Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by way of Franz Liszt
I think I’m what you might call a musical savant. In the third grade students were offered the opportunity to learn to play an instrument. I chose the clarinet. I had the instrument for a week when one day I forgot the clarinet at school. The music teacher discovered this, decided I wasn’t serious, and so took my clarinet away from me. The shame helped contribute to some sort of block that has prevented me from being able to read music.
In four years of high school, I changed schools six times, and in one of them I somehow managed to summon the courage to join the chorus. And in each subsequent high school I was ushered into their version of the honors choir. In South Dakota, the emphasis was on pop music and I had to sing “You Are So Beautiful To Me.” In Alaska we were a very polished swing choir that did a slick forty-five minute tribute to Broadway, where for some reason I had to sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” And in Iowa the focus was on classical music with an almost aggressive emphasis on regional and state competitions, where I sang “Thou Art Gone Up On High” from The Messiah. It’s a little known fact that Iowans take their classical music VERY seriously. Well into the twenty-first century the pop stations were still playing Air Supply as the latest and greatest, but almost every high-school sophomore singing in a choir can intelligently discuss Vivaldi. Failure to get the highest score in those competitions carries the highest level of shame imaginable. Fear of shame became a great motivator for me and as a result I developed a decent ear and the ability to do as I’m told. I had no idea what I was singing, and almost no interest, but I could win a blue ribbon, and that’s all anybody ever really cared about for me.
I did not develop an appreciation for music of any kind. I can’t tell the difference between a B sharp and an A flat, but I do know the difference between high and low German as sung in lieder.
When I finally escaped to college, I resolutely refused to open my mouth in song until the second semester of my junior year, when we did Jesus Christ Superstar. My competitive spirit helped me overcome the trauma of singing arias and I auditioned. The professor/director listened to my audition and then rather publicly stood up and took credit for discovering my singing ability. I thought it best not to mention the drawer full of ribbons in my father’s basement, and dutifully stepped onto a stage whenever asked to sing, which was pretty regularly for the remainder of my undergraduate career. But my heart was never really in it. I was a theatre artiste!
Another professor mentioned in a class once that if one really wanted to experience the power of theatre, a real artist would develop an intimate appreciation for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. As an undergraduate, I barely had time to listen to Madonna’s latest masterpiece, much less devote six hours to German opera, whether it be high or low; but upon graduation, and with my first big payday I bought a seven cassette recording of Wagner’s collection of little ditties and promised myself that I would develop the refined sensibility of a real artist.
I never made it to the third cassette.
And there lay my musical experience. As a professional actor, I did a few musicals, but they weren’t my focus. For the vast majority of my life music has been nothing more than something to either distract me while I washed dishes or motivate me to get on a treadmill. My musical consumption has been the equivalent of a diet of Twinkies and Kool-Aid. I’m mildly embarrassed by the music on my iPhone.
So, with the enforced solitude of Covid I decided the time has come to expand my musical horizons. I started by turning my television to the light classical channel and let those broadcasts wash over me as I created spreadsheets and presentations for my day job. And then one day, a piece piqued my interest, and I went out to the Internet to do a little reading from the source of all knowledge: Wikipedia, which enabled me to give a grudging interest in Beethoven and seek out some of his stuff.
Full symphonies are intimidating and almost oppressive. I much prefer chamber music. And much like hauling my spreading ass to the gym (back when that didn’t represent a threat to life and lung) I am now dedicating a portion of every day to simply listening to chamber music. I am particularly taken with the compositions by Franz Liszt, which has led me to a recording of a two-piano transcription by my new buddy Franz of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s probably best described as Beethoven-light. Much more easily consumed.
Upon the third or fourth listening, what struck me about the recording is the almost random “wrong” notes. It happens a number of times in the Liszt transcription and the first time I noticed I couldn’t believe it. I questioned the ability of the pianist, and whether or not he should even be allowed to put fingers to keys. Of course that makes no sense, so why? The only answer I can come up with that these little “imperfections” are there for the sole purpose of snapping the audience to attention. Franz wants to see if we’re listening. The first time you hear it you ask yourself, “Did I hear that right?” And ingeniously – almost against your will – you’re back into the piece, giving it fresh attention. In a later movement, the wrong-note trick is repeated, and then a moment later the wrong note almost becomes a theme unto itself, and you begin to realize the composer is playing with you. I’m not educated enough to know whether the joke is Luddy’s or Franz’s, but one of these chaps is having a little fun from beyond the grave. And now I’m hooked.
Right now I’m learning the Ninth and several of the musical passages run through my head like an annoying little pop tune from One Direction. Not that I know anything about the music of One Direction. (A pox on Zayn’s head for breaking them up – that’s all I have to say.) But I’m becoming interested in the dramatic structure of the piece, which is nothing like a traditional theatrical structure. I’m intrigued by the idea of translating this symphonic structure into dramatic terms for a play. Much to think about.
And as a little coda: I did finally purchase a digital recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting Tristan and managed to get all the way through it. But only because I was driving across the cornfields of Iowa. I think it’s going to take me a few more tries get that one.