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.


Anger in grief: Shostakovich

As you may already know, anger is not only an emotion but it is part of the grieving process. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

I believe much of the grief Dimitri Shostakovich experienced during the oppression of Joseph Stalin is expressed in anger. Much of his art was suppressed and many of his countrymen were imprisoned and murdered. What Shostakovich did not have the freedom to express with words, he wrote into his music.

Bitter anger is the only emotion I can take away when listening to today’s clip from Symphony No. 5, Mvt 1. The piano, horns and trumpets are playing in their lowest range. It is not common to hear a piano solo that is this low because it would not project over the orchestra in a normal context. But Shostakovich removes the rest of the orchestra so the piano accompaniment is crystal clear. When the horns enter, they sound like trombones at first. Most people don’t realize that the horn has the widest range of any brass instrument. They can play as low or lower than a tuba and higher than most trumpets, with little effort. Of course, in this register the horn sounds raspy and mean. Perfect for this emotional context. The same is true for the trumpets in this clip. Even through it is members of the New York Philharmonic playing, their tone here is intentionally ugly.

Michael Tilson Thomas has a great commentary of this melody on Keeping Score. He says that the fourth note of the melody (listen again if you need to) is irregular. It doesn’t fit the key, which means we can label it a dissonant note. Because it is one half-step lower than we expect it to be, it pushes our buttons as listeners. Also, if you were to look at the notes of this melody on the page, they form the shape of a valley. The notes go down in the first half of the melody, and just when it doesn’t seem they can go any lower, Shostakovich takes them one step lower than that before coming back up. The lowest note in the melody is also the lowest note a trumpet can play, an F-sharp. Interesting the that the grief chart is also in the shape of a valley.

Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich’s most famous piece. It is filled with interesting moments like these. Be sure to listen to the whole symphony if you get a chance.