The Great Composers? Part IV: Scherzo

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Beethoven the perfectionist, selon Liebig

Beethoven the perfectionist, selon Liebig

Some say that the scherzo (literally, a joke) was invented in order to provide a little comic relief between two very serious movements. Sometimes the humor is of a sardonic, eerie or macabre nature.

Since one of my aims is to try to find out why, for some people, “classical” music is so much more potent than other kinds of music, and as a connected question, why these people form only a small proportion of the population, I’ll give some examples of the pitfalls that await the unwary “classical” missionary who speaks to high school students or innocent adults. Most of what follows is drawn from real life. The speaker, Juan Torescramiento, is introducing a performance of one of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets by the Pro Classico String Quartet. Mr. Torescramiento is not Spanish, but the fake-Spanish name I have given him is more appropriate to the character of his discourse than anything printable in English. He is actually a conflation of several musical missionaries (all of white European extraction) whose effusions I was unlucky enough to have to sit through during the thirty-two years of my tenure as a high school teacher in New York City. Some were faculty members. After giving a few details of Beethoven’s birth and early life he gets to the real stuff. First we get some of the old horse-feathers… Oops! I meant to say “conventional wisdom.”

“Beethoven was one of the greatest geniuses the human race has ever produced. Up to his time composers had always been content to work for the Church or the aristocracy and produce whatever music was demanded. Beethoven wrote as a free individual, composing according to his own inspiration and not simply obeying the whims of his patrons. His symphonies, concertos and quartets are bigger in every way than those of his predecessors, who were constrained by eighteenth century ideas of taste and form.”

Mr. T describes, as far as he can in non-technical language and to the extent of his own understanding, Beethoven’s extensions of the tonal system and expansion of structure, his use of offbeat rhythms and dynamic contrasts and his musical promulgation of the ideal of freedom. Most of the audience have heard some of this stuff before but, being musically inexperienced, have little idea what he’s talking about. Some wonder how all this talk is going to help them to enjoy the music, and wish that Mr. T would stop talking and let the music begin. But the speaker continues with a dissertation on sonata form, explaining how Beethoven was not bound by its eighteenth century conventions but adapted it to his own purposes. He ends with a severe warning.

“Now I want you all to listen to this music with reverence and great attentiveness. Remember that Beethoven was one of the great masters, perhaps the greatest ever. People have been listening to his music for two centuries. Orchestras play it all over the world. Many scholars have devoted their lives to it and written millions of words about it. It really exemplifies the whole field of classical music—music that, unlike popular music, does not always make an obvious appeal but may give up its secrets only after repeated listening. We know that this is great music because it has stood the test of time. We treat it with reverence because it is the work of inspired geniuses who devoted their whole lives to the development of their art. We treat our performers with great respect because it is only through great talent and hours of daily practice that this music can be played at all. Pop songs come and go—people soon get tired of them and want to go on to the next thing. The amount of training, expertise and sheer hard work that goes into the composition of a symphony or a quartet far outweighs that which goes into the production of a pop song, and pop musicians need only a fraction of the skill and training required by classical performers. That may explain why people rarely listen to pop music with the kind of attention I’m asking you for and why songs and whole fashions last such a short time and have to be replaced with something different. Another reason is that young people are being commercially exploited—the quicker the fashions change the more they have to spend on keeping up with them.”
The students have listened respectfully up to this point, but when Mr. T starts talking about reverence for classical music and the deficiencies of pop music a certain atmosphere makes its presence felt. Meanwhile the performers, who are sitting in a little room at the back of the auditorium, are wondering how much longer they’ll have to wait.

Mr. T is about to wrap up his introduction, but several hands have popped up.

“Well,” he says, “I wasn’t planning to answer questions, but I think there might be time for one or two.”

“Some of us already like classical music,” points out a student who looks very serious and rather upset, “but it doesn’t turn us on the way our music does. It’s nice and relaxing and we sometimes have it on while we’re doing our homework or when we want to relax.”

The student hasn’t finished what she wanted to say, but Mr. T is looking shocked and his mouth is already open for a rebuttal when another, less polite, student breaks in.
“All this stuff about reverence is…” He was going to say “crap,” but at the last moment he changes his mind, gropes for a word and comes out with “stupid.” Seven teachers sitting in the back row wince in unison with Mr. T. “I mean what difference does it make, telling us how old the music is, who wrote it or how many zillion hours it took to compose? The only thing that matters is how it sounds now, and mostly it’s boring. And what’s the point of telling us that the music we like is bad and we must be morons to spend money on it? It’s not going to change the way we feel about it or make us like your kind of music any better.”

“I didn’t say it was bad,” says Mr. T defensively. “I only said that it’s much easier to compose and perform.”

“Yes,” says a third student, “but you said it in a very judgmental way and it had the opposite effect to what you wanted. And in any case a lot of what you said isn’t true. A lot of people still listen to the Beatles and the Stones and Pink Floyd, and my grandparents listen to their Bing Crosby records and all that really ancient stuff.”

“I love classical music,” says a fourth, “and I listen to it whenever I can; but I think what Anne, Jason and Maria said was mostly true, except the bits about classical music being boring or nice for background. And I think it’s a bad idea to be listening for second subjects and recapitulations and so on. It takes you out of the music. When you get to know a piece of music you hear things like that without having to think about them.”

“And to be honest,” adds a fifth, “we get really tired of being told how great Beethoven was. Maybe he was, but that was two hundred years ago…”

The Pro Classico Quartet is a very experienced and resourceful group. The leader has been listening to what’s going on and realizes that Mr. T is in trouble. He suggests to his colleagues that they get out the Debussy Quartet. Without waiting for any further introductions they walk out and stand by their chairs. The room becomes quiet; the leader thanks Mr. T for his introduction; he announces that there has been a change of program and that Debussy will be played instead of Beethoven; without further comment they sit down and the music begins; most of the students love it.

Some of the teachers are confused, but the only person thoroughly unhappy is Mr. T.

*

The odd thing is that there is slightly more value in what Mr. T said about pop music than in what he said about Beethoven. Writing a song does not necessarily require a lower form of genius than writing a symphony or a quartet, whether the song-writer’s name is Franz Schubert, Jerome Kern or Paul McCartney, but it is a far less arduous process. The pop scene is highly commercial and young people are exploited. But these factors do not in themselves mean that the symphony must be in some sense better than the song. Some orchestral pieces that required enormous skill and hard work in their composition turn out to be pure claptrap. If you really wanted to show that one kind of music is better than another you would have to examine the music in the light of agreed criteria without slyly or accidentally letting a priori judgements creep in. That is what this exploration is about, and if all it ends up with is a strong suspicion that the process is impossible or a waste of time and effort, so be it. The investigation may still turn up some interesting or amusing things.

Students can defend themselves and their music against what they take to be the calumnies of ignorant classical enthusiasts, but they are generally defenseless against misinformation about classical music. Beethoven as the great revolutionary is a popular myth even among people who don’t often listen to any kind of music. It is rarely mentioned that he adopted a style of composition ready-made for him by the previous generation of composers, that his further development of the style was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and that Beethoven is far more like Haydn than Haydn is like the late baroque and rococo composers who preceded him. In various ways Haydn and Mozart managed to free their creative processes from the demands and expectations of their aristocratic or ecclesiastical employers and audiences. Beethoven may have scoffed at the aristocracy, but he was ready to accept their money and he was not above writing potboilers and fulfilling commissions with run-of-the-mill music. None of this lowers our esteem for Beethoven’s finest compositions.

The false impression that is often given of Beethoven is coupled with an equally false impression of musical form, particularly sonata form, which seriously interferes with the way people hear music and the way in which they think about it. I deal extensively with this topic in later essays.

Like Mr. T, I know that “classical” music has something powerful and important to give, something that no other music has. Unlike Mr. T (apparently) I realize that although we can recognize it when we experience it, we can only grope hesitantly towards an understanding of what it is, and we have not yet found the words to explain it. It is to be hoped that we never shall. Meanwhile, like Jack Tanner, we “go on talking.”

About the author

Keith Francis

Keith Francis was born in Suffolk, England, in 1933. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester and the University of Cambridge, where he read Natural Science, specializing in Atomic Physics, and served as a cantor in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College. After graduating in 1956 he worked as an engineer for Bristol Aircraft before going back to Cambridge to get his teaching diploma and subsequently returning to the Crypt School to teach physics and mathematics at the college entrance level. He also frequently substituted for an ailing music teacher.

In 1965 he joined the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan and stayed there until his retirement in 1996. He was hired to teach physics and math, but he soon took over most of the music program in the high school, and was also responsible for organizing an earth science/ecology program and doing most of the teaching. Later on he taught quite a bit of English and held various administrative positions including High School Administrator and Faculty Chair.

Since his retirement he has published a memoir (The Education of a Waldorf Teacher), several novels, a history of the atomic theory (From Abdera to Copenhagen) and Rudolf Steiner and the Atom. In 2001 he founded the Fifteenth Street Singers and directed the group for the following eight years.

Keith is married, has two sons and four granddaughters, and divides his time between New York City and Southern Berkshire County.

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