Tag Archives: Beethoven

Beethoven for Breakfast in Phoenix

[Edited version first published in the Broad Street Review 29 Nov 2016 and reprinted by permission.]

I had just about given up on corned beef hash, and if that doesn’t alarm you, you should know that I rarely give up on anything. I believe that the car in front of me will return to the right lane where it belongs. I also believe that someday a political post on Facebook will reveal something that had, never, ever occurred to me. That’s what I’m talking about: I’m an optimist.

When I was in Phoenix recently for a radio conference, I wanted to escape the hotel for breakfast. I walked across the street to a rough-hewn restaurant where corned beef hash was on the menu. And so, I set my chin and nodded the chin-set nod of the optimist. At first, I thought, No, hash is either too dry or too greasy, edible only by way of poached egg, or ketchup, or by washing it down with coffee.

But, the adventurous southwest stoking my optimism, I ordered the hash. While waiting for its arrival, I looked blankly through the menu at everything I could have ordered. Pancake stacks, slices of French toast, and heaps of huevos rancheros mocked me.

Then I looked up.

An offering

The kitchen door opened and the waitress, backlit by fluorescence and haloed by steam, walked toward me carrying a plate. The glow from the kitchen suffused the room and lingered. The faces of other hotel escapees slowly turned as they followed the plate. A couple reached across their breakfasts and lightly clasped hands. Boz Scaggs, singing “Look What You’ve Done to Me” over the sound system, dropped to a whisper. The waitress approached, stopped, lowered the dish, and placed it silently in front of me, as an offering.

You think I am exaggerating, but I am telling you, I noticed all this and noticed that I was noticing this. I mouthed, “Thank you,” but I do not know if the words came out. I beheld my breakfast. I glanced up just to catch her smiling as she turned.

The onions in a medium chop were on the cusp of translucence, shining with the bright dreams of youth. The potatoes were what potatoes always might be, but rarely are. Not dry, not oily, not hard, not mushy, they were fully and softly potatoes, luscious.

And then, the meat. We take for granted that corned beef hash is made from corned beef, but the Ding an sich is lost, always lost. This, however, this corned beef, was sliced into strips, and gently laid to one side. Bite-sized, they were fried, their edges crisp, their demeanor Buddha-like, their immanence ever present.

I stared at the plate, and, giving thanks with eyes open, bemusedly reached for my fork. I gently pierced one strip of the meat, put it into my mouth, and an entire life of breakfasts swooped me through years and decades and fixed me into that moment. Joy made room for discernment as I tried to enunciate why this was better than any hash I had ever eaten.

The heavens are telling

Again, you will think I am overselling, but I thought of Beethoven and his “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur.” We know it in English often as “The Heavens Are Telling.” Not to be confused with Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling” from The Creation. Here is Beethoven’s:

I am serious. Beethoven came to my mind.

Beethoven gets to essentials quicker than any other composer. This is his greatness, and this is our problem. Beethoven is essential, but he is not pretty. He doesn’t entice us with the voluptuousness of Tchaikovsky, the wit of Mozart, the gravity of Bach, the warmth of Brahms — other composers we probably loved before Beethoven. No, he sticks his big saucer of a face into our business. His wild mane of hair pushed straight back looks as if he just forced his way, grunting, through a wind tunnel. We always hear that Beethoven is great, and we always say, “Yes, of course,” but our heart isn’t in it, not at first.

The opening of his Fifth Symphony we admire more than love. How clever he is to make all that music from those four silly notes, yes, yes. “Joyful, joyful” from the Ninth Symphony is exciting, but afterward the whole thing sounds, well, a bit brusque. “The heavens are telling” — not harmonized, mind you, and in the choral arrangement just octaves for everybody — is nothing but a C major triad, for crying out loud, followed by a big leap that looks like he just ran out of room.

Getting Beethoven

But at some point we succumb. Voluptuousness, wit, gravity, warmth, and everything else walk into the room. At 40, I finally got Beethoven. At 40, we realize that what we are is what we are going to be. For some, it’s a crisis; for me, it was liberation. I’m not unique in that. It happened to Brahms, and at that age: that fist-shaking opening to his First Symphony is not him screaming that he could never follow Beethoven; it is Brahms roaring: I am not you! I think Beethoven smiled right then.

At 40, hearing Beethoven on the radio yet another time (it was his Second Symphony, of all things), I got him, and I got that I could be me. I couldn’t be Bach, or Mozart, or Brahms, and (I whispered only to myself), they couldn’t be me.

Then I knew in the glowing restaurant why this was the best hash I had ever eaten.

The potatoes were not meretriciously tantalizing and then cold-hearted inside, but were simply and fully potatoes to the end. The onions were nothing more nor less than onions, but if you’ve ever worked them, you know that onions, like the universe, are onion all the way down.

The corned beef hash, you have guessed by now, tasted like what it never tastes like. It tasted like corned beef. Perhaps I forgot to tell you, but I love corned beef. And that opened up to me endless glory.

Discovering Beethoven?

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 5th, 5-6 pm

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Mödlinger Dances, excerpts (1819)
Beethoven: Music for a Knightly Ballet (1791)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 (1800)


Beethoven, 1803 (Christian Horneman)

It’s a composer we’ve barely touched on in Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, and with good reason. Beethoven isn’t a discovery to us (although, thankfully, people new to classical music discover him all the time).

But he most definitely was new to 19th-century America, especially to those American composers we’ve looked at who blazed the trail back to the old country, to Germany, for music studies. In the last half-dozen or so Discoveries we’ve been looking at American composers, with the most recent shows visiting the earliest stirrings of orchestral music in the United States with George Frederick Bristow and John Knowles Paine.

We’ve delved into this time before in our 14 seasons of Discoveries, but the question naturally occurs: What did Paine and later composers discover in Germany? A large part of the answer is Beethoven.

Beethoven was still revered by everyone—whether they were traditionalist or cutting-edge—long after his death. Brahms and his followers loved Beethoven: Brahms said on more than one occasion that the master’s nine symphonies and their irrevocable logic shook him as he attempted, over many years, to compose his first. The Wagnerites, too, looking to the music of the future, loved Beethoven, his harmonic daring, and his revolutionary place in music history.

Beethoven was not unknown in the States, but until the mid-19th century and for well after, American orchestras simply did not exist to play his symphonies. In fact, the New York Philharmonic, begun in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society of New York, at its first concert performed the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. It gave the U.S. premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a fundraiser for a new hall in 1846, but the $2.00 ticket price kept many people away. The hall would have to wait.

Tellingly, the impetus behind the drive for full-time American orchestras was to have ensembles trained well enough to negotiate a Beethoven symphony.

This put American composers behind the eight-ball, of course, because the new orchestras wanted to prove their mettle with the latest and greatest from Europe, with Beethoven at the top of the list. And with no European training, American composers could hardly keep up. So, off to Germany they went, to breathe the air Beethoven breathed, and to study in the great line of Western classical music.

Three works of Beethoven comprise our program today. Two of them have catalog numbers with the odd prefix of WoO. This stands for Werke ohne Opus or “works without opus numbers,” meaning they were discovered after the main cataloging was finished. Rather than re-numbering the complete works, these became addenda and are therefore often overlooked. So: perfect for Discoveries.

To this we add what may be the least-played of the symphonies, the First. Within a few generations, American orchestras often became the benchmark for orchestral technique, and European musicians of all kinds—composers, performers, conductors—would flock to the States. The Discovery continues.


My Dinner With Beethoven

[First published in the Broad Street Review, June 23, 2015.]

Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, “My Dinner with Andre.” (© 1981, New Yorker Films)

Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory. “My Dinner with Andre.” (© 1981, New Yorker Films)

My belief in God, it turns out, is partly described by My Dinner with Andre. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory have dinner in a restaurant in the 1981 film. Mostly, Shawn listens incredulously as Gregory tells one tall tale of mystic coincidence after another. But one facet shines brighter than the entire movie to me. Periodically, someone brings food or clears a plate. At that point, the two friends do something that took me by surprise: They look at the server and smile. Every once in a while they say, “Thank you.” That is what I remember from My Dinner with Andre, and that, it turns out, is one description of my belief in God.

I’m sure I said “Thank you” to waiters before 1981, but, what with growing up with little money and then proceeding to undergraduate school, marriage, and graduate school with less than little money, I hadn’t the means to habitually develop restaurant mores. So when I saw two men on the big screen looking up and saying “Thank you” as if they meant it, I thought, This must be what culture is; this is good.

It shouldn’t have taken me into my 20s to learn this aspect of basic civility, because a few years before, in college, one of the jobs I had was parking lot attendant. Mostly I worked at a small lot that no longer exists, at 17th and Rittenhouse. There’s an apartment building there now; then, it was a busy postage stamp of a parking lot.

The boss’s rule was: The lot is never “full.” On Saturdays it was not unusual to stack the spaces on both sides two deep, and stuff the row between them with two lines, creating a perfectly gridlocked quilt of cars. When the lot was de facto if not de supervisor full, you’d park on sidewalks and in loading zones, keeping an eye out for police until you could work the cars back in.

You took keys and threaded needles with two-ton vehicles. You took money and gave change. You hoped that the customer’s estimated time of return was close to correct, and you hoped that the small bills would hold out. Your head was on a swivel. Most people, you found, were impatient. Most people—this was surprising—didn’t look at you. If someone said, “Thank you,” you remembered.

Hair-shirt thank yous

My Dinner with Andre brought this all back, so I started saying “Thank you” to waiters. I found that I couldn’t stop. I’ve been looking at and thanking postal workers, pilots, plumbers, and, especially, parking lot attendants ever since, each “Thank you” a hair-shirt reminder of how long it took to learn this.

The odd thing is, as natural as it now feels, it makes no sense to say “Thank you.” For a gift, yes, but not in these instances, where someone is paid to do something. My job was to park cars. I was paid (not much, but paid), to perform this function. Airline pilots and bus drivers make more than I do, but I thank them as well. A waiter is paid, a waiter is tipped, and still we look and thank.

There is no reason for it. We would excoriate the thought, if it occurred, to base our thanks on how much or how little the server makes. There is the ancient subservience of an inferior to a superior, and there is its opposite, noblesse oblige, but looking at and thanking a person is not either of those. We are simply obliged. We feel it, we say it. When the cashier hands us our receipt, we know it.

“The heavens declare…”

Which brings me back to God. Lyric Fest asked me to compose a work for the Singing City choir with soloists, piano, and audience participation, for a concert on the theme of the James Weldon Johnson poem “I’ll Make Me a World.” I set Psalm 19, The Heavens Declare, whichbegins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies announce the work of his hands.”

Now, if I hadn’t read the work of clever fellows like Richard Dawkins, I would have heard it from a few of my clever friends, that the heavens declare no such thing. In my program notes for the piece I even alerted any atheists and agnostics that the “slow, low, halting refrain, acknowledges, I hope, their demurral” from the psalm. The skies don’t talk, an unbeliever would say, and on this point the psalmist actually agrees: “There is no speech, there are no words,” and nature “is not heard.”

Yet the declaration “goes out over all the earth; they proclaim to the ends of the world.” Dawkins ascribes such belief to idiocy or mental illness, but I think of it simply as halting my conversation every once in a while, looking up from the table, and saying “Thank you.”

Observation and acknowledgement

I mean no disrespect to Dawkins to ponder (idiotically, I suppose) what must be his great frustration that, even after all his biology and all his books, something like 96 to 98 percent of the population disagrees with him. Most people, even smart people, even biologists and writers, believe in God simply by looking at the world.

And I mean no disrespect to God by comparing him, as I guess I am here, to a waiter. Make it chef if you like, but we know that the food doesn’t walk to the table by itself.

I don’t know if percentages count as Aquinian proof, but I’ll narrow it down. If I’m an idiot, then so was Beethoven. He sits across the table from me and tells his tall, mystical, Ninth Symphony tale of “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” I listen, incredulously. “Do you sense your Creator, o world? Seek Him above the canopy of stars!”

Beethoven stops talking, looks up at the waiter, and smiles like Andre Gregory. I, Shawn-like, compose The Heavens Declare.

Two Quartets

EllisonIt’s two different kinds of quartets, both inspired by great, but different, works of art, on Now is the Time, Sunday, January 27th at 10 pm. Michael Ellison heard the Borromeo String Quartet perform Beethoven’s late quartet, the Opus 131, and the experience prompted a desire to write for Borromeo; to write a work with the greatness of Beethoven’s in his mind. Ten years later he did just that, and his String Quartet #2, for Borromeo, is the result. 

The movements in Robert Maggio’s Two Quartets are 1. Desire, Movement and 2. Love, Stillness. He calls for an unusual quartet of two flutes and two cellos, which can produce a ravishing and mesmerizing sound. The title? Maggio was reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at the time. The mystic, meditative parallel is apt.

from Robert Maggio: Two Quartets 

Michael Ellison: String Quartet #2
Robert Maggio: Two Quartets

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Maybe you were wondering whom I’m voting for

[Reprinted with permission from the Broad Street Review under “From Beethoven to Wagner: The political uses and abuses of music”]

Before you hear any more of my music, maybe you were wondering whom I’m voting for. We’ll get to that after a word from Beethoven.

After hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, the composer angrily crossed out the dedication to him on his newest symphony. This, his third, was to have been the “Bonaparte Symphony.” Now it would be the “Eroica,” the heroic.

That’s one story about the title; there are others. Beethoven had planned to move from Vienna to Paris, and a tip of his hat to the French in a new piece, by way of their leader, wouldn’t have been a bad idea. But the move didn’t happen.

Or, Beethoven was mulling the possible lost patronage if Prince Lobkowitz’s name wasn’t on the work.

Or, the publisher may have had a say in it. Audiences—Viennese or other—might not be overly thrilled about a work dedicated to a man who was gobbling up Europe, no matter how much they liked his revolutionary ideals.

Beethoven’s despair

Or, it may not have had a thing to do with any of that. The “Eroica” label may have been a response to the composer’s growing deafness. Years of hearing less and less of conversation caused the sociable Beethoven to withdraw from society. “Such incidents drove me almost to despair,” he wrote in his will: “A little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”

Beethoven started composing the “Eroica” a few weeks later.

So there are many stories. But Beethoven’s dismay over a once-loved political leader remains a plausible explanation. We’re all anti-imperialists now, and we applaud Beethoven; but did he improve the work by scratching out Napoleon’s name?

I wonder what we’d think of “Eroica” today if it were called the “Bonaparte.”

Stalin’s pal or nemesis?

In our own time, we’ve lived through a sea change of meaning behind Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. We’d always loved it, even while sniffing at its celebration of Soviet greatness. But when we learned that it’s actually a secret exposé of the Stalinist state, a samizdat evisceration of the lie of forced acquiescence, did our love of the work change?

Ask it this way: Has the Shostakovich Fifth now convinced us of Communism’s weaknesses? Did it convince us of Communism’s strengths before? More to the point, is the Shostakovich Fifth a better work if we approve of its politics?

No. Our love of it—our love of music—lives on a different plane. It is Shostakovich we meet in the Fifth, not Stalin. Let the dictator write his own symphony. It is Beethoven we meet in his Third, not Napoleon.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the genius of Henry Purcell (another composer exposed to political change):

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Nazi victim or religious zealot?

That “sacred fear” brings up religion’s role in music, and it is just as suspect as that of politics.

One work provides a good example of both. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a German prisoner-of-war camp; immediately we want to like it because of his striking heroism in the face of evil.

But look further and see the exegesis of Judgment Day from the Book of Revelation, with sections called “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets” and “Praise to the eternity of Jesus.” If this is not our theology, do we then draw back from what we had first approached?

Depending on how dear our positions are, or how near the surface, perhaps we do. But that’s on us, not the music.

Israel brooked no performances of Wagner within its borders for a long time, and who can blame it? But there comes a time when—if the music is good—we get over its politics or theology. The quibbles, disagreements, even offences dissipate in time. All that’s left is the music.

Messiaen doesn’t move us because he convinces us of Christian eschatology, nor does Shostakovich because of his anti-communism. We don’t praise “Eroica” because we would’ve seen through Napoleon, by gum, just as Beethoven did.

Music doesn’t argue.

Meet the composer

Music opens a door to someone else. It opens us to the abrupt selves of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Messiaen, who thrust on and throng us. In their features we recognize ourselves.

Whom I’m voting for? Right. Well, I think I’ll demur.

If you see me, and yourself, in my music, it won’t matter, will it? If you don’t see me in my music, I won’t have done my job, and it absolutely won’t matter. All we’d do is pat ourselves on the back or argue over politics.

That’s fine in its place, but it avoids something better. When there’s music to hear, when there’s someone to meet—that’s something better.

Paul Simon knows what I'm talking about

[This article republished with permission from the Broad Street Review.]

And I could say Oo oo oo…

Most of my recent case against the evolution of music concerned itself with the mechanics of DarwinTunes, the program touted as making composers unnecessary. (See “Can computers replace composers?”)

I wrote that what composers do is too complicated to be aped by an “evolution” machine, even a machine requiring human tweaking. A composer could create in ten seconds what DarwinTunes has taken months to come up with.

But complexity and inefficiency aren’t the main problems, huge though they are. There’s the nagging thought, after all, that computers might become good enough, some day.

Computing power and speed grow at an astounding rate. Computers already beat chess masters; it must only be a matter of time before a violin sonata succumbs.

Why should I balk?

For years, composers themselves have developed programs to do this very thing: produce notes. Fugal responses, 12-tone matrices, and the most Gordian of algorithms are available at the click of a mouse.

Interactive software “performs” alongside musicians in concert, listening and riffing. Styles are dissected, and computer-generated music can sound just like the music of “real” composers. And if it’s not amazing, we shouldn’t quibble, since many of us “real” composers don’t always sound amazing, either.

Computers, then, are already combining notes on their own. Why should a composer like me balk at computer-evolved music?

There are many reasons. Here are three.

Searching for diamonds

First: Notes are only the surface. Music is where the diamonds are, and the diamonds are below. Composers dig for them, and offer them to others, who (the composers hope), say, “Oo.” That “Oo” is a mix of, “I knew there were diamonds there,” and “I had no idea there were diamonds there.”

It’s a greater or lesser mix of one and the other, and perhaps that’s a peek into the difference between good and great music. But what’s important for now is this: Behind every “Oo” is a “Thank you.” Every artistic impulse is a giving, and every artistic response is a thanksgiving.

Gifts and gratitude exist only between beings. The artist feels a need and fills it; the audience feels the same need and is filled. We come—this is the amazing thing—we actually come with different needs, but we’re shocked into recognition. We see ourselves and give thanks that someone else has seen us.

Mindless machines

A second reason is that computers are stupid. Literally: They’re mindless machines that can do only what they’re told. The telling comes from architecture and materials, but ultimately from the sine qua non of the code. Code is everything, and code comes from a writer.

All the wheat and all the streams in all the valleys may be open to you, but to make bread, you need a cook and a recipe. Valleys don’t make bread. You need a farmer, you need a grist mill, you need surveyors, architects, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, drovers… and a cook and a recipe.

The computer is simply a tool. It’s a really fast tool, but really dumb, so it has to be told—step by minuscule step—what to do. One misstep and it won’t work at all. Composer/ programmers tell it what notes to spit out, in what order or according to what parameters, and it obeys.

“Computer music” is no more music by computer than “violin music” is music by violin.

But there’s another reason.

Three little words

To crystallize my thoughts, I was trying to think of music that’s strong and human. But strength and humanity are mysterious. I couldn’t define them.

I thought of “Lord, have mercy”: thousands of settings of three words that have pierced centuries of souls. I thought of the sledgehammer that follows, in Beethoven’s Ninth, “Oh friends, not these tones.” I thought of “Vincerò! Vincerò!”— six throwaway pitches that Puccini burnishes into a shuddering, impossible passion.

I thought of music with groanings too deep for words, such as a Bach sonata played on one violin.

And I could say “Oo oo oo”
As if everybody knows
What I’m talking about…

I don’t know how that mysterious strength and humanity come to light. Nobody knows. And that’s the third reason.

Paul Simon’s mantra

DarwinTunes, as diverting as it may be, barely scratches the surface of music, because even if all the known complexities could be quantified and automated, the unknown cannot be quantified. Every composer’s decision is a mix of known and unknown, and nobody—least of all, the composer, the very one writing the code—knows where one starts and the other leaves off.

We dig for diamonds, but we’re always surprised where they turn up. Sometimes we hit them right off, but usually they’re miles away from where we thought they’d be.

Sometimes they’re right next to where we were digging, and sometimes…well, sometimes the diamonds are stuck to our own shoes.

Beethoven, Puccini, and Paul Simon know what I’m talking about. Anyone who has ever created, anyone who has ever listened, anyone who has ever said, “Oo,” knows what I’m talking about.

And I could say Oo oo oo
As if everybody knows
What I’m talking about
As if everybody would know
Exactly what I was talking about
Talking about diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

I have no idea what that means. And I know exactly what that means. Computers—they just don’t know. Computers don’t have shoes.