A bit of the old Ludwig van

I just finished reading Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph and boy are my arms tired! And I actually mean that literally, that thing is like 1,000 pages and probably weighs over ten pounds.

This book was a joy to read from start to finish (which I wholeheartedly recommend you do!) and I came away with a veritable bevy of new insight and discoveries into the life, work, and personality of this man who seems by now so familiar.

Most enjoyable with a book like this is the chance to explore the unknown nooks and crannies of Beethoven’s musical output, both the justly and unjustly neglected. (It’s no secret that Beethoven had his share of clunkers, but when you’re the best composer who ever lived a lot is forgiven.)

But I love nothing more than exploring the pieces that barely even saw the light of day, the scraps, the odds & ends, the Werke ohne Opus, if you will. What follows is a curio cabinet of some of the musical curiosities that Mr. Swafford was so good to bring to light.

Beethoven wrote for the mandolin.

Early in his career he was trying wooing a young Lady Mandolinist and left much to show for it.

Beethoven wrote these SICK piano quartets at the age of FOURTEEN.

We all know that Beethoven’s dad wanted him to be a child virtuoso in the image of Mozart, but that the trajectory of young Ludwig’s career never tilted quite so steeply. But man for someone who was considered a lesser prodigy, these quartets are pretty solid!

(Interesting tidbit: due to Johannes van B’s habit of advertising Ludwig as younger than he really was, Ludwig remained confused about his actual age his entire life.)

Beethoven tried to write several operas; Leonore/Fidelio is the only one that made it to the stage.

What’s more, he wrote lots of random little arias and scenes and even a significant portion of a whole act. Mostly he just complained that the librettos he was being offered sucked.

Many of these smaller experiments were journeyman pieces that he wrote while studying Italian opera with Antonio Salieri. Some of them sound surprisingly Rossinian. Like seriously, would you guess that this was Beethoven?

What’s even weirder about this little trio (a standalone work) is that it was used as the concert opener at the second ever performance of the NINTH SYMPHONY. No “Survivor from Warsaw” for old Ludwig van B!

I think it’s a refreshing approach to a problem considered intractable by many conductors – the ninth seems to need a little something to fill out a full concert, but what in the world do you put in front of it? If you’re Beethoven, the answer is “Tremate, empi, tremate”.


Beethoven spent a surprisingly large amount of time arranging Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folk songs at the request of a random British music publisher named George Thomson. Calling it hackwork, I suppose, is not quite accurate, because Beethoven’s renderings of these little songs are quite sophisticated, much to the consternation of poor Mr. Thomson, who begged Beethoven to simplify the piano writing so that young highland lasses (Mr. Thomson’s target audience) would be able to accompany themselves at the piano from Beethoven’s music.

This project was drawn out over nearly a decade; Beethoven refused to simplify his music and the project nearly led Mr. Thomson’s into financial ruin.

Beethoven could be a real dick.

But you probably knew that already.

And he was forward thinking when it came to raising money for commissions.

But my favorite anecdote contained within the pages of this book took place at the end of Beethoven’s life. What you need to know is that Beethoven never learned to multiply, and scattered among the pages of manuscript paper he used to craft the most glorious works of art known to man are scribbled columns of sums in which he painstakingly added one number to itself x number of times.

The overwhelming impression left by Beethoven’s music is one of victory over struggle. You can hear it in every single bar. Emotional struggle, personal struggle, romantic struggle, heroic struggle, it’s all there, and it’s what each and every one of us experiences inside our innermost souls every single day.

So it’s a testament to the indomitability of Beethoven’s spirit that at the age of 56, lying upon his death bed, stricken with pneumonia, liver disease, alcohol withdrawal, and Heaven knows what else, he finally decided it was time to learn his multiplication tables.

Oh. And one more thing: he was deaf. [mic. drop.]

Program Elisabetta Brusa

My friend Chuck just turned me on to the Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa, born in 1954, a product of (and now producer for) the Milan Conservatory. Let’s just call her my latest obsession.

Her orchestral works are a) enjoyable, b) playable, and c) extremely programmable. For example, the above work is a response to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music. So here’s an idea for a late June program:

BRUSA Messidor – 12′
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) – 30′

MENDELSSOHN Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 12′
SCHNITTKE (k)ein Sommernachtstraum – 12′
ALFVÉN Midsommarvaka – 14′

Or take her symphonic poem, Florestan, an ode to the pseudonym Schumann bestowed upon the fiery, voluble side of his personality:

BRUSA Florestan – 16′
SCHUMANN, CLARA Piano Concerto in A Minor – 24′

SCHUMANN, ROBERT Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) – 32′

Or perhaps her molto misterioso symphonic poem Merlin:

which would work great on a Halloween program with l’Aprenti sorcier and the Harry Potter suite.

I could imagine her Firelights on a piece with Stravinsky and Respighi:

BRUSA Firelights – 8′
CASELLA Violin Concerto – 32′

STRAVINSKY Fireworks – 5′
RESPIGHI Pini di Roma – 22′

She’s also got two kickass symphonies, the second of which is titled Nittemero, combining the Ancient Greek words for ‘night’ and ‘day’:

BOULANGER D’un matin de printemps – 5′
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 1 – 24′

BRUSA Nittemero Symphony – 29′

And there’s plenty more in her repertoire. A suite of short character pieces based on Italian fairy tales (Favole) that would pair nicely with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; a gorgeous overture-length “Wedding Song” with a great solo cello part which I could imagine on a program with Debussy’s Ibéria or, ooooh yeah, Torke’s “An Italian Straw Hat“; and a variety of other single movement works that could fit just about anywhere you’d like to put them.

Brusa also writes (in English!) coherently and interestingly about music and her own process. Here’s a great essay simply titled “Composing“.

OK conductors, I’ve just given you like five excellent ideas about how to incorporate this brilliant lady’s music into your programs, so please go develop, improve upon, and PROGRAM them, and thanks to Charles who is already doing so!

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song – UPDATES

I made the above video this past December, very shortly after the “re-premiere” of Stravinksy’s Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) Op. 5. Basically this piece is one of only a handful of works that young Igor completed prior to his astonishing success with The Firebird. It was re-discovered just in 2015 and re-premiered by Valery Gergiev and the Mariyinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

This past weekend I was in Chicago giving pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Symphony at the U.S. premiere (actually, the North American premiere… actually the Americas premiere) of this work which was given by the CSO with Charles Dutoit. I did a whole new round of research and I just thought I’d update/clarify a few things from this video:

1. It’s really sunk in just how amazing the progress that Stravinsky made from his earliest completed compositions to The Firebird. His first real work (though, he didn’t give it an opus number) is a piano sonata in F# minor. Listen to this:

which basically sounds like Victorian salon music that could have been written by Chopin or Schumann (with, perhaps, tinges of Grieg) and compare it to Katscheï’s dance:

The sonata was written when Stravinsky was about 22 (he got a very late start as a composer, though he had soaked up tons of the Russian operatic repertoire through his father, a notable bass soloist); Firebird came just 5 years later. Show me another composer who made such progress in such a short time!

2. Speaking of King Kashchei (or however you want to spell it) it turns out that Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had written an opera on that very same subject just a couple of years before Stravinsky began studying with him. There’s a definite commonality between the opening of Rimsky’s opera, the opening of the Chant funèbre, and the opening of The Firebird:

3. I talk a lot in the video above about chromatic music v. diatonic music, but since making it, I’ve delved more deeply into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own octatonicism and it turns out that probably has an even greater impact on the Chant funèbre.

4. There’s also a bit of history that I was able to suss out. Stravinsky’s memory of the Chant funèbre, it turns out, was pretty hazy; for one thing, he recollected having scored it for winds alone, rather than for full (Wagnerian) orchestra. Another thing that he either got mixed up about, or perhaps never knew, is the fate of the score.

Of course, the piece has been retrievable to us because the orchestral parts were preserved. Stravinsky himself assumed that the parts would be found somewhere in a vault in St. Petersburg (he was right) but he lamented that the score had been lost during the Russian Revolution.

It appears he was not quite right about that. Stravinsky had composed the piece at his summer getaway in Ustilug, on the present-day border between Ukraine and Poland. In those days, this whole region, Volhynia, was part of the Russian Empire (and who knows, it may again be before long.) During the “season”, the Stravinskys were living abroad in Switzerland, and during the spring of 1915, Ustilug was caught in the firestorm of a major Austro-German offensive into the Russian Empire.

Stravinsky’s house sustained considerable damage, but not before his brother-in-law, a neighboring landowner, could load his personal items onto on a train bound for Warsaw for safekeeping. Unfortunately the trunk containing Stravinsky’s documents was lost in transit. The best guess is that the score of op. 5 was in this trunk.

5. The big picture takeaway that I have settled on with further study and reflection, is that what this piece shows more than anything is that Stravinsky’s ability to reinvent himself and his music in every piece was already in evidence from the very start of his career. His piano sonata has, as mentioned above, bits of Schumann, Chopin, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky; his Symphony in E-flat, op. 1, is very much in the Glazunov vein. By opp. 3 and 4, he’s showing a pronounced influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chausson, and now in op. 5 it’s Wagner and Scriabin.

This anti-pattern of a pattern continued throughout his entire career. In many ways Stravinsky’s artistic output mirrors that of his contemporary Pablo Picasso, in that they both changed styles constantly and yet somehow stayed true to themselves. A tough trick indeed.

OK and the final final takeaway is the same as I reached in this video: I like this piece more every time I hear it. Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll get a good, clean, professional recording rather than the myriad livestream bootlegs currently littering the YouTube landscape!

In defense of “Maestro”

It’s fashionable among conductors these days to spurn the use of the title Maestro. They think it fusty and formal, and claim that it’s an uncollegial honorific. They often feign humility and ascribe true maestroness to the great conductors of the past, insisting that they have not ascended the great cliffs of music-making and earned the title themselves. They encourage orchestral musicians to address them by their first names.

What a bunch of hooey! Truth be told, Maestro is the perfect solution for a dicey problem, because the real nature of the relationship between a conductor and the musicians who play under his or her baton is complicated. Is the conductor a colleague? Yes, sort of. Is he or she the boss? Also yes, sort of.

If the conductor were truly just another colleague, s/he wouldn’t be necessary. Someone’s got to make the decisions about musical interpretation and keep the ship headed in one direction. But, especially if we’re dealing with a guest conductor, the maestro isn’t really the ‘boss’, he or she is sort of a Guest Manager of the Week. But still in charge nonetheless.

But it’s true that orchestras are casual work environments. (Musicians, let me assure you, do NOT dress up to go to work, and they are pretty fraternal in their own relationships.) So calling the conductor “Mr.” or “Ms.” doesn’t really fit (unless it’s a youth orchestra, in which case it most certainly does!) But using the conductor’s first name doesn’t capture the deferential attitude that an orchestral musician need have toward their leader.

Maestro is a beautiful middle ground. And thanks to Seinfeld I think it’s lost a lot of its overt formality. Even though that episode was poking fun at a thin-skinned conductor who had to be called ‘maestro’ even in casual situations, the overall effect was to lend ‘maestro’ the ring of a friendly nickname, which, in my own personal life, has very much stuck.

Then there’s the fact that Maestro has the benefit of tradition and unconventionality – it conforms to the international norm of using Italian for musical terminology, adding a special dash of gusto to the world of classical music.

Practically, it also relinquishes the active working orchestral musician of memorizing a bunch of names. An orchestra may see as many as 3 or 4 conductors in the course of  a week, and some of those may just fly in for a single rehearsal/concert set. In this situation, expecting the musicians to remember your name is something of a burden.

So Maestro ends up being a beautifully calibrated set of contradictions: casual and formal, anonymous and honorific, jocular and respectful. The one nagging question is: should women use ‘Maestro’ or ‘Maestra’.

Here I suggest that ‘Maestro’ become a sort of internationalized standard for both men and women (and others), divorced from correct Italian usage – very unlike me, I know. Outside of the Italian-speaking world, the term has a neutral connotation, and inside the Italian-speaking world “Maestra” has a school-marmish association.

So please, conductors, let us embrace this special bit of lingo as yet another charming quirk of our professional lives, and what’s more, let us give our quasi-colleagues a break from having to remember our given names!