Classical Lore -Beethoven

Beethoven was an amazing composer.  He was also rather arrogant, though history seems to have decided it was warranted.  Beethoven’s music is incredibly popular in the classical world, a popularity that began during his life time and has endured until today.  His music never really went out of style or was abandoned as earlier composers were.

Beethoven famously went deaf at an early age before he had written some of his masterpieces such as the Ninth Symphony.  In fact, there’s even a letter he wrote, the Heiligenstadt Testament, where he talks about his hearing loss and “his artistic destiny”.   He pioneered the Romantic style of music, ushering it in with his Eroica symphony, famously written in tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte until he realized he realized that maybe Bonaparte should no be memorialized in music.  Beethoven is beloved of both the casual listener and music theoreticians because he wrote great music.  He innovated.  He wrote some of the most recognizable melodies and themes in history.  Beethoven’s Sixth “Pastoral” Symphony is forever connected to dancing centaurs and flying horses because of Disney’s Fantasia.  In fact Fantasia used two of Beethoven’s pieces, the Sixth Symphony and the Fifth Symphony.  Beethoven’s Fifth is well-known in our culture that merely writing ba-ba-ba-Duuum, will have most of you singing or humming the opening theme.

So when you go to an orchestra concert, and there happens to be Beethoven on the program, first, the concert will probably have more attendance than any other night in the previous or coming weeks.  Second, if you’re at the concert, you’ll be listening more deeply than you probably ever do; completely without distraction and multitasking.  So take advantage of this unique experience by listening fully and paying attention.  This is not as easy as it sounds, so here are some tips.

  1. If you find yourself zoning out, watch the orchestra.  Try to find the horns when you hear them, watch the violins or cellos.  Humans are very visual, if you look at it, you’re more likely to pay attention to it.
  2. Follow the themes.  Beethoven has very clear themes and sections in his music.  Keep track of them, and pay attention to the changes when you hear them.   This music was written at a time when everyone knew the styles of classical music, they knew what was expected in the forms.  We don’t always, but paying attention to them will put you on your way to learning.
  3. It’s ok to not love it.  But do give it a chance.  His symphonies aren’t long by orchestral standards, (just wait until you first hear Mahler), though they are extremely long by modern pop music standards.  A Beethoven symphony will run about half an hour.  There will be 2 movements that are 10-15 minutes, and 2 that are 4-7 minutes.  This is not set in stone, some of the symphonies are a little longer, but this is generally it.

So give the orchestra a try, lose yourself in the music, the wash of sound.  Collectively experiencing music is part of the human experience and is extraordinary.

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