November 30, 2011
The Not so Little Symphony
Classical music has many purposes: it can move the listener with different emotions, it can relate to an occasion, or tell a story. For Beethoven, having a storyline in musical pieces was significant, through the chords and notes he conveyed struggles that related to him and could be linked to the general public. Whether it was a physical struggle or a social struggle, most of Beethoven’s earlier pieces evoke a protagonist that had to overcome an obstacle, which through persistence and determination became victorious, but we see that changing as Beethoven moves to his later period. Instead of having a protagonist struggling to achieve heroism, the struggle becomes more about whether fate was already predestined or decided by free will. The final movement of Beethoven’s eighth symphony enacts the same drama of overcoming a struggle, but in a more comical way. As in the third symphony, serious greeting of the fourth movement of the eight symphony has brought narratives of human actions and human characters, including bodies that are struggling or threatened with falling, and a c-sharp puts those narratives in motion in both pieces. That the same c-sharp is the tonal problem, or the antagonist, in both works implies a relationship between them. Indeed, in its treatment of struggling, the eighth symphony final can be heard more humorous and ironic than Eroica’s heroism.
Just like the eighth symphony, most of the protagonists that are portrayed in Beethoven’s musical pieces reflect who he is. Explaining why most of what Beethoven defines heroism to be, are things that he has dealt with himself before or has overcome. For instance, death is something that Beethoven had to deal with from a very early age, and for him a hero must be able to overcome death in order to be contemplated as a hero like the third symphony suggests. As for the eighth symphony, the constant struggle between free will and predestination that most of his late work show, is present in the fourth movement but in a more humorous approach. In this case the protagonist is the first theme that starts very quiet and unsure of itself similar to the first theme of Eroica. In this movement, the first theme is interrupted by the second theme’s loud c-sharp. Coming forth as an antagonistic shocking surprise- a fortissimo outburst among the quiet surrounding of the first theme- and is not resolved, or musically acknowledged in any way. It is clearly felt as an interpolation, the music would move smoothly if it were simply removed, and has been generally been assumed as a expression of abrupt humor, or an awkward block, thus foregrounding the idea of loss of physical balance and the possibility of a fall, instead of the threat of tragedy implicit in Eroica, the c-sharp suggests something more like a trip, a tumble, a pratfall. Almost as if Beethoven was mocking the tragedy of a character falling, showing his decline of importance in heroism.
The c-sharp is felt more of an annoyance in this movement than in the third symphony, a description that Burnham says it this way: “I prefer to hear the initial c-sharp less as a important irritant and more as a musical pratfall, the suddenness both of its start and its disappearance renders the c-sharp more a potentially comic interjection than a real threat, although one could make a case for the reactive strength of the statement of the theme that immediately follows”. Possibly a mixture of both views comes out about right: brutal humor.
Throughout the whole movement it is the c-sharp that evokes some of the crude humor usually associated with people who are hard of hearing. It can be seen as someone who is in both unable to hear or someone screaming at another in order to be heard. Like a nearly deaf man reacting with irritation to a conversation that has fallen out of his range of hearing: “What!?” Or a person being infuriated with a deaf man by the constant repeating of...
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