July 28, 2007

Seriously Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

The first part of my musickal listening this evening consisted of Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D (the "Prague") and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A.

I will disclose right away that I believe Mozart's "Prague" Symphony to be the absolute apex of the Classical style, and that I much prefer the Classical to the Romantic or even the proto-Romantic. Nonetheless, I can't help wondering:

1) Mozart was, as you know, only 35 when he died in 1791. Imagine had he lived another thirty-odd years: what would his impact on the development of serious musick been? I cannot even begin to calculate it. Would Beethoven even had had a look in, given that kind of competition?

2) While I recognize Beethoven's genious, I can't help recognizing that he uses much broader brush strokes to paint his ideas than does Mozart. I also recognize that this is a function of his time, temperment and development, in that he followed on motiffic ideas formulated both by Haydn and Mozart (and, of course, got caught up in the sentiments of the Romantic movement). But I can't help wondering what would have happened had he been an actual contemporary of Mozart, instead of being, what, twenty five years his juinor. Given his temperment, would we even have heard of him?

3) I plan to finish up with Brahms' First Symphony, sometimes called "Beethoven's Tenth" because it brought together the Romantic temperment with Classical rigor. I dunno why I mention this except that I feel it is connected with the two questions I pose above.

4) On a somehwat related subject, I had thought of listening to Bach's Mass in B-Minor and/or Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers to the Blessed Virgin, both because I love the music and because of the religious content. However, seeing as I have both a full glass of wine and a seegar, it struck me that this might be a bit profane. What say you, Father M and my other spirititual advisors: what is the proper decorum for listening to sacred musick in private? Would God mind awfully if I chipped in on the Gloria with my pathetic baritone were I to be so encumbered?

UPDATE: Longtime Llama pal Hucbald dropped these comments in the Tasty Bits (TM) Mail Sack:

1) I have tackled this subject several times. Young Beethoven idolized Mozart and was dying to study with him. With Mozart's untimely death, Beethoven turned to Haydn, who had taught Mozart quite a bit. This match did not work at all, because Haydn was not a rigorous pedagogue, and that's what Beethoven wanted. Beethoven then turned to the theorist Johann Georg Albrectsberger for lessons, and this was - quite literally, I think - a match made in heaven.

Albrectsberger was a master of counterpoint - a far superior master
of counterpoint than Haydn - and we have him to thank for Beethoven's
craggy fugatos and wild-ride scherzos (Epitomized by the scherzo of
the ninth symphony).

Mozart, however, had studied with Padre Giambattista Martini, who was
the Albrectsberger of is day, and we have Martini to thank for the
finale of the Jupiter symphony, which is five part invertible
counterpoint in the manner of a fugue subject and four
countersubjects, but in the sonata process of a symphonic movement,
which was totally unique at that time. So, if Beethoven HAD gotten
to study with Mozart, he may have picked up on that thread anyway
(Which he did under Albrectsberger's influence, but in a different
way than Mozart did). In any event, my opinion is that Beethoven's
personality was so forceful that had Mozart lived, Beethoven would
have flourished anyway. But, we'll never know, of course.

2) Beethoven is really not a Romantic Music figure, in the strict
sense. He was kind of on the cusp between the two eras, and
obviously deeply influenced the Romantic movement in music (Schubert
practically memorized everything Beethoven wrote: Talk about a giant
who died young, Schubert was just 31!). Liszt transcribed the
Beethoven symphonies for solo piano, and so was intimately familiar
with them - the list goes on (Get the Katsaris recording of these
transcriptions: It's amazing). Like I said above, I don't think
Mozart or a hundred Mozarts could have stopped a force of nature like
Beethoven, but that's just me: I think he's hands-down the greatest
composer of all time.

3) Brahms practically lived in mortal fear of Beethoven's legacy,
and didn't write his first symphony untl he was about 42 years old,
if memory serves. I think he would have been a better composer if he
hadn't been so insecure, and frankly, I don't think he did his best
work in the symphonic forms. The third and fourth are the only ones
I really listen to anymore. The first one really does sound like
Beethoven through the eyes of Brahms to me. His Violin Concerto,
however, is IMO the best of all violin concerti (But there's a LOT of
competition there, so I don't mind if some disagree, of course).

4) I listen to sacred music sober, which is all too seldom, on both
accounts. LOL!"M

I don't really disagree with anything Hucbald says. However, I have the following additional observations:

1) The conversation here hints that counterpoint continued to be the apex of musickal invention. But let me ask this: is it unreasonable to believe that Mozart might have reached a point when he decided that counterpoint had said all that it could say and made a conscious effort to strike out in a new musickal direction? And if so, can we even begin to guess what that direction might have been?

2) I heartily agree that Beethoven was not a true "Romantic". In fact, I think it's fair to say that he represented, as the great musickal scholar Charles Rosen maintains, the last extension of a branch of the Classical musickal tree budding from Haydn and leading through Mozart. Even Beethoven himself recognized that the main trunk, if you will, was growing in a different direction in his time, passing from figures such as Hummel up through Chopin and others.

3) I don't dislike Schubert, but truth be told, I don't see the same spark of genius in him that I see in the giants of the High Classical period. I think he had it in him to be the master of a set style, but I don't get the sense that he had the brilliance to forge a musickal language of his own in the way that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did. And, for all his transcriptions, I loathe Liszt as a bottomless showaway, the very worst of the Romantic type.

4) I believe Brahms was actually in his early 50's before he nerved himself to write a symphony. I can't say that I blame him, as Beethoven had left such a ginormous hole with his passing, and plenty other composers had made a hash trying to find a genuine Romantic symphonic voice. What is remarkable is that he was able to step up to the challenge as well as he did (and I would argue that his symphonic output is better than that of, say, either Schubert, Mendelssohn or Schumann), although I also agree that his symphonic music is not the best representation of his talent.

Posted by Robert at July 28, 2007 09:56 PM | TrackBack

I'm in a bit of a hurry, so I'll just address the first point. I think you made a very precient observation when you stated that Beethoven painted with broader brush strokes. He was obviously going for a more expressionistic style than counterpoint alone could have allowed. For me, the discipline of counterpoint makes the composer hyper-aware of how every note relates to every other note, and so it is a usefull phase for every composer to go through. Once this level of awareness is reached, I think branching out, as Beethoven did, is all the more effective.

There is no doubt that the loss of Mozart at such a young age was one of the greatest losses that music ever suffered. I too often wonder what he would have been composing in his forties and fifties - usually a composer's best decades. Tragically, we'll never know, but no doubt it would have been some sublime stuff. Beyond a pity.

Posted by: Hucbald at July 30, 2007 11:52 AM