February 10, 2007

Gratuitous Musickal Posting

I heard something interesting on the radio yesterday, a reconstructed overture written by Beethoven for an operatic version of Macbeth that was never completed.

The manuscripts of this and some other lost pieces were rediscovered a few years ago and have been cleaned up and in some places completed since. Now they're being performed and a CD (from which WETA played this cut) is to come out shortly.

Here's the website dedicated to these works. (Warning: turn down your speakers or the incessant repetition of the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony will drive you batty.) And here's what it has to say about the "Macbeth" Overture:

The overture starts with a slow Largo introduction, derived from the op. 70 nr. 1 trio, and is followed by a concentrated Allegro assai, which has original features like a sonata form starting with a fugato, and a close interweaving of the Largo and Allegro assai tempi in the development section. The second subject, based on a horn fifth, has been heard as a musical representation of Macbeth by some, and it certainly seems appropriate for that. The piece ends with an impressive, long descending chromatic scale.

Gloomy, dramatic and violent, the music deals in a profound way with Shakespeare’s tragedy, as has been noted by several critics and musicians; Scott Burnham, Beethoven scholar and author of “Beethoven Hero”, called the piece “a miracle”. What has not generally been appreciated, however, is that the overture refutes the dominant view in 20th century musical thinking, namely that it is not possible to create new significant music using only conventional harmonies and techniques. As such, the Macbeth overture raises fundamental questions: what does truly matter about the musical experience, what do we mean by “high art”, are the 20th century dogmas still relevant in the 21st? If the musicians have the courage to face these questions, then the piece holds the promise of becoming the overture to a new chapter in the history of Western Music.

Frankly, this sort of hooey is what gives "high art" a bad name. Damn those dogmas that keep knocking over trashcans and biting the kids! And on which planet, exactly, has 20th Century musical thinking been confined by the restraints of "conventional harmonies and techniques"?

Perhaps what the fellah meant was that our appreciation of Beethoven's music here ought not to be constrained by such thoughts, which translates into "If you don't enjoy this piece, you're a knuckle-dragging boob."

I confess that I only heard the piece imperfectly, but it struck me more as a curiosity than a "miracle." It seemed clunky and uneven and the only "musical experience" I had as a result of the wanderings into abstract techniques and harmonies was a longing to hear the "Egmont" or the "Coriolanus" instead.

Guess I don't have the courage to face those "questions." Maybe if I had a bit more brie and Beaujolais.

Posted by Robert at February 10, 2007 07:39 AM | TrackBack

Macbeth is a difficult play that doesn't translate well into any format but the stage. The only movie version that does justice to the material is Kurasawa's "Throne of Blood". I would imagine that it is as difficult to express musically as it is cinematically.

"Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot."

Posted by: carl at February 11, 2007 10:30 AM