper" ---- hubs and I discuss them all the time but
there's nothing like having to commit your thoughts to "paper" to
you think more clearly. That remains to be seen if I have done that.
BTW --- loved your comment about "self-inflicted education" ---- may I
plagiarize you? (IMHO it is the best kind of education) Also --- big
chuckle over the Mahler writing to employ every Scandinavian musician.
Thanks --- sorry to be so long again --- write when you have a chance.
(In a similar vein as the Mahler comment --- there is an anecdote about
some conductor rehearsing the orchestra for a perfomance of Wagner. He
supposedly said something like: "Now those singers up there are trying
to be heard above the orchestra -- it is our job to see that they are
not!" ---- and another favorite was the advice given to a student
conductor --- "Don't even look at the brasses --- it only encourages them!" ;-)

(veritas talking:)

Me: Where to start? Years ago I heard a program by Carl Haas on NPR
Don't tell anyone!] discussing Beethoven. Haas, if you've never heard
his program, was a concert pianist [Hah! I should be telling a pianist
THAT! Of course you know Haas.] . He was illustrating the perfection of
Beethoven's originality. Haas would play a passage and point out certain
aspects of how the theme developed. He'd then continue the passage with
an "expected" continuation--after which he'd play it as Beethoven wrote
it. Every time, the "expected" continuation sounded fine, "normal"
--until he played Beethoven's. And what HE wrote was RIGHT. You:
"...music critic, Tim Page, who ALSO found Beethoven to be very funny,
and chastised a recent performance for being too deadly serious and
missing the rollicking fun."
Me: The "early music" orchestras are often good remedies to this. Itseems
the tempi of Beethoven's symphonies, especially, got slower and slower
as his music got more and more "important." I've heard that he marked
the tempi carefully, so this shouldn't be a problem, but... [Academy of
St. Martin in the Fields is usually a good compromise between the
"modern" sound we're used to and a smaller-orchestra, differently-tuned
instruments sound that is closer to what was contemporary for his time;
don't know what Beethoven they have in their catalog]. I'm happy to
listen to early-music orchestras that aren't too absolutist [gut strings
and such]. It's sometimes revealing to hear Beethoven with a smaller
orchestra, I think. More "open" sound sometimes, lighter melodies; "Fun"
more accessible. Parochially, I prefer, overall, a great modern
orchestra for Beethoven, perhaps because it's how I was introduced to
the music. Not a Mahler-sized orchestra [I think he wrote to keep every
musician in Scandinavia employed], but a normal-sized modern one. [A
nice interruption: I have the satellite receiver on the "light classics"
channel, and they're playing Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves.
Beautiful, even if not played by Rampal...] Me: As you know, there's a
big tempo problem with the national anthem, too.
Once you've heard it played by a real military band [perhaps in part
because they're used to 120-beat march steps?], you won't go back.
Don't start me on those anthem "singers...." Grrrrrr. Me: Ever hear
Beethoven live? Sorry, GOTTA [!] get back to my responsibilities.
Best to you and Aussieguy [?]. More later. Many thanks for a nice note and
good conversation.



At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this, David. I look forward to printing the post to refer to at a later time. I always found Helen's comments to be so "on target" with music. If Veritas happens to read this, he might find it interesting to know that each time Karl Haas taped a radio program, he played his theme music (Beethoven) for each new episode.

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