Monday, 29 September 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 6 Ha! ha! among the trumpets (3)

[In his famous essay about the writing of Lolita Vladimir Nabokov mentions the nostalgia certain episodes and passages arouse in him several years after writing. One of them is '...the Kasbeam barber (who cost me a month of work)...' I search, as many others must have done, for the Kasbeam barber, about whom I've forgotten in the plummeting descent of the story, to discover just what made his invention and fleshing-out so time-consuming. And when I eventually find him, on page 213 of the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, I wonder how on earth he could have taken up so much of Nabokov's time. There's just a finely-crafted passage about him, all of eight lines long. He has nothing to do with the story. It's not local colour. He's not a metaphor for anything else, as far as I can see. The passage is simply a pleasant little cameo. Clearly it sometimes took Nabokov a very long time indeed for his ideas to mature.

I've nothing in common with Nabokov except a more exasperating slowness in working ideas out. The following took me more than a month to put together. Admittedly, there have been family events to lead me gently away from the keyboard. And just occasionally some serious lying in the sun to attend to.]

Having boldly - rashly, maybe - invented the term 'Great Gluckian Revolution', I suppose I'm now obliged to elaborate it. Readers less gripped by musicological thesisry and much more interested in the continuing story of Flaming Adèle, George, the Kerpen gypsies and the evil Cologne Hauptbahnhof predators (who are just around the corner) may prefer to skip, which I confess I often do, to whatever catches the onward-roving eye, dialogue, illustrations or italics, always a surefire eye-catcher.

I've no compunction about heading what follows
not to mention

Although Beethoven was celebrated as a virtuoso pianist before he made his name as a composer, he had also played the violin and viola from the age of 9. In 1784, when Beethoven was 14 and presumably resembled the child-portrait discovered in 1972, Maximilian Franz, youngest son of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, was sent from Vienna to take up the position of Elector of Cologne. Maximilian Franz was a cultivated and energetic man, with ambitions to make his court in Bonn a European centre of cultural activity. His predecessor, confusingly called Maximilian Friedrich, had built up a strong musical establishment of choir and orchestra, which came to employ three generations of Beethovens at various intervals: grandfather Louis as Kapellmeister, father (and well-known drunk) Johann as choir tenor, and the young Ludwig firstly as organist and harpsichordist and later as viola player.

Under Maximilian Franz the Bonn orchestra flourished mightily. It isn't known to what extent he used his imperial Viennese contacts to poach players from other orchestras, but some of the best instrumentalists of the day found their way to Bonn, among them the flautist Anton Reicha (mentioned above) and Bernard Romberg (cello). These two, young, energetic and outgoing like Beethoven, were also composers and found ready outlets for their music in their new musical milieu.

Commentators are generally too ready to allow Beethoven's extraordinary piano virtuosity to eclipse the impact of his experience as an orchestral player on his development as a composer. (That Beethoven was an orchestral violist will come as tidings of comfort and joy to viola players, traditionally the most put upon of string players and the unfailing butt of orchestra jokes, e.g.: *Q: How do you keep a violin from being stolen? A: Put it in a viola case. *Q: What's the difference between a violist and a seamstress? A: A seamstress tucks up the frills. And so on.) Beethoven played with the Bonn orchestra from 1784 to 1792, with one break in 1787, during which he went to Vienna hoping to receive lessons in composition from Mozart. The 16-year-old Beethoven and the 31-year-old Mozart met, certainly, but whatever passed between them isn't well documented, and in any case Beethoven was recalled to Bonn to his mother's deathbed after a few months.

Beethoven's 8-year orchestral (and chamber music) experience in Bonn could be said to be his grammar school and university education. One of the yawning gaps in Beethoven studies is what the Bonn orchestra played. We know almost as much about their uniform - red trimmed with gold - as about their repertoire, but the little we know is significant. In 1790 Haydn passed through Bonn on his way to London, and the band and choir entertained him with one of his own Masses, but we don't know which one. There's an account by someone called Carl Junker, (who referred, rather implausibly, to the swarthy, four-square viola player as 'the dear, good Bethofen') of a gala concert in 1791: the band played, among other things, an unspecified Mozart symphony, a cello concerto by Bernard Romberg and a symphony by Ignaz Pleyel. (The name Pleyel totters on uncertainly through Ignaz's son Camille, round whose little piano pieces in my childhood unwilling fingers used to get themselves in such a tangle during Associated Board Grade 3 and 4 exams. Maybe they still do.)

What is striking about this fare, a Mozart symphony here, a Haydn Mass there, is its modernity. No orchestra today, however gorgeously dressed and privately funded, could survive on an unvarying diet of avant-garde music. No more could its audiences. Maximilian Franz's Bonn orchestra wasn't unique: the repertoires of other contemporary orchestras, like the famous Mannheim orchestra or that of Prince Nicolas Esterházy, which Haydn directed for so long, are better documented. They lead to the same conclusion: in musical terms, the years 1780-1810 constitute one of those extremely rare periods in Western aesthetic history in which what was new, and immediate, was magnificently crafted, was universally popular and in constant demand. This is partly due to the invention of a new musical language, and Beethoven was at the heart of its development.

As a viola player, he was particularly well placed to observe how earlier composers applied the new language to orchestral writing. As far as I know no one has yet compared playing the viola to riding a motorbike - a pushbike might be a better analogy, given the supposed inability of violists to keep up - in the middle of the road: if you fail to pay attention to the other traffic both on your own side of the road and on the other, you end up as the subject of Viola Joke No. 94: Q: What's the difference between a viola and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead person on the inside. The violist, playing a sort of piggy-in-the-middle tenor line in the middle of the strings, has to be aware of what the cellos and basses are doing below, while keeping an attentive ear on the violins above at the same time, particularly in late 18th century and early 19th century music. Sensitive teamwork is such an important part of good orchestral playing, and violas have to show it in double doses. This requirement becomes yet more imperative in good ensemble playing, in quartets or trios, which was also a feature of Beethoven's Bonn experience. So Beethoven's teens passed in constant music-making with other gifted musicians, happily familiar with the new language, in one of Europe's leading centres of musical excellence. He could hardly have had a more encouraging start.

What was this new musical language? We are so used to it now, and it continues to feature so strongly in our everyday lives, that it's difficult to conceive of the scale of the revolution required to set it going. Basically it was a simplification, a reduction of the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of music to essentials. From its earliest manifestations in the first half of the 18th century it was marked by open, undecorated, balanced and attractive tunes based on simple and closely related chords. For all what we now acknowledge as Bach's genius, his music was all but forgotten by the time of his death in 1750. There were exceptions: Beethoven made his name as a pianist with Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Bachian and Handelian polyphony, music composed of combinations of vocal or instrumental lines singing or playing much the same thing, had reached a maturity from which there could only be decline.

A new simplified logic of harmony came in, based on a 'home' key and its near neighbours. I daresay some composers didn't know they were doing it: the 550 harpsichord pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Bach's contemporary, are all constructed on a harmonic framework based on the relations between the chords of the home key (technically the tonic), the chord of the fifth note above (the dominant) and the chord of the fifth note below (the subdominant: if the tonic was C, the dominant would be G and the subdominant F). He called his pieces 'sonatas', and the system of writing music around these key-relationships became known as 'sonata', or 'the sonata principle', or 'sonata form'.

One man knew exactly what he was doing. Christoph Willibald Gluck deliberately and courageously transformed opera, applying the same principles of simplicity and harmonic balance to his productions, creating very expressive tunes from the notes of common chords. If any of the hundreds of minor composers following the new music banners deserves to have the revolution named after him, it is Gluck...

...although Haydn, a generation older than Beethoven, expanded and developed the new language and was perhaps the first to realise what an extraordinary potential for flexibility the new language had. It could with equal success be applied to solo instruments, to groups of woodwind or strings, to choral singing, to orchestras, to operas, to dance music, to virtually any form or musical medium. This was the language Beethoven inherited: it was universal, it spoke equally to the most refined aristocrat and the whistler in the street; it was flexible, capable equally of profound depths of expression and the frothiest musical comedy; it could carry equally dazzling concert-hall virtuosity and homespun cottage-piano music-making; it was elastic, capable of infinite development.
Coincidentally - and very conveniently, as the theme of this chapter is the trumpet - the new harmonic simplicity meant that the natural notes of the trumpet (and the French horn, to a lesser extent) had found a new and very comfortable home. With their capacity for strong, urgent rhythms based on a few notes of common chords the trumpets brought a mettlesome dash, an excitement, a military swagger to orchestral music that hadn't existed before.

Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in 1792, given salaried leave of absence by Maximilian Franz and his friend Count von Waldstein to study with Haydn. (Mozart had died the year before.) Nothing went right. The promised salary didn't materialise. Haydn was a poor teacher, though kind to Beethoven. Eventually a Viennese aristocrat, Prince Carl Lichnowsky, took him under his wing.

Enormously hard-working and prodigiously productive of compositions in a musical language at first reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn and progressively more and more in his own idiom, Beethoven found towards the end of the decade that his hearing had begun to deteriorate. It would be the most savage of ironies that within a few years he would be unable to hear, even with the aid of the trumpets shown above, the musical language the world identifies him with.


joy said...

Violin music is enthralling to say the least. Your blog is a very well written piece. I found some good info on violin music on

Dave said...

I must admit, being tone deaf, that most of this went over my head. Thanks for the jokes, though.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Joy: Greetings, welcome aboard - and thank you for your very kind remarks. Are you a string player? Not a violist, surely?

Dave: Don't know what to suggest for tone deafness, I'm afraid. Or are you perhaps undergoing treatment for it in your blog-image? (You know I won't use the despicable word a****r.)