Some reminders before we dive in: There are three different kinds of comments you need to make in these online discussions in order to earn full credit. Refer to the assignment description you received in class (also available here). The most effective comments in this kind of forum are concise, clear, and supported. Instead of responding to every conversation question in one comment, try to make shorter, separate comments that allow other people to digest and respond to your ideas.
Online discussion #5 is open for comments March 5-11.
The “great man theory”
For the most part in Mu 101, I avoid taking the “Great Man” approach to music history—the over-simplified, inspiring, and inaccurate notion that history consists of great acts by singular “great men,” who, by force of will, talent, and their sheer exceptionality, acted alone to change the course of history. I avoid it because, although it’s an easy way to tell the story of music history (and one you may recognize from typical high school history textbooks), it omits the bigger social structures, currents of thought, and other (little) people that form the world in which those “great men” lived—they didn’t act alone, because no one does.
A music history survey in a class just like Mu 101 could easily (and traditionally has) consist of the biographies and music of, in order:
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
- Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Richard Wagner (1813-83)
- Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
This list of seven composers spans the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century periods of music history. If we only listened to and studied their music in Mu 101, you would come away with a pretty good sense of different musical styles and you would have listened to music that is, by many standards, excellent: well-crafted, thoughtful, skillful, visionary, and respected, not to mention that their music is performed consistently and regularly to this day. By itself, this list would fulfill all of the university-wide curricular requirements of Mu 101 at QCC.
But this list leaves out a lot of musical perspectives : women, non-Europeans (actually, anyone outside of Austria and Germany), and people who didn’t compose music that’s been regarded as serious art. And without these other perspectives, the world of these “great men” is two-dimensional, meaning it’s irrelevant to our modern lives and inaccurate because it’s so incomplete. It even does their “greatness” a disservice to not provide the context for what allowed them to be exceptional, skillful, successful, or, well, “great.”
While we will talk about (or at least mention) all of these composers that form the backbone of the Western classical canon, they don’t tell the whole story—think of everything we’ve listened to in class so far that wasn’t by one of these seven “great” composers. Music doesn’t have to be written by a “great” composer to be interesting or to be worth thinking about.
But let’s at least talk about one of those so-called “great” composers here…
Before you even started your journey in Mu 101 this semester, you’d likely heard the music of Beethoven, and probably knew his name.
He’s one of those figures that everybody just kind of knows, right? He’s a figure that, in the back of your mind, prods you with a nagging sensation that you should be able to at least say something about him, because he’s totally an important historical figure, duh.
You could name your dog after him and no one would bat an eye.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is “one of those guys” because his music has been so celebrated, without pause, since his lifetime. 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 quartets 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.
During his life, Beethoven’s music was shocking for many listeners. It was bigger, bolder, louder, and more striking than anything that had come before it. More than that, it seemed spiritual for many listeners, especially as participation in organized religion declined during the 19th century—music, especially instrumental music for large symphony orchestras, steps in to fill the void of connecting people with the sense of a higher power.
Descriptions of classical music from the 19th century are a gold mine for juicy, transcendental musical experiences. People believed music could offer them entry into unseen worlds, and composers tried to live up to these expectations. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822), like many other listeners, first felt a connection with things beyond himself when listening to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, and this feeling (even though he doesn’t use the same words as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, since he’s not a 20th-century psychologist), implies that he’s had a flow experience.
“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens up to us also the realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, driving us into narrower and narrower confines until they destroy us—but not the pain of that endless longing in which each joy that has climbed aloft in jubilant song sinks back and is swallowed up, and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, which seeks to burst our breasts with a many-voices consonance of all the passions, that we live on, enchanted beholders of the supernatural!… Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism…”
—E.T.A. Hoffmann, Beethoven’s Instrumental Music (1813)
Leonard Bernstein: the charming Beethoven fanboy
Below is 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 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):
But why Beethoven?
But why has Beethoven been such an inspiring figure for so many musicians and non-musicians alike? 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
- 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
In short, Beethoven fulfills the role of a hero.
At a certain point, it stops mattering whether a hero is as good as everyone says he is—it only matters that people think he’s great, because it’s that assumption of greatness, of being inspired, that guides future choices and actions. The more time passes, the more his identity is equated with how people perceived and received his work—the myth becomes the man in our minds. In the case of Beethoven, the awe, the reverence, and the seemingly impossible standards he established guide subsequent musicians to their aesthetic ideals. For us as inheritors of a post-Beethoven world in the 21st century, that means that our musical experiences are shaped by a set of assumptions we may take for granted: orchestral music is big, long, and loud; the notion that music can be spiritually moving; classical music is “serious”; and it doesn’t matter if the audience “gets” it because the creator is assumed to be a genius.
No conversation-starting questions this week—I don’t want to dictate where the conversation goes, and there’s plenty to think about here without them!