Writing the Essay: Beethoven

A college essay written in Spring 2011 for a freshman expository writing class.

Writing the Essay: Beethoven
Photo by Geert Pieters / Unsplash

This essay was written in the Spring 2011 semester as part of the Writing The Essay: The World Through Art course at New York University, which is now numbered ASPP-UT 2.

“We are going to try to perform for you today a curious and rather difficult experiment, “ says Leonard Bernstein in his 1954 Omnibus Lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “We are going to take the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and rewrite it.” It is, as Bernstein admits, an audacious endeavor, “but we will only use notes that Beethoven himself wrote.” For the next half-hour, Bernstein takes us through Beethoven’s discarded sketches for the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, explaining why each discarded sketch was ultimately inferior to the final version of the Fifth Symphony.

Beethoven was not known to be a prolific composer; he was known to be a prolific editor of his own work, sketching and writing and re-writing and re-writing his compositions until he was completely satisfied. Beethoven did not leave any clear indication of why he composed this way, but we can take a guess. In a letter to his friend and student Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven tells him to give his wife a surprise, remarking, “[b]etween ourselves the best thing of all is a combination of the surprising and the beautiful!” (Cooper 22).

That Beethoven wrote beautiful works is not in doubt. His works are melodically, harmonically and thematically consistent and have a strong sense of completeness and of wholeness. It is somewhat harder to pin down what made Beethoven surprising, and why being surprising should have been so important to him that he should have edited his own work so laboriously and extensively.

As early as 1783, when Beethoven was 13, he wrote, “My Muse in hours of sacred inspiration has often whispered to me: ‘Make the attempt, just put down on paper the harmonies of your soul!’… My Muse insisted – I obeyed and I composed” (Cooper 19). Beethoven’s compositional career and correspondence were marked by the overwhelming desire to create, and specifically to create great music; Cooper writes: “Music deserved such devotion in his view because it was a noble art – one that could ‘raise men to the level of gods’ and as it had such elevating powers it had to be treated with due respect in his compositions” (19).

Beethoven’s ambition to create great music was what “necessitated all the sketching and related labour” that Beethoven was known for among his contemporaries. Cooper argues that “a sense of struggle” permeates Beethoven’s sketches and many of his finished works – perhaps the struggle between the surprising and the beautiful can be considered the defining feature of Beethoven’s work (22).

In the prologue of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., Selby credits Beethoven as his “only ‘conscious’ influence… [Beethoven] knows, to perfection, how to hammer a phrase into your mind, repeating it over and over, yet always stopping at precisely the right time. And his work is beautifully inevitable, yet never predictable, no matter how many times you hear it.” Inevitability without predictability is a cardinal rule of any dramatic form, and one could perhaps say Beethoven was equal parts composer and dramatist.

In his book Story, Robert McKee writes that “story is born in… the difference between anticipation and result” (148-9). Each discrepancy in anticipation and result forms part of a progression, and “this pattern repeats on various levels to the end of the line, to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another” (152). This, too, is a struggle; it is a struggle to reconcile the surprising with the beautiful, the unexpected with the inevitable.

Let us now take a look at how this struggle manifested itself in Beethoven’s music. In a 1973 lecture, Bernstein spoke of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 almost purely in musical terms: diatonic, chromaticism, circle of fifths. During a particularly unusual passage in the final movement, Bernstein is almost bursting with excitement: “Do you realize that that wild, atonal-sounding passage contains every one of the twelve chromatic tones except the tonic G? What an inspired idea!” (Bernstein 47) Inspired, certainly, but not a concept accessible to a musically-untrained listener. Of Bach, Bernstein speaks chiefly in melodic terms: melody, harmony, counterpoint. Bach’s contrapuntal work, he says, is “akin to a sublime crossword puzzle… where everything checks, and all the answers are right.” Fascinatingly, Bernstein explains Bach’s lack of popularity among modern audiences with, “Contrast makes drama… if you’re expecting any contrast, you’re not going to get it [from Bach].”

Bernstein’s approach to explaining Beethoven is completely different. He does not use the terminology of music. Not once does Bernstein discuss the harmony or counterpoint or cadences of the Fifth Symphony. Instead, he uses terms like static, stuck, mystery, build, flow, grounded, drive, climactic, dramatic, eruption, forward, abrupt, force. The words to explain the force of Beethoven’s music exist not in music, but in drama, in McKee’s “difference between anticipation and result”, in the tension between what is and what should be, that empty space that drives men to create. At one point in his lecture, Bernstein takes a sketch that Beethoven wrote for the Fifth Symphony, plays it, and tells us, “it would have fitted very neatly into [the] coda… harmonically, rhythmically, in every way except emotionally.” The sketch was logical, musical and beautiful, but it lacked the emotional force that would cause its listeners surprise. That alone disqualified it in Beethoven’s eyes.

Perhaps this is why Beethoven rewrote and rewrote his work. If the goal is musical intricacy, there is a point when the notes all add up, when the math works, a point at which the composer can stop and be satisfied that the music checks out. However, if the goal is dramatic tension and its corresponding release, there is no right answer, there is no one moment where everything checks. The composer is then working towards not musical, but emotional, dramatic perfection. And dramatic perfection does not depend on the ability to hear, to harmonize, although Beethoven certainly knew what his music would have sounded like. It depends on the ability to employ contrast to build tension to breaking point and towards an inexorable finish. Beethoven rewrote and rewrote his work because he was not looking for something that fit neatly; he was not filling out a crossword puzzle but telling a story, and the art of storytelling is in its curation, the removal of the things that do not push the drama to its climactic level and the refinement of things that do. How, then, does the composer know when the music is ready? He knows when he is emotionally satisfied with the music, not just when he has been intellectually satisfied by the filling of the crossword puzzle.

This predilection for the dramatic and the essential need for emotional expression often necessitated modifying the norms of musical form and performance, which Beethoven considered fundamental to the element of surprise that he sought to create. Cooper writes that “[Beethoven’s] desire to surprise his listeners also went hand in hand with his belief that his art should always be moving forward: ‘Art demands of us that we shall not stand still’… Progress implied experiment for him and surprise for his listeners… [b]ut originality was insufficient unless it was continually developing, and Beethoven on several occasions expressed concern for novelty in his music” (24).

Beethoven certainly was novel. His experiments with form had earned him criticism, especially in the early stages of his compositional career (Wallace 108). In typical Beethoven fashion, Beethoven answered his critics with the scherzo (literally, Italian for joke) of the Ninth Symphony: written in triple time, as is traditional for scherzos, in a standard ternary scherzo-trio-scherzo design, with the scherzo itself adhering to sonata form. Despite the strict form, the scherzo sounds beautifully loose and carefree, propelled forward by a rhythm so whimsical, so unlike triple time, that one almost hears Beethoven laughing ironically to his critics, “Look, triple time! Isn’t this what you asked for?” In doing so, Beethoven demonstrated that form must serve emotional expression, and emotional expression demands formal innovation.

Another example of Beethoven’s formal innovation can be found in his Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, more commonly known as the “Moonlight Sonata,” is subtitled “Quasi una fantasia,” Italian meaning “almost a fantasy.” Those who know the work may find it an apt description, but the reality of the subtitle is more mundane: a sonata is typically a work in three movements, first a fast opening movement, then a slow second movement, and ending with one or two fast movements. Within each movement the music adheres to sonata form: introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. The famous first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, however, carries the direction “adagio sostenuto” – slow and sustained – and has no distinguishable sonata form. Not coincidentally, a “fantasy” is the musical term for a form without any clearly defined rules. András Schiff, in lectures delivered as part of a concert series, argues that the first movement is generally poorly interpreted and demonstrates an alternative which he believes to be closer to Beethoven’s intentions based on the performance directions, an interpretation in which “the harmonies swim together, like in a wash.” The pianoforte was a relatively young and still-developing instrument in Beethoven’s time, and different from the piano of today: it produced “a sharper attack, less development of the tone, and a much quicker decay” (Newman 47). It is much easier to understand and appreciate the full extent of Beethoven’s experimentation and novelty when taking these limitations into account; Schiff’s interpretation of the Moonlight Sonata is well-within the capabilities of the modern piano, but in Beethoven’s day this interpretation would have meant taking particular advantage of the specific qualities of the young pianoforte. No matter – Beethoven took this new instrument and the sonata to its known limit, and then broke that limit in a surprising and beautiful way – surprising in its visionary innovation, and beautiful in its unity of form and substance.

While the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is the most well-known, my personal favorite is the third movement, which is the explosive culmination of the suppressed emotion in the two slow, calm movements that precede it; it is here that we find a classic example of the way Beethoven’s command of musical form gives his expression emotional force. In this virtuosic composition, Beethoven never lets us settle into the music: we are always moving, always being driven into the next note, always kept off-balance. The movement opens with a quiet measure beginning low on the piano, but moves swiftly through the notes of the C# minor chord into the higher notes, ending with two strongly accented sforzando (literally "compelling" or "straining") C# minor chords at the end of the second measure. The C# minor chord is the tonic chord of this piece, and consists of a C#, an E, and a G#. The left hand plays two C#s, and the right hand plays four notes, the highest of which is a G#, which is the dominant note of C#. The dominant is a tremendously important note; it is what gives a musical key stability. The most important cadences in any key run through the dominant note. The strongest cadential ending there is in music, the perfect authentic cadence, consists of the dominant chord resolving to the tonic chord.

Let’s see what Beethoven does with those two sforzando chords as the piece progresses. He develops the opening theme over the next 12 measures, and then Beethoven repeats it - but this time, as we approach the two sforzando chords, Beethoven refuses to let us anticipate or pre-empt him. He uses a different form of the chord: he reaches higher than the G# that he used earlier, and hits the E above. To us, it comes as a surprise, and is cause for mild alarm: there's something about this chord that sounds overstretched, that is reminiscent of someone straining for something just slightly beyond his reach. It is a heartbreaking chord. A look at the score reveals the genius of Beethoven: this chord is still a tonic, but this time it is played with two C#s on the left hand, and two Es on the right hand. The dominant G# is missing. No wonder it sounds so tragic - Beethoven deliberately destabilized the chord by removing its most important support. With this simple device, Beethoven at once expresses the heartache of one reaching for the heavens and grasping only air.

Another example of Beethoven’s ingenuity and musical innovation can be found in William E. Caplin’s essay, “Structural Expansion in Beethoven’s Symphonic Forms.” Using a theoretical approach to analyze Beethoven’s First, Third and Ninth Symphonies, Caplin demonstrates how Beethoven eschewed the obvious cadential progressions in favor of extending the open cadences for as long as possible until they could be resolved in a perfect authentic cadence. In plain language, this simply means that Beethoven avoided the obvious next note, building up musical tension until an opportunity to resolve all the open questions as strongly and as economically as possible presented itself. Caplin demonstrates that as Beethoven progressed as a composer, he became more adept at delaying the eventuality of the perfect authentic cadence, and that in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven evades the resolution of the cadence three times in the subordinate theme before finally resolving it at the end of the theme, going a full 70 measures without the perfect authentic cadence. When Beethoven finally does resolve the cadence, it represents an economy of form that had rarely been seen in classical music, a combination of a musical and dramatic resolution (53). This is exactly the story that Robert McKee spoke of, the “difference between anticipation and result” leading to a “final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another” (148-52).

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: “From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type” (4). What Beethoven managed to do was combine the two: he took the musician’s form and applied to it the actor’s craft. What formerly required an understanding of musical form now had the ability to engage people in a form that could be felt, not just heard. Perhaps, also, that is why Beethoven has enjoyed such longevity in the repertoire, perhaps that is why it did not matter that Beethoven was deaf, for he wrote not music, but drama: we listen to Beethoven for the same reasons we watch plays and tell stories, because his music is a distillation of emotion; it strikes not only the ear, but also the heart.

Works Cited

“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” Perf. Leonard Bernstein. Omnibus. CBS. 14 Nov 1954. Television.

Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.

Caplin, William E. “Structural Expansion in Beethoven’s Symphonic Forms.” Beethoven’s Compositional Process. ed. William Kinderman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Print.

Cooper, Barry. Beethoven and the Creative Process. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

McKee, Robert. Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.

Newman, William. Beethoven on Beethoven. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988. Print.

Schiff, András, narr. “Part 4.3: Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, opus 27 no. 2 (‘Moonlight’).The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 23 Nov. 2006. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Selby Jr., Hubert. Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York: Grove Press, 1964. Print.

“The Music of J.S. Bach.” Perf. Leonard Bernstein. Omnibus. CBS. 31 Mar. 1957. Television.

Wallace, Robin. Beethoven’s Critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.