If you’re a child born on December 22nd you might grow up perpetually frustrated because of the proximity of your birthday to Christmas. There you are, early in the sign of Capricorn, and everybody’s celebrating someone else’s birth instead of yours.
But this is still an auspicious birthday.
It’s the day in 1808 when several remarkable pieces of music came kicking and screaming into the world at a long concert by Ludwig van Beethoven. I’m most interested in the premieres of the masterpieces, namely the Sixth Symphony, the Fifth Symphony (the sequence they were played in, not how they’re numbered) and his Fourth piano concerto. There was lots more Beethoven (the Choral fantasy, excerpts from the Mass in C and even more besides), but those are the works that make this such a special event.
Any one of these inserted into a modern program is likely the highlight, given that these three are so powerful. It’s hard to imagine anything one could program with any of the three that would overshadow or overpower them. But what if you suddenly picture all three together on one program?
Now imagine hearing even one of those pieces for the first time. I think of these two symphonies and the Eroica as being especially ground-breaking, that an audience accustomed to Mozart and Haydn and grappling with Beethoven’s new chamber works would still have been flabbergasted by any one of these works.
Just for the sake of a popularity contest –the sort of thing I usually detest except as far as it might tell us something about audiences & culture—which one do you think is the most popular right now? I toss the question out having no clue what the answer might be, but pondering the implications of such a question. We could look at how many performances are programmed –the way operabase.com tabulates opera popularity—but that would miss recordings and downloads. We could consider appropriations recorded in IMDB for film-scores or look at Beethoven’s overall filmography (where you find 1204 entries of which # 1201 and 1185 seem to be the Pastorale aka Symphony #6; but there appear to be many more entries for the bagatelle Für Elise and for the moonlight sonata). Churchill used the dit dit dit dah of the Fifth because it signifies V for victory via morse code.
I heard a safety chime system at the University of Toronto that plays a series of tunes when doors are open, including bits of Christmas carols, popular songs and yes, that opening motto in C minor. Okay, so in other words both symphonies seem to have penetrated into our collective unconscious.
How important are they? I don’t propose to evaluate such things. But it’s hard to imagine Liszt and Wagner without these two symphonies, and many other composers besides. And while I can’t trace the direct influence of the concerto on subsequent works, it too is a work of daring & originality.
Just when you were mulling over those these great compositions, I’m going to derail your train of thought. Dec 22nd might be the date of that famous concert, but it’s probably best known–in musical circles at least– as the birthday of Giacomo Puccini, a composer of some of the most popular operas. Speaking of popularity, I will again think of operabase.com, who tabulate opera performances worldwide, helping companies assess which composers are most likely to help them pack the opera house, and thereby stay afloat in one of the most expensive art-forms.
In their 2012-13 stats Puccini has moved up a spot, nudging out Mozart for #2, behind Giuseppe Verdi who is #1. Here’s what Operabase reported in 2009-10
1 Verdi 2211 (28 Operas)
2 Mozart 2101 (24 Operas)
3 Puccini 1740 (12 Operas)
…and in 2012-13
1 Verdi 2586 (28 Operas)
2 Puccini 1893 (12 Operas)
3 Mozart 1883 (27 Operas)
If Puccini objected to being born so close to Christmas I’ve seen no evidence that he either minded, nor that it hurt him. Still, i won’t be thinking of Happy Birthday for either him nor those famous Beethoven compositions, not when all those amazing tunes are competing inside my head.
How about yours?