At some point in your life, like many of us, I imagine that you may have had that experience where you find yourself in an art museum. You’ve been strolling the galleries, taking in each piece, and found some to be beautiful, others thought-provoking, and yet, there is that one piece that you examine for minutes on end. As you take it in, you step back a bit, then tilt your head sideways, as if the change in perspective is going to help you better understand it. Then you turn to your companion and say: “I don’t get it.”
Yeah, I’ve had that experience, too. In fact, the last time I felt that way was almost a year ago while I was in Norway on my honeymoon. My wife and I were visiting an art museum in Trondheim, and I came upon a wall exhibit that featured 12 pieces by the same artist which all appeared nearly indistinguishable. They were black and white ink block prints, and each one looked like the artist had just carved into the block a countless number of straight lines all piled on top of each other, almost like a bunch of pick-up-sticks. I’m sure I didn’t sound very impressed when I told Rebekka that I didn’t get it. She patiently pointed me toward a plaque on the wall to the left of the exhibit, which had a description of the piece. After reading it, the entire work took on a whole new meaning, and suddenly it became one of the most compelling pieces of art I’ve seen.
It turns out that the artist, Per Kristian Nygård, had made these prints out of a number of cutting boards that he had collected from an apartment building which was scheduled to be demolished. Each tenant had allowed him to take their cutting board, which some said they had owned for more than three decades. I looked at each piece again with curiosity for how each and every straight line had been carved. Was that one a slice of bread? Or these cuts, that are all close together, might be from that chopping motion one makes while feeding a piece of celery or a carrot toward the knife. All of these prints, which before had seemed frustratingly random and arbitrary, suddenly each had their own distinct patterns. Some people obviously have a very particular way that they cut their food, while others seem to be content lobbing their knife any which way, as long as the job gets done. It really is profound how much a simple understanding of a work transforms the way you see it. All of this is to say that context goes a long way when viewing art, and the same goes for listening to music.
I’ve had a number people tell me that they have a curiosity for classical music but that they just don’t know where to start. That’s completely understandable given that there are thousands of composers to choose from, who each wrote hundreds of pieces spanning ten centuries. Looking at a catalog of Western music and trying to pick out a piece that you might love would be like walking into the Library of Congress and randomly selecting a book on the shelf with the hope that you’ll find it compelling. Well, if you think you may have an appreciation for classical music—and I assume that might be the case, given that you’re reading a column about classical music—let me give you a reference point, and a little context to get you started.
As cliché as it might sound, I guarantee that you cannot go wrong with Beethoven. After all, he is one of the best-known classical composers for a reason. Now, you could start with something relatively short and easy to listen to like the Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t guide you to something a bit more substantive than that. So let’s explore Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major.
You’ll often hear this symphony referred to as the Eroica (meaning “heroic”), but that wasn’t the original title of the work. While writing it, Beethoven had Napoleon Bonaparte on the top of his mind. He held the French leader in high esteem for his embodiment of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, and so he gave the symphony the title of “Bonaparte.” But prior to the publication and premier of the symphony, certain circumstances led Beethoven to have a change of heart regarding the dedication of the piece. Beethoven’s secretary, Ferdinand Ries, gives us an account of the composer’s reaction to the news of Bonaparte’s self-appointed promotion:
I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.
If you’d like to see in person that torn piece of manuscript, complete with a hole scratched into it where Beethoven furiously attempted to completely erase his dedication, it is on display at the library of Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.
Now that you have a bit of historical context to go with the piece, lets discuss its profound effect on the genre of classical music. Everyone from Montiverdi, Vivaldi, and Bach to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and even contemporary music writers like John Williams, are broadly considered to be composers of “classical music.” But the actual Classical period is a quite specific, markedly short era in the timeline of Western music, lasting from approximately 1730 to 1810, and largely dominated by composers like Haydn and Mozart. It represented a departure from the complex and heavily ornamented counterpoint and fugues of the Baroque period, instead marked by stark simplicity and symmetry. Just think of the architectural differences between the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the United States Capitol building and you’ll get a pretty solid picture of the differences between the compositional styles of Bach and Mozart.
In his third symphony, Beethoven seized the great pendulum of musical genre and thrust it back toward complexity, this time adding a marked distaste for the dogmatic rules of composition laid out by Bach and Handel. (He also had an unabashed tendency to require that his audience develop a longer attention span than his classical predecessors. Perhaps that’s something we could all work on these days). And thus, most musical scholars consider the Eroica Symphony to be the marker of the beginning of the Romantic period.
The first movement of the Eroica, begins with two short, loud chords, and feels like Beethoven is grabbing you by the shirt collar and saying: “Listen up!” Then, we are swept away on a journey through melody, syncopation, dynamics, and orchestration which all immediately live up to the symphony’s title. The first movement alone clocks in at fifteen minutes long, which is approaching the length of many of Haydn’s entire symphonies. But don’t let the length of this piece intimidate you; after all, we’re not here for quick soundbites or incidental background music while we read a book or do homework. This is music to listen to.
The second movement is somber, macabre. Beethoven titled it “Marcia Funebre” (or “Funeral March”). As the processional dirge begins, Beethoven utilizes a simple and distinct triplet motive to usher in measure after measure, a technique which foreshadows Gustav Mahler’s own “Trauermarche” in his fifth symphony. The melody is transferred from strings to woodwinds and back again as we feel the heavy emotional weight of Beethoven’s writing. (Before I go on, I just have to tell you that, in my opinion, there is no greater music written than what is contained in a two-minute fugue that Beethoven seamlessly stitches into the middle of this movement. These two minutes are wrought with emotion, exemplified by burning dissonance that pulls at the heart like the experience of great loss.)
To clear our palette and our mind, Beethoven then gifts us the third movement, a cheerful scherzo which starts on the second note of a triplet, giving the listener the feeling that they’ve just leapt onto a moving train. The oboe and flute provide a lighthearted timbre to the first section of the movement, which promises to lift us from the despair of the funeral march. Then the horns take over, invoking what sounds like a hunt, and one can’t help but imagine something like a scene from a Jane Austen movie adaptation, where a pair of gentlemen are on horseback as they follow the hounds to their quarry of fowl.
Typically, the finale of a symphony is written in either a sonata-allegro form or a rondo, but here Beethoven breaks the rules again. He constructs the final movement from a theme and variation template. The theme itself was written by Beethoven for another lesser-known work he penned a few years prior to his third symphony, but it became the thesis for the entire work we’re discussing today. As the variations unfold, you’ll begin to recognize some of the themes that were introduced earlier in the symphony, which makes for a reminiscent vibe throughout the movement. Beethoven wraps up his genre-defining work in true heroic fashion: horns blaring, strings sizzling, and timpani pounding. When the last notes sound, you may just leap out of your chair in applause. (But if you do, you probably won’t live up to Beethoven’s standard; he is said to have criticized the applause delivered by the audience at the symphony’s premier as “insufficiently outstanding.”)
Now comes the question of which recording to listen to. In this column, my general intent is to introduce you to newer recordings by artists with whom you are likely unfamiliar. But this time around, I am going to point you to a classic recording by an outstanding orchestra under the baton of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. Much like Beethoven, Herbert Von Karajan is widely known for a good reason. His tempos never betray the intent of the composer, his direction breathes life into every piece he presides over, and the orchestra he led for more than 34 years is regarded as being among the best orchestras in the world. You won’t be disappointed listening to the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra under Karajan’s baton. Happy Listening!