Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will or can there ever be another Beethoven?

I feel bad that I have been so inactive in the blogosphere/bloggernacle for so long. Being at grad school has been very busy. I've had many ideas for posts, however, and intend in the coming months to make up the backlog. Who knows...maybe somebody besides my wife will read this! Maybe, someday 100 years from now, a musicologist from Idaho will research me as part of their book "3 composers from Idaho and their music" (a century from now, titles will not be capitalized?) and they will read this post and think, "Ironic!" and "What's a bloggernacle?"

I remember reading a quote from Brahms in the controversial book 'talks with great composers' which purports to contain exact transcriptions of conversations held with 'great' composers in the late 1800s and early 1900s including Puccini, Brahms, and others. The book wasn't published until the 1940s, and many are still skeptical of its authenticity. The author's supposed reason for publishing a half a century after the interviews is that Brahms only agreed to talk to the author as a 'great' composer if the book was published fifty years after his death, and only if in that time Brahms' music had indeed proven to be truly 'great.' (perhaps Brahms was thinking of Bach's relative obscurity until the St. Matthew Passion was rediscovered in the early 1800s) (Besides a lack of situational details involving the various conversations, many people find the book suspicious in that every composer consistently pointed towards a higher (mostly Christian) power as their source of inspiration - I don't find anything wrong with that fact in itself, but I too am a bit skeptical that they all would have put it just as clearly as the author has them saying it!) I bring up this alleged comment from Brahms because it brings to the fore an issue that has haunted composers ever since one very great composer went very tragically deaf...
Ludwig van Beethoven. (1770-1827) The name is practically synonymous with "wild-haired slightly-crazy musical genius" ...or... "great composer." (Check out the wiki on him, the progression of portraits is pretty cool.) Many people don't realize that quite a few of the composers we now consider 'great' where not thought of as such in their lifetimes. Bach was primarily known as an organist (recording technology came several centuries too late to preserve that facet of his musical activity, and blogs yet a century later, thus denying us his thoughts on the subject!) Bartok was known as an ethnomusicologist. (He took advantage of new recording technology to make recordings of rapidly disappearing Eastern European folk music, ironically disappearing because of the widespread distribution of other music from around the world.) Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev, (all coincidently Russian, a nationality curiously well represented in the pantheon of 'great' composers) were known to the public as pianists as much as they were as composers. And in all eras before our modern one of rapid mass distribution, most composers were only known rather locally. Usually only in retrospect and reevaluation do composers come to be seen as the key figures of their generation, while other composers fall (often undeserving! (and often deservedly!)) into complete obscurity.

Bachk to Beethoven. It seems Ludwig was one of the first composers (along with Wolfgang) to begin to enjoy a truly widespread reputation in his lifetime. In fact, Beethoven could have been pretty sure that with the death of Mozart he was indisputably the greatest composer alive. Each new symphony was an event that was celebrated not only with gala concerts, but also with piano transcriptions. What's that? You see, while an orchestra may play the symphony in concert once a year, there was more market and exposure in chamber music. Putting it together, you have [great music + chamber arrangement = more music sales + more exposure for your music = more money + fame] The equivalent today would be getting your music on iTunes compared to having the sheet music sold at music stores. Yes, the later will bring in some money, but more people will download the track than will ever play it on the piano. In Ludwig's day, (still no recordings yet!) people would play chamber music much more often than they could attend a performance of an orchestra.

A popular chamber genre was the string quartet (cello, viola, and two violins) of which Beethoven left us with no less than 16 examples! In another move by him and his publisher, (the day's equivalent of a record label) he rewrote the final movement of his 13th string quartet, because it was thought the movement he had written would be too long. The rejected last movement was published on its own as 'Grosse Fuge' (Grand Fugue) and was probably one of the most complex pieces of music composed to date. It wasn't well received, being called 'repellent' and 'incomprehensible, like Chinese.' (Its reputation, however, has steadily improved since then, see the wiki on the Gro├če Fuge) In fact, all of the late quartets have a reputation for being masterful but quite imposing and esoteric works.

We come now to the tragedy. What? THE TRAGEDY! HUH? I SAID THE TRAGEDY! OF BEETHOVEN! Yes - Beethoven was transformed into a dog that traveled to the future and was featured playing piano, wreaking playful mischief and saving the day in a moderately successful but terribly acted series of children's movies. But long before that transcendent adventure, he also went deaf. This fact, as you can imagine, had a huge effect on his music. (What a pathetic understatement!) What do you do when your career and livelihood, your very purpose of being, the thing that makes you great, depends on making sounds that you cannot hear? Fortunately, Beethoven had several things going in his favor. One, he probably could hear the music, in his head. It's a skill that most musicians learn to some extent. Two, he didn't lose his hearing overnight (Though that has happened, check out Bedrich Smetana's First String Quartet which portrays his own overnight loss of hearing.) Third, Beethoven was dealing with what is sometimes called the 'common practice' of music, that is to say, everything they teach you in the first three semesters of college music theory. This was a generally accepted system of music making (often mislabeled as the 'rules' of music, as though they were the ten commandments) which had reached its apex in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven's own early works. Having gone deaf, Beethoven could still rely on this system of music to work in the expected ways, even though he couldn't hear the music played. So although he apocryphally could not hear when the orchestra had ceased playing (and had to be turned around to see the applause) he could still write music fully functionally.

If you think about it, shouldn't Beethoven's music have stayed just about as complex after losing his hearing as before? Perhaps even gone down in quality and complexity? After all, how could you progress and experiment with new ways of making music without hearing it? In fact, Beethoven's late works (such as the above mentioned string quartets or his famous Ninth Symphony) are some of his most complex, innovative and universally acclaimed works. Some of this innovation required more faculty of imagination than of hearing, as in his expansions and variations of traditional musical forms such as the sonata. But much of his late music takes common musical practice and stretches the boundaries of 'the rules' beyond anything his predecessors had tried.

Finally we come to the origin of this post. Today in composition seminar, one of my composition professors proposed the hypothetical question, "Can there ever be another Beethoven?" He went on to attribute Beethoven's greatness to the fact that Ludwig represented both the pinnacle and transcendence of the common musical practice of the time. That has set me thinking: Lacking a 'common practice' in our day, having already spent a century breaking every musical rule we know how (and making some decent music the process!) and inventing countless new systems of making music, how could another Beethoven-like figure ever arise? Or in other words, how could or even should a 21st century composer consolidate so many different and divergent musical worlds? And having done that impossible task, how could he conceivably transcend all of these worlds and make a music yet further beyond? Could a living or future composer ever even be in such a state where he could be universally acknowledged as 'the greatest composer who ever lived (so far)?'

My simple answer is yes. I do believe that there will yet be greater composers than Ludwig. In fact, I think that there already have been a number of composers far more skilled, genius and innovative than Beethoven. Truth be told, I personally have no particular love for much of Beethoven's music! But I don't deny his greatness. Rather, my issue is with the very question of 'greatness.'

Issue #1: Confusing innovation with greatness. Today's innovation is tomorrow's old school. Innovation for the sake of innovation (as far as music goes) is not what defines greatness in anybody's case, Beethoven included. As my wife hilariously put it, "Why does everyone think the way to 'fame' is breaking rules? They should think outside the box!" (I think the box in question is the one that says, "break rules!" not the one that says, "rules!") So, thinking outside the box: Perhaps something is missing in attributing Beethoven's greatness to the fact that he pushed against the music norms of his time. Most decent composers do, to some extent. It is the mediocre ones content to rehash old formulas, glad to have a reliable system of manufacturing music that doesn't depend so much on creativity and originality as on passable craftsmanship. Many film composers of today fall into this category. May they meet the fate of Beethoven's countless obscure contemporaries! I would posit that Beethoven's greatness lies rather more in his appeal. He appeals to musicians, who love to tackle the challenge of his music. He appeals to musicologists and composers, who love to unlock the genius of his musical structures. He appeals to concert audiences who would practically storm the gates if there weren't a Beethoven symphony or two (or at least a concerto!) on the schedule this season at the orchestra. He appeals to parents who beam proudly as their child hacks out the familiar notes of the melody to Fur Elise. He appealed to my younger self who would play the first movement of the so-called Moonlight Sonata anytime I felt melancholy. I would experience a musically induced catharsis that I have since come to experience from a much wider (and mostly more contemporary) range of music, including the music I now make myself.

There you have it: Appeal. Beethoven made music that was directly moving but also internally complex, all using the musical materials of his day. Now, is there any reason why there couldn't still be a composer who could make music of broad and direct appeal, but also music fitting the complexity of the age of super computers, music that draws on all the best innovations of the twentieth century to form an inexhaustible pallet of musical technique? Couldn't such a composer thereby transcend any music being written today? (In fact, if you read the little info portal under my portrait which has been up since this blog's creation, you will find that I harbor a not-so-secret goal to strive to make such music myself!)

Issue #2: Confusing innovation (and complexity!) with greatness. Beethoven can probably be blamed with setting off a sort of diagnosable 'composer complex' that has afflicted composers ever since. Namely, the idea that in order to be a great composer, you have to be some sort of meta-genius. You've got to advance the musical language of the day, show an inexhaustible turn of creativity and originality in musical materials and structures, and only look back to the past by way of saying, "I can outdo you!" This complex drives composers into a certain peculiar world-view in which it becomes easy to forget that the reason that the average person likes Beethoven isn't necessarily any of these things. Now, I don't mean to get down on my direct musical fathers, the Lutoslawski-s, Messiaen-s, Rautavaara-s, Takemitsu-s, Norgard-s or Schnittke-s of the last fifty years. For the most part it takes a pretty liberal concert audience to swallow their music, and probably best taken with a spoonful of Beethoven. Nor do I mean to belittle my direct musical grandfathers, the Copland-s, Stravinsky-s, Webern-s or Shostakovitch-s whose music has gained a little more acceptance (After all, they did start writing almost a century ago, for the most part!) but is nonetheless still as cutting edge as most concert goers ever care to stomach. I do believe that all of these composers made music of real appeal and undeniably ingenious design. There have been a number of composers over the last century who were brilliant 'innovators' with the materials of music. In fact, any more, a composer is less part of a definable style of composition (such as 'Baroque' 'Romantic' or 'Impressionistic') and is required to be more unique (again stemming from the Beethoven complex). Now, let's use the word complex in a different way: in terms of density and sophistication of musical structures and materials.
The very nature of this sort of world-view of music, that everything should be moving forward all the time beyond, beyond, beyond! begins to create a rift of appeal. For example, while the complex music of composers heavily involved in various manifestations of serial procedures (read: atonal music) may appeal to somebody, it is hard to think to whom, outside of other composers and those few dedicated to studying and performing such music. Milton Babbitt, one such composer who recently passed away, provocatively approached this subject in his essay, "who cares if you listen?" in which he likens advanced modern music to other disciplines such as physics. The average person, he says, would get little out of studying the doctoral or professional publications of modern physicists. Likewise, Babbitt suggests, a serial composer's musical pursuits are more involved in the advancement of the state of the art of music as a whole, and as such aren't even intended for the general public.

"WAIT! WHAT?" cries a deep down part of most people who have ever listened to music and really loved it. How can you say that there would be a valid music that nobody likes! What's the point? Well, the point is appeal. There are people out there who 'get a kick' out of Babbitt. Good thing for recording technology: now they have access not only to his obscure music but also to what may be the only performances there will ever be of some of it! There are even more people out there who enjoy the music of Boulez, or Ferneyhough, two living composers whose music is exceedingly complex (almost, you might say, excessively!) Now, I don't wish to draw a line in the sand about the validity of complex, innovative music. I merely wish to point out that by solely pursuing the end of 'latest, greatest' 'most innovative' and 'most complex', composers have naturally isolated many people, even many of those who love and go so far as to financially support the institutions of music, as well as many of those who have dedicated their lives to bringing to life the music of composers - classical musicians. Quite often, these musicians are content to play the music of the 'masters' because they followed 'the rules' and made music that is more immediately comprehensible (and is more likely to fill a concert hall!) It comes back to appeal. If we were to be honest with ourselves, even the 'great' composers of history - even Beethoven! - never really had truly universal adoration. If you think about it today, how many people could name more than a couple of pieces by Beethoven? How many have heard all nine of his symphonies or all 16 of his string quartets? (I don't think I even have!) Or even every movement of the Moonlight Sonata or Fifth Symphony? In reality, Beethoven's greatness has been distilled to our times in the form of "Beethoven's Greatest Hits." The average Johann on the street in his day would have had as little clue about Beethoven as the average Joe today. The truth is, Beethoven may be universally acclaimed as one of the greatest of composers, but to most people, what does that mean? That once a year they get "Ode to Joy" stuck in their heads for an hour after it was played in a TV commercial? This leads us to:

Issue #3: Confusing greatness. Perhaps the true underlying issue is that 'greatness', like 'appeal' is an extraordinarily relative term, especially with billions alive today, each with some kind of opinion about music. One side of the misunderstanding of the term is exactly what Brahms supposedly put his finger on: that greatness, as a concept applied to composers, only really works when you're dead. I mean, how can you really know how significant a person is to artistic history when they are standing in front of you with their old, bald head and rumpled jacket? It is much better to be gloriously dead for centuries, your music reaching out to millions, your deafness not a handicap but just another marvelous fact of your fabled life! Or, to take a more modern example: early in the twentieth century if you would have taken a poll of concert goers to see whose music they thought would define the twentieth century and still be around a hundred years from then, they would have been just as likely to guess correctly, IE: Stravinsky, Strauss, Ravel, Sibelius; as to be wrong: Myaskovsky, Kreisler, Ornstein or Antheil. (See the wiki for Myaskovsky, a Russian-Soviet composer who deserves to rank up there at least with Sibelius as a great post-romantic symphonist!) So it is that perhaps today we stand as much chance of predicting greatness as not.
Our culture doesn't help, either. This would be the other side of misunderstanding greatness. Our media driven music industry has one main focus: make money by getting artists famous. This automatically rules out modern 'classical' music, as it isn't lucrative. This financial end is accomplished in two main ways: One, manufacture the image of a star and then they will be seen as one (An already classic and imitated example: Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, cf: David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) irregardless of their musical prowess, or second, 'discover' talent and show the public how the new star has risen from their very own ranks (Such as Susan Boyle, who, though not a terrible singer, is not better than your average college educated vocal major.) So it is that in this musical [business] culture, being 'great' either means: somebody says they are great/wait, no they're not/yes they are/why is everybody talking about them/who cares? Everybody's talking about them! (a concept embodied and lived by Lady Gaga as revealed in the very title of her album Fame Monster) OR being great means: you rose about the crowd! Way to go!
I've already hinted at the ironic thing about this second cultural view of greatness. Greatness must necessarily be perceived in contrast to things which are not great. But the mistake is to say, "They have risen above mediocre! I see GENIUS! Aren't they amazing?" For example, last year there was a viral YouTube video of a young boy playing piano and singing a cover of Lady Gaga's Paparazzi. To say that it is amazing and wonderful to see this performance by a boy so young is an example of defining greatness as merely rising above the average: 'most kids his age can't do that, so therefore this boy is amazing.' If the same YouTube viewers would look a little harder, they could easily find any number of amazing performances of some of the world's greatest music by some of the world's greatest performers. But those videos, of course, never go viral. That's the irony - most people can respect genius, if they happen upon it. But they really don't care if they have too much to do with it. They want 'rise-above-ness', which is more immediately comprehensible and to which they can more easily relate. Who wants to watch a video of a performer play some stuffy, long, boring piece (no matter how sensitively or virtuosically ) when you could spend a few minutes watching a kid's truncated piano version of a song you know from the radio. 'Hey! That's the song from the radio, he's pretty good, isn't he, and so young too!' Somehow this gets back to Babbitt: everybody knows who Einstein is, but few really know anything about him except that he was a genius and had wild hair and stuck out his tongue in a picture which makes him, like, totally cool, I mean, like for a genius, you know?

The further irony is that there are possibly many composers breathing air right this second who are every bit as proficient and creative with the materials of music as Beethoven ever was. And it is not too early to say that in the last century there have been composers who were just as 'great' as if not greater than the old boy.

So in summation we have:
Everybody: "Beethoven is great!"
Philosophical Skeptics (who don't doubt Beethoven's greatness but must ask): "Says who?"
Everybody (exasperated): "Says everyone!"
History (embodied as a woman standing on a mountain of mankind's achievements): "Says the fact he's dead and has been for a long time!"
Musicologists and Composers: "Let his music speak for itself! See how he pushed against the norms of his time and wrote music of such depth of structure and creativity, thereby both culminating the Classical period of music and ushering in the Romantic Era!"
Mr. Joe Blackwell (who with his wife has held season tickets to the Utah Symphony for 40 years): "Well, I don't know about all that, but I do like a good rendition of a Beethoven Symphony. Powerful stuff!"
Mrs. Mary Blackwell: "Yes! Makes me cry every time I hear that Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony!"
A Chorus of Loyal Concert Goers: "Amen! For verily none of this modern music holdeth a candle to a single note of the Master! Amen!"
A Rare Relatively Musically Liberal Musician: "Well, hold on folks, you're forgetting that Brahms lived to the 1890s, Rachmaninoff to the 1940s, and Vaughn Williams to the 1950s! Aren't they also among your favorites? And their lifetimes nearly overlap yours!"
Chorus of LCGs with the Blackwells as soloists: "Oh! Yes! But of course their music is only successful insomuch as they did follow in the footsteps of the Master!"
RRML Musician joined by a Rare Relatively Liberal Music Lover (who owns quite a large collection of recordings): "Also, do not forget the music of the movies! Is it not moving? Is it not often dissonant and modern?"
Chorus and Blackwells: "Yes! But behold how in context the ear forgives these indiscretions!"
'Contemporary'/'Modern'/'Serious'/'Non-Vernacular'/'Art Music' Composers: "Indiscretions? Those movie composers are just hacks! They're pathetic, pale imitators! They wouldn't know what to do with modern musical techniques to save their lives!"
Musicologists, Blackwells, Chorus of LCGs, RRML Musician & Music Lover, with History Embodied as prominent soloist: "Who in the world are you?"
C/M/S/NV/AM Composers: "We carry the torch of Beethoven! We continue in his path of innovation and complexity! You might even find among our ranks a modern Beethoven! It doesn't matter that you haven't heard our music - just because you don't get it doesn't mean it isn't great! We are changing the art of music as you know it!"
A Great Multitude of the Billions of other People Comprising Everyone Except for Those Who Have Already Spoken Above (entering & filling the stage and aisles...and world): "Like a modern Beethoven, huh? Wild stuff! Say - have you seen the one where Greyson Chance sings Paparazzi? You'd like it since you're musical and stuff - he's good, for such a young age!"
Timothy Blackwell, grandson of the Blackwells (entering stage right and sitting at the piano, making several false starts on Fur Elise.): Look what I can do!
The Blackwells (with tears): "Oh, we love this one!"
Everyone: "Yes, isn't Beethoven great?"
Philosophical Skeptics (sotto voce as the crowd exits in every direction): "What is greatness?"

My dear Skeptics, its all relevant, and it all has to do with appeal.

Spokesman for Philosophical Skeptics: "But surely you just heard the cry as the world in unison declared Beethoven's greatness? Couldn't it be argued that he therefore has universal appeal?"

Are you actually arguing that point or are you just saying that so that you can later poke a philosophical puncture in that position?

S for P Skeptics: "Well called, and nice alliteration. Let us do take it for the sake of argument that Beethoven does have universal appeal. Let us then ask the question:"
All Philosophical Skeptics: "Will or can there ever be another Beethoven?"

I must hold out that appeal is relevant, meaning things to different people. I will concede 'universal' appeal if we mean that everyone can find at least something great in Beethoven's music. So, if by 'another Beethoven' you mean a genius composer who suffered tragically but nonetheless managed to create art of lasting and universal (for the sake of argument) appeal - yes, there could be another. Except, maybe he could do without the suffering part...

In fact, dear Skeptics, and dear everyone, consider this: That Beethoven was indeed a meta-genius (beyond genius), and that any composer wanting to surpass him would have to be a meta-meta-genius. (Poor composers with their Beethoven complexes!)

I support this position in my final argument:
Not only was Beethoven a certifiable genius, but he also exhibited something beyond genius which has transformed him from mere crazed genius to a figure of epochal relevance. Style? Good PR? Iconic hair? Perhaps the answer lies here: The youngest children and most musically illiterate people would recognize and respond to the music of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, even not knowing the title. "Bum bum bum BUM!" A musician could go on at length about how that single musical idea ties the piece together. A musicologist could go on for the length of a book about the cyclical nature of the symphony. Shostakovich, a century and a half later, would quote that musical motif in the cadenza of the Passacaglia of his Violin Concerto No. 1. Countless composers have taken inspiration in the passion of the music, the layering of the musical lines, the thematically compact musical structure. To each of these people, Beethoven's Fifth means something different, and most (if not all, you Skeptics!) would still readily admit that it is truly great music.

So can there be another Beethoven? Another composer who makes music which appeals to and is acclaimed by literally (nearly) absolutely (almost) everyone? From the most hard-core serial composer to the kid on iTunes searching for his identity through music? From conservative concert goers to fans of punk music? From Africa to Alaska? From children to adults? Music of satisfying and ingenious complexity, innovative with and yet cumulative of musical materials, but still music with direct emotional appeal?
Tall order!

Timothy Blackwell (quoting scripture in a sing song voice in a rhythm of Bum bum bum BUM): "With God all THINGS are pos-si-BULL!"

From the mouth of babes.


Lynnae Jackson said...

Just so you know, I read this. :) And I laughed at your summary dialogue. That was great.

Qait said...

Well, I got through it even with Ender being nutsy in the background. :) You DO need to blog more often, Michael.
It's neat to read a compact collection of your thoughts after our series of conversations; your brain is still just as complex as ever (oh no, that word!).
Now on to my true response: I agree, I loved it, I understand! "Greatness" is a topic I can't help but be very involved in--the incredible potential of you or even of me gives an almost violent tug at my heart when I consider its infinity. You (or a composer with your vision, shall we say) can become GREAT, in every sense of the word, because it is a human right (if approached correctly).
Maybe it seems silly of me to say that, but I insist it's true. If we're to be gods, we can access the godly (the GREAT) if we make the effort to strike the right passage of inspiration for our work.
You've said it much better than me in your post!
So this is simply my Amen.