RT on Chopin’s G minor Ballade

The whole Ballade is in effect a single magnificently sustained, ten-minute, 264-bar dramatic crescendo that continually gathers momentum from portentous introduction to cabaletta-like coda…. The piece shows him to have been capable of formal planning on a colossal scale few had attempted since Beethoven, however novel or sui generis the relationship of the constituent parts. (III, 369)


Notes on the Ninth

It’s not every day that you hear musicologists speaking on radio talk shows.

NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook did a show on Beethoven’s Ninth yesterday afternoon (with guest music historian Harvey Sachs) that is well worth checking out. Sachs recently published a new book on Beethoven’s controversial masterpiece that goes into some social detail about the 1824 debut of the work and what it meant in the context of the composer’s Vienna, a place that was rapidly turning into, as Sachs puts it, the “first modern police state.” Although Beethoven doesn’t have a lot to say on politics, it’s hard to discuss the “brotherly union” of the Ode to Joy without looking into the political and philosophical underpinnings of the composer’s massive symphony. The work has simply been used for too many purposes over the years to ignore it, a fact highlighted by audio clips from both Hitler’s birthday in 1942 and Bernstein conducting the Berlin phil on the occasion of the destruction of the Wall in 1990. Indeed, the Ninth is a Protean piece that can used to “mean” just about anything.

For all of its canonical power, Beethoven’s final symphony is a deeply ambiguous work. As Maynard Solomon points out in his 1986 article “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: A Search for Order,” the composer wanted us to search for grand meanings in his music; however, the codes he employs are simply too heterogeneous to be read in any one way. (This is evinced by the sheer number of explanations provided for the work over the years. It reminds me of what James Joyce said about Finnegans Wake – “I’ve written a book that will keep the scholars guessing for generations.”) The one thing people can agree on is the symphony’s unprecedented scope and extremity of expression, what Solomon calls its “profoundly modernist perspective.” Solomon adds that “Beethoven’s music sought to disrupt,” concluding that the disruptive force of the symphony and its irreconcilable ambiguities have allowed it to mean vastly different things to different people over the years.

Taruskin weighs in on Solomon’s argument in his 1989 article “Resisting the Ninth.” (This unique piece – well, not unique to RT – begins as a record review and spirals into a provocative meditation on the 9th symphony, only to return to the record in question at the end. It’s a tour de force of critical/scholarly amalgamation in the style of his Berkeley colleague Joseph Kerman.) Building on Solomon, RT argues that the “disruption” at the heart of the symphony presents us with something fundamentally dangerous – it promises sublimity and universal brotherhood, and if you believe yourself to be on the side of such Big Ideas (as did Hitler), then it can be used to justify anything. However, neuter the work of this potent danger and you risk neutering everything powerful (and historical) about it. Indeed, some modern conductors white wash the uncomfortable elements of the Ninth by eschewing the fundamental (and subversive) vagueness of the work by specifying every detail. This, in effect, “defangs the beast.” (It also destroys it.)

Solomon’s article can be downloaded here; for the Taruskin, go here.

Rossini vs. [your name here]

In chapter 1 of volume three, Taruskin goes a few rounds with the most popular form of musical entertainment of the early nineteenth century: opera. Right from the starting bell, Taruskin uses contrast as a way to cast his examples, pitting Beethoven’s lone opera against Rossini’s plethora of operas. I have organized the rest of the chapter in similar head to head battles below, with accompanying audio/visual examples. The point? Rossini can hold his own in the ring against pretty much anybody.

Rossini vs. Beethoven—Though Beethoven’s legend long overshadowed Rossini’s talent in the history books, Taruskin follows the recent trend of righting the imbalance. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. He tinkered with it for a decade and wrote no fewer than four overtures for it. Rossini, on the other hand, could write an opera almost in the time it took Beethoven to strap on his boots. He wrote his famous Barber of Seville in about three weeks, and its overture is reused wholesale from an earlier opera. These two arias capture well the widely contrasting roles that these two composers played for history. Rossini was Beethoven’s “great counterweight.”

Beethoven, Fidelio, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!”

Rossini, Barber of Seville, “Largo al Factotum”


Rossini vs. Paisiello—When Rossini wrote The Barber, he was not seizing on an open market. The play by Beaumarchais had already been set, and very successfully so, by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782.

Paisiello, Barber of Seville, Overture

Rossini, Barber of Seville, Overture


Rossini vs. Rossini—Composers take on their own brand identity to history. Or should I say historians and critics often apply brand-like characteristics to composers. For instance, Mozart is the precocious melodist, Beethoven is the isolated genius, and Stravinsky is the couture modernist. Rossini’s brand is typically informed by his comedies, for which he is best known today, and the excerpt below from L’Italiana in Algeri is representative (can you count how many times they sing “bum bum”?). But in his own day, Rossini was equally known as a composer of serious opera. “Di tanti palpiti,” from his 1913 opera Tancredi, was the most famous aria he ever wrote. These serious operas were a continuation of 18th century seria conventions, not a part of the “innovative” buffa scene, and that is perhaps why they have not been as well remembered.

Rossini, L’Italiana in Algieri, Act I Finale

Rossini, Tancredi, “Di Tanti Palpiti” (The cabaletta of the title starts at 4:28)


Rossini vs. Bellini and Donizetti—Even though Rossini retired at a young age (and then ate his way through the rest of his life), there were plenty of whippersnappers ready to pick up where he left off. He lived long enough to witness the furor and popularity of both Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti’s careers. Below are two of their most famous scenes: “Casta Diva” is the quintessential example of the bel canto style, and Donizetti’s Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor became an example that every mad scene that followed—and there were many—tried to live up to.

Bellini,  Norma, “Casta Diva”

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Mad Scene

Wellington’s Victory over Volume II

Accompanied by the rousing flourishes of Beethoven’s oft-maligned Wellington’s Victory, it is with great Freude that we announce the commencement of Volume III! We’re starting into the next volume right as the school year ends (coincidence?), so expect another couple posts on Vol. II as we digest the incredibly rich last couple chapters without the distraction of papers to write and assignments to grade.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never actually heard Wellington’s Victory until now. I’ve heard how awful and un-Beethovenian it is, of course, but I’ve never given it a listen. It’s true, the piece has gotten a bad rap over the years. This is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century); even the usually even-handed (with ironic quotes?) RT describes it as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap” (II, 672). Indeed, Wellington’s Victory (1813) has become the quintessential reminder that genius composers can produce tripe too.

But are we being fair in this assessment? It’s hard to deny the “noisiness” of the piece, as well as the sappiness of the fugal rendition of “God Save the King” (1:46); this sort of thing sounds like a bad medley for high school band. But Beethoven wasn’t writing his “Battle Symphony” for posterity. Rather, it’s the product of a commission, an unabashed appeal to popularity and the burgeoning market principle, an “early fruit of musical capitalism.” Wellington’s Victory is undeniably a piece of “use” music, in other words; it was not written to be silently contemplated, like his more sublime symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. It is calculated to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and on that count, the piece is (and was) a success. Compared to the Ninth, of course Wellington’s Victory leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of “autonomous musical art.” But autonomous musical art this was not.

Beethoven’s Watchful Eyes

Our new header is a detail from a portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler (1820). His penetrating eyes, steely scowl, and tempest of a hairdo all contribute to the larger than life, struggling Romantic hero persona that became so legendary and influential. The dark colored suit on dark wilderness background (Beethoven often took long walks in the woods) make his face (framed by the bright white collar), hands, and manuscript more prominent, while the red scarf forms a direct link from head to music, by way of the heart. Solemnis indeed.

And here is the “Kyrie” from the piece of music that Beethoven holds in his hands: