schubert and beethoven

The title page of the first edition of Schubert’s “Eight Variations on a French Song” (D. 624), published 1822. The dedication is to Beethoven “from his worshipper and admirer Franz Schubert.”

It is no secret that Schubert had a profound respect for Beethoven, that he sought to emulate him and pay tribute to his works. There are countless references to Beethoven, whether intentional or unintentional, in Schubert’s compositions. For example, the opening of one of his last piano sonatas, D.958 in C minor, clearly references Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80.

Despite all of Schubert’s aspirations to become like Beethoven, however, their music is still deeply different–evidence of their individual and contrasting personalities. Hans Gal, renowned music scholar of the twentieth century, keenly captured what makes the two composers so different:

It was Schumann who, speaking of the Great Symphony in C major by Schubert, coined the expression “heavenly length”. This is the enthusiast’s name for a peculiarity of Schubert’s idiom which has never ceased to provoke annoyed opposition. In general, a feeling of length is attributable to vagueness, to a lack of precision. With Schubert the case is different: what appears as length comes from a superabundance of ideas, from the greatness of a conception that demands the corresponding space. And it comes from his nature, from the enthusiastic way in which he seizes his material, and never tires of enjoying again and again the magnificent visions he has created. In this respect, too, the experience he did not live to acquire would have had a moderating, cooling effect. All this does not alter the fact that his mature instrumental creations have a right to stand alongside Beethoven’s as achievements of the greatest importance and originality, and that all those composers who came directly after him seem like pygmies beside a giant. Schubert was the only successor of Beethoven who could meet him at the same level, with a vision of the same cosmic amplitude.

The contrast between them is that of will-power as opposed to imagination, between an energetic, assertive nature on the one hand, and a pensive, contemplative nature on the other….Beethoven’s most frequent expression mark, to be found on every page of his music, is sforzato, a sharp accent. Schubert’s most frequent dynamic indication…is pianissimo. Beethoven’s form, the form of the man of will, could never be his. Therefore, it does not make sense to measure his ideal of form against Beethoven’s. The example of his great contemporary could strengthen him and help him on his way, but his instinct directed him towards different solutions, which were better suited to his character.

Sources and further reading:

  • Hans Gal, Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody (New York: Crescendo Publishing, 1977).
  • Paul Reid, “Beethoven and Schubert” (2013).

stranded on a desert island (#3)

A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week one of my closest friends, Lauren Tokunaga, shares her choices:

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music worth a thousand words

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!  Were her leters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, "from my husband"; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Joseph Joachim on September 17, 1854, after Robert Schumann’s institutionalization.

And the F major movement in question:

O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!
Gerecht, O Gott, ist dein Gericht!
Du prüfest, du verläßt uns nicht.
O God! O what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgement!
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.


“Wait, you need to suffer some more”

Alfred Brendel

This recent New York Times article by Vivien Schweitzer talks about the sacredness of certain composers and certain works–particularly the late, twilight-year compositions of Germanic composers such as Beethoven and Schubert–and the reverence with which most musicians approach them. Schweitzer compiles opinions from many famous musicians, both young and old, on how they deal with the question of being “ready”–emotionally, philosophically, mentally–to play any of these pieces that demand maturity and struggle. Some notable excerpts from the article:

“If I play a piece of Chopin or Schumann, it’s a one-to-one confession all the time, but with Beethoven, the slow movements are not so much a confession but more a kind of preaching. He has a bigger message about humanity. Earlier, I didn’t really understand and appreciate that expression.” – Leif Ove Andsnes

“In a case like Schubert, who died at 31, he had enough sorrow for a lifetime. There is something about the subtext of his music — people say you have to suffer a little more.” – Jeremy Denk

“I don’t take life for granted, and I don’t know if I will be alive in five years. As far as I know, no composer wrote on their score, ‘Forbidden to those under age 18.’” – HJ Lim

“On the one hand, Beethoven is unspeakably profound….On the other hand, there is not much gained about being too precious about it. The fact I decided to record the Beethoven sonatas doesn’t mean I won’t feel differently about them in 20 years. I knew I would go deeper if I was forced to record them.” – Jonathan Biss

I can definitely say for myself that I used to approach late works with a happy-go-lucky naivety, concerned more with surface musicality than profundity. Studying one of the last three Schubert sonatas in the past semester, though, has really opened my eyes. Many of the notes, harmonies, and melodies look straightforward and simple at first glance, but a surprising amount of struggle and depth of thought is required to express this highly nuanced, poetic music intelligently–yet organically. “The notes are easy, but the music is hard.”

What kind of music do you find difficult to approach because of its depth?

Related post: the bard of vienna

andras schiff master class

YouTube is an amazing resource, and not just for hearing international recordings of musical performances–through YouTube, we have access to full-length master classes and lectures worldwide, led by great artists. Here is one taught by Andras Schiff at the Royal College of Music in March 2013.

Some favorite points I wrote down for my own reference are:

  • Slowing down before drastic harmony changes is a cliche to be avoided, particularly in well-known pieces such as the “Moonlight” sonata.
  • Beethoven’s sonatas are wonderfully balanced. Many composers, even Schubert and Brahms, fall a little flat in their last movements. Not Beethoven (consider the driving force and unbridled violence of the third movement of the “Moonlight,” or the divine voyage that is the last movement of Op. 109).
  • What is humor? Short notes. Adding pedal to short notes (to make them prettier or more elegant) ruins the humor.

It’s super long, but this would be a great video to watch over the course of a few days or even a week. Keep the tab open on your browser and just press play when you have half an hour to spare! You can even listen to it while doing housework. And please let me know if you have any favorite tidbits! 🙂

musical excerpt: fuga from Bach’s sonata no. 2 in a minor

Bach can be one of the most difficult musical giants to grapple with. His works go beyond those of many other composers’ in their demands on mental acuity and musical finesse, and it’s no secret that many students struggle to find an appreciation for Bach, particularly when Baroque aesthetics and conventions seem so far removed from the modern world. For some, a love for Bach has to develop slowly over a longer time, with accumulated exposure to the expressiveness of his musical lines and the grand purity of his harmonies–and the growing realization of how deeply his music is steeped in the vibrant colors of his society, of dance or church or court.

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Musical Excerpt: the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh

A moving performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 last night inspired me to post this masterpiece of a second movement (conducted here by Haitink), which is so gorgeously crafted that it never becomes trite or tiresome–in fact, several audiences at premiere performances of the Seventh demanded that the second movement be repeated. The life pulse of this movement, broken only by brief, shimmery pastoral moments, comes from its inexorable rhythmic ostinato. While many have differed on the character of the second movement, for some it is reminiscent of a funeral march. Bitter and hopeful at the same time, this march communicates not resignation but resolution, of the determination of the human spirit to keep moving forward despite external forces or internal sorrows.

More reading: NPR – Christopher Gibbs’ Notes on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

the bard of vienna

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623. Bottom: first page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 ("The Tempest"), 1802.

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623.
Bottom: first page of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 (“The Tempest”), 1802.

This week I wanted to bring up interpretation, a subject that’s a little more abstract and subjective and possibly difficult. In studio class the other day, my teacher said, “Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are really like the last plays of Shakespeare.” This is something he’s said to me before, and the thought has been turning in my mind ever since. It’s challenging, slightly daunting, a call to action: to seek out a deeper level of meaning in the layout, the form, the markings of the score.

The commonalities between being an actor and being a musician are widely-recognized, but the acting that is most prominent in our everyday lives is a product of fickle Hollywood, where gems cohabit with meretricious glitter. The idea of going back to Shakespeare provides a much clearer example of how we can analyze and understand our own musical Urtexts. Shakespeare is a different level of script: unforgivingly complex and increasingly abstruse, with texts ossified through fame and time–and yet still hyper-saturated with all shades of human emotion.

This 1979 video of Sir Ian McKellen analyzing a speech from Macbeth shows just how much a great actor can derive from the most minute details of wording, phrasing, pauses and puns:

Similarly, as interpreters and partakers of music, we can struggle to find the questions that many of Beethoven’s late sonatas present, and then struggle to find the answers to those questions. They are experimental, unconventional, detailed, and bristling with wildly contrasting emotions and subitos and motivic connecting fibers. Understanding the meaning behind the markings and the form and the dynamic palette (and even microscopic details like the piece starting on the third scale degree rather than the first)–this is an often difficult task that can be made easier by taking a page from the actor’s book.

More reading/watching:

What do you try to do when interpreting a piece?

da capo: the origin of our metronome

Maelzel’s metronome, c. 1815. (source)

The invention of the metronome is often attributed to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (also spelled Mälzel) (1772-1838), a German inventor with some borderline plagiarist tendencies. The actual proto-metronome was invented by a Dietrich Winkel in Amsterdam in 1814 and called a “chronometer.” Maelzel happened to observe this invention and promptly added a scale, filed a patent, and began selling the device as his own. The entire affair is recorded in a letter written to the editor of the Revue Musicale by an Amsterdam official.

“The facts are the following:– In 18…., Maelzel being at Amsterdam with his chess player [editor’s note: a chess-playing machine], (which by the way was not originally his, but had been purchased by him of a German mechanist,) M. Winkel applied to the fourth class of the Royal Institution of the Low Countries, asking us to plead his cause before a commission, in the presence of M. Maelzel, in order to verify his assertion in the German Gazette, and to conclude the affair, once for all. I was on the commission. The result of the speeches of the two adversaries was, that we were fully convinced–firstly, that M. Maelzel had but a very imperfect knowledge of mathematics, and especially of mechanics, since he had proposed to Winkel a process for making a metronome, which was utterly impracticable; and secondly, that he had seen in Winkel’s possession an instrument, hastily made and rudely executed it is true, but which perfectly answered the end, and which had served as a model for his chronometer. Being closely pushed by our interrogatories, he declared, in the presence of four witnesses, members of the commission, that had he not seen the instrument of M. Winkel, the idea would never have occurred to him of constructing his metronome, as he has done: He only claimed the scale, as established by him, and for which Winkel had never contended.” (The Harmonicon)

All intellectual property theft aside, Maelzel was the person responsible for introducing Beethoven to the metronome, and he loved it. In an 1817 letter to Hofrath von Mosel, Beethoven raved:

So far as I am myself concerned, I have long purposed giving up those inconsistent terms allegro, andante, adagio, and presto; and Maelzel’s metronome furnishes us with the best opportunity of doing so. I here pledge myself no longer to make use of them in any of my new compositions. It is another question whether we can by this means attain the necessary universal use of the metronome. I scarcely think we shall! I make no doubt that we shall be loudly proclaimed as despots; but if the cause itself were to derive benefit from this, it would at least be better than to incur the reproach of Feudalism!…Of course some persons must take the lead in giving an impetus to the undertaking. You may safely rely on my doing what is in my power, and I shall be glad to hear what post you mean to assign to me in the affair.” (source: Beethoven’s Letters, vol. 1, entry 211)

Which brings up another problem: when Beethoven went back to his older pieces and added metronome markings, a lot of them ended up being considerably faster than any modern performers play them. Consider these two recordings of the first movement of Beethoven 5. The first is by Toscanini, and hovers around 105 BPM:

Now listen to Christopher Hogwood’s version, which is much closer to the original 108 BPM marking Beethoven scribbled down all those years ago:

Beethoven’s metronome markings have left many perplexed at their adrenaline-inducing speeds. Some blame copying mistakes; others remark that Beethoven’s hearing was rapidly worsening at the time; still others say that there must have been something wrong with his metronome. At any rate, we can’t dismiss the impact that this little wooden piece of technology had on Beethoven’s life.

“I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the [Ninth] Symphony met with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings.” – Beethoven, in a December 1826 letter (source: quoted in Rudolf Kolisch, “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music“)

More reading/listening:

Radiolab – “Speedy Beet” podcast
The Beethoven Project – How Fast Shall We Play?