Beethoven and all that jazz

After recent posts on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Jazz it is time for a quick note on Beethoven. For years I didn’t listen to Beethoven at all, finding too much of his orchestral music overdramatic, overstated, overblown. Then, a few years back I acquired a version of the recordings made by the Busch Quartet in the 1930s (recordings made before and after the quartet’s re-location from Germany to London, and then to New York during World War Two). Despite the audible crackling (this was before they were digitally remastered in 2008, and the interference removed) the recordings convey an astonishing degree of sensitivity and pathos. Pathos is a word that seems most apt with regard to Beethoven, a man who supposedly died while raging against the dying of the light, fist raised to the heavens – and during a thunderstorm for good measure. To which end, here is an animated bar-graph score of the Grosse Fuge op. 133.



The other night I caught the opening episode of new TV series that focuses on the history of the symphony (and is titled, helpfully, Symphony), that ultimate collision of form and content that emerged with Haydn and Mozart and was taken by the scruff of the neck and booted into the nineteenth century by Beethoven with his Eroica symphony in 1804. Beethoven was a republican (but not in the American sense) and an early supporter of Napoleon (but not once he had proclaimed himself Emperor) and reputedly told one of his patrons: “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Quite a self-believer then.

When I was a wild young thing, thumping out Beethoven and Brahms fiercely and passionately but with negligible technique, my piano teacher once played me a section of the opus 111 piano sonata and told me to listen how, with its double-dotted rhythms it pre-empted jazz (or ragtime) figures that only emerged a century later. I don’t know how accurate his analysis was,  but whenever I listen to those crazy lilting rhythms now – which break in after nearly seven minutes of the clip below – I can’t help wondering what the audiences of his day must have made of this music: they can’t ever have heard, or even imagined, anything like it. And that is something that we miss altogether, as we have the whole of intervening musical history acting as a kind of barrier, and what we hear, we hear through the filter of all the music that has been composed and played since his time.

Historically, Beethoven has been best remembered for his symphonies (as the current TV series illustrates), for the fabulous unifying Ode to Joy from the ninth and ironically (since we were at war with his fatherland) for the famous introduction to the fifth symphony, now forever linked to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill. But it is the last quartets and sonatas that I, as a listener, return to, although more and more I prefer to listen to jazz.





3 Comments on “Beethoven and all that jazz

  1. I loved the animated bar-graph score! I was interested in what you have to say about hearing music for the “first time” and how we hear music through a filter. I’m trying to learn the flute part of Faure’s Fantasie in my cold, echo y 10th floor apartment in Xi’an. I’m sure the whole complex – several thousand people in similar sky scraper buildings near by – can hear me! I’d love to know what they make of Faure. It’s a traditional neighbourhood and I’ve only heard someone practising the Chinese flute outside. It is like a small bagpipe. As yet, no one has knocked on the door so I’ll keep practising. All those ears makes me very self conscious though!


    • Hi V – I have been reading your blog. Interesting indeed, and the photos you sent are fabulous. Am amazed at the quality of blandness in so much of the architecture and design. And you seem to be having fun. The musical filter: it kind of follows on from what I said in an earlier blog about how if someone composed music like Beethoven nowadays, no one would take them seriously, as a composer. Will keep checking in.


      • It was in this blog that you talked about the filter! That’s why I commented. You write so regularly that I guess you forget what order you wrote in. I really enjoy reading them so keep on writing!


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