Friday, July 17, 2009

Finishing the trio

The last entry in my (and undoubtedly most music critics') list of the top 3 composers is Beethoven. He is probably the most easily recognized figure in music, for both his works like the 5th and 9th symphonies, as well his own deafness and legendarily cranky behavior. The deafness is something that has been extensively speculated on, with theories that he had syphillis, or a tuberculosis-like disease that crusted his ears, and onward. As for the behavior, it was undoubtedly rooted in his childhood. Beethoven's father was a mediocre court musician and became obsessed with producing the next Mozart in his son. To top it off, he was repotedly an unbearable alcoholic, who would get drunk then go home and wake up his son in the middle of the night and force him to practice, handing out beatings whenever there was a mistake. Beethoven started taking lessons from Christian Neefe, who was somewhat more qualified than his father, and eventually became both an excellent pianist and the most revolutionary composer of all time. He moved from Bonn to Vienna, where he studied with Joseph Haydn.
I mentioned before that Mozart was a trailblazer when it came to being a freelance composer. Beethoven became the Brigham Young to Mozart's Joseph Smith, if you will. Where Mozart's attempt at living freelance was an abject failure, leaving him unable to pay for much and dying in his 30s, Beethoven was able to become a highly recognized figure in Viennese culture and make enough money to get by. Keep in mind, he was no millionaire, but he was able to at least have a place to live, occasionally visit spas, and get extensive medical treatment for his crappy health. He was even famous enough to be arrested as a madman by a policeman who came upon him wandering around saying he was Beethoven, thinking such a slovenly man couldn't possibly be the composer himself. Of course, his personal life was extremely depressing: Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802 chronicling his suicidal feelings, and later in life after he was unable to find a wife and start a family, he went through a nasty court battle with his dead brother's wife over custody of her son Karl, which was more devastating to him when Karl tried to kill himself. Of course, to cap off his personal failures, he went deaf young, which was a disaster for a musician.
The reason Beethoven was so important in his time was that, while he started out as a composer in the "classical" style that Mozart and Haydn exemplified, he started to intentionally break those traditions and make music into something much more raw and elemental.
Undoubtedly his mess of a personal life is part of why he was so inspired to write such emotional music that broke the classical mold of being something delightful and turned it into a heroic drama. While his music was never quite like that of the later romantics Schumann and Mendelssohn, is was also never quite like normal classical music - even his early first symphony opens with a tritone, which was considered a big problem at the time because it was "too dissonant." His middle phase, when he wrote most of his orchestral music, is when his music became much more epic sounding, and it is during this period that he composed his Seventh Symphony.
The Seventh Symphony is not exactly as widely known as his 3rd, 5th, 9th, and probably 6th. However, there are many in the music world that consider it to be the best written of his symphonies (I'm in that group). Richard Wagner notably called it "The Apotheosis of Dance." It was written in 1812 and premiered at a benefit for the soldiers at Hanau. Remember, Napoleon spent four years in the not too distant past besieging Vienna, so all the residents were extremely worn out. This symphony, with its extremely joyous opening, scherzo, and finale, as well as the breathtaking "Allegretto" in the 2nd movement that elicited an encore performance at the career, was one of the biggest hits of Beethoven's career, undoubtedly because it mixed his increasingly effortless technique with an almost Bacchanalian energy that has to uplift pretty much anyone. Some of the aspects of it that I actually appreciate the most are how in the first movement, Beethoven will occasionally start with a sort of musical sequence, and then when you expect it to be resolved loudly, he suddenly drops off the volume and goes with a completely different path, not giving you all the resolution that you expect. I may just be nutty, but I get a kick out of composers subverting expectations on what you think you will hear.
The performance here is directed by Herbert von Karajan, who is considered by many to be the ultimate conductor. He and Leonard Bernstein are possibly the two most towering figures in that field for the 20th century. von Karajan is somewhat notorious as well for having been a Nazi party member early on in his career - this led to lots of Jewish musicians refusing to perform with him. However, his supreme musicality seems to have overridden that, and wikipedia claims that he is now the highest selling classical artist of all time.
I would recommend anyone who wants this symphony to just pony out the cash and get a Herbert von Karajan box set of all 9 Beethoven symphonies with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic.
And now, your video - it is all one big video, so I apologize if you wanted it broken up into movements.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, but there was a book I found rather interesting when I read it in middle school called Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin. It ostensibly is about a lock of Beethoven's hair that has been traveling around from a fellow musician's family, but it synthesized the story of the modern auction of the hair and then its scientific analysis, the story of the family that kept the hair (which included fleeing Denmark during the Holocaust), and a biography of Beethoven. If you are interested in learning more about his life, that might be the most interesting biography to start with.

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