Beethoven 250: which incarnation?

I hope it isn’t a radical idea to suggest that each of us is really several people, depending on context. The people around me, the places I visit, even the time of day might influence how I act. I’m more jocular around other men, aiming to be nicer at church where I am more mindful about my language. Hopefully I don’t speak loudly at night or honk the car’s horn when I might wake my neighbours. Some of this is common courtesy.

Every artist can be understood in several ways, so much so that we can almost think of them as having multiple personalities that can resemble incarnations. Consider the Eddie Murphy of Dreamgirls alongside the comedian Eddie Murphy of Norbit (and speaking of multiple personalities Murphy plays 3 characters in that one film), and then recall he also has a lucrative voiceover career in films such as the Shrek series. All these versions of Eddie Murphy are the same person, whether we’re speaking of the talking donkey, the three characters of Norbit or his work in Dreamgirls. The variety is driven at least partly by commercial considerations as much as artistic ones.

I was thinking about this after having seen The Pianist late Monday night (after watching and blogging about The Exterminating Angel). Yesterday & today as I played the piano Chopin was the natural choice. In case you haven’t seen The Pianist, it shows us the life of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman between 1939 and 1945, including a scene at the very end where he’s playing with an orchestra. We hear him play Chopin a couple of times. At one point when he’s hiding, he sits at a piano, not daring to make any sound lest he be discovered, as he mimes playing without touching a key: and we hear the “music” in his head.

Even in what we’re seeing on screen one can imagine at least a couple of different sides to Szpilman, the public pianist with orchestra distinct from the quiet poet alone with his thoughts. I was very moved by the film, even as I was at times struggling with questions, wondering what Polanski might have been thinking as I ponder this, the most brutal depiction of this material that I have ever seen. I wanted to ask him “why this piece”? The choice of repertoire curates our experience in the music that we hear. Artist biographies may resemble a compendium of greatest hits for at least a couple of reasons. If they were too accurate we’d get lost in obscure moments with works we don’t know. They need us to recognize and connect to great works, so of course when we’re watching Mr Turner (Mike Leigh’s film about the painter) naturally we see the moments when he conceived of “Rain Steam and Speed” or “The Fighting Temeraire”. Polanski and his team may have pondered comparable choices, opting for instance to include the well-known G-minor Ballade, especially if the well-loved piece helps sell a sound-track recording.

But to come back to what I was hinting at in my preamble, there are at least a couple of different Chopins, just as there are several Beethovens or Gershwins.

The guy on the right

Brian Wyers, a painter I know & admire, has at least two different types of painting. Some of his paintings sell themselves, others seem to sit a bit longer in the gallery.

“Adoration” by Brian Wyers
“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” by Brian Wyers

The ones that sell easily appeal to customers who like beautiful images (especially his paintings of flowers), while the quirky ones that take longer to sell usually emerge from Brian’s deeper creative impulses. When he explained this to me, I thought of how composers hit a comparable fork in the road, especially if they know what work will best serve to help pay the rent. A friend joked about Puccini yesterday, observing Puccini’s irresistible style is always commercially successful and never difficult, even if this is Puccini’s curse, that he is lambasted by critics for daring to write music that is unabashedly beautiful. Some people prefer something difficult or obscure and are uncomfortable admitting that they like something that everyone else likes as well.

Ludwig van Beethoven is a funny case, because he’s recognized by scholars for great works, but also a composer of a great deal of music that is popular. Do you ever wonder about the relationship between popularity & greatness? Notice that the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Van Gogh, are not just beloved by the average person but also by the experts. But maybe there are different types of popularity. I mentioned Taylor Swift, John Legend & Ennio Morricone earlier this week, artists who are popular in 2020. I wonder if anyone will bother with their music in 2220, two hundred years from now.

That’s the thing. Antonio Salieri was famous for awhile, now known more for the disgruntled character in the fictional play Amadeus than as a composer who might deserve to be remembered for more than this misrepresentation of his character.
Let’s think about the way Beethoven continues to be popular long after his passing.
There are 1,613 soundtrack credits listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) for Beethoven.

Let me break it down a bit further. That includes 251 Moonlight sonata references, 219 for Symphony #5, 192 for Symphony #9, 178 for the piano bagatelle “für Elise”, 83 for the Allegretto from Symphony #7 that we heard so tellingly in The King’s Speech, 58 of the Pathetique Adagio, plus many more besides.

Among those many Ninth Symphony credits is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). While the synthesizer timbres from Wendy Carlos create a sound appropriately displaced from the composer’s time it’s still unmistakably Beethoven.

Later that same decade came another modernized Beethoven from another Walter, this time Walter Murphy, namely “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

There is also the Beethoven we hear in “Joyful joyful we adore thee”, a hymn repurposing one of his most famous melodies.

There are other versions of Beethoven that I’m not even broaching yet. He wrote music for solo piano, chamber music, music for the stage (including an opera), encompassing some of his political beliefs, and religious music too.

I wonder what he would think if he encountered his modern selves.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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