Somber: Beethoven

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven‘s (1770-1827) Symphony No. 7 is one of the happiest works I’ve heard. It has a contagious, dance-like quality. That is, every movement except movement II: Allegretto. Allegretto is Italian for “a little lively” which must only refer to the tempo and not the mood, which is much more serious, sober, solemn, even somber. There is a pensiveness, as though anticipating something terrible will happen. I can not help but think this symphony deals with the existentialism that most of us face. We spend most of our time trying to seize the day (movements I, III and IV), but some of the time we ponder the inevitability of our own death (movement II).

somber – adjective

1. dark or dull in color or tone; gloomy
2. oppressively solemn or sober in mood; grave

The movement begins with one minor chord in the woodwinds, as if to warn us there is something ominous on the horizon. What follows is an ostinato in the strings. Ostinato literally means “obstinate” and refers to a rhythmic pattern that is repeated over and over. In this case, it is the “dun dun-dun dun dun” in the first violins. It is the same rhythm as a slow “shave and a hair cut.”

The tension builds and builds in this movement as more voices are added. Drums and brass in Beethoven’s day served roughly the same purpose: to add rhythmic intensity and punctuation to the orchestra. The ranges also expand as the movement builds. The low instruments play lower and the high instruments play higher. As the music broadens, the oppression is thick enough to cut with a knife. It seems that doom is eminent.

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It is at this moment that Beethoven keeps us guessing. He modulates from minor key to the  parallel major key. It goes from sad to happy. It is as though the listener could imagine a positive outcome for just a moment. There is always hope. This adds more suspense for me, because it is not certain how things will turn out. He does this again after another climactic section. Even in the last few seconds, he brings us just a glimmer of hope before ending with a sigh of resignation.

This movement was recently given a lot of exposure when it appeared at the climax of the movie, The King’s Speech (2010). It is played during the first wartime radio broadcast given by newly-crowned King George VI. I thought it appropriate to follow my last post regarding World War I with the music set to a movie on the outbreak of World War II. Below is the transcript of that speech, and you may hear the actual recording of it here. It was truly a great speech.

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.

It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges; which sanctions the use of force, or threat of force, against the sovereignty and independence of other states. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.

This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.

It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.

May He bless and keep us all.

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Joy & elation: Beethoven

joy |joi| – noun – a feeling of great pleasure and happiness

elation |iˈlāSHən| – noun – great happiness and exhilaration

When I thought about which words I would use to describe this week’s emotion in Classical music, happiness didn’t seem to cut it. The music I’ve selected is not just happy, it is exhilarating. It expresses great pleasure and excitement. It brings to mind some of my most wonderful memories.

Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” expresses sheer delight throughout the symphony. It is another great example of programmatic music where the music is written to tell a specific story. The subtitles of the five movements are as follows:

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
2. Scene at the brook
3. Happy gathering of country folk
4. Thunderstorm
5. Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

Of course for the sake of contrast, Beethoven had to put in that thunderstorm so we could better appreciate the happy moments.

Today’s clip is from the third movement. The happy gathering of country folk brings images of villagers dancing and being merry, children playing, and birds chirping. The whole atmosphere here is playful and carefree. The birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind.

Elation is depicted by a fast tempo (speed), major chords, and notes that are played in a staccato style (short, light and bouncy). The light, high, pure-sounding oboe is delightful. It reminds me of the sound of a person’s voice in a conversation who is expressing how excited she is to be reunited with her good friend at a party. The strings in the background represent the activity of the gathering with interjections by the bassoon and clarinet. Finally, the clarinet says back how delighted she is and seems to bubble over with joy. At the end of this clip, the horn joins the conversation and the excitement builds.

If you feel weighed down, I recommend listening to all of Symphony No. 6. It is incredibly therapeutic. It seems to characterize all that is good, right, innocent, and beautiful in the world. Happy Monday!

Calculated anger: Beethoven

There is not a single song or piece that we listen to today that has not been influenced in some way by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He established and popularized the musical language that is used in all of today’s popular music, jazz, and the vast majority of symphonic music that came after him. As one of my history professors put it, “no composer since has ever started to write a piece without first considering the work of Beethoven.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has one of the most recognizable phrases in all of Classical music. While the first movement is the most well-known, the other three movements display a wide variety of characters and emotions which are all held together by just four notes.

Don’t you want to keep listening? Copyright laws only allow a 30 second clip for educational purposes, or I’d upload it all. Beethoven has a way of gripping us and not letting go until the end of the piece. I wish I had time to tell you everything that is interesting about this piece and how it would affect the way you listen to it. Talking about Beethoven is not easy because there is so much I could say and I have so little time. So instead, I will simply talk about the character of the piece as it relates to anger. The kind of anger displayed here is not a wild violent anger but it is a carefully calculated anger. A stubborn, indignant anger. The kind of anger that comes out of deep thought.

The intervals (distance) between pitches are important in this four-note melody (technically it is a “motive” since it is so short). The interval between the third and fourth notes is a major third – a very human interval. It is an interval that our voices naturally sing when saying two-syllable words. When a mother calls to her children in the back yard, “Din-ner!” she usually sings a major third. But in Beethoven’s case, it is a major third that functions on the upper side of a minor chord. With this tonal language, it seems that Beethoven is communicating that anger is a very human emotion.

Secondly, anger can bubble up out of nowhere, the way it does after the introduction. The strings play several fast notes at a soft dynamic, becoming more insistent when the orchestra rushes in and makes three hard blows to the stomach. The anger intensifies when the four-note motive comes back again with the horns blasting along side the strings.

The rest of the movement moves from angry thought to angry thought, as though the character in this movement is trying to reason himself out of being angry. I love the suspense, the contrast, and they way Beethoven takes these four notes and makes a masterpiece out of them. Sometimes I think Beethoven and MacGyver are a lot alike. MacGyver could take a stick, bubble gum and a lighter and make a deadly weapon and Beethoven can take four notes and make a dazzling symphony.

I hope you get a chance to listen to the entire symphony. It is worth every minute. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to Beethoven soon enough. And I still won’t have enough time to say all there is to say about his music.