Reprise: five early posts

I started this blog more than two years ago. Since then, I have learned a lot about blogging and what kinds of articles work best. Several of my early posts are way too short to deserve any attention, but I think you’ll still enjoy several of them. Here is a batch: In preparation of my latest book on the history of the trombone, I had to look at a lot of the Times of London. Before the book appeared, I posted some interesting selections verbatim. I did not use all of the quoted material in my book, so people who … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Middle String Quartets. op. 59 no.1 in F major

The three quartets of Beethoven’s op. 59 are known as the Razumovsky string quartets, because they were commissioned by Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Austrian emperor. The first two of them quote Russian themes, and the third has a theme that seems to have a Russian flavor. These quartets are also the first three of the five string quartets from Beethoven’s middle period. Six of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (no. 3-8) dominate the works of the middle period. As radically different as they are from any earlier symphonies, his string quartets and piano sonatas are more radical still. They … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2

Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension. The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 1

The music Beethoven wrote during his first few years in Vienna shows a young man first learning the basics of the Viennese style and then trying to make his distinctive mark in it. He deliberately produced works in all of the genres current there, including six string quartets written between 1798 and 1800, published as op. 18. By that time, he had learned the basics of the style of Mozart and Haydn and had started the process of transforming it. In the sonata forms of the earlier masters, the recapitulation, as we call it now, presented all of the thematic … Continue reading

Beethoven and musical invective

Perhaps not every classical music lover considers Beethoven the greatest composer in history, but I’m sure everyone puts  him among their top three or four. Yet in  his lifetime, he got some bad press. Here is a selection of German, French and English reviews written during his lifetime from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, which refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect. Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, … Continue reading

When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music

During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way. Nineteenth-century New … Continue reading

But cell phones hadn’t been invented yet! (A Beethoven eccentricity)

As recently as ten years ago, it seemed strange to see someone walking down the street talking to no one visible and gesturing. Everyone wondered about whether that person was really all there. Since then, of course, we have gotten used to cell phones. Nowadays, we still might meet people who talk out loud and make gestures and don’t have a cell phone. We can still wonder about them. Are they crazy? Or maybe just an eccentric genius? Here’s how Gerhard von Breuning described Beethoven in 1825: Beethoven’s outward appearance, owing to that indifference to dress peculiar to him, made … Continue reading

Beethoven explains his deafness

Visiting Bangkok, Thailand, my father slipped off a curb and broke his wrist. It seemed to him that a fall in an exotic location deserved a better story than mere carelessness. He tried to make something up about falling off an elephant, but never learned to tell it with a straight face. Beethoven must have had similar thoughts about his deafness; the story about gradual loss of hearing lacked entertainment value. Beethoven told visiting English pianist Charles Neate that he had been working on an opera–not Fidelio–and had to deal with mean-tempered tenor. The tenor had already rejected two arias … Continue reading

Beethoven plays a new concerto

Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward. Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to. For a … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture. Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth … Continue reading