Beethoven Days Blog

Monday 31 July 2017

Two Flutes, One Sad Friend

On July 26th I looked for Beethoven's 26th WoO. Oh my God, you must be thinking, how can I make my life more like his? Well, envy dogs, it gets better. When I entered "Beethoven WoO 26", I got a flute duo.

According to Robert Cummings, the guy who wrote the blurb about the piece for, the duo was the last thing he wrote before leaving Bonn for Vienna in 1792. He wrote it for his "law-student friend, Degenhart, to whom he also dedicated the work. In a note on the autograph score, the composer declares the piece is a "souvenir" to mark his approaching departure to Vienna".

I hope his friend Degenhart played the flute. I also hope he had another friend who played flute, since Beethoven was leaving town. It's a bit like giving your friend a tandem bike with a note that says, "Enjoy. I'm moving."

Robert Cummings also wrote "Here is yet another work whose publication Beethoven suppressed throughout his life. It is likely that he would have strongly opposed its posthumous appearance, viewing this duo as an early effort meant for a friend, not the public."

I think Robert's right. And what Beethoven would've been trying to suppress, was his work getting published and played by professionals or amateurs to limited audiences. Imagine if he'd known that, one day, any individual could record themselves playing his music, at whatever skill level they possessed, and then put that recording on a platform viewable by the entire planet.

Like his just-for-my-friend flute duo, played by one guy, with himself:

And in case you want to hear the allegro too, here's the whole thing played by two people:

Monday 24 July 2017


In 1809, Beethoven was commissioned to write incidental music for a play by Goethe called 'Egmont'. Egmont is a play about resisting tyranny, noble suffering, and love through separation and death. Beethoven's famous 'Egmont' overture, Op. 84, with its echoes of the 5th Symphony, is an astonishing musical argument on the same themes. Beethoven and Goethe - not guys to aim low.

Neither am I.  So I listened to it for the first time, standing pantless in my kitchen, doing the dishes. The overture's climax is a great soundtrack for clawing wet Cheerios out of a drain stop. And having listened to it a few times lately, it's also an excellent pairing with folding children's clothes.

The video I'm posting has many joys.

Of course, the Overture, played by the Gewandhausorchester of Leipzig, conducted by the late great Kurt Masur. Also:

At 0:33, a 12 second shot of ceiling porn. THAT'S a ceiling.

At around 1:00, as Masur makes his entrance, I noticed the pinky finger on his right hand is permanently curled in half. My father-in-law Barry lost half of one of his pinky fingers when it got stuck between a trailer and a trailer hitch. To make his grandkids laugh, Barry likes to stick his half-finger in his nostril and pretend the missing half is way up his nose. I bet Masur did that for the orchestra and got huge laughs.

At 1:34, Masur comes in humming just before the orchestra plays its first note. It's a deep old growl. I'm guessing it's the same noise he made when he was eating anything involving milk.

But for pure comedy, at 10:26, in the bottom right of the screen, amidst Germans applauding and looking as happy as Germans can look, a young man in a blue blazer and red striped tie, who would clearly rather be anywhere else on Earth. Even if you don't have time to listen to the overture, cut to this kid. It's worth it.

And as an addendum to this definitive look at the Egmont Overture, here's a link to the Short Film Palme D'Or winning 1965 Hungarian film "Overture" by Janos Vadasz (apologies for the two missing accents).

Wikipedia describes the plot as: "After the opening title card, a white blur in the center of a black screen resolves to the shape of a chicken egg. We penetrate the shell, and watch, in time-lapse, the 21-day development of a chicken embryo, from a germ spot on the yolk to the emergence of the baby chick, compressed into under eight minutes, set to Beethoven's Egmont Overture."

It's a hypnotic little visual poem.

It's also the cause of this blog's awful pun title. Sorry.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Chuck and Ludwig

When Chuck Berry died on March 19th, my first instinct was to search for parallels between Beethoven and the man who told him to roll over.

I didn't have to look far.

Both men were revolutionary, but not consciously so. They developed what came before them without wanting to torch it. Throughout his life, Beethoven revered and built upon the work of his predecessor Bach, and his teachers, Haydn and Mozart. As Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford says, he was a "radical evolutionary". In slowly becoming himself, he became the Romantic era.

 And Chuck Berry arguably fathered rock 'n' roll by taking the country and blues music he grew up with, straightening it rhythmically and transforming it into the driving, sexual, smart, demonic music of youth .

But where they meet most notably, and probably tragically, is that they were both kind of shitheads.

Scanning their bios, over and over, these guys made four-alarm burning-barf messes of their lives and the lives of others while creating some of humanity's most incredible art.

And in plunging my face into the ponds of their lives, I saw plenty of awfulness - abusiveness, violence, pettiness, whoring, sex offenses, theft - a hundred things that are impossible to ignore no matter how great the art. But I also saw one beautiful bit of cosmic comedy glinting in the mud: those two brilliant bastards are stuck in a tiny spaceship together.

In 1977, when Carl Sagan and a panel of experts, were deciding which human artifacts to put aboard the Voyager One and Two spacecrafts, they put Beethoven and Chuck Berry on the same Golden Record, along with tracks from a diversity of cultures and styles. Pointing to the Western-ess of the endeavour, Bach is dominant with three tracks. Beethoven got two, the first movement of his fifth symphony and the fifth movement, or Cavatina, of his string quartet in B flat, No. 13, Op. 130, played by the Budapest String Quartet.

Berry was alive in 1977 and only got one track, which probably pissed him off - "Johnny B Goode". And there was controversy around even including that. Opponents of the song's inclusion horrifically didn't object to Berry being a convicted sex offender, but that the song was "adolescent". To which Carl Sagan replied, "There are a lot of adolescents on the planet." And the song stayed on.

In August 2012, Voyager One reached interstellar space. I won't pretend to entirely know what that means anymore than I'll pretend to have a grasp on music theory. But essentially it means Voyager One is more than 20 billion kilometres from Earth, beyond our solar system, shooting through plasma "filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago". It's taken it 40 years to get there. The next closest star is "AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus". To give some perspective to what eternity or infinity or vastness or endlessness or whatever you want to call it is, Voyager One will drift within 1.6 light years of that star in approximately 40,000 years.

I can't even.

Our little human "bottle in the cosmic ocean", packed full of all the things that are supposed to best define what we are, that mean so much to us, hurtling through space, plutonium propelled, surrounded by endless indifference. It's so hopeful and human, laughable and tragic.

And if artists live on eternally through their art, I like to picture two of our most crusty meaning-makers, Chuck and Ludwig, squished together, two Major Toms floating in a tin can, living out there longer than humanity will likely survive back on Earth.

Titans on earth.  In the cosmos - uncomfortable bunkmates.

Before you listen to the music of theirs we shot into space, I really recommend spending some time on the Voyager website. There's great poetry in its numbers and scope. And in a nice coincidence, the realization that Voyager One had reached interstellar space came as NASA detected the plasma around the craft begin "to vibrate like a violin string".

Just seeing the distance numbers tick by alone is worth an existential laugh or two. You can also access all the recordings and images they put on-board.

And here are the tracks that NASA hopes, one day, an alien life-form will find, build a turn-table based on the schematic provided, and listen to.

The Beethoven:

The Berry:

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Tiger, Tiger

My first role on stage was the result of pure coercion. It was my first term of Grade Nine, having shed none of the shyness, fear and fat of my middle school trauma, and the head of drama, Ms. Adams, told me I had to audition for that year's musical, West Side Story.

It was a directive: I was auditioning. It didn't matter that the words "singing and dancing" lit a forest fire of horror in my head. Nor did my repeated pleas of incompetence. She said I had to, so I had to.

It was awful.

My self-worth was an aphid. I could barely stand being seen to walk, let alone dance. And the only play I'd ever been in was one I wrote in Grade Eight about Santa interviewing elves to do Christmas Eve with him. But I did what I was told and went out for it.

I don't remember what happened in that audition room. It must've been a real master class in awkwardness. But I did it. It happened. And whatever happened, got me into the show.

For a boy, there are lots of fantastic roles in that show. Tony, Bernardo, Riff, A-Rab, Gee-tar, Snowboy, Big Deal, Diesel, Baby John, Mouthpiece, Chino - awesome names, great parts, of varying sizes, but all great parts.

I did not get one of those parts. I was given the role of Tiger.

Now, if you know the show and you're trying to remember Tiger, you can stop. There is no Tiger in West Side Story. "Tiger" was created for and died with the 1991 Eastwood Collegiate version. Simply, I think they needed lots of boys to fill in the gaps and were kind enough to give my non-speaking role a name to spare my feelings.

Two days ago, 26 years later, almost to the month, I was walking to rehearsal in a snow storm. It was brutally cold. The walk to the theatre usually takes about 12 minutes, so I thought I could fit in listening to one or two movements of something, which, with my huge headphones, would also serve to keep my ears warm. I hit play on Beethoven's String Quartet in D major, Opus 18, No. 3.

I heard the first two notes and couldn't walk forward. The movement kept passing by, but my insides stopped at the first two notes - an interval as powerful as a scent, bringing me back, body and brain, to that exact time: being 14 in emotional paralysis. The red K-way coats with white tape down the sleeves to make them look like leather jackets. The drag queen heavy show makeup and how it smelled heated up on our skin. The crazy rush of want for all the girls in the show. The inability to do anything about it. The blueness of the lights when Tony was shot. All that crying we did. The coolness of the boy playing Riff. Looking up to and feeling nervous around the boy playing Tony. The jeans. The finger snapping. The scary new feeling of belonging. Yelling "Mambo!" The sound of our teenage orchestra lurching along and my own voice making a noise. The score and story that fucking slayed me then and, clearly, still slays me now, as I learned two days ago, hearing the first interval of the string quartet that also happens to be the first two notes of "Somewhere" from West Side Story.

An interval that, for me, represents the entire haphazard way fates are decided.

Wikipedia says the interval in question is "rarely featured in melodies (especially in their openings)", but here are Beethoven and, (maybe copying him) 150 years later, Bernstein, putting the minor 7th - reaching, hopeful, and begging for resolution - front and centre.

Te adoro, folks. 

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Beethoven and Your Dumb Baby

Crawling through the first two chapters of Alexander Wheelock Thayer's drier than dust with a side of hair, 'Life of Beethoven' - I finally got to the beginning of his relationship with Count Waldstein, dedicatee of the Waldstein Sonata.

Thank you Waldstein. You saved me. Noble, musician, soldier, Beethoven's first great patron and, most importantly, my excuse to put down Thayer and re-goolge Waldstein.

The genius who wrote all of Wikipedia says this about him:

I find it sweet that between 1791-92 Beethoven wrote "Eight variations for piano four hands on a theme by Count Waldstein". Four hands! I picture the two of them, giggling, shoulder to shoulder, just as happy as these two:

And lo! through the child-like magic of Tom Hanks, the Beethoven of likeability, we come to the strange thing about WoO 67: apparently it'll make your kid smarter.

Of all the profound, urgent, deep things Beethoven ever wrote, it's this little trifle he wrote for him and his buddy to play that appears about 87 times in Google Play as a baby or child brain development aid. Not actual recordings of professional pianists playing it, no, but specifically one particular recording of a synth harp playing the theme; this weird Celtic robot version seems to be a go-to for making the unborn or recently born way smarter. "Baby Sleep Therapy Club" (featuring a baby in glasses, glasses = super smart), "Early Development of Child ("child" singular - we'll never know which one), "Child in the World of Music" (same child as the last one), "Development and Learning" by Einstein's Music Education, "Baby Music Serenity", and finally "Child's Brain and Music". I wish I could find this version on YouTube so you could hear it. It's so bizarre. If I were a baby and I heard it, I'd probably get smarter just thinking of ways to get the fuck out of there.

But since I can't find it and since we're already on the theme of child, I found a couple of childs playing it here. Meet Dutch piano wunderbrothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, respectively, 24 and 20 years old. Obviously they're not actual kids, but they're such cute lil fellas I couldn't help myself. I'll let you be the judge of which brother wins the "Most Moved-by-the-Music Face" competition.

In spite of the brothers' incredible hair and acting, this piece still seems like a playful but respectful spin around the block with the theme. Maybe it was his relative youth or nerves about offending his first real patron, but Beethoven never opens up his full inventive engine - at least not so much to make Waldstein feel embarrassed. He refrains from slapping the theme around and juggling it and mocking it and elevating it like he did, later in life, with Diabelli's. I agree with Sonof Thunder who commented on Youtube: "What a hammy jokester LvB is in that final coda! Love it!!!" Exactly: it's good fun, but it never goes deep.

Unless you're a baby. Then it will enter your mind and make you a genius. Probably an evil one, but still a genius.

Monday 27 February 2017

du Pré and the Ghost

Jacqueline du Pré

Despite YouTube dickily filling movement breaks with ads for Dempster's Honey Wheat Bread and a 'Good Wife' spin-off, Christopher Luten's 1968 film of Beethoven's 'The Ghost' Piano Trio, Op. 71, No. 1, featuring Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Jacqueline du Pré, packs a double irony and a double sadness.

The first comes before the trio begins, with this story in yellow text: "In 1808 the composer and violinist Louis Spohr was invited to a rehearsal in Beethoven's house of the D Major Piano Trio Opus 70 No. 1 known as The Ghost, and wrote of the Occasion: "It was not an enjoyable experience. First of all the piano was dreadfully out of tune, which did not trouble Beethoven in the least, since he could not hear it. Little or nothing remained of the brilliant technique which had been so much admired. In loud passages the poor deaf man hammered away at the notes crashing through whole groups of them so that without the score one lost all sense of the melody. I was deeply moved by the tragedy of it all. Beethoven's almost continual melancholy was no longer a mystery to me."

The world's greatest composer struck by deafness is a story everyone knows. But this quote from Spohr really picks the scab off the legend and lets the raw awfulness show: he's rehearsing, but can't hear himself, the piano or the other musicians. He's alone with what he hears in his head, in "continual melancholy".

The second and even crueler giving-then-taking-away is in the person of Jacqueline du Pré. This film was shot May 12, 1970. She was at the peak of her career, her youth, her enormous gifts, power, and talent. But within a year of shooting it, in 1971, du Pré began to lose feeling in her fingers and other parts of her body. As she gradually lost sensation in her hands, she had to co-ordinate her fingering visually and her playing plummeted, publicly and painfully. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. By her final public performances in NYC in 1973, du Pré couldn't judge the weight of the bow and struggled to simply open her cello case.

She died at the age of 42.

For more bare-boned facts, here's the wikipedia article about du Pré:

The director of 'The Ghost', Christopher Luten, made several other films about her. This is a posthumus tribute. It's loving and leaves out anything ambiguous or grey in her character or work, but it's worth watching because, while it's brief, it's full of footage that gives a glimpse into her vast gift and the sheer joy she took in sharing it. It's inspiring. It's also a real kick in the pants to use the time that you have well.