Beethoven 250: ethnic music

This blog expands on something I proposed November 20th when I talked about Beethoven’s multiple incarnations.

Everyone has dimensions or facets to their personality. I hope that’s not a radical idea. There are things we proudly show off, other things to make us blush at the recollection. There is the person we bring to business meetings, where we wear the appropriate armour and joust according to the rules of our chosen discipline: and the person who falls into bed at the end of the day, hopefully removing all our masks, willing to drop our defenses in sleep. Our aspirations may bring out some qualities, just as our background and upbringing likely influence us in other ways. We are perhaps the sum of our influences even if we are also sometimes searching and dreaming, sometimes dissembling and playing, often ignoring the instructions we’ve been given, not always remembering who we are or what we want. That’s as true of the average person as for the great ones we admire.

Yes I’m on a fishing expedition. When we talk about famous composers, there is naturally a body of work that may become canonical, the core works that are played by famous artists, big orchestras or important opera houses. The creations understood to be most popular or most admired should not be mistaken for the sum total, as they represent aspects of a composer. If the artist is especially lucid and notices what’s working, what’s selling, what’s exciting to audiences, then they will have a chance to replicate their success. But this part of the composer’s creative life –and the personality that might be associated with their greatest work— is not the sort of fish I’m looking for. I’m not looking in an obvious place, but rather am going off the beaten track, into the backwoods of obscurity. I’m not sure we can learn anything from digging into the underbrush. I came up with the title before I really knew what I was going to say, only sure that a few examples I found might lead me to something meaningful.

It’s impossible to know with certainty what a composer was listening to in childhood, what music influenced them as they grew up. But among their own works one can sometimes find traces of their actual background, their history. Dvorak wrote symphonies and operas, but also Slavonic Dances, that admittedly might have been what put him on the map & made him famous outside his native land. Chopin composed Etudes and Preludes but also Polonaises and Mazurkas. I am not saying that the compositions that have an ethnic flavor are better or worse, whatever that might mean, only that they represent an aspect of a composer’s identity that likely offers a key to understanding their appeal.

When we come to the music of Beethoven, you might well ask “what could that even mean” to speak of his ethnic music. Perhaps you see now why I said I’m fishing. But let me offer some examples first of the pieces I’m thinking of, and then the later compositions that show traces, suggesting that this is at least an aspect of LvanB that hasn’t fully been explored.

I tried googling without any success. If you try, you’ll see pieces discussing the possibility of Beethoven’s Moorish heritage. That isn’t what I’m exploring, and please excuse me for mentioning something I will not explore. Yes there are some amazing passages in Beethoven. I even saw someone extol a remarkable passage in a sonata as evidence, thinking of the earliest example of boogie woogie in the syncopated variation of the finale to piano sonata #32 (and for what it’s worth, Andras Schiff does not agree, as you can hear him say explicitly on this video.) But a style that only appeared in the 1940s can hardly be relevant for a composer in the early part of the 19th century.

I’m going to share a series of Beethoven compositions that are mostly under the radar, even if they have been published & even recorded. There are over 200 pieces without an opus number, catalogued as “WoO”, which is short for “werke ohne Opuszahl”, (German for “works without opus number”). While the important pieces like the sonatas & symphonies were given opus numbers, anything that’s given a WoO number is usually considered less important. And please note that Beethoven isn’t the only composer who has works that are identified as “WoO”.

I’m fishing, remember? I figured that there could be early pieces of this sort that might signify something as indications of Beethoven’s early tendencies. And then wow wouldn’t it be cool to see if anything survives as a remnant or a vestige in the pieces that do have opus numbers..!?

I have several examples. These are Ländlers WoO 11.

They employ a very simple meter & are wonderfully easy to play. In #s 4, 6 and 7, Beethoven is complicating things with his use of chromaticism, the accidentals that make the piece a bit more edgy, surprising to hear.

Here are the Ländlers WoO 15

These Dances are simple, direct, and perhaps do not suggest the word “ethnic” to you.

Listen to this German Dance.

It’s not a huge step from dances like these that I’ve shared, to the Scherzo movements we hear in Beethoven’s second or third piano sonatas offering us in passing a kind of snapshot of the evolution of dance music.

First let’s listen to the Scherzo from Op 2 #2. It’s like a German dance.

When we come to the scherzo from the third sonata Beethoven raises the stakes, adding chromatic complexity, tricky rhythms & even a bit of counterpoint.

A piece we’d call “scherzo” is often the most complex & challenging piece, thinking for instance of Chopin and especially of what Mahler would do.

Let me play something very well-known, but framing it alongside the simple construction of the German dances.

Let me put another piece out there for your edification, one that puzzles me frankly. Beethoven at this moment–the rondo finale to the 3rd Piano Concerto– reminds me of Liszt for his remarkable melody in this movement. Where did it come from? It reminds me of something non-German, although I’m unable to say what nationality is suggested by this dance.

I don’t know.

This is of course art music, not folk music yet the chromaticism & rhythmic vitality suggest something far from the concert realm. Music criticism in the 21st century shies away from making wild speculation without evidence. As I recall the scenes in Immortal Beloved between Beethoven and Maria Erdödy (which include Hungarians speaking Magyar) I wonder if the composer had been influenced by something he had heard? As far as I can tell the composer’s relationship with Maria came almost a decade after this concerto. But we don’t know what or who else he heard, music that might have influenced him.

The opening of the Piano Concerto #3 finale

There are a great many recordings of WoO music, available on youtube and elsewhere. They’re a glimpse of another side of Beethoven, as though we were watching out-takes or casual recording sessions from his early days before he became famous. They may jar in their simplicity, their lack of pretense or guile. And they illuminate what came later, suggesting how Beethoven built magnificent structures from the simplest & most basic component parts.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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