In the crowded field of Beethoven biographies, any
addition to this body of literature must be outstanding in order to merit our
attention. Composer and historian Jan Swafford’s, Beethoven - Anguish and Triumph, a mammoth new biography of the
composer, warrants the effort of our careful study and thought. Casual readers
should stay away from this thick volume, but those with a desire to deepen
their understanding of this iconic figure would find their efforts amply
Written in the spirit of Thayer’s voluminous Life of Beethoven, Swafford succeeded in
giving us as complete a portrait of the composer as history allows us,
separating the facts from the myths and legends that had been building up
during the composer’s life and, especially, after his death.
Born into a Europe still reeling from the spirit and
atmosphere of the Sturm und Drang
movement, one that created the period that came to be called Romantic. Swafford
stresses quite emphatically that Beethoven, from the earliest days, was a
pianist rather than a harpsichordist. Beethoven himself gave conflicting
reports of whether he heard Mozart play. If he did, he had only one comment
about Mozart’s playing, “He had a fine but choppy way of playing – no legato”, which
is interesting (if true) considering, Mozart’s own admonition that his music
should be played “like oil”.
When he was almost twenty-two, Beethoven left Bonn for
Vienna, the musical capital of Europe then as now, to study under the great
Haydn. Emperor Franz II, conservative and fearful of change, had made Vienna a
virtual police state. The police, however, could find no grounds to censor
instrumental music, and music thus became the one thing in which the nobility
and the aristocrats show their good taste. From the beginning, there was no
love-loss between Beethoven and the Viennese. Yet, Vienna was to be the home
for him for his professional, a place where he was to find fame and, to a
lesser extent, fortune. Throughout his life, he would think of Bonn as his true
Swafford details Beethoven’s relationship with his many
admirers and patrons, friends, colleagues, and love interests, many whose names
are known to us only because of their association with certain works of
Beethoven. Beethoven’s life was his work, his composition, and Swafford’s
narration certainly centers around the evolution of Beethoven as composer. The
author gives us quite detailed analysis of certain landmark works, the Missa Solemnis and the Symphony No. 9 each receiving its own
What makes intriguing reading is the author’s discussion
of the psychology behind discussion
of the structural, motivic (crucial in understanding Beethoven’s work),
harmonic, and key-relationship of many compositions, as well as the importance
and meaning of certain keys in Beethoven’s works. In the appendix, there is a
section titled “Beethoven’s Musical Forms”, with explanations of the technical
names mentioned in the text. All this makes for fascinating but certainly not
According to Swafford, Beethoven also had a very complex relationship
with Joseph Haydn. Many biographers had stated that Beethoven began studies
with Haydn, but that the two had a falling out with each other. We can all see
and hear the unmistakable influence Haydn’s music had on the younger composer.
Beethoven’s formal lessons with Haydn only lasted until 1793, but “there would
be contacts and consulting between them in the coming years, and now and then
they appeared in concerts together.” Never was there a formal break between the
two. Haydn had been patient and generous with Beethoven, and Beethoven was
circumspect enough not to openly insult the foremost composer of Europe. Haydn
even took Beethoven to Esterházy
Palace to introduce this young talent to his former employer. When Haydn heard
the premiere of the 24-year old Beethoven’s fiery C Minor Trio, he “had to
sense that he was the past and this youth was the future.”
Beethoven was often jealous of Haydn’s great success and
the adulation he receives. Haydn’s anthem, God
Protect Franz the Kaiser, was so successful that it became the unofficial
Austrian national anthem. The fact that “Haydn and not Beethoven had written
such an anthem would burn in him until his own last years.” Beethoven admired
and was influenced by Haydn’s The Creation, but it wasn’t until Haydn’s death
in 1809 that Beethoven, knowing that he “was the only peer of Haydn alive,”
begins to speak with unreserved admiration of Haydn.
No biography of Beethoven would be complete without a
discussion of the possible identity of the “immortal beloved.” Swafford did not
suggest any one woman to be the chosen one, but gives us the evidence
available. Like a medieval knight with his idea of courtly love, Beethoven
idolizes certain women in his life, mostly young and beautiful piano students
from a much higher social class than a freelance composer and pianist. All but
one of these attempts would end in rejection and bitterness (on his part),
either by the lady herself or by her family.
In some ways, Beethoven’s relationship with women is
similar to his dealings with those around him – friends, patrons, and family,
especially his problematic nephew Karl, the one person who gave him no end of
grief in his later years. Swafford discusses Beethoven’s solipsism, his
complete inability to deal with the world beyond music, often with disastrous
consequences. I feel that perhaps Leonore, the heroine of his opera Fidelio, represents an idea of his ideal woman – utterly loyal,
and willing to risk even her own life to rescue her husband from the clutches
of evil. What woman can measure up to that?
It is an amazing fact that in spite of all his
difficulties, Beethoven attained success quite early on and maintained his
popularity with the fickle Viennese. With the writings of E. T. A. Hoffman,
early music theorist Adolph Bernhard Marx, and Franz Grillparzer, Beethoven
becomes, after his death, a towering figure, a Romantic demigod, and a myth,
one that persists to this day.
In his wonderfully readable book, Jan Swafford has
successfully given us a picture of the man behind the myth, certainly the man
behind the music. As with most great men, Beethoven was neither angel nor
demon, but a man who had given us some of the most moving, passionate, and soul-stirring
music of any time.
At the end of the book, I realized that even in this
crowded field of Beethoven biographies, we must make room on our shelves for
this one magnificent volume.
Nationalism, a sense of pride in one’s
heritage, art, music, and literature, has been the impetus for not only
political movements, such as the unification of Italy and Germany, but the
inspiration for many of our greatest artistic works. Of course, the spirit of
nationalism has, in various times in history, been used as excuses for some of
the most grievous crimes against humanity.
In music, nationalistic movements in one
form or another, came to a fore in the middle to late 19th century,
in many cases as a reaction to the dominance of Austro-Germanic composers.
Composers such as Dvorak, took the rules and forms laid down by “foreign”
composers, to create music that has a uniquely Czech voice and identity. There
were also composers who rejected, or tried hard to reject, any influence of
established forms and styles, who tried to create works of art unique to their
cultural heritage, free from any foreign influence.
Music historian Stephen Walsh’s new book,
Musorgsky and His Circle, A Russian
Musical Adventure, is part social history, part musicology, and part
biography. Namely, he chronicles the development of Russian art music from
Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomïzhsky, to the focus of his book, the work
of the circle of composers known in the West as The Five, and ends with a
discussion of its influence on subsequent Russian and Soviet composers. Within
Walsh’s book, there are also detailed discussion and analysis of the works of
these composers. It is an ambitious undertaking, and the result is a book that
is not meant for casual reading, but detailed study.
The term, commonly known as the Five, is
also referred to as the Mighty Little Heap (moguchaya
kuchka), is a group of composers that include Mily Balakirev, César Cui,
Alexander Borodin, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Musorgsky, the most
important figure in the group, according to the author. The circle could be extended
to include Vladimir Stasov, a lawyer-critic who served as inspiration and
advisor for the composers and chronicler of Russian art and music, and
Alexander Serov, a some-time composer, but one of the most feared music critic
in St. Petersburg.
Walsh takes his reader through the
relationships between these composers, how their friendships and alliances were
formed, and broken. These composers, none of which had formal training in
composition, played their works for each other, supported each other’s creative
endeavours, and provided each other with ideas for creative projects. On the
other hand, they were also marked by violent disagreements, professional
jealousy and envy, and sometimes betrayal, and would vehemently reject any work
or composer whose works or associations do not fit within their musical and
aesthetic ideas. In many ways, César Cui, perhaps the least talented and most
small-minded of the group, could be scathing in his critique of works of
friends or enemies. By the 1870’s, when members of the circle were all involved
with their own projects, the identity of the group had already begun to blur.
Battle lines were most clearly drawn
between the Five, and pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein. By the mid 19th
century, Rubinstein, who came from a family of converted Jews, was already
famous throughout Western Europe as a touring virtuoso. In 1855, Rubinstein
published in a Viennese music journal an article, “The Composers of Russia”,
that was widely read in St. Petersburg. The article was a genuine attempt by
Rubinstein to introduce European music lovers to the musical scene in Russia.
The composers of the Five, however, objected to Rubinstein’s statement that he
finds in Russian folk song, in spite of its distinctiveness, “a persistent
lugubriousness and melancholy that infect every aspect of its melody and
rhythm.” To use such material for an entire opera, says Rubinstein, would be
“scarcely endurable, especially for foreign audiences”. To Glinka, composer of
the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, as well as to the
composers of the Five, it was a declaration of war. The Five was also stung by
Rubinstein’s statement that anyone who “writes a single romance, however
primitive and inept… can call himself a composer”, even though Rubinstein never
specifically named any one person.
The response of the Five, as well as
critic Vladimir Stasov, also reflects the latent anti-Semitism of Russian
society at the time. Echoing Wagner’s infamous Judaism in Music, Stasov states that Jews (even a converted one
like Rubinstein), while acquainted with European languages and culture, are not
capable of anything but “a superficial understanding of their inner workings.”
What Rubinstein refers to as amateurism, Stasov adds, is actually a “natural
Russian distaste for the stultifying effects of Western academicism.” Verbal
battles were fought between Rubinstein’s Russian Musical Society (RMS) and the
St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Free Music School (FMS), an organization
that reflects the philosophy of the Five.
Although battle lines were drawn between
the two parties, things were not quite so clear-cut. Rubinstein’s RMS,
generously, one might add, regularly presented works of the Five, as well as
musical works of Western European composers. When Rubinstein resigned as
director of the conservatory and as conductor of the RMS, the board of the
society was in favour of appointing Balakirev to conduct the concerts in the
coming season. It was only when Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna (patroness of
Rubinstein and the RMS) vetoed their choice that Balakirev had to share the
podium with Hector Berlioz. In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to be the
director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Some members of the Five
considered this a betrayal. Musorgsky writes, “Artistic truth can’t tolerate
predetermined forms” as a jibe to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “defection” to academia.
Such is the background against which
composers of the Five were operating. Walsh covers a lot of ground in his book,
detailing the chronology of each composer’s major compositional efforts, large
and small – Cui’s many efforts at writing operas, Musorgsky’s chronology of
writing Night on Bald Mountain, and
the many revisions of Boris Godunov,
as well as his efforts at Khovanshchina,
and Borodin’s efforts at Prince Igor,
to name just a few examples. The discussions always center around Musorgsky,
perhaps because of the five composers, he was “the most inclined to ignore the
normal rules and procedures of textbook composition” and the most
Other than the relative handful of compositions
that has become part of our musical canon – Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and Prince
Igor, Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures from an Exhibition, Balakirev’s
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol,
Sheherazade, and Russian Easter Festival Overture (all written late in the composer’s
life) – audiences outside of Russia, except perhaps the most ardent Russophile,
would most likely be unfamiliar with many of the composers’ other works.
Were composers of the Five “geniuses”?
Perhaps not, not in the sense of Schubert or Mozart or Beethoven, in whose music
one finds a sense of inevitability, both in their conception and progression. This
group of five men, as much as they loved music, really treated music as,
forgive the use of the word, hobby. They would begin a work with great enthusiasm,
but would then leave it for days or months or years, because of their other
professional or personal commitments, or because they simply lost interest in
While it is all too easy to dismiss the
other efforts of the Five as mere dabbling by amateurs, we should be reminded that
the history of Russian and Soviet music would be very different without their
pioneering efforts. In the penultimate chapter of the book – Heirs and Rebels – Walsh discusses the
legacy and influences of the group. According to the author, we can find in
works of composers as diverse as Debussy, Janáček, Stravinsky (a private pupil
of Rimsky’s), and Shostakovich, influences of composers of the Five.
After the work on Russian music history
by Richard Taruskin (acknowledged by the author throughout his volume), Stephen
Walsh has done a real service here, and has done a balanced, fair-minded,
English language study of this watershed period in Russian music history. As
Walsh points out, some of the studies of the Five carried out during the Soviet
era were subjected to interpretation that suits the socialist reality of the
time. Even with the detailed musical analysis that filled many pages (fascinating
reading in their own right), I do find this book quite an engrossing read, and
had learnt much from it. The cultural milieu of Russia at the time, vignettes
of the lives of the five composers, their interactions with each other at
various stages in their lives, and their struggling to write music in spite of
their “day jobs” and other commitments, make the volume a very interesting one
to read. I am certainly grateful to Walsh for filling in gaps in my knowledge of
this fascinating period in European art music.
First encounters are often sweet. My first encounter this
afternoon with Paul Lewis and the Vertavo String Quartet was delicious. I had
heard a great deal about pianist Paul Lewis, since he had previously graced our
stages on many occasions, but this was my first experience hearing him. Lewis
appeared in Vancouver today in a programme of chamber music with the young
Vertavo String Quartet, formed in Norway in 1984. There is a special connection
between Paul Lewis and the quartet, as he is married to cellist Bjørg Lewis of
The programme began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, in the composer’s own
arrangement for string quartet and piano. Originally scored for orchestra, with
the usual complement of strings, with two oboes and two horns, Mozart probably
arranged the work for a smaller performing force to make the score more
marketable. Composers, from Mozart to Chopin to Debussy, often rescore their
works for smaller ensembles to make performances of their works easier in terms
of “manpower” required.
Even with the placement of the piano behind the quartet,
the music still points to the piano as a solo instrument, rather than part of
the sound picture in a piano quintet. Lewis’s playing of Mozart is dainty or
pretty, but rather virile, bold, and colourful, without being heavy-handed. The
Vertavo provided a beautiful ensemble support for the soloist, and produced a
performance that started the concert in a sunny mood.
The quartet alone then gave us an incredible performance of
Bela Bartok’s late masterpiece, the String
Quartet no. 6. Written in four movements, each movement begins with a short
slow section marked mesto (sad). The
pervading sadness that permeates the music is a reflection of the composer’s
mood at the time, with the death of his mother, his own failing health, and the
outbreak of World War II. In the first movement, Berit Cardas’s magnificent and
deeply felt playing of the mournful solo opening particularly moved me. As much
as I enjoyed hearing the quartet as a whole, Cardas’s was the sound that
remained in my ears long after the performance was over. In the second
movement, Bjørg Lewis’s playing of the solo that opens the movement was also
memorable. From the first note to last, the performance and ensemble were
flawless. The playing of the third movement, the violent, almost savage Burletta, was simply stunning. The music
of the fourth movement is beautiful, elegiac and reflective, and the quartet
delivered all those qualities in their performance. At the end, the music
simply dies away, like the last soft breath of a dying man.
The mood of the concert turned sunny again after the
interval, with a delightful performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, B.
155. In the Mozart concerto that opened
the concert, the audience’s attention was always directed toward the soloist.
In the Dvorak, the piano sound is melted into and became part of the ensemble’s
welter of sound. Paul and Bjørg Lewis played the opening of the first movement,
one of the composer’s most enchanting melodies, simply exquisitely. When first violinist Øyvor Volle took up the
same melody, her sound matched the beauty of Lewis’s cello solo. I thought that
Paul Lewis played the main theme of the second movement a little too aggressively,
thus robbing it a little of its melancholic charm. That really is my only minor
quibble of the entire performance. The musicians delivered the scherzo
movement, marked furiant, with
vigour, but also with a Mendelssohnian lightness that was quite infectious. The
performance of the final movement was one of unrelenting energy, like a molto perpetuo, but retaining the
lightness that the music also calls for.
I was grateful finally to have heard Paul Lewis in
Vancouver, and encountering the Vertavo String Quartet. Mr. Lewis will be
performing again later on this season, and I am very much looking forward to
that. But I also hope that there will be many more opportunities for Vancouver
to hear the Vertavo Quartet on our stages.
I attended the October 17th
performance of the Vancouver Chamber Choir with great anticipation. The concert
was billed as “High Renaissance – The Golden Age of Choral Music”, with music
by, among others, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, some of my
favourite composers from the period.
The concert opened with Byrd’s Sing joyfully to God, an anthem for the
publically sanctioned Anglican Church, and a setting of Ave verum corpus, written for services in the composer’s own
Catholic faith. The twenty-five voices of the Vancouver Chamber Choir were
joined in this work by FOCUS! Singers, made up of students from music schools throughout
the lower mainland.
William Byrd’s compositional genius
was so great that his Anglican masters (mostly) turned a blind eye to his
refusal to give up the Catholic faith. Because the work was written for clandestine
Catholic worship, I would venture a guess that Ave verum corpus was written for small performing forces, perhaps even
one singer per voice part. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear both works,
diametrically opposite in atmosphere and feeling, performed with great
musicality by a full complement of voices.
Appropriately, the programme
continued with Palestrina’s setting of Stabat
Mater dolorosa, a poetic depiction of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the
cross, as well as an intercessory prayer to the Holy Mother and Jesus Christ.
Palestrina’s compositional style was influenced by the precepts of the Council
of Trent, which stated that sacred music should be reverential, simple, and
that the words sung should always be clearly audible. There is, as stated in
the programme notes, a “simple nobility of musical language” in the work, which
the choir (without the aid of FOCUS! Singers) sang with great feeling and musicality.
Throughout the concert, conductor John Washburn did a wonderful job of blending
the voices of the choir, made up of professional singers, soloists in the own
right, into a beautiful vocal ensemble.
The first half of the concert ended
with Thomas Tallis’ setting of The
Lamentations of Jeremiah. Like Byrd, Tallis was an avowed Roman Catholic
that prospered in Anglican England. Tallis’s music was more complex,
contrapuntally as well as harmonically, than that of Byrd and Palestrina. I
could not help wonder about Tallis’s mindset when setting words like
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people…
Judah has gone into exile, after affliction and
Her foes have become her master…
Her children have gone into exile.
Did he write this music, using
“safe” biblical verses, as a veiled protest to the persecution of Catholics in
England? Again, the choir acquitted itself admirably, and sang beautifully this
extensive and heartfelt work.
The choir continued its programme in
the second half with Claudio Monteverdi’s poignant setting of Lagrime d’Amante al Sepolcro dell’ Amata,
inspired (as the excellent notes tell us) by the death of a beautiful and
talented singer who was a student of his. Although the notes refer to this work
as a Baroque madrigal, I felt that it was musically and stylistically closer to
the Renaissance works that were sung in the first half. It is no accident that
Monteverdi is the father of Italian opera, for the work here is musically
varied and intensely dramatic. Once again, the choir rose to the challenges of
Monteverdi’s difficult. There was, in the louder passages of the work,
shrillness, perhaps an edge, in the sound of the sopranos that marred this
otherwise immaculate performance.
The choir returned to the religious atmosphere
with the last two works of the concert. Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus, with its brief text taken from the Credo of the Catholic Mass (“He was crucified also for us, suffered
under Pontius Pilate and was buried”), is an amazingly intense, stark and beautiful
work, with beautiful dissonances and very sensitive text setting. For me this
brief work was a discovery and the highlight of the evening.
The programme ended with Tomás de
Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni,
words spoken by the Virgin Mary in response to the Angel Gabriel’s
Annunciation, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. I had not even heard of the names
of these last two composers, and was very grateful for the discovery. The
composer obviously felt drawn to the words of the Magnificat, since he wrote no less than 18 musical settings to it.
Other than the one soprano voice that unfortunately stood out from the sound of
the choir, the concert ended on a joyful note with this lovely performance.
In this Fall season, with Winter
just around the corner, we can be thankful that we can draw inspiration from
such life-affirming words and music.