Ambiguity in Art

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I’ve just come back from a wonderful orchestra concert, and I’m still feeling that rush of excitement and emotional sharpness that comes from listening to incredible music – Beethoven’s Eroica, specifically. It is truly such an absolutely astounding piece. I am completely floored each time I hear it. What is it about it that makes it so unforgettable? Yes, it was revolutionary, ahead of its time – its length practically unprecedented in past symphonies, its usage of themes and motifs masterful. But what lifts it from a technical masterpiece to an timeless one is the breathtaking gamut of emotions it runs through. It dances, shrieks, and parades through a kaleidoscope of moods and characters. You barely have time to sink yourself into each one before it is up and running again, twisting the musical ideas to fit the profound emotional statements only Beethoven knew how to craft – at once agonizingly personal and yet grandly universal.

Therein lies the magic. Yes, we can argue about the inspiration for the piece, the implied storyline, the mannerisms of the era – but can we really pinpoint the specific emotions, the impassioned exclamations that make up its fabric? For example, the first movement. What do those stabbing opening chords mean? Are they meant to be grand, like trumpet calls? Aggressive? Sarcastic, even? What about the lyric melody that follows? Is it romantic, tender, sweeping, lyrical, bittersweet, hopeful? All of these adjectives apply – you guess as to Beethoven’s intention is as good as mine. And he was almost certainly aiming for this ambiguity, deliberately.

Music is meant to go beyond what mere words can describe. In constructing such complex, often ambiguous emotions, it becomes in fact profoundly human. We start to recognize our emotions in works such as these, because they too are complex, messy, and often hard to untangle. This deliberate ambiguity in art is often what lends it its greatness – its timelessness. Centuries later, we are still unraveling the Gordian knot of feelings and declarations wound tightly between the phrases of a composer’s piece. We have a sense of belonging, of being understood, that is unparalleled. We each find a voice of our own in the expansive and multi-hued voice of the composer.

This ambiguity, although perhaps unrivaled in its quality when found in music, is present in other art forms as well. We like messy, unpredictable characters in literature (and films). For example, in The Sun Also Rises (by Hemingway), the character of Jake Barnes remains fascinating to this day. His love affair with scandalous divorcee Lady Brett Ashley seems straightforward, but his twistedly conflicted emotions are like a puzzle. Why does he continue to purposely wound himself by introducing her to other potential suitors, even as he literally cries over her? So much of what he does makes no sense, at least not in a logical way – but in a human, vague, way, it makes perfect sense. We identify with his oscillations, his agony, his roundabout self-harm. It defies logic but it resonates with feeling we’ve all had, albeit in different ways. In its ambiguity, readers find a sense of personal truth – of poignant familiarity. They see what they want to see in his character, whatever it is they most resonate with. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant in his now-famous quote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” This sense of belonging needs the space left by words unsaid, phrases left implied in the silence, to breathe.

I think that today, this precious and crucial ambiguity in expression is somewhat in peril. Art is increasingly explicit, increasingly declamatory. For example, while art and politics have always been inextricably linked in a way that is essential to progress and civilization, nowadays it has taken an almost instructive approach – art lectures instead of channeling the viewer/listener/reader’s personal truth. Or take pop songs, for example. Melody lines have almost completely lost emotional ambiguity. Sad songs are sad. Dance songs are upbeat. There is no in-between. Unlike a Schubert lieder that has layer upon layer of unusual harmonies that subtly underline (or sometimes undermine) the words, providing a scintillating layer of mystery that each listener must unravel themselves, a pop song has no intrigue. When Bieber sings, “It is too late now to say sorry? Cause I’m missing more than just your body,” there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind what the song is about. The words spell it out, the beat dully underlines it. There is no complexity, nothing personal evoked. This isn’t to say all contemporary popular music does this. For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m obsessed with Lorde. What I like about her music is the emotional uncertainty in a lot of her songs’ harmonies, as well as the subtle strangeness of her lyrics. You get a sense that you know, as a whole, what she’s talking about, but when it comes to specifics each listener must supply their own ideas. (“All of the things we’re taking, ’cause we are young and we’re ashamed, send us to perfect places, all of our heroes fading, now I can’t stand to be alone.”)

This ambiguity is essential to art, at least art that aspires to be timeless. A riddle with no concrete solution, it transforms itself into an answer each time it is experienced. It is as if the art transforms itself by transforming the one who experiences it. That is magical. There is absolutely nothing like it. To each viewer/listener/reader, its meaning shifts into what is most poignant to them. Therein lies the piercing grandeur of the Eroica, and all works of art like it – in its deeply personal form of expression, it still leaves enough space and complexity to be interpreted differently by all. To each listener it evokes something difficult to pinpoint yet impossible to forget. It expresses the universal by letting each express the personal. Is there any loftier, more heart-rending, and more truthful form of art than that?

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5 Ways of Looking at Schubert

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Currently I’m a little obsessed with Schubert. He’s always been one of my favorite composers, but I haven’t worked on any of his pieces in a long time – so when I started looking at the D. 899 set of 4 Impromptus recently, I was reminded of all the things I love about his works.

He’s harder than most composers to categorize. Although he lived a very short life (1797-1828), he somehow managed to catch both a bit of the classical era’s “golden age”, and the beginning of Romanticism – he was alive early enough to hear Mozart at the height of his powers, but also late enough to hear Beethoven’s final, ground-breaking works. Because of this, his own style wavers between strictly Classical and heart-rendingly Romantic. He adhered to well-known classical forms, but also delved into then-newer types of music – impromptus, lieder cycles. Furthermore, while he idolized Beethoven’s grand and heroic style to the point of obsession, his own works remained hauntingly intimate and delicately intricate. Because of all of these factors, it’s hard to describe him in the more concrete terms you could use for someone like Haydn or Prokofiev. Perhaps because he drew from such a wide variety of influences, he has a sound and style that is uniquely his own, in a way that was innovative the way no one else had been innovative before.

As I’ve been thinking of his music a lot lately, I’ve realized there are basically five angles that you could approach in looking at his works, and his style.

1. Adherence to Classicism

Yes, he is definitely a classicist. Even though some of his works aren’t the sort of thing Haydn for example would write (Impromptus, song cycles, “klavierstucke”), he was still a truly classical composer. He staunchly adhered, for the most part, to the time-honored forms of his time – the string quartet, the symphony, the sonata, and sonata-form. His pieces often use classical mannerisms that feel like echoes of Mozart’s works. Even within the larger forms of the work, even the way he crafts some of his phrases into “periods” (question/answers) rings of classicism. A good example of this can be some of his string quartets, one of which can be heard here.

2. Obsession with Beethoven

Schubert was famously obsessed with Beethoven, so much so that he was a torchbearer at his funeral and, only a year later when he himself was dying, asked to be buried with his idol. This preoccupation with Beethoven and his style pervades almost all of Schubert’s works, sometimes almost subconsciously. Some have complained about Schubert’s lengthier works and their seemingly rambling quality (a characteristic fellow composer Robert Schumann staunchly defended as “heavenly length”). I think a lot of this length might have to do with his attempt to imitate Beethoven’s style. A lot of Beethoven’s late works are long, much longer than someone like Haydn might have written them. Their forms seem to dissolve into a purely emotional outburst, structures giving way to artistic freedom. A lot of Schubert works do the same; but their self-conscious nature might be what many refer to when they complain of excessive length. Schubert tends to be more repetitive than Beethoven (although he rarely repeats anything exactly – there are always new colors, new modulations, new inner voices that pop up if you pay close attention.) Length aside, Beethoven’s late works often have a stream-of-conscious quality, which Schubert sought desperately to emulate. His works ended up doing that in a way that was different from Beethoven’s. While the latter’s have a sort of grand, universal sort of feel to them, in which all the emotions of the world seem to have been laid out, Schubert’s tend to be like the subtle private musings of an artist. It’s like reading a beautifully written private diary, an act that seems almost intrusive, as opposed to sitting in awe before the almost scriptural magnificence of Beethoven’s writings. Both are like narratives, like a journey, but the end result is different. Nevertheless, the influence can be clearly seen. A good example of a Schubert work that does this can be found here – if you listen to it in comparison with this one, by Beethoven, the correlation becomes clear. Another think to notice is the use of contrasts in a lot of Schubert’s music – Beethoven was famous for doing the same thing. While Schubert tended to use them more elegantly as opposed to Beethoven’s emphasis on pure drama, again the connection between them is difficult to ignore.

3. Vocal composer

His most famous works are definitely his absolutely incredible lieder; the song cycles that he seemed to write so easily and yet with such astounding skill. It’s hard to imagine the kind of genius required to write something like his Erlkonig at the tender age of 17; a song so skillfully and dramatically evocative of the images that the words try to paint. But it isn’t just the ideas and mimicry that the music can conjure; it is the flawless grace with which Schubert writes for the voice. It is impossible to imagine these works as being written for anything but the human voice.  It is no wonder that they are absolutly required repertoire for any classical singer. Once you’ve heard his lieder, it is hard to hear any of his instrumental music without thinking about them. Even in his impromptus and piano sonatas, the same vocal lines and richly textured images he tries to paint using sound are impossible to ignore. No matter how you classify Schubert and how you analyze his style, his role first and foremost as a composer of song cannot be overstated. Is it any wonder that composers such as Schumann and Brahms, themselves fine writers of lieder, were so enchanted with him?

4. Precocious composer

When people think of classical prodigies, they think of composers such as Mendelssohn or Mozart. And while it’s true Schubert didn’t learn singlehandedly how to play the violin at 5, or memorize huge collection of the works of Bach to perform as a small child the way the two former composers did, it’s still significant that he wrote most of his works before he was even thirty. He may not have been a prodigy, but he was still very young to have written as much and as well as he did. We have only his incredibly work-ethic and explosive credity to thank for leaving us the large volume of work that it did. Unlike Brahms, who burned much of his work, or Rossini, who simply stopped composing once he was rich enough to retire, Schubert’s output is frankly enormous given the fact that he died at 31. He was known to fall asleep with his glasses on so that he could start working again right away when he awoke. So while many of his works are of a depth, maturity, and universality that would be incredible at any age, it’s important not to forget he was young. It is all too easy to start seeing them as ponderous, but they were the work of a hot-blooded young man who was passionate about both his works and the world. They are spirited, filled with the anxious eagerness of someone who is still growing up. You can hear a lot of this youthful eagerness in pieces such as this one. One can only imagine the soul-searching depth his pieces would have reached had he actually been able to grow old, the way Beethoven or Bach did. It boggles the mind. Which leads to the fifth lens through which we can view his music –

5. Obsession with Death

Some of his best works came out of the late period of his life, when he knew that he was slowly and painfully dying of incurable syphilis. It is impossible to ignore the fact that death was, for a significant period of time, always on his mind. But unlike Mozart’s religious fascination with death as a liberation, or Beethoven’s all-too-human struggles with mortality as outlined in his late string quartets (inscribed with the words “Must it be?” and “It must be!”). Schubert had an approach all his own. Death seems to be a journey to him, not a destination but a passage. There is nothing too sanctified about it, but there is no gritty darkness to it, either. In fact, this “journey” outlook on life begins to leave its mark on all of his late pieces. The Wintereisse song cycle is hauntingly lonely and soul-searching. You get the sense right away that the story is about much more than just a traveler escaping his beloved. There is a sense of inevitable destination, of something that must be reached alone and with painfully beautiful elegance. But this journey is outlined in pieces that are less literal as well. For example, his C minor impromptu from his D. 899 set (found here) seems to outline a coming-to-terms with mortality as well. From the almost march-like, lonely introduction; to the fiery middle section with its incessant pounding and repetition of the dominant pitch (the pitch in a scale that has the most tension in it, as opposed to the tonic “home” pitch); to the almost angelic and sudden shift to major in the ending, this is almost a journey not towards death, but rather towards the mindset needed for it. It is poetic, compelling, and absolutely heart-rending. In fact, this angle of Schubert’s music may actually be the most important. Whatever his influences were, whatever forms he decided to use, whatever genres he felt most comfortable in, behind it all was this unending, obsessive driving force behind it – the awareness of his own mortality at a tragically young age.

So there you have it, five ways to look at a composer who seems to, and will always, defy any concrete categorization. In looking at influences, pre-occupations, and stylistic inclinations, you can begin to understand his inspirations and manner of work; but it his unique sense of aesthetics and unusual understanding of death that provide the soulful and unforgettable quality to his works. A man stuck between eras, torn from the world in a painful and all too early death, remembered as innovative and yet old-fashioned, with a style uniquely intimate and personal that was all his own – never before heard, and never to be replicated again.

Searching for Autobiography in Mozart’s Music

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For many, music is the most intensely expressive form of art – sidestepping the need for words, for concrete imagery, it is at once profoundly personal yet also uniquely universal. Because of this, composers often come under close scrutiny: people search for a specific meaning behind their works, for certain life events and stories that could have inspired their creations. In our acceptance of the timelessness and universality of their compositions, we still have an enduring itch for the specific, for the human.

Thanks to the extensive documentation that surrounds most composers and their lives, connections between works and specific surrounding events can usually be made. Some composers’ creations are ripe with autobiography and concrete points of inspiration. Some examples of this are Beethoven, who is pretty much the main character of some of his works (*ahem* Eroica), or Schumann, who obsessively interwove his wife Clara and the letters making up her name into a majority of his greatest works. These composers wrote pieces that are intensely descriptive and narrative of specific events in their life. But then there are others, perhaps those on whose life we have significant gaps of knowledge, who remain more obscure. (From where did Vivaldi draw the inspiration for his countless works, for example?)

And then we have Mozart. The amount of scholarship and research done concerning his short but intensely eventful life is truly mind-boggling. We know everything about him – his family, his upbringing, his travels, his composition process, his friends. There is little that remains mysterious. We even have a huge number of his letters (perhaps even some we wish would have remained forgotten or lost…) We know when he wrote his pieces, in what environment, and often what inspired him. Yet a question remains: are his pieces autobiographical, or not? Does their character match the time period of his life that they were written in? Did he draw inspiration from his life and what he was feeling in the moment to write them? Or did music exist on a sort of separate plane for him, one separate from daily life, where he found refuge and complete artistic liberty?

From some of the darkest times of his life came some of his most beautiful and joyous music. And from some of his happiest years came his most disturbing works (for example,  while in Prague, where he was financially stable for perhaps the only time in his life and where he felt truly respected as an artist, he wrote Don Giovanni – a dark opera about adultery, revenge, and eternal damnation.) But despite this paradox and contradiction, there is nothing insincere about his music. There is no sarcasm, no artifice in his happier music, just as there is no forced pathos in his tragic works. He seemed to be able to summon the most sincere and eloquent emotions at will, regardless of what he may actually have been feeling in the moment. (This is somewhat unsurprising: he was known for being able to come up with the most extraordinary music on the spot, in fact due to his habit of procrastinating he wrote the entire overture to Don Giovanni the night before the first rehearsal.) Mozart seems to have been a master of a unique kind of creativity that he could employ on command, without relying on momentary inspiration or current moods.

However, other works of his do seem to contain an autobiographical element. For example, his String Quartet No. 15 in D minor was written as his wife was giving birth to his son Raimund. According to her, the musical figures present in the work are meant to echo her cries from the room next to his. With such a work, he clearly drew on present life experience for inspiration and referenced it deliberately. Some also say his Viola Quintet in G minor, written around the time of his father’s death (with whom he had a complicated relationship), is clearly influenced by his life and represents all the soul-searching and unanswered questions he had in the face of the death of someone so influential to him. His deliberate artistic choice to use of a second viola, unusual in chamber music, in order to bring forth the amber-toned darkness of the piece corroborates this theory. The most famous example, perhaps, of music being clearly and consciously inspired by events in his life, is his final unfinished Requiem. Several times he stated to those around him that he believed he was writing his own Requiem, knowing that he was on his deathbed. With that in mind, the anguish and transcendent majesty of the work becomes that much more poignant and intimate, a moving portrait of the emotional and intellectual process of a genius coming to grips with his own impending death.

So which was it? Did Mozart use music as a venue for autobiographical, personal expression, or was it something he saw as separate from his own life and instead filled with a more universal, timeless meaning? Or was it a bit of both?

I think the most important clue lies in his own words. Here is a telling quote straight from his pen: “The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.” Mozart saw art not as much as a a vehicle of personal expression, but rather as something that could ennoble and heal. In other words, he would prefer to write pieces not about personal tragedy, but about the endurance of human spirit and the nobility of life that could help heal such tragedy. Music to him had to remain untainted from the drab darkness that often colored real life. Music was separate: and therein lied its healing and truly awesome power. That’s why, even in his darkest pieces, he never seems to truly sink into emotional despair – there’s always something hopeful, an element of transcendent beauty, something telling of the grandeur of the human soul. This is what lifts his operas, and their often raunchy and ultimately forgettable plots, into absolute masterpieces of timeless and uplifting beauty. His music ceases to be about individual stories and instead speaks of the hope and ennobling quality of art that he so admired and cherished.

In conclusion, while although I don’t think anyone can dispute that some of his works do, indeed, have clear autobiographical elements to them, to focus on that would be to miss the larger picture and character of his creativity. One of Mozart’s most enduring and unique characteristics was his ability to transform the mundane and the gritty into sincere and unforgettable works of beauty – works that rely on their simplicity, profundity, and their earnestness to achieve that unrivaled sense of almost sanctified transcendence. Whatever his inspirations and creative process was, Mozart didn’t intend to write autobiographical and personal works. He wanted his music to represent all that was good and beautiful in life, to uplift. And no matter what the starting point, the inspiration, may have been for his music, it’s the end result that matters – that makes Mozart’s music into the unique, unmatched, and unforgettable creation that it is.

The Evolution of Beethoven’s Slow Middle Movements

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Beethoven has a multi-faceted legacy. To some, he’s the revolutionary genius who broke the structures and norms of music and heralded in a new era of self-expression. To some, he’s the first true musical romantic hero, dark and brooding and misunderstood, a true symbol of everything 19th century art began to stand for. And then to others, he’s a caricature of himself – a fiery, bad-tempered artist who wrote the 5th symphony and shook his fist at the sky on his death-bed. This last image seems to be the most often-encountered in popular culture and among those who only know his most popular works – which is a shame, because more often than not Beethoven was a true poet who knew how to employ the softest tones, the most haunting quasi-medieval-sounding chords, and the most extended of silences to stretch the listener’s emotions to a poignant breaking point. Beethoven wasn’t all fire and rage. Some of his best works are lyrical, soft-spoken, elegant, and slow.

This is best show-cased in the middle-movements of his sonatas, symphonies, and concertos. Traditionally, in classical structure, any time a piece has three or four movements, the one in the middle tends to be slow. Adagio, andante, largo. Beethoven had an unusual knack of using these slow movements to elevate the artistic character of the entire work from substantial to absolutely divine. Can you imagine the Moonlight Sonata without its famous slow movement, or the 5th symphony without its yearning and unforgettable slow movement? No, neither could I. To remove them would be to make the pieces heavy-handed and almost hollow.

But while he was always skilled in writing slow movements, his approach to them had a gradual evolution. Here are 11 examples of some of the best slow works he ever wrote, and how they compare to each-other. (Please do give each one a listen! They’re all highly worth it.)

And of course, this list is by no means exhaustive (not even close). These are just significant examples – but a slightly deeper search into this topic will yield many many more slow pieces just as significant and beautiful as the ones listed below. These just happen to be some of my favorites.

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Mov. II

While this may not technically be the best slow movement he ever written, it’s significant because it’s the first piano sonata slow movement he wrote (that we know of) and it’s truly a remarkable piece. It combines elements of a sweet, childish nostalgia, a strict adherence to classical norms, a slight quirkiness that already indicates the rebellious nature his artistic character will mature into, and the subtle self-consciousness of a supremely talented but inexperienced  composer who at the time was studying (grudgingly) with the musical giant Josef Haydn. It’s poignant, lovely, and very telling.

Piano Sonata No. 7, Mov. II

Beethoven’s piano sonata slow movements got heavier and meatier over time. By the time he wrote his Opus 10 sonatas, his slow movements had developed into lengthy and ponderous, often tragic, works that carried more emotional gravitas oftentimes than the rest of the other movements combined. This movement I think really stands out from his early sonatas. Despite its considerable length and arched phrases, the chords are actually very tightly packed and condensed. This tension between harmonic structural terseness and lyric and emotional grandeur is what lies at the core of this piece. The sheer number of emotions this piece handles is quite incredible. You can really see Beethoven maturing into a formidable poet in this piece – a true emotional as well as technical master who was already changing the face of music.

Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), Mov. II

This symphony is famous for many reasons, not just because it is an extraordinary work but because for the first time Beethoven acknowledged his role as a fearless, peerless revolutionary. Theories on the inspiration/subject matter of this piece are many, but everyone agrees that this is an enormously significant work. It doesn’t matter if this piece is about Napoleon, or about Beethoven himself, or about some ancient Greek hero – what matters is that it tells a story that is relevant to all, in music that forever revolutionized the way composers expressed themselves. It is a piece about self, about identity, about change, about life, about triumph over struggle, about emotional complexity. The second movement is crucial to this idea. Titled “funeral march”, it symbolizes the death (temporary death, I should say) of the main hero of the work. It is a movement fraught with tragedy, gravitas, and textured emotional layers. It’s lengthy, but worth a complete listen. This is typical middle-period Beethoven – a composer more comfortable in his own voice, but still struggling with his own identity as an artist and as a person. This piece, and this movement, is a testament to this struggle – the funeral march of a man who has died and reinvented himself, who has altered not only how he sees himself but how the world sees art.

Symphony No. 5, Mov. II

I recently watched a masterclass given by a wonderful cellist recently, and he referenced this movement by playing its opening theme to showcase some vibrato technique he was talking about. Immediately the audience member sitting next to me sank down in his seat with a gasp – the sheer beauty and iconic lyricism of it was so immediately powerful. This movement is important not only because of its inherent artistic merit, but because it is the grand “eye of the hurricane” in the middle of a work so fraught with fire, power, and mythical legend. Somehow, it manages to hold its own ground through the strength of its beauty, elegance, and rock-solid grasp on its musical motifs. Through this symphony you can truly see how Beethoven has started to manipulate the musical themes he comes up with – tiny, seemingly insignificant phrases that he twists and turns and varies to create mighty, towering skyscrapers of sheer musical splendor. This is truly the work of a composer who has come into his own; confident in his powers and his emotional capabilities.

Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Mov. II

The first and third movements of this remarkable sonata (one of Beethoven’s best) are famous for their extreme emotional fury and unceasing drive all the way to the explosive finale. But the second movement is in stark contrast to both. Unlike the grand rage of the first movement, or the repetitive, rhythmically dense manic fury of the third, the second movement is almost hymn-like in its chordal tranquility and smooth flow. The movement is a series of variations on a theme that is as emotionally poignant as it is elegant. By now Beethoven has a become a true technical master, able to pull off any series of magical acrobatics using the simplest of themes. And in this case, the theme is no mere motif – it is a beautiful, almost religious statement of peaceful and timeless beauty. There are few pieces that can reassure and remind of everything beautiful and good the way this one can. It is absolutely transcendental.

Piano Concerto No. 4, Mov. II

The entire concerto is truly remarkable (from its magical key-change in the opening, to the quirky ornaments and flights of fancy in the last movement), but the middle movement is just stunning. The drama, contrasts, and sheer exquisite beauty of it elevate the work to transcendent magnificence. The entire second movement is a terse and desperately tragic dialogue between the orchestra and the piano. An oft-heard interpretation of the work is that it recounts the myth of Orpheus as he travels to the underworld to rescue his beloved from Hades. The orchestra can symbolize death, or his journey, or whatever dark forces you can imagine, and the piano symbolizes the sensitive and tragically resigned singer-poet of ancient Greek mythology. But whatever the interpretation, and whatever exact image Beethoven had in mind, this movement has the power to keep you completely enchanted throughout its entire duration and haunt you afterwards. Definitely worth a careful repeated listen.

Piano Concerto No. 5, Mov. II

Although I don’t think this movement has the technical complexity of the first movement, and is thus less often mentioned in most lists of his most memorable or significant works, it’s just too beautiful too leave out of this list. Besides, it’s the middle movement of the last piano concerto he ever wrote – he thought it worthy enough to be his final goodbye to this genre. There are few themes he wrote in this middle period of his life that compare to the haunting beauty of this one. The way the orchestra and piano intertwine, almost lovingly, in this work, is just magical. Expert writing combined with skilled and heartfelt poetry, at its finest.

Symphony No. 7, Mov. II

This is a hefty movement, almost self-consciously attentive to its theme and motifs, but tragically beautiful nonetheless. It’s quite famous, so at first listen you’ll probably recognize it, but it’s worth listening to the end. It marks a sort of transition in the way Beethoven started to think of slow movements – from now on they become even longer, meatier, and significant than before. No longer do they simply provide a respite between the faster movements that bookend them – they are significant, important works in their own right. They’re not here to give you resting time in between fast movements, but rather to take your breath away even further. From now on the lines between movements are blurred as Beethoven experiments more and more with structure, breaking down almost anything recognizable about proper classical form and the distinctive characteristics setting movements apart from each-other.

Piano Sonata No. 29 (“Hammerklavier”), Mov. III

Arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, piano sonata Beethoven wrote. An absolute demon to play (I don’t plan on going anywhere near this piece for at least until grad school), this piece just never relents in its manic search for artistic creativity, complexity, and power. It is technically challenging, artistically intelligent, and emotionally exhausting. Each movement rivals the next in its sheer genius and brilliance. While I could go on and on about the mastery in its massive fugue movement, or the dramatic perfection of the opening, or just about any section of this ridiculous piece that makes even the greatest pianists quake in fear, it is its middle movement that makes it essential to this list. The emotional complexity of this piece just floors me every time. It represents everything a younger Beethoven was trying to get at in his early sonatas (like No. 7), but would repeatedly fall just a bit short of due to his inexperience of lack of emotional maturity. This movement is essential late Beethoven – complicated, wavering between despair and absolutely heart-rending hope – all done in an almost improvisatory, constantly evolving manner. Nothing in this piece stays the same as it progresses. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t identify with the emotions described in this piece. Few other works, ever written by anyone, can so perfectly and fully describe the sadness yet faith that lies at the core of this unforgettable work. Please give it a listen from start to finish – it is absolutely worth it. Its transcendent beauty is matched only by its gut-wrenching, haunting humanity.

Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Mov. II

If any other piano sonata movement of Beethoven’s were to come close to the slow one of the Hammerklavier, it would be this one. Famous for its “jazzy” middle section that makes you want to snap your fingers, it nonetheless contains an absolutely exquisite opening theme that is rivaled only by the breathless build-up of emotion that characterizes the ending. Once again Beethoven displays his peerless mastery in using a slow movement to explore, deeply, all human emotions. These slow movements cease to be musical structures and become sheer declarations about humanity. The technical aspects of this piece and the way Beethoven develops his ideas are of course the work of a true master in his prime, but the emotional value and truth of it are what make it unforgettable. As with the others, this piece is absolutely worth a careful listen all the way to the end.

String Quartet No. 13, Mov. IV (Cavatina)

I had originally meant to make this a list of ten pieces – a nice round and comfortable number. But to do so would leave out this movement, which would be unforgivable. In fact, not even the Voyager Golden Record (the phonograph record containing a sample of Earth’s music and sounds sent to outer space in 1977) left it out of its collection. There is something so pure, so heartfelt, about this late work that makes it impossible to ignore. One of the things that make Beethoven’s music so unusual is that towards the end of his life, when his constant illness, loneliness, and almost complete deafness made his days an excruciating misery, he managed to write some of his most introspective, peaceful, and beautifully soul-searching music. This work isn’t despairing, it isn’t angry. It is magnificent. Musical elegance and eloquence at its finest. And there is something so true, so human about it that you almost forget it is music – it becomes a sheer emotional statement of universal and timeless truth. A telling anecdote about this works tells of how, when the Schuppanzig quartet played through this work for the now-deaf, surly and hardened composer, he started to cry. He would later tell his friends that just the memory of the performance would bring him to tears, later, again. It wasn’t the way they sounded, or the way they interpreted it (he couldn’t hear them anyway) – it was the mere sight of them being immersed in a piece that was so close to his heart, that seemed almost separated from his personal creation and instead became one with the world’s universal humanity.

And that is the reason for the unique magic of his works, particularly his slow works – they evolved into pieces that not only told the story of the composer’s personal life and emotions, but of things that were timeless and transcendent. Beethoven’s slow movements matured from the ponderings of a talented and eager younger composer to the musings of a man who felt deeply and was steeped in the all that was truly poignant in life. These aren’t just technically or musically significant works – these are works that are timeless because of their emotional understanding of the world.

 

Summer Reading: Music Books

birds music engraving

Ever since I got back from college, where I didn’t have nearly enough time to read for pleasure, I’ve been devouring every book in sight. This was fueled by several trips I have made to used bookstores, which are currently my favorite place in the world. I’d highly recommend them if you don’t frequent them already! They always have unusual, often out-of-print, and extremely cheap finds. It’s like searching for buried treasure, and you find something each and every time.

I’ve discovered that used bookstores have a wealth of books on Classical Music. A while back I posted about some books about Classical Music I thought you would enjoy. Now, I’ve read enough books since coming back home to make another blog post about them.

So here they are!

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (by Eric Siblin)

I’m in love with this book, for three main reasons: I love Bach and his cello suites, I love the way it’s structured (each chapter is named after a movement of the suites, with beautiful quotes from great cellists at the beginning of each chapter), and I love the eloquent way it’s written (without being heavy-handed.) It’s a very easy read, regardless if you’re an experienced musician or just a curious reader who doesn’t know much about Bach or his works. The book switches in between each chapter from Bach’s biography to the biography of legendary cellist Pablo Casals, who was the first to truly champion the long-forgotten Cello Suites by the composer. In doing so, the book discusses music, the appreciation of music, life as a composer and as a musician, the politics and history of the era, the intimate lives of two geniuses, and how great works of art have always been and will be timeless, infinitely intriguing, and mysterious. A great, relatively quick read, written in a fascinating and engaging way. Highly recommended!

Mozart: A Cultural Biography (by Robert W. Gutman)

A word of warning: this book is massive. It’s 865 pages and looks like an elegant phonebook. But boy, is it worth it. It’s an intricately detailed, well crafted, and absolutely riveting read on the life of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. At the end of the book, you feel as if you’ve gone on a long odyssey with the composer as a guide, and now know him as intimately as anyone who actually knew him when he was alive. The book doesn’t merely discuss his life, but also his times – the history, political landscape, cultural norms, and artistic innovations of his time. You not only get to know the man, but his world. If you love Mozart, or love 18th century European history, or are just looking for an intense and extremely informative read, this book is for you. It took me a while to finish it, but it was definitely worth it.

The Poetics of Music (by Igor Stravinsky)

This is a small and unassuming book, elegantly structured, by one of the most notorious and striking giants of Russian music. In measured, elegant prose, Stravinsky analyzes music as an art form, music on the role of the composer, the critic, the musician, and the audience member. It serves as an intimate look not only into his compositional process, but into the way he saw the artistic world and the music of his age (and ages past.) It’s a quick read, thought-provoking, and well written.

A Passionate Journey: A Memoir (by Robert Mann)

Robert Mann was one of the giants of chamber music (music in general, really) in the 20th century. But people don’t talk about him as much as they do about more mainstream classical artists. As a founding member of the famed Juilliard Quartet, he went on to become an esteemed teacher and extremely respected figure in the world of music. He recently passed away, less than a year ago, but he did write an auto-biography before he died. His writing style is simple and conversational, but on each page lies a wealth of experience, terrific anecdotes, and a burning passion for music as a sophisticated yet universal, emotionally-charged art. This book really makes you look at music in a new way, through the eyes of someone who devoted his life and work to it. For anyone who likes Classical Music or chamber music, this is a fun yet thought-provoking must-read.

Joseph Haydn: Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and Genius (edited by Vernon Gotwals, original works in German by G. A. Riesinger and A. C. Dier)

This book is a translated/edited edition of two important Haydn biographies, both written by men who knew him personally in Vienna. While the writing style in itself of either isn’t terribly imaginative or eloquent, the depiction they paint of the composer is affectionate, detailed, and charming. While they based all of their information on things Haydn told them as an elderly man, which means some of it may be exaggerated or remembered mistakenly, it’s still an important and significant look into the life of a great composer who wielded enormous influence on all composers who came after him. The respect that genuine love that creeps in between the lines is truly touching, and gives you a very human characterization of the composer. He truly was “Papa” Haydn to these writers, and by the time you finish the book he’ll feel like a father figure to you too. Definitely highly recommended to anyone who likes Haydn, or biographies written by people who were intimately acquainted with the person they’re writing about.

And that’s all I’ve gotten a chance to read, non-fiction wise, since I got back from college! The stack of books I have yet to read (I’m looking at you, Isaac Stern memoir, and you, out-of-print Mendelssohn biography…) is still growing, however, and there’ll probably be another blog post about it coming soon!

Are there any music books you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments!

PS: I haven’t only been reading music books. Partly because I absolutely adore F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lovely writing with a burning passion, and partly because I was just in Key West and visited Hemingway’s house and thus contracted a severe case of Hemingway-obsession, I’ve been devouring a lot of books by them. (I read The Sun Also Rises in two days. Did I ignore all other important tasks? Yes. Am I now in love with that book? Yessss.) So I’m thinking of doing a post on books by them! Would you like to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Characters in Classical Music

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In a post I wrote a while ago about theme and variations, I mentioned that you can view that musical genre as the story of a main character going through different settings. After a recent re-reading of it, I realize that the same can be said of just about any piece of classical music, in any style. All classical music, I think, can be seen as the narrative of a central main character – whether it’s in monologue format, conversational, or etc. Let’s dive in a little deeper to see how music reveals the personality and traits of the main character.

Diction

Characters speak in a certain way. Music is the same – some pieces have their own specific style of diction. They can have the lyricism of an aria, or the rhythmic and incessant pattering of a toccata. For example, compare this piece by Mozart with this one by Beethoven. Both have a sense of forward motion, of energy. But in Mozart, this is translated to an elegant and textured sense of refinement, retaining a sense of brightness and exuberance within the confines if a delicately varied style. It has variety of thought; seeming like the ramblings of a character analyzing something from a multitude of angles. In Beethoven, you see almost none of this variety. His character’s way of speaking is obsessive – bursting with nervous energy, anxious, frighteningly focused. His character is upset about something, determined, yet somehow fearful. Composers use “diction” like this all the time to lend character to their pieces. Some characters speak in contrasts, whispering and then shouting for effect. Some character have an eloquent tongue and can spin out lengthy phrases and sound like poetry. Some character whisper to themselves. Some characters shout from rooftops. These pieces don’t just convey information, they analyze it within themselves by the way they say it. Their method of delivery says much about the character.

Emotion

The concept of diction usually stems from the overall mood of the character. The way they speak says something about what is going on inside. Emotions in pieces can vary greatly – and can represent the emotions that the character is feeling. This goes way beyond simple emotions (“this piece is sad”, “this piece if fiery”). Pieces can contain a multitude of emotions within just a few minutes of music. Some composers are known for packing a kaleidoscopic range of feelings in their works. Some composers can extend one emotion over pages and pages of music, pushing a feeling to its limits, obsessing over it. The way pieces deal with emotion is the way a character might. For example, listen to this piece by Bach, and then this piece by Janacek. In the Bach piece, the emotion is straightforward – tragic. (This is the piece sung in St. Matthew’s Passion by St. Peter, when he realizes he has betrayed Christ 3 times and is asking for forgiveness). The tragedy is maintained the entire time, poignant, unceasing. It is the focused anguish of a character with only one thing on his mind, one consuming regret that he is unable to shake off or cope with. It says a lot about the character. On the other hand, in Janacek’s piece, the emotions are more difficult to pinpoint. They shift and alter during the entire piece, each chord a flitting image of a new shade of feeling. Colors change along with the character’s mood, and the character as revealed in this particular piece is a thoughtful, multi-faceted one. That isn’t to say Bach’s character, in his piece, is “flat”. Not at all. No character who can feel pain so deeply, who can mull over it and process it so beautifully, can be boring. It takes the elegance of Bach to take a prolonged, single-minded feeling and make it to continuously enduring, timeless, and relatable – full of depth and color. But it also takes the genius of Janacek to put forth a character, in his piece, who can feel so many different shades of emotion and process them so intriguingly and in such an exquisitely subtle way. The characters’ emotions put forth by both composers are completely different, but equally fascinating. Each piece has its own emotion this way, and it’s not hard to find adjectives for them. Some characters are crafty, some are shy, some are hot-tempered, some are poised, some are depressed, some are intricate and contradictory.

Message

Combining the emotion of what they’re trying to say and how they’re saying it isn’t enough, characters need an actual message – something to actually say – in order to fully reveal their personality. This is where the message of the piece comes in. And this is the hardest thing to pinpoint, because there aren’t any words – all there are are hints, clues, all up to interpretation. (Of course, this isn’t the case with songs that have words, or program music or ballets or operas in which stories are explicitly stated, but those are in the minority). What is the message of one of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, for example? What is the character trying to communicate? What is the story, what is happening? What is the story in this piece, or this one, or this one? You can often trace the arc of the story in a piece, from beginning to buildup to climax to end, but what makes it so intriguing is the way it’s handled – and that’s where the character of the piece steps in. How do the themes react to the changes? How does the emotion of the piece shift? What is being conveyed? What makes classical music so eternally fascinating, so consistently timeless, is the way the same piece can be interpreted in literally infinite ways. Each performer sees the message, the motives, and the personality of the piece’s main character differently, like a master actor who must absorb all intricacies of a role before performing it. The message of each piece is open to a wild variety of interpretations, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s a story where all the elements are given, but the reader is the one who ties them together.

Arc and Evolution

All good characters have a character arc; they must exhibit a change or evolution in themselves as affected by the story. So does a piece of music. The themes of a work, the motifs, never emerge unchanged. The main example of this is in a work of theme and variations. Bach, in his Goldberg Variations, introduces the theme at the beginning, and at the end (after it has been altered and embellished and sculpted countless times) it returns back in its original form. But the ears of the audience now can no longer hear it the same way – it has changed. It’s been changed, matured, by the previous events. And because of this a new complexity, a luscious intricacy, emerges from within its simple and unadorned phrases. Have a listen. Sometimes a change in a character can happen simply through dialogue. In a concerto, the solo instrument speaks with the orchestra, at times harmoniously, other times argumentatively – they add to each-other, to each-other’s views, until both emerge changed and transformed. Here’s a good example of this. From the very opening – the piano and orchestra entering in different keys – you know it’s going to be quite a conversation. Sometimes a piece can enter a lengthy monologue, a train of thought, through which it finds its own solitary catharsis and discovery. Bach’s Chaconne will forever be the reigning standard for this – unequaled in its emotional breadth and poignant self-analysis. Characters in this pieces acquire a complexity and interest equaled only in the most complicated of literary works. Each phrase, each modulation, each rhythm, adds to their intricacy and evolution.

And this is just the beginning of how you can analyze a piece of classical music the way you’d analyze a literary character. What are its driving forces, its traits, its quirks, its motives, its preoccupations, its emotional trigger-points? How does it change? How does it analyze itself? How does it speak? How does it feel? Is it obsessive, long-winded? Is it brief and straight-forward? Is it complicated and convoluted, refusing to come to terms with its overwhelming emotions? The answers are all a matter of opinion – it’s all open to interpretation, in the most glorious and identifiable way. The characters in music cease, once analyzed by a listener, to be a product of the composer, and become a product of the performer and the audience member. Music is what you make of it. It reflects your own thoughts, your own emotions, your own story arc. And that’s what gives the unequaled elegance, timelessness, and poignancy to classical music. Within its structure of almost mathematical architecture, harmonic intricacy, and emotional complexity, lies the blank canvas on which to paint your own interpretation – a space to fill with a character of your own making. The main character in any music, in the end, is you.

 

 

How to Write a Timeless Story, According to Fairy Tales (or: a Lengthy Post About Why Stories Don’t Need to be Lengthy)

cinderella swing

What makes a story timeless? Is it the characters that remain identifiable, for anyone anywhere? Is it the enduring themes that deal with moving human truths? Is it iconic images that remained inked into the consciousness of each passing generation? And at what point  – what age must a story have – for it to be declared officially “timeless?” Who decides?

There are a lot of classic books – novels, poems, short stories – that have endured throughout time for a reason. The Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, Aesop’s Fables. These have passed the test of time and contain several of the usual characteristics that a timeless tale has.

But what about fairy tales? Most of them have no single author – no solitary genius who sat down with a quill pen to write a story about profound and timeless ideas. No, instead, they’re simple narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation, fine-tuned and whittled and adjusted, stripped of superfluous detail until only what was pertinent and consistently important remained. Fairy tales are extraordinary because of that. They didn’t start out being timeless – time itself created them that way. They’ve endured because they were meant to endure.

And I think that characteristic is severely underappreciated. People all too often pigeon-hole them as “children’s stories”, pointing out their simplistic plots and flat characters, using them as spring-boards for more “complex” and “relevant” plots. I think the opposite should be true. Any writer can learn from fairy tales – the simplest and most perfect of narratives, enduring because they have been perfected and smoothed by the passing of time. Perhaps that’s why some fairy tales exist throughout the world (China has a version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example – and versions of Cinderella appear through the world, in practically every continent.) There’s something there – something truly special and powerful that should be admired and imitated.

What is it that makes a fairy tale so iconic? Here are some elements.

Characters

A frequent criticism is that characters in fairy tales are flat and cliche. It’s not hard to see where that comes from. A handsome prince who saves the day, with nary a flaw in his system. A perfect princess who always does what’s right and has the patience of a saint. An evil stepmother who always does what’s wrong, no matter what, with no remorse. There’s no complexity to these characters – they are the epitome of predictability. You can sum up each one in a single adjective. Evil. Good. Unrepentant. Heroic. Or can you?

What motivates the prince? What’s his backstory? Maybe he’s trying to prove himself to harsh parents. Maybe he’s trying to forget a past love who died or left him for another man. Maybe he’s obsessed with the adrenaline rush of a quest; maybe he doesn’t love the princess and merely wants to do something bards will sing of. The stories never say. That doesn’t mean such a backstory doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter – it’s ambiguous. It’s mysterious. It’s compelling. It’s up to the reader to decide, to determine, to sift for clues. The prince is not a flat character. He’s endlessly intriguing and has the potential to inspire a thousand novels and films (which he has.)

Why is the stepmother evil, anyway? No one is just born that way. Maybe the father – the gentle father of the princess – is actually cruel to her. Maybe he’s an abusive drunkard of a husband. Perhaps she takes out her pain on her step-daughter. Perhaps that’s how she herself was raised and she knows no better. Perhaps there’s something different about reality that the innocent princess doesn’t realize, that the stepmother is trying to protect her from. There are a thousand ways her character can be interpreted that doesn’t merely assign her to the role of “villain”.

And the princess – the heroine – there lies the most mystery. What gives the princess the patience to endure the story the way she does? Why is Rapunzel afraid of the outside world, why does she so easily believe her stepmother? Maybe she is being blackmailed by something in her dark past. Maybe Snow White wasn’t banished for being beautiful, maybe she was a political threat and was trying to dethrone the power-hungry queen. (After all, the description of deathly pale skin, inky hair, and bloody lips isn’t exactly a classical notion of beauty.) And let’s talk about the fact that although all her life Sleeping Beauty has been a spectator to the banishment of spinning wheels and has been told to stay away from them or else, the minute she sees one she touches it and stabs herself. Not quite a meek and obedient maiden, is she? Then there’s the girl who willingly offers herself to a monster in the place of her father, in Beauty and the Beast. What inner strength gives her the resolve to do this?

There’s also secondary characters who are never fleshed out at all but who remain incredibly memorable. The huntsman who refuses to kill a princess. The fairy godmother who appears just in time to weave spells but sets conditions  – maybe that’s just how magic works, but maybe she’s also testing the true love of the prince, to see how far he’ll go to get Cinderella.  Rumpelstiltskin, too – why does he want the baby? Where did he learn to spin gold, anyway?!

There aren’t flat characters. They’re fascinating, worthy of getting obsessed over. That’s why the number of books and films and poems that they have inspired is endless and still growing. The amount of possibilities for interpretation and backstory is absolutely stunning.

Symbols

Fairy tales are fraught with symbols, iconic objects. The glass slipper. The mirror. The fading rose. The spindle. The poisoned apple. The red riding cloak. The tower. Their selection and enduring image is truly magnificent. They’re so simple, so recognizable, so commonplace, and yet they take on a metaphorical and majestic life of their own.

Maybe the slipper symbolizes the fragility of love, or the enduring conviction the prince has that the girl he has just met is the one he will love for the rest of his life. Maybe the mirror is conscience – or a perception of reality, or a refusal to face reality and an obsession with image and control. Maybe the fading rose symbolizes the brevity of life and its beauties, and the need to do good before your time is up. Or maybe it’s just a a beautiful symbol for love against all the odds, a frail and lovely hope in a cruel world full of beasts. A poisoned apple can symbolize all that is evil tainting the innocent girl that is Snow White. A tower hiding a princess can symbolize isolation, social anxiety, arrogance, emotional barriers. (And on a more humorous note, let’s admit that Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak is a very clever example of branding.)

The writers never spell this out, of course. The objects are just there – open to interpretation, iconic, enduring. The possibilities are endless and can change with the times, but the symbols will always be there. They’re not outwardly complex – no frills, no overt hints at their metaphorical identities. They just are. The reader does all the work.

Conflict

The conflicts are so deceptively simple. Good vs. Evil – the witch against the saintly prince, the raging dragon juxtaposed against the virtuous patience of the captive princess.

A symbol for every conflict in the world, stripped of opinion and circumstance and subjectivity into a universally identifiable story. We all know who to cheer for, who to root against. It’s not an accurate representation of problems in the real world, but it’s still representative. In a world with such well-defined good and evil, we see in these conflicts our own problems, no matter what time we live in or what our culture is.

And I have to address, of course, the love story present in almost all fairy tales. The sheer selflessness, persistence, and stylized beauty of it is iconic. And it’s often this love that fuels the previous point about characters being more fleshed out than is at first apparent – what is it about Cinderella that makes the prince so wild about her? It can’t just be her charm or looks – there must be some inner strength of character that enchants him. While love in fairy tales is idealized and unrealistic, it touches something in us that makes these characters stand in for our own loved ones and ideals.

By creating plots that are so unrealistic yet so sympathetic, readers can insert their own concerns and preoccupations into stories that are thus become metaphors for our own conflict. Nothing can be more timeless, more moving, than that.

Happily Ever After

Fairy tales end, but also don’t. There’s a happy ending, but you get a sense that the story is just beginning.

What do the prince and princess do? Are they good rulers? Do they have children who accomplish great things? Are the vanquished evil-doers punished, or do they run to a different kingdom to do more mischief?

At any point in your life in which you read these stories, they seem to echo your circumstance. Some loose ends have been tied up, but there are plenty more  still hanging about. You identify with the characters. You’ve just accomplished some things, but you don’t know what’s over the horizon.

This sense of mystery, of suspense, is crucial in a story. By keeping readers guessing you invite them to place their own hopes, their own fears, into the structure of the fantastical.

That’s why these stories are so enduring. Into their deceptively simple characteristics a world of ambiguity, symbolism, and personal interpretation can be revealed. Throughout the ages people have seen them differently, have had different motivations for the characters and different reactions to the iconic symbols that pop up again and again. In fact, to create a truly great story, what matters is not what’s in it but rather what isn’t. Fairy tales leave readers guessing. They shroud their stark characters and plots in the fabric of whatever the current time is preoccupied with.

To create a timeless story you don’t need a poetry to your words, a complexity to your heroine, or a treasure trove of symbols. You only need that magical simplicity that hints at a world of meaning – an evocative lack of timely and fleeting detail that ensures that these tales, for now and forever, live happily ever after.