Posts Tagged: Beethoven



I’m preparing to conduct Beethoven’s 9th (the last movement, anyway) and that’s brought me full circle in terms of my blogging, because in my very first blog post, I wrote about how obsessed I was with one particular marking in the score: “selon le caractère d’un Recitative mais, in tempo”. It’s a phrase so linguistically fluid it practically wipes right off the page, combining vocabulary, grammar, and spelling from French, Italian, and German, yet it would hardly raise an eyebrow from a properly trained classical musician anywhere in the world.

But now I’m obsessed with an even tinier detail of this score: the ‘y’ in the word “Elysium”. Y? Because we love you! And because I’ve got to figure out how the singers are going to pronounce it. People wonder what a conductor actually does. Well I’m here to tell you: she makes CHOICES, honey.

In Modern German ‘y’ is pronounced ‘ü’, so if you listen to the first 12 of the video below, you’ll hear it pronounced “Tochter aus Elüsium”:

But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced this letter should really be a ‘y’ at all. (mic drop)

See, as I prepared this piece, I marked up a choral score for my colleagues, and I noticed this:

Screenshot 2016-02-27 07.54.06

Elisium! With an ‘i’! This I had never seen before in any edition of the score, but I was intrigued, because certainly a word spelled this way would properly be pronounced Eleesium, right?

Now I had two questions: 1) how did Schiller (the poem’s author) spell it, and 2) how did Beethoven spell it? Here’s the printed page from Schiller’s collected works of 1812, Beethoven’s likeliest source for the text:

Screenshot 2016-02-27 17.21.48


And there, adorned in all it’s Gothic splendor, ‘Elisium’ is spelled with an ‘i’.

OK, but there’s still a discrepancy between the scores, so how in fact did Beethoven spell it? Well you can have a look at his original manuscript over at the Berlin State Library Archives, and if you can decipher his handwriting I think you’ll find there’s most definitely a ‘y’ in there:

Screenshot 2016-02-14 21.40.45


So Schiller spelled it ‘Elisium’, Beethoven spelled it ‘Elysium’ – but either way, how do you pronounce it? Well, if history be any judge, I’d say it’s pronounced the ee way (or [i] for you IPA folks out there.) Certainly this is the traditional approach – listen, for example, to Joseph Krips’ recording:

In hopes of some historiographic confirmation though, I navigated over to the German Wikipedia article on the letter ‘y’ and found this bombshell:

Noch im früheren 19. Jahrhundert war hingegen die Aussprache [i] üblich.

(“However, the pronunciation [i] was still commonly used in the beginning of the 19th century.”)

So we can be pretty confident that El[i]sium would have been the pronunciation in Beethoven’s time, so much so that ‘i’ and ‘y’ were interchangeable.

But what gives? In every edition of the poem published during Beethoven’s lifetime, the word was spelled ‘Elisium’. Whereby and wherefore did the composer come to make the alter the poet’s orthography?

This remains a total mystery to me and I welcome any insights or information. Maybe I should set up a toll free hotline. My best guess is that someone in Beethoven’s circle brought to his attention that, as a Greek loanword, ‘Elysium’ would more customarily be transliterated with a ‘y’, as the German were (and are) in the habit of doing.

But clearly Beethoven decided to change the ‘i’ to a ‘y’, so I’ll admit, I do have a lingering doubt – why would he bother to change the spelling if he didn’t intend any actual effect on the sound?

And an even better question: why is there nothing written about this anywhere?? Google was NO help. Shouldn’t someone have written, like, a 30,000 word musicology dissertation on this by now? Or wait, did I just do that? I guess so, in which case yes, I’d be glad to take that diploma off your hands, LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN INSTITUTE FOR MUSICAL GENIUSES.

A list of practical advice for the orchestral composer

Here’s Number Zero right off the bat: the orchestra is it’s own medium with its own traditions and aptitudes; what it is not is a plus-sized New Music Ensemble. Here’s what I mean:

1. Tradition & Expertise. The day-to-day work of an orchestra principally involves playing music composed during the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.  In order to get a job playing in an orchestra, a musician must audition on excerpts by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Shostakovich. It behooves a composer to write music that stems from this tradition. The musical possibilities that build on the existing orchestral literature have not come close to being exhausted, I promise.

Corollary: this means that your musical style or voice might be different when you write for the orchestra v. a chamber ensemble. It meant that for Beethoven and he did alright.

2. The schedule. A professional orchestra rehearses a new program every week. Let’s say you’ve written a 10-15 minute concert opener (a commonly commissioned item). In addition to your piece, the orchestra will also be play a 45-minute symphony and a 35-minute concerto on the same program.

Each concert program receives four rehearsals.

  • Rehearsal 1: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 2: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 3: concerto
  • Rehearsal 4: dress (run-thru of whole program)

The two rehearsals available for your piece total roughly 5 hours of actual rehearsal time; the conductor’s main focus will largely be on the symphony. If you’re lucky, your piece will get about 60-75 minutes of rehearsal plus a final run.

That’s very different from having a New Music Ensemble work on your piece for a whole semester, or even, say 6 rehearsals over the course of 2-3 weeks.  And you might think that sounds like an awfully impersonal proposition with not a lot of chance for reward.

And you might be right! And that’s totally OK! I’m here to say that composing for orchestra isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. “Pierrot Lunaire”, “Density 21.5”, and “Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel” are all certified masterworks that don’t need eighty people to make their musical statements.

3. The strings. The strings are the essence of the orchestra. I don’t in any way mean to undermine the contributions of the winds and percussion, but without strings, what you’ve got is a band. If your piece could work (or almost work) as a standalone work for string orchestra, you’re on to something. (see: Ravel)

The members of the string sections are used to playing as a unit. The agglomeration of several string players playing the same part is what gives the orchestra its distinctive color. Divisi can be glorious, but don’t go crazy; Debussy, Stravinsky and Lutosławski are great models.  Schnittke and Ligeti took string divisi to their logical conclusion, but they did so using very controlled canonic procedures, and it’s also worth noting that they both abandoned single player divisi after a period of experimentation.

You should expect that about half the string players will be sightreading your piece at the first rehearsal.

4. The woodwinds. The woodwinds (and, in many respects, the principal strings) are the star artistes of the orchestra and you should give them compelling solos to flatter their instruments and abilities.

Keep in mind though that technically challenging passagework needs to pay off. It’s a well known fact that a composer can scribble down in 5 minutes what might take a capable musician 5 years to master on his or her instrument. Give them something impressive to play that the audience can actually hear.

5. The brass. Despite their reputation, I have found that most orchestral brass players really do want to contribute their tone color to the orchestra in a sensitive and thrilling manner. However, just be aware that modern brass players are fully capable of blowing the roof off the place, and they’ll do it if you beckon them. Plan your balances carefully, and also consider the fact that the literature for their instruments goes back at least as far as Gabrieli.

A trumpet solo is a great thing, but a trumpet is not a violin. Write for it accordingly.

6. The percussion. These guys are the salt of the earth, and total badasses, and they’re so happy to have interesting parts, but they’ll really respect you if you restrain yourself from using every last toy in their cabinet.

7. The audience. Orchestral audiences cough. A lot. Like it’s their job. Especially if you offer them something soft and dreary and vaguely atonal (especially if it’s the first number on a concert.) Best to begin with a healthy mf AT LEAST and a definitive harmonic concept (be it tonal or atonal) in order to get their attention; save your delicatissimi for when you’ve reeled them in. Feel free to ignore this advice if you want your recording to sound like a Bronchitis Convention (which, incidentally, would be a great title for an orchestral composition.)

8. Final thoughts. I’m not saying you should dumb down your musical concepts when writing for the orchestra – musicians like a challenge. But certain musical ideas just lend themselves more readily to the sonority and capabilities of the orchestra. Others just don’t. So if you have a plethora of ideas (and I hope you do), keep track of them, jot them down, and maybe save some for a percussion quartet and others for a saxophone solo. Just because you come up with an idea while you’re working on a piece doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for the piece you’re working on.

I sincerely hope this little diatribe inspires composers to greater creativity and greater music-making, and I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

I love this quote

from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:

What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything.  Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness.  So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals.  Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists.  Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range.  Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown.  Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas.  If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.

Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.

In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills.  Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint.  However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.

I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th.  Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.

Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.

Chicago Symphony Extras: Missa Solemnis

The Dedicatee

In many ways, we who enjoy the music of Beethoven’s late period owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to an otherwise insubstantial member of the minor nobility.  As the sixteenth child of the Emporor Leopold II, Archduke Rudolf of Austria could be pretty well certain that he was not going to inherit his father’s title, land, or fortune; as such, he did what so many younger sons of the nobility did and went into the priesthood, becoming archbishop (and then Cardinal) of Olmütz in 1819.

Rudolf seemingly got a pretty sweet deal, because while his older brother went down in history for losing his empire to Napoleon, Rudolf began studying piano and composition with the most famous composer in Europe, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Though Beethoven complained about his obligation to give the Archduke daily lessons (sometimes lasting more than two hours), the two grew to be friends at a time when Beethoven needed friends most.  Napoleon’s wars had caused many of Beethoven’s most reliable patrons to abandon imperial Vienna for fear of losing their heads.  Beethoven had insulted, cheated, or otherwise alienated the majority of the princely families who remained in their Austrian palaces.

The Lawsuit

It wasn’t just other people’s families who Beethoven alienated.  The death of Beethoven’s younger brother Kaspar in 1815 precipitated the ugliest, most productivity-stifling event in his life: the fearsome custody battle he waged against his sister-in-law Johanna for the guardianship of his nephew, Karl.

The five years he spent engaged in litigation revealed the ugliest, least redeemable sides of Beethoven’s personality.  In the days leading up to his brother’s death from tuberculosis, Beethoven strong-armed his brother into granting him sole custody of the child on multiple occasions, only to have his brother revert his will back to co-guardianship between Beethoven and Johanna in moments of lucidity.

Beethoven’s initial reaction to his brother’s death was to accuse his sister-in-law of murder by poisoning.  When this turned out to be a dead end, he began the battle for sole custody of Karl.  He won decisive early victories against his sister-in-law in the Landsrecht, the court of the nobility.  Beethoven’s fates reversed in 1818 when he accidentally let slip in the course of a deposition that the “van” in his Dutch surname was not equivalent to the Germanic “von” which automatically conferred nobility.  As such, his case was sent down to commoner’s court, which was much more sympathetic to Johanna van Beethoven’s cause.

Though Beethoven finally won custody over Karl, his insane, possessive love took a perilous evinced itself again a few years later when the teenage boy attempted to take his own life with a pistol on a high hill overlooking Beethoven’s summer home.

The Second Mass

Though he sometimes played around with themes for decades before turning them into full pieces, the four years it took Beethoven to complete the Missa Solemnis (1819 – 1823) represented the longest sustained period of work Beethoven spent on any single composition.  Strangely for a composer who often went back and forth between projects, Beethoven did not work on individual movements and sections simultaneously; he composed it from beginning to end, beginning with the Kyrie and ending with the Agnus Dei.

This was in fact Beethoven’s second setting of the traditional Latin mass text, having written his first in 1807, the lesser known Mass in C.  Aside from obvious stylistic differences, the main difference between the two works is length: whereas the Mass in C clocks in at a respectable 45 minutes, performances of the the Missa Solemnis usually last about twice as long.

As such, Beethoven languished considerable attention on every word and phrase of the Latin text.  [N.B. the “Kyrie” is the only part of the Roman mass not in Latin; it’s in Greek.]  Let’s take as an example his setting of the phrase qui sedes ad dexteram patris (“who sits at the right hand of the father”).  Here’s how Beethoven set it in the earlier Mass in C:

And here it is magnified in every dimension in the Missa Solemnis:

The Difficulties

Beethoven rarely took into account the technical limits of the musicians he was writing for.  He was as difficult and irascible a composer as he was a human being, especially when it came to writing for singers.  The Missa Solemnis is arguably the most daunting challenge in the choral repertoire.  It’s not exactly easy for the soloists or the orchestra either.

Here is an excellent performance of the Gloria given by the august London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Colin Davis.  It’s high order music-making, but you’ll still hear the sopranos straining, the orchestra struggling, and the soloists straying from their ideals of intonation.  And yet the overall effect is, well, glorious:

Great Moments in Classical Music Cinematography

Lots of blog space has been devoted to the various horrors of classical music LP and CD cover art.  But methinks a great deal of plumbing is left to do in the world of video!

1. Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
Alexis Weissenberg, pianist; Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Let’s start with this chestnut from Herbert von Karajan, an entertainment dynamo whose vast ego pushed him to ever more creative, and ludicrous, video projects.  It’s moments like this that have made his an ever-reliable name in the cringe department:

The color scheme, the obvious miming on the part of the musicians, the irreverent placement of wind players, the great “action shot” literally coming from the piano’s action with no discernable movement from the hammers: it’s a veritable smorgasbord of delights.  [Not to mention that 2:10 – 2:20ish makes a very convincing case for filming classical music performances in 3D!]

2. Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra, mvmt. 4
Lorin Maazel, conductor

So, lot to pick apart here.  First, there’s the fact that Maestro Maazel seems to be communicating with his home planet during the opening 10 seconds of this clip.  Then there’s his utterly unique solution to the tricky meter transition right around 2:19. [By the way, let me just interrupt here and say that one often hears about Loren Maazel being a conductor with a flawless technique.  I mean, 4rlz?  My sneaking suspicion is that the original source for this popular opinion is none other than… Lorin Maazel.  I’m not saying that he’s a bad conductor AT ALL… or am I?]

Then of course there’s all the camera spinning, the gong action, the trombones, etc…

3. Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Sergiu Celibidache, conductor

OK, so I’ll finish this installment with a little gem that first came to my attention via one of those “The Art of Conducting” VHSs that I used to watch like 10 times a day when I was in high school.  A very young Celibidache conducting Beethoven’s “Egmont”:

There’s no fancy camera work here, but there is some amazing editing (I mean, come on, 7:13? Srsly u guys?) and the fact that Celibidache’s hair looks like it was spring loaded by the special effects department.  And then there’s that set, which, what exactly is it?  Might it be a discarded “Lion’s Den” from a production of Der Freischütz.  For a nation destroyed by war, trying to reclaim its international reputation by means of its illustrious artistic tradition, this was an… interesting choice.