Online discussion #6 is available for comments March 13-19. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
The content of this week’s discussion comes from a 1954 episode of Omnibus, a TV program that aired on Sunday afternoons in the US during the 1950s and 1960s. It was funded by the Ford Foundation as an effort to educate Americans culturally. The main speaker throughout this episode is Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), an American composer, conductor, and educator. He hosted several episodes of Omnibus, each about a different musical topic, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, conducting, jazz, and opera.
In the video, Bernstein discusses why he finds Beethoven (1770-1827) to be a fascinating and inspiring figure, illustrating Beethoven’s creative process and the difficulty he had in shaping his music into its final form. Bernstein demonstrates excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 at the piano, with scores (sheet music), and a full orchestra. He uses many vocabulary words we’ve already come across in class and in assigned readings—he’s speaking a language you now know!
As a frame of reference, here’s a recording of the piece of music the video dissects:
In the video, I love how Bernstein’s admiration for Beethoven comes through—he’s picking apart Beethoven’s musical ideas with care, respect, and thoroughness, seeking to appreciate (and share with his viewers) Beethoven’s compositional process and skill.
Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” (1954):
People have turned to Beethoven at various crucial historical moments, using his music to convey the notion of overcoming struggle, unity, and humanity:
- Established in 1845, the Beethoven Quartet Society (London) was one of the first groups devoted solely to the performance and study of the music of a single composer. Their repertoire? String quartet by Beethoven.
- The Nazi Party in Germany regarded Beethoven’s music as the apex of human achievement and of German culture, encouraging performances of it regularly.
- Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was included on the “Golden Record,” a series of recordings to represent the humans of Earth to the universe sent into space with the Voyager I and II spacecraft in 1977.
- At the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which had divided the German capital since World War II, Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra comprised of musicians from the former Allied and Axis powers in a performance of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
- Symphony No. 9 has been adopted by several European nations and groups as its anthem, including the E.U.
Final thoughts: But why Beethoven?
The short answer is that his music is really, really good. It’s satisfying to play, it’s inspiring to listen to, and it was a game-changer for Romantic Era music (it’s bigger, louder, longer, more intense, and conveys a greater sense of personal conviction than anything that came before it). (See some musicians’ musings about Beethoven’s music here: 05-handout-quotes-on-beethoven-1805-1862)
The long answer involves aspects of who Beethoven is in the imaginations of his listeners and admirers:
- An independent thinker who defied cultural norms and instead followed his own ideas in both music and society
- A hard worker and perfectionist—Beethoven’s obvious difficulty in getting his music “right” is a big part of what inspires Bernstein, and there’s often something comforting about seeing a person create great work not out of effortless talent but rather out of sheer force of unrelenting will
- A shrewd businessman who made classical music profitable in the free market economy (call back to Online Discussion #1!)
- A firm believer in the equality of man (an Enlightenment principle)
- Oh, and he was deaf for much of his adult life following an infection—the notion that a person could overcome a physical disability so obviously shattering to his professional career is often one of the biggest sources of inspiration people draw from Beethoven’s biography
Questions to get the conversation going:
- Before watching this video, how did you think composers created or wrote their music? What aspects of Beethoven’s creative process surprised you?
- What makes a musician (or a person) inspiring to you? Why do you think Beethoven was an inspiring figure for many people in the 19th and 20th centuries?
- An idea mentioned in Online Discussion #3 is that performance styles change over time, and this is true not only in music but also in all other media. What stylistic changes do you notice between this 1954 TV program and media of 2017? How do you explain those differences?