Me, Dances With Scherzo

It’s somewhat disturbing how critical reviews lack the relevant research, or references, often required to speak authoritatively about particular works. The results tend to be meaningless, gerund-ridden, adjective-laden fluff. Immediately, this comes to mind.

I was delighted, however, to come across this review by Tom Strini, who actually used a little analysis, albeit someone else’s, to shed some light on the mysteries of Beethoven’s First Symphony. The only problem here is that he attempts to translate the analysis for the average reader, which becomes intolerably insulting.

Musicologist Elaine Sisman [...] argues that Beethoven advanced a particular agenda in this symphony: He [sic] wanted to climb aboard the same pedestal as Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven did not choose the key of C major by accident. C was the key of the fanfare, of the declarative and robust. The “Jupiter” Symphony, Mozart’s 41st, final and most famous, is in C. So is Haydn’s Symphony No. 97, one of his best-known [sic] then and now.

Sisman believes Beethoven modeled his symphony on those two works. She cites the similar Mozart/Beethoven harmonic plans in their first-movement development sections, and she notes that both placed peculiar digressions into miasmic, tonally unstable minor mode [sic] between the second theme and the closing theme.

I have a couple of problems with Sisman’s assertions, but nothing major. Now, for us music illiterates, take it away Strini!

That sounds a little technical, but if you hear the piece this weekend, the creepiness of these passages will explain just what Sisman means.

One, the Milwaukee Symphony only played the Beethoven, not the Mozart. So I think it would have been extremely difficult to listen to both of the passages at the concert. Two, Sisman’s analysis wasn’t all that technical, if you ask me; all you needed to get was that there are structural similarities, particularly harmonic similarities, between the two opening movements’ middle sections. Three, how on this good, green Earth, if you actually had been able to compare the development sections, could a sense of “creepiness” confirm Sisman’s thesis? I mean, there’s Tom Cruise creepy; and then there’s Mel Gibson creepy.

She believes that both Mozart and Beethoven alluded to genre music from “ombra,” opera scenes among ghosts or in the underworld.

That could be creepy, I’ll admit. But I don’t understand how similar harmonic plans translate to creepiness. Could you please elaborate for me?

The ombra effect in the First Symphony is arresting, and foretells even spookier things to come in later symphonies.

It’s... eye-catching? That’s why it’s creepy? That’s how they’re similar? Beethoven gets creepier?

So much for that. Maybe Papa Haydn can teach us something.

One of Beethoven’s most striking effects in the First Symphony comes at the very beginning. He starts with a C7 chord; the B-flat within it is alien to C major and points to the key of F.

I’ll buy that. But, does this have something to do with how Beethoven tried to attain Mozartean or Haydnian status?

Beethoven feints tentatively toward this key and that, through 12 long, slow bars of introduction. He gives us a C chord in measure 8, but it doesn’t really feel like home.

So no. Thanks for the info. (sigh) Go on, then.

Finally, at the end of measure 12,

I’m starting to dislike how Strini never spells-out a number. My problem, I guess. Go on.

... the strings tumble into a root-position C, firmly establish the home key, tear off at a break-neck tempo and change the mood decisively.

I once wet my pants during first-grade square dancing. Naturally, I wanted to hide it; so, I remained seated on the floor. But that wicked, wicked teacher made me get up and dance. Boy was that embarrassing. My jeans were several shades darker than they once were. The girl with whom I was partnered squealed with disgust. Oh boy, here it comes; I thought to myself, “Jesus shit-Christ.” Of course, she pointed and laughed. By the time the whole class was rolling on the floor laughing at me, the teacher had grabbed me by the arm and whisked me away to the bathroom to clean up. I, too, can change the mood decisively.

Go on.

The moment is astonishing,

(unenthusiastically) Why?

... all the more so, because that C in measure 13 both supplies the relief of long-delayed resolution and launches an entirely new impulse.

I’m beginning to think that the whole I-researched-some-stuff-and-want-share-it-with-you thing is the wrong approach. Besides, whatever happened to his girlfriend, Sisman? What happened to Beethoven striving for things? Or copying people?

... Strini? Hello?

The harmony is Beethoven’s technical means for creating the kind of Eureka moment that anyone, musically literate or not, can understand.

Just a retranslation here: anyone can understand Beethoven’s “I Found It!” moments, because of the harmony. Okay. So what about the harmony? Is it the same harmony that he stole from Mozart’s developments? Or was it referring to the harmony in just the first thirteen measures?
I’m confused. I don’t understand why Strini said that. By correlate, would Mozart’s harmonies also create “Eureka?” moments anyone could... I don’t know.

I better let Strini explain this one.

In subsequent works...

We’re not talking about subsequent works! Are we? I thought this was about the First Symphony, or Tom Cruise vs. Mel Gibson creepiness.

... Beethoven often elaborated on the notion of feeling toward a tonality, as if for a handhold on a fog-shrouded cliff.

Whoa! Hold up a minute. The notion of feeling-toward-a-tonality? Or the notion of feeling, toward a tonality? ...!?!?!?... Beethoven is on a cliff? He’s scaling a cliff? How can he elaborate on scaling a cliff? Is it a tall cliff?

It’s almost characteristic of his style,

So it only seems like he’s scaling a cliff.

culminating in the opening of the Ninth Symphony.

But he is scaling a cliff, with his feelings, toward a notion of tonality, which is almost what he does, and then did. (cries alone in a corner, which is like a cliff, of feeling, shrouded in fog)

But Beethoven did not invent it.

(wipes tears from face, goes back to Journal Sentinel Arts page)

The scaling a cliff part, (sniffle) or the “I found it!” part?

Sisman points out that Haydn opened his Symphony No. 97...

Also known as the “Fat Friend Who Makes You Look Better” Symphony.

...with a slow, off-tonic, introduction.

So Beethoven lifted more material. First he stole Mozart’s development, and creepiness; now, he’s stealing introductions from Papa Haydn. What a hack!

Haydn reused the chord progression of the introduction later in the first movement, and Beethoven followed suit.

What an unoriginal, glass-eyed hack! I hope he didn’t also steal sonata form, or minuet form, or scherzo form, or rondo... What’s that? He did? Jerk.

Did Beethoven consciously model his First Symphony on Mozart and Haydn?

Ah, finally, the point emerges.

Sisman thinks he took his cues from the “Jupiter” and the 97th to honor Mozart and Haydn, to announce his place in their tradition...

Beethoven on a rooftop, naked: “You hear that, world! I am asserting myself in a tradition! Take that!”

... and to exercise some one-upmanship.

That must’ve been why he “borrowed” heavily from those cherry-picked symphonies. How does he exercise it? The one-upmanship?

The one-upmanship lies in part...

Listen carefully, composers. You may, one day, want to assert yourself in a tradition and get your one-upmanship. This is exactly how to do it.

... in Beethoven’s tremendous forward drive,

You hear that? Forward drive.

... with a daring, banging tympani part, springy dotted rhythms and on-the-fly antiphonal exchanges between winds and strings.

Got all that? Good. What else?

Beethoven labels his third movement with the traditional “Minuet,” but it is nonetheless a wild, rollicking scherzo.

You were right, he did steal the scherzo. That bum.

He really challenges the wind players; the First Symphony is almost as much band music as orchestra music.

Beethoven really showed Mozart and Haydn good.

Some early critics complained about its explosiveness.

Or did he?

Still, he was extending a tradition, not blowing it up.

So, extending a tradition equals one-upmanship. Air-tight logic, there. I won’t touch it.

Beethoven demonstrates an absolute grasp of the techniques and strategies of his forbears [sic], in his key plans, in his classical structural proportions, in melodic materials that are contrasting but compatible, and in his uncanny economy of means.

You, Forbears. Me, Dances with Scherzo. [Sorry. I have no real complaint. I just don't like that word.]

I know it’s been a while, but I don’t remember discussing classical structural proportions. Nor do I remember talking about contrasting melodic materials and their compatibility. Oh, yeah. I also don’t remember anything about Beethoven’s uncanny economy of means.

This is getting silly. Seriously, this is what the article sounds like:

Beethoven is interesting. He wanted to be really good. Sisman says that he may have borrowed things from Mozart and Haydn to do that. She also says that he borrowed a creepy thing from opera. The first few measures are pretty cool. Later, he scaled cliffs in the fog. Hadyn did cool things, first. But Beethoven really, really wanted to be good. So he made his pieces with forward drive. He also used other techniques that he learned from his Four Bears, but I don’t want to talk about them.

Am I really all that far-off?

Beethoven was willful, and this music sounds willful.


But very little in the First Symphony is arbitrary, even when Beethoven recomposes a recapitulation or sees to a bit of developmental unfinished business by enlarging a coda.

On the other hand, I dislike ice cream on cold days. I remember once I had some ice cream on a cold day and the record store was closed. And Mom wouldn’t allow us to come inside until Dad mowed the lawn. But the Civil War escalated beyond the point of zero French involvement.

We didn’t talk about any of this. Ever. Ever. ...!??!?!...

(goes back to corner, curls up, eyes redden)

The First Symphony, historically, has been discounted as Haydnesque...

I prefer Haydnian.

... and, therefore, backward-looking.


True, Beethoven went further in later works; the First does not point toward Romanticism to the degree of the Sixth or the Ninth.

(yells from across room, tears flowing)

But we were talking about the First Symphony! Jerk!

But the First is no mere promising work by a young fellow finding his voice. Beethoven knew exactly what he was about, down to the smallest detail.

( yells from across room)

Yeah! He was about stealing things from Mozart and Haydn just so he could throw it back in their faces! I hate reading these things!

He was after brilliance in the First Symphony, and he got it.

(screams from across room)

But this wasn’t about brilliance!

(gets up, finds Dad’s gun, inserts muzzle of gun into mouth, ...)


Sator Arepo said...

Um. Everyone wrote their first Symphony in C Major. It was tradition. Prokofiev. Shostakovich. Everyone. It was like a rite of passage.

Weird. I wonder if he read that book by the Beethoven lady?

Vis-a-vis feeling toward a tonality, I think Strini refers to more tonally ambiguous passages, like transitory material. But that's not clear from the article, that's my best guess at what he thinks he's getting at.

Kinda all over the place, huh?

Aaron said...

"Beethoven on a rooftop, naked: “You hear that, world! I am asserting myself in a tradition! Take that!”"

Man, I missed that scene in "Immortal Beloved". I bet Gary Oldman was awesome doing that.