B250

The father of the tone poem

By Lawrence Toppman

We take tone poems in classical music for granted today. Think of lovers swooning and dying during Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture. Liszt composed 13 symphonic poems, including works that aurally describe Orpheus, Hamlet and Prometheus. Berlioz wrote the longest popular piece of program music when he depicted a witches’ sabbath, march to the scaffold and other settings in Symphonie Fantastique.

Mussorgsky summoned an art gallery full of paintings in “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The modern equivalents are film soundtracks, where John Williams can reinforce the flying chaos of a quidditch match or the horrors of an encounter with Voldemort in “Harry Potter” scores.

So where did this trend start? I’d say it began in 1808 with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. (Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta was supposed to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in performances April 3-5, with Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto and Kodaly’s “Dances of Galánta.” She may yet, as the CSO hopes to reschedule cancelled concerts.)

Baroque and Classical era composers portrayed nonmusical things before that, of course. Telemann recreated animal sounds in his “Cricket” symphony and “The Frogs” overture. Handel offered visions of biblical plagues – the buzzing flies work especially well – in the oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” Composers often used martial instruments and rhythms to convey military actions; Beethoven himself did that in “Wellington’s Victory,” his 1813 “battle symphony” for a concert benefiting Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau.

Yet all 45 minutes of his Pastoral Symphony reveal Beethoven’s impressions of nature. He loved to walk in the country, believing it helped alleviate his deafness. He titled the movements to carry the listener through an afternoon he’d have enjoyed, interrupted by tense moments but ending in joy: “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” “Merry gathering of country folk,” “Thunder; Storm,” “Shepherd’s song; Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” If you’ve seen “Fantasia,” with its centaurs and cupids and tipsy Bacchus, you know Disney’s abbreviated, cheesy interpretation.

Nobody before Beethoven had written so long a programmatic piece, one that depicted places and events in every note. The idea took a while to catch fire, but Mendelssohn produced his overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1826. (He finished an hour-long score in 1842.) Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 in five movements, as Beethoven had done in his Pastoral. The floodgates opened, and we’ve seen “pictures in music” ever since.

How Self-Acceptance Became the Secret to Beethoven’s Success

By Heidi North

As we continue our celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, I’ve been focused on the remarkable ways Beethoven’s music flourished despite what should have been a career-ending disability. In 1798, just as he was entering the height of his popularity, Beethoven began to lose his hearing, losing it entirely by 1816.

Though he lived during the era of Enlightenment, a period that saw a positive shift in how people viewed the disabled in society, Beethoven suffered from rampant ableism. The affliction cost him marriage proposals, most notably the Countess Guilietta Guicciardi, whose father refused Beethoven because he believed the composer’s deafness would prevent him from composing. Beethoven lost many friendships due to his depression and self-isolation from society as deafness set in. He would snap piano strings from violent playing to hear the music, ending his ability to perform live.

In 1802, during a visit to Heiligenstadt, Vienna, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johan, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this account, Beethoven lamented his afflictions, his mental anguish, and that he had contemplated suicide. He had decided in the end to go on living for his art.

To compose, he lowered pianos to the ground and played with a pencil in his mouth, both in order to hear the vibrations of the notes. He pressed his ears on the piano keys to try to hear the music. Sometimes, he would compose for days on end, sticking his head in buckets of ice water to stay awake, and to sharpen his other functioning senses. He wrote pieces in lower scales because he could no longer hear high notes. He used ear trumpets, with one strapped to his head at times, and carried a notebook so that he could converse in writing with others.

If you listen closely to Beethoven’s music, you can hear these struggles, especially in the opening dissonance of the 3rd symphony, the tragic melody of the 7th symphony’s second movement, and the infamous “fate knocking at the door” theme of the 5th symphony. You can hear his triumphs in the comedic last movement of the 8th symphony, the overcoming of hardship in Fidelio, and the sound of freedom in the fearless Ninth Symphony. Most importantly, you can hear the heroic fruits of Beethoven’s never-ending persistence in working with, not against his disability.