Category Archives: Ludwig van Beethoven

A bow-dacious view of Beethoven

The Minnesota Orchestra shared this YouTube video of its March 31 concert, which included Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2.

From the camera’s point of view, we can see the vigorous, dramatic movement of the players’ bows in the string section. It’s almost mesmerizing to watch:

The music is thrilling and captivating. To hear more, listen to Classical MPR on Friday, April 1, starting at 8 p.m. We’ll broadcast the entire concert live from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Here is the complete program:

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Arto Noras, cello

BEETHOVEN
Leonore Overture No. 2

PENDERECKI
Cello Concerto No. 2

BRAHMS
Symphony No. 3

Beethoven’s Disco Hit

Nearly 40 years ago, many people in discotheques were discovering, celebrating — and yes, getting their groove on — to the music of Beethoven.

On Oct. 9, 1976, Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band went to No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart with “A Fifth Of Beethoven.” The music is a disco rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, First Movement.

Here’s a performance of the track from the 1970s music TV show, The Midnight Special:

Photos: Minnesota Orchestra perform at Teatro Nacional in Havana, Cuba

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage at the Cuban National Theater, Osmo Vänskä conducting. Joined in Beethoven's Choral Fantasy by Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez; and the Coro Nacional de Cuba and Coro Vocal Leo.

The Minnesota Orchestra played to a packed house in Havana last night for the first concert of its historic tour. The all-Beethoven program received repeated standing ovations.

After the concert, French horn student Arletto Juarez explained that a U.S. orchestra is unlike anything she’s heard.

“Ah, [it] was amazing. Here the sound was different, here in Cuba we don’t have that sound.”

Tonight, the orchestra will perform a final concert that will be broadcast live across Cuba and can be heard starting at 7 p.m. on Classical Minnesota Public Radio.

After Saturday’s concert, some orchestra members will sit in on a jam session at a Cuban jazz club.

Media set up for the performance

Theater lobby

Host Brian Newhouse, Director of Operations, Rob Byers, Managing Producer Brad Althoff and Technical Director Michael Osbourne.

Teatro Nacional de Cuba

Teatro Nacional exterior

Outside Teatro Nacional

View from the Teatro Nacional

Inside the broadcast booth at the Teatro Nacional.

Minnesota Orchestra takes a bow

Osmo Vänskä thanks the Cuban audience.

Taking a bow.

The Minnesota Orchestra on stage in Havana

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage at the Cuban National Theater, Osmo Vänskä conducting.

Performing an all-Beethoven concert, Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra musicians on stage.

Osmo Vänskä prepares the Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

Osmo Vänskä returns to the stage

Audience members

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage at the Cuban National Theater

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage

More photos and coverage can be found at ClassicalMPR.org/Cuba

Kobe Bryant is big on Beethoven

L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, seen here in a game against the Atlanta Hawks (photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Basketball star Kobe Bryant has revealed his line of new shoes for Nike. They’re called “Kobe 9 Elite Low ‘Beethoven'”. Nike says the inspiration for the shoes apparently came from the composer’s Symphony No. 9 in particular.

Bryant himself has tweeted about his fondness for Beethoven’s music, particularly his Moonlight Sonata:

On a related note, Bryant has evidently appeared in a TV commercial for Lenovo, in which he plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but as of this morning, the video has been removed from YouTube.

This commercial, made for shoe seller Foot Locker, features Bryant appearing to build a piano:

Oh … the ‘Kobe 9 Elite Low “Beethoven” shoes are due to be available in the U.S. starting Saturday, Aug. 16, with an estimated price tag of $200.

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 5 & 6

Fantasia 2.jpg

In my most recent post in this series, I referred to the “staccato” opening statement of the fifth symphony. A reader corrected me: “The first movement’s theme is not marked staccato.” I thanked the reader and made a correction.

The error reflected a fact I don’t generally shout from the rooftops: I’m not classically trained. I can’t read music; the best I can do is strum chords on a guitar, banjo, or ukulele. My understanding of “staccato” was loose; I was aware that it was a musical term, but hadn’t given much thought to the fact that something that sounds, to my casual ear, generally along the lines of what I think of as “staccato” might not be precisely that.

My error — which I happily acknowledge was necessary and appropriate to correct, and am grateful to have been made aware of — caused me to start thinking about what it means to write about classical music as someone who’s not classically trained. What are the limitations inherent in doing so? How is the perspective of someone who can’t read music different than the perspective of someone who can?

(While we’re in brutal full-disclosure mode, let’s also acknowledge that I have poor pitch: music teachers asked me not to sing in school musicals beyond grade school, and when I was once cast in a lead role with a vocal solo, the director asked me to try rapping it.)

Music is a rich art form, and there are many different dimensions to approaching and appreciating it. Though my parents didn’t make me take piano lessons–and I absolutely did not want to — when I was a kid, I was introduced to classical music at home. In addition to my dad’s records — the very ones I’m listening to right now, in fact — there were TV and movies.

Like generations of kids, I remember Disney’s Fantasia as being one of my first introductions to classical music; John Williams’s Star Wars score — shamelessly cribbing from the playbooks of Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky — showed me, as well as many of my fellow Gen-Xers, the power of the symphony orchestra. Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons (1981) was a family favorite, so my siblings and I learned to associate Vivaldi’s stirring strings with the dramatic passing of each Minnesota season.

Still, classical music wasn’t something I’d felt I had cultural permission to own. By “own,” I mean not just literally owning records, but owning it as something I actively listened to and felt invested in. In modern consumer culture, music isn’t just something we listen to for enjoyment, it’s something we use to represent our identities to others. Wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt was cool…but would it be okay for me to wear a Beethoven t-shirt?

I started slowly, buying budget CDs of The Four Seasons and The Planets when I was in college. I started subscribing to BBC Music Magazine, which includes a complete work on CD with every issue. I read books and guides, the best of all being Jan Swafford’s Vintage Guide to Classical Music, still one of the best-written books — on any subject — I’ve ever read.

(Swafford actually lived down the street from me when I was at Harvard for grad school, and though we never met, sometimes when my roommate and I were walking home late after having a few drinks at the bar, we’d bellow, “Schoenberg! SCHOENBERG!” Sorry, Jan.)

When I finished grad school and became an arts journalist, I’d amassed enough experience with classical music that I felt confident enough to occasionally write about it: occasional reviews, news articles, and think-pieces that drew on my sociological study of cultural fields — where classical music looms large in any discussion of “high,” “low,” “middlebrow,” “nobrow,” or what have you.

I was excited, last fall, to be hired at Minnesota Public Radio, where I split my time between Classical MPR and the Current. Though my new colleagues have been very generous and enthusiastic in their offers of support if I ever were to feel lost in the musical weeds, I was still a little nervous. I love classical music, and I know a fair bit about it — but could I ever really know classical music without technical training? Would I forever be, in some sense, an outsider?

As it happened, shortly after I started at MPR, I met the stage director Peter Sellars — well-known in the classical music world for his collaborations with composers and performers including, most notably, John Adams. Adams has praised Sellars for the musical sensitivity that makes him a superb collaborator despite the fact that Sellars isn’t classically trained, and I asked Peter if he had any advice for me as a classical-music latecomer going to work at a classical music station.

Peter smiled. “When something is happening in the music,” he said, “you know. Don’t you? Your toes curl. You just know.”

The symphony I’m listening to right now, Beethoven’s Pastoral, is one that my dad describes listening to in Naples when he lived there during his U.S. Navy service. Dad and his friends would sit out on Dad’s balcony, drink a little wine, and blast the sixth. Dad doesn’t have much more musical training than I do, but over 40 years later, he still remembers how on those Italian summer evenings, there was nothing like Beethoven.

When something is happening, you know. You just know.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:
Symphonies 4 & 5
Symphonies 3 & 4
Symphonies 2 & 3
Symphonies 1 & 2

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 4 & 5

Voyager Golden Record 2.jpg

The first Beethoven that I knew as Beethoven was the opening of the fifth symphony, the four-note tattoo that’s one of the most famous figures in all of music. I first recall hearing it on a Time-Life record — not this album in my dad’s Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, but one of those flimsy little plastic records that you were supposed to weight with a penny and put on your turntable to sample the sound of a collection being advertised.

In this case, it was a classical collection featuring, of course, the mighty Beethoven. The sampler record opened with a few bars of the fifth symphony, then a stentorian announcer was heard. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but the gist was that if you didn’t own Beethoven’s greatest hits, you were missing out on THE MOST PROFOUND MUSIC EVER CONCEIVED BY THE MIND OF MAN.

Not the most welcoming invitation to classical music, but that’s the impression that generations have been given by an approach that takes Beethoven’s mighty work as its calling card. As well-worn as the work has become, it hasn’t lost its power to overwhelm. Majestic as the entire work is, its ferocious opening movement is particularly indelible: it’s one of the passages in Beethoven’s repertoire where even a 21st century listener can readily hear how the composer raised the stakes for all of music.

Beethoven composed the fifth in his mid-thirties, a period when his deafness was increasingly troubling him. In popular myth, the insistent theme of the first movement represents fate knocking at the composer’s door. To say…what, precisely? “The bad news is, you’re going to lose your hearing. The good news is, you’re going to become an immortal pillar of the musical arts. Sorry, did I come at a bad time?”

At least the reviews were good. Though the initial performance went poorly, E.T.A. Hoffmann later praised the score: “How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!” That makes it sound like a candidate for inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001. It wasn’t, but it did get sent into the stars: the symphony’s first movement appears on the Voyager Golden Record in company with the likes of a Brandenberg concerto movement, the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

In all of Beethoven, there may be no composition so definitively BEETHOVEN as this. The Ode to Joy may be even more famous, but it’s not the first piece you think of when you picture the composer’s glowering visage. That’s the fifth, speaking across the centuries with an urgency that seems unlikely ever to diminish.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:
Symphonies 3 & 4
Symphonies 2 & 3
Symphonies 1 & 2

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 3 & 4

Karajan.jpg

Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, telescopes through time: it opens in the present day with a young woman reading the book of a deceased writer, then flashes back to that writer as a young man being told the story he later turned into the book, then flashes back to the time that story originally took place.

That comes to mind as I sit here listening to Beethoven’s magnificent Eroica symphony on this record from 1970. I’m hearing through speakers and a receiver that were also made around that time, purchased by my dad when he got out of the Navy. This experience — listening to Karajan’s silky Berlin Phil players perform a masterwork on a DG record played on a top-of-the-line Sansui/Altec system — would have been a prime middle- to upper-class luxury in the years just before I was born in 1975.

So there’s my dad, in his Minneapolis apartment in the early 70s, listening to Beethoven and reading the paper in his squared glasses and white turtleneck. Flash back a decade, to Karajan coaxing what Harvey Sachs called a “calculatedly voluptuous” sound from his players as he created a recording that he had every reason to think would be regarded as definitive by a generation of his peers.

Flash back to the standard-bearers of earlier generations: to Furtwängler, whom Karajan succeeded as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. To Toscanini, Furtwängler’s more fastidious elder. To Brahms, whose work Toscanini conducted in the composer’s lifetime and whose own symphonic compositions were slow to emerge because he was intimidated by the precedent set by Beethoven, as recent a historical figure to Brahms as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are to me.

Finally, flash back to Beethoven, famously replacing his third symphony’s original dedication to Napoleon with a generic dedication to “a great man” after Napoleon declared himself emperor, disgusting the composer with his selfish hubris.

210 years later, here I sit, listening to that very work as passed down and burnished into one of the great accomplishments of Western civilization, having been lived in, along the way, by countless interpreters and listeners living countless lives. Not unlike a hotel, actually — and a grand one at that.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:

Symphonies 1 & 2

Symphonies 2 & 3


Photo: Siegfried Lauterwasser/DG

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 2 & 3

Photo: Symphony Hall, Boston (Wikipedia Commons)

Symphony Hall 2.jpg

As I moved on to the third side of the first volume of the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection–the final movement of the second symphony, and the Leonore Overture, with the third symphony beginning on side four–I decided to research the set. Here’s what I learned: though the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection might have been a fine investment in timeless music for the subscribers who purchased it via mail-order in the early 70s, it wasn’t a very sound investment on financial terms.

The exact cost is a little blurry in the contemporary advertisements I’ve found online, but it looks like subscribers paid in the vicinity of $15 per volume, including shipping and handling. That translates to north of $1,000 in 2014 dollars for the complete set. It won’t cost you that much to get your hands on a copy of the collection today, though: a couple of hopeful souls are asking $125 on eBay, and finding no buyers. People seem only vaguely interested when the price drops to $50 for all 85 records.

That’s further evidence of how the vinyl resurgence hasn’t hit the classical world the way it’s hit the indie-rock world, but even classical vinyl buffs aren’t very interested in this set. There’s a lot of Beethoven out there, and the few people looking for vintage records of these performances would prefer to buy the original releases rather than the reissues in the Time Life set, which are regarded as being lower-quality pressings.

What this all means is that there are a lot of people like me out there: owners of a very impressive-looking but not particularly valuable collection of Beethoven recordings.

It does look impressive there on the shelf, and of course there’s no composer more likely to impress the casual visitor than the mighty Beethoven. By his bicentennial, Beethoven had become regarded as the quintessential composer: the musical linchpin between the classical and romantic eras, with a poignant and inspirational personal story.

It’s telling that in 1900, just as “classical music” was coalescing as a field, Boston’s Symphony Hall was built with a single name adorning the medallion at the summit of its proscenium: BEETHOVEN. The German composer didn’t just epitomize classical music, he virtually defined it. His (literal) position in the firmament is all the more striking given that he’d only been dead for 73 years–the builders of Symphony Hall were only as distant from Beethoven as we are from Jelly Roll Morton.

So, naturally, if you were looking to trick out your record collection circa 1970 with an impressive set of music by one composer, it would have to be Beethoven. A few hundred 1970s dollars–payable in 17 easy installments–must have seemed like a very small price to pay for 85 sleek black discs of genius incarnate.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 1 & 2

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 1 & 2

Beethoven Bicentennial Collection 2.jpg

Placing the record on the turntable, I did my best to channel Steve Staruch. “And now,” I said, “the Symphony No. 1, in C major. The Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan.”

I lifted the needle. The record refused to spin. I realized my omission.

“After I plug this in,” I clarified, “we will hear the Symphony No. 1, in C major.”

I plugged the turntable into the outlet strip and again lifted the needle. The turntable spun, but the auto-return kicked in and returned the arm to its cradle.

“Pardon me,” I said, lifting the arm yet again. “Now, we will indeed hear the Symphony No…”

“Jay!” exclaimed my exasperated girlfriend. I nodded silently and dropped the needle.

The record is the first of 85 that constitute the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, a massive collection issued by Deutsche Grammophon and Time Life to commemorate the composer’s 200th birthday, in 1970. The records were recently given to me by my father, who still owns a turntable but typically prefers to listen to his computer or iPod.

From my earliest childhood I remember the set, the behemoth of my father’s record collection. Resplendent in pristine blue slipcovers, the records were a physical manifestation of the cultural weight of classical music generally, and Beethoven specifically. Even the Beatles and Bob Dylan had tiny amounts of shelf space compared to the stormy German composer.

The set was rarely played; my father appreciates classical music, but on an average day is more likely to reach for the Bee Gees than Beethoven. Many of the records in his Beethoven set–perhaps even most of them–have never so much as been touched by a needle in their 40-plus years of existence.

Since before the term “bucket list” was a thing, it’s been on my bucket list to listen to the entirety of the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection. With Beethoven’s sestercentennial coming up in six years, I figure that if I start now, I can proceed at a nice leisurely pace and still wrap up right around his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020.

To hold myself to it, I’m going to blog about it: one post for each two sides in the set. (That would be one post for each record, but the sides are pressed for multi-record changers, so side one of a five-disc set is pressed on the flip side of side ten, side two with side nine, and so on.) As I listen, I’ll blog about Beethoven, yes–but also about anything and everything else that occurs to me as I listen.

For those listening along at home, the first five-record set is part one of two sets of symphonies and overtures. Symphony No. 1 fits tidily on the first side of the first set, and the second side contains the first three of the second symphony’s four movements. Why does the set start with the symphonies? That’s a subject for my next post.

Showering with Beethoven, Headstands with Stravinsky

A new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — by Mason Currey, describes the habits of highly creative people.

Stuck on a big project? Need some creative inspiration? Take Beethoven’s advice:

Beethoven would stand at the washstand and pace back and forth and then go back to the washstand and put water on himself. It was an essential part of the creative buildup, but it also made him hated as a tenant and neighbor because he was splashing water everywhere.

More artists and creative individuals profiled at the Fast Company website.