Thursday, December 17, 2015

Beethoven: One Day is Not Enough!

Dude never, never, ever smiled!

I know, you thought that was yesterday.

All that is actually known about the birthday of this great classical composer whose genius arguably ushered in a new era in musical history is that he was baptized on December 17, 1770.

In those days of high infant mortality, baptism was usually administered right after birth. There are, of course, instances in which birthday and baptismal day did not correspond (for example a birth near midnight) but we have no way of documenting this.

You see, in those days, in the Habsburg "Empire"--that patchwork of places and peoples and customs loosely tied together by aristocratic family bonds with an inefficiency that would boggle the twenty-first century mind--the Church was the primary dependable written archive for ordinary life events.

The Elector of Bavaria or the Mayor of Bonn were not in the business of keeping databases or issuing birth certificates. Nevertheless there is a tradition of marking Beethoven's birthday on the 16th of December, a date that may have originated with household memories of a crying baby in the night. In any case, scholars are divided on "the birthday question." Many experts hold that today is the most likely day, given the documentary evidence, including the most widely used and trusted modern general resource for research by specialists, intelligent inquirers, and everyone else too. The following graphic illustrates this position:

The first panel of Google's Beethoven Birthday diddly, for December 17. This is fun!

Others (including myself) prefer the more antique and persistent testimony that has dominated the literature for the past 60 years. We have based our case for December 16th firmly on the documentation of Schulz and Schroeder:

Note the date of 12/16 clearly indicated in the lower right corner.

The best way to solve the dispute, however, is simply to celebrate both days! That is what I think we will do here. Whether today or yesterday, Ludwig van Beethoven is now 245 years old.

Seriously, some who read my blog may not know that I am a trained musician and a music lover myself. I play the cello and the guitar. Circumstances of various kinds have prevented me from doing much lately with my own music, but recently I've begun to feel a desire to take up the instruments again. True, I said something like this two years ago and I have played very little since then. But, perhaps now it will be different....

Taking up music again would be positive sign that Depression might be moving into remission, somewhat.

'70s teenager JJ on a Yamaha FG-75 steel string acoustic guitar
My musical appreciation covers a large range of genres and categories, "from Bach to rock" ... which is to say a wide variety of classical and contemporary forms. I was first cellist in my high school orchestra and played electric guitar in a garage band while also composing my own instrumental pieces for classical guitar.

I still listen to many kinds of music and appreciate different genres according to analogous criteria. Beauty manifests itself in exalted and humble ways alike, in great symphonies and simple folk songs, and from the soaring cadences of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto to the "rattle and hum" of The Edge's guitar. The great masters are the tall majestic trees, but there is a whole forest of plants, flowers, vines, grasses, and peculiar weedy sprouts that can surprise us.

Along with the classics and the traditional music from different cultures, there is almost too much "popular music"--but it too can be appreciated with the discipline, discretion, and attention that respond adequately to reality as a whole. There are all the varieties of "electronic, amplified ensemble music"--I'm searching for a broader term for the most common music today, the stuff you find on iTunes, whether it's "pop" or "rock" or "indie" or "alternative" or "nu-this" or "post-that," as well as folk and roots music, bluegrass, film scores, electronica, world music, jazz, blues, gospel, choral, instrumental, etc.

Music fascinates me. Anything that makes sound can be brought into relation with corresponding sounds; these can be crafted by the marvelous powers of human intelligence and human aesthetic sensibility, discovering and shaping rhythm and harmony (and discord too) into an audible and resonant expression of beauty.

Okay, now that I have given a nod to everyone else and every other kind of music, I want to come back to Beethoven, because Beethoven will always be my favorite. And, anyway, it's his birthday[s].

Some of my earliest memories are listening to Beethoven symphonies with my Dad on "Hi-Fidelity" vinyl records. I owe my lifelong love for Beethoven to him. Thanks, Dad.

Oh wait... some of you are puzzled by words like "vinyl" and "Hi-Fidelity." We're talking about "records." You may have heard of CDs? These were kind of like CDs only bigger and... other things that I can't explain here. They looked like this:

Actually that's just the "label" in the middle. The whole record is the larger circle around it.

When I was a child, the interpretation of Beethoven was marked significantly by the towering musical figure of Arturo Toscanini, who emphasized conducting orchestral music in such a way as to attain the precise intent of the original composer as much as possible. Whether he succeeded in this project is a matter for debate, but his mid-century recordings are regarded as classic renditions in their own right of Beethoven's great Symphonies.

I didn't know any of that at the time. I just assumed we liked Toscanini because he was Italian.

Orchestral music remains my favorite, and the Symphony is a wonderful vehicle for working the full dynamic range and tone of an orchestral ensemble. Beethoven's nine Symphonies are milestones of the genre. I find it impossible to pick a single favorite. I suppose it's a tie between the fifth, the seventh, the third, the sixth, and the ninth.

But here's a record I remember vividly from my Dad's collection:

All those "Toscaninis" on one record cover. It was kind of mind blowing for a four year old kid. I don't know where this record is today (I got this image off the Internet). I have it somewhere. Or, Dad, do you still have it?

But the music... ah the music of the A major Symphony! The perfect way to celebrate Beethoven's 245th Birthday. And we don't need the record. All we need is a link to this famous 1951 performance, which I shall happily provide.

Click and enjoy: