Who's My Big, December Birthday Boy? That's Right! You Are!

Need a break from all the Christmas festivities? No problem. The Seattle Symphony has got your secular-seeking back.

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra celebrates Ludwig van Beethoven's 239th birthday this month...

You’re fucking shitting me. 200. And 39th. Birthday.

“Babe. Darling. Honey bear. It’s our twelve-thousand-four-hundred-and-twenty-eighth-week anniversary. I just wanted to... Because you’re so... Here. I know it’s a little soon... And I totally don’t expect anything in return... But here’s just a little token of my...”

200. And 39th. Couldn’t let Jesus take the spotlight just this once, could you, Beethoven?


Sure, he was born in December, too, so I guess he doesn’t get the birthday attention he inherently deserves. (Thanks Seattle Symphony) That, and today’s author, Tom Keogh, is most likely the one behind the ridiculous prime number. So, let's just forget that and get this thing under way!

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra celebrates Ludwig van Beethoven's 239th birthday this month with performances highlighting the German composer's early and late periods.

Surprise! Happy (prime-numbered) birthday, Beethoven! This is your life!* (Except the middle bits.)

Figure 1. Happy (non-prime) 234th birthday to you, Jane Austen! I hope you weren’t expecting a party; but you should’ve known that we don’t care.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to welcome Handel’s Messiah as a breath of fresh air, at least next to the average, everyday (literally just about every day) Beethoven celebration. It's like truck month: Essentially, every month is truck month. And all that saturation of trucking sort of undermines the festive spirit.

Table 1. Using your imagination, replace Toby Keith with your favorite conductor and the word Truck with Beethoven.

Table 1a. Truck Month turned into Truck Winter. Truck Winter turned into Truck Spring. Truck Spring changed into Truck Summer. Truck Summer changed back into Truck Winter. And Truck Winter gave Truck Spring a miss and went straight on into Truck Autumn.

Whatever. Sorry for getting sidetracked. We have some puffery to attend to.

On Dec. 30 and 31, music director Gerard Schwarz will conduct Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor — arguably the most popular symphony in the world...

And, arguably, our author thinks his readers are really dumb. Just saying. If someone has the wherewithal to read a puff piece about the Seattle Symphony, it stands to reason that... well... write as low as you think you have to.

Anyway, how about some real information?

Premiering in Vienna in 1824, the Ninth was the final new work of the 54-year-old, largely deaf Beethoven's pieces to marshal large, musical forces. (He died at age 56.)

Uh-huh. I guess it was time for some confusing information, information that could have been clearer with the appropriate use of a comma. So, just to make sure we are all on the same page: Beethoven never marshaled large, culinary forces, just musical ones.

Also, what's up with the eye-crossing chronological work. Personally, if I were to rewrite it, it would read like this: The Ninth premiered in Vienna in 1824. For the 54-year-old, deaf composer, it was the last piece to marshal large orchestral forces. He died shortly thereafter in 1827.

I think my version is pretty clear. But does Tom have a strategy? Is he using an ancient rhetorical device known to only the wiliest of wordsmiths? I sure hope so. (Also, happy 185th birthday, Ninth?)

Anyway, if we keep moving, maybe we'll find out. Are there any other culinary musical forces at work?

Beethoven wasn't through, however: He turned his attention to a final series of string quartets...

That’s a smooth segue, especially if they’re going to play some of those late behemoths. Don’t you agree? I mean, things become clearer and the chronology becomes more apparent: later pieces follow earlier pieces.

Great. I think I'm beginning to get it.

"The string quartets are a true window on Beethoven, spread out over his life," says Seattle Symphony violinist Stephen Bryant.

They sure... do... having... true... windows... on... Beethoven... over his life.


Well, if anything else, it sounds like a wonderful endorsement.

And not for nothing, I think it's nice that Tom's bringing a performer to the conversation in order to build up good, old-fashioned, first-hand, puff-piecey anticipation for the string quartets--shrewd, topical, effusive, effective...

"They're intimate, spiritual, even more than the symphonies. The bare bones of what the composer is about is on display."

...vague, inarticulate, hyperbolic, over-generalized, playing down the Ninth...

Oversell much? Whew!

Anyway, the incredibly bloated language makes one wonder if any other composers ever wrote string quartets.

(thinks super hard for at least seven seconds)

Meh. Probably not. It’d be kinda pointless to try. I mean, this Beethoven chap apparently has the ability to hijack a popular deity's birthday party with ease. Don’t fuck with this guy or he'll open your presents and then pee in the pool. (So don't swim in his toilet.)

But before Beethoven focused on quartets, says Bryant, he explored other chamber-music possibilities [...]


On Tuesday Bryant will perform with a handful of other SSO musicians in "Beethoven's Birthday Celebration," a program of works for quintet, trio and septet.

WHAT!? No quartets? But... but... you promised.


You promised, I think.

Figure 2. Dramatization of Empiricus conversing with Tom Keogh

"They're all pre-First Symphony," says Bryant. "This is untroubled Beethoven, happy works, full of charm with a minor key, at times, but not so serious as later in life when he was dealing with all the problems that afflicted him."

What happened to my quartets!!? And you, get off my lawn!

Figure 3. The brusque, brooding composer contemplates his next masterpiece. (Previous two images generated at Cheezburger.com)

I'm really confused. I don't know how we got here. At all.

How to remedy this? Hmm. I just want my quartets back. (sob)

I know! I should retrace my steps and maybe I'll see something I didn't see before. Fantastic! Let's give it a try:

There's a couple of symphony concerts celebrating Beethoven's 239th birthday; they'll play the Ninth Symphony; Beethoven's quartets are really, really, really, good--better than the symphonies; those won't be performed; instead, they'll play some early chamber works on a different concert, which were written before most of the quartets; they were also written before the First Symphony (celebrating its 209th birthday this year), which means they are generally happy (few minor keys), but not as good as the quartets, because life hadn't inflicted him with problems yet.



Nope. Didn't learn anything.

So here we are, in the bitter present, quartetless. (sigh)

"Beethoven's Birthday Celebration" includes his Quintet in C major for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello; the Serenade in D major for Violin, Viola and Cello; and the Septet in E-flat major for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass.

Good to know; but personally I like opus numbers. They’re helpful. Beethoven thought so, too; that’s why he added them. No biggie, though. Please, continue.

Bryant says the septet "was the single most popular chamber work in Beethoven's lifetime."

Maybe so, but Beethoven might have been a bit perturbed about that. In fact, when he contemplated arranging it to include flute, he thought that flute enthusiasts would “swarm around it and feed on it like insects” (Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, The, 1961, pp. 51). He did finally make an arrangement, though, which we know as the Piano Trio, Op. 38 (celebrating its 206th birthday). There is also evidence that he attempted to arrange it for military band; but this was never published. Interestingly, there were many successful arrangements made by others--so there was definitely money out there to be made by riding the coattails of this work. Yet, in spite of the possible financial gains to be had, Beethoven’s reluctance to add even more velocity to the Septet’s popularity might have suggested that he didn’t think this ranked among his more important works.

So, to make a long story short: popularity does not always mean good. And in some cases, it can be a negative. Besides, haven’t we already learned this lesson? Beethoven did.

Figure 4. The birthday boy was a fan of re-gifting.

Figure 5. Sorry for missing your 240th birthday bash, N-Bone. It wasn't my fault, I swear. The Seattle Symphony had me planning this year's Beethovenmas celebration. And, well, sorry. That took precedence.

Of the [string] quintet, [Bryant] says "no book says he was trying to get to Mozart's level, but it clearly pays homage to Mozart. Beethoven admired him tremendously."

Read: I don’t know what I'm talking about, but am willing to make nonsensical assertions, nonetheless.

Now, I don’t want to pretend to know what was trying to be expressed, but my impression is that Beethoven thought he wasn’t as good as Mozart, so he tried to imitate (or borrow, quote, whatever), instead. I don’t know; but it sounds like more downplaying, to me. You know, something like, "It's not exactly Mozart, but Beethoven really, really tried, because he liked him sooooo much."

And it's at this point that I begin to wonder if Mr. Bryant has overstayed his welcome and is beginning to do more damage than good to this year's Beethovenmas puffery. But, it needs to be mentioned that it's not just Mr. Bryant's wacky words--here, it takes three to tango. Someone has to type it into the article...

(I'm looking at you, Tom.)

... and someone has to publish it.

(Seattle Times, that means you!)

Meanwhile, the trio "is charming and beautiful with some sad moments in the scherzo."

Really? "Sad"? Is that as descriptive as we're gonna get? I mean, are you speaking to me or third graders?

"Nobody complains when you play him.”

Well, that's the spirit! What a festive endorsement! I simply can't top that, so let's call it a day. Job done.


I suppose, after all this, I think it’s undeniably time for a festive song. How 'bout it?

Sweet. I knew I could count on you.

Alright. Ready? 1, 2...

[all sing] Happy 239th birthday to you! Happy 239th birthday to you! Happy 239th birthday dear Ludwig! Happy 239th birthday to you. But not you, Jane Austen--nobody cares about you.

Figure 6. Not quite as good as the quartets, but can't complain.

*Funny. There's no mention of the other piece on that particular concert program: Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes. Is the symphony concert really a Beethoven celebration, as the preview implied? The Seattle Symphony press release, found on the Seattle Symphony website (linked above), notes that the Ninth is an annual tradition.


Gustav said...

I love that you recognized 239 as a prime number.

Gustav said...

"This is untroubled Beethoven, happy works, full of charm with a minor key, at times, but not so serious as later in life when he was dealing with all the problems that afflicted him."


the trio "is charming and beautiful with some sad moments in the scherzo."

For all the times we probably go too far in our criticisms of music reviews, there are these steaming piles printed in the mainstream media as the most public scholarship in music. These are the most inane, mind-numbingly stupid comments about music.

Why do people insist upon treating all music like it's a series of emoticons? Sometimes smiling, sometime frowning, and occasionally winking its eye. Really, it doesn't take "musical geniuses" to create music of that level of emotional content. Treating music like it's a story for lovable morons is really the biggest disservice done to this music and the overall strides classical music makes to find audiences. If only these critics (and apparently first violinists in the Seattle Symphony) would bother to learn even the most elementary parts of music theory, perhaps that would stop insisting that all music is all happy or sad. And maybe next, stop immediately trying to explain all music in terms of some mystical emotional experience.

It's just so fucking demeaning. Like judging all artwork on how much they "look like the things they look like."

Also: Beethoven >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Mozart (frankly, it's not even that close.)

AnthonyS said...

Wow. Funny stuff.

It seems to me that the reason there were no quartets programmed (despite the fawning endorsement of said works) is quite simple: 4 is not a prime number. That they performed a trio, a quintet, and a septet makes perfect sense. It's kind of like a Beethoven Da Vinci code thing. I guess.

Happy Truck Month!

Sator Arepo said...


"Treating music like it's a story for lovable morons is really the biggest disservice done..."

Yeah, well, some days it seems like music is treated like it is a story for, about, AND by lovable morons.

And minor is pretty sad! And now it sounds like children are playing! Oh look! A kitty, but in my mind!