Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part Four: Rebuilding a Melody

As usual, check out parts one through three by clicking their respective links on ye olde sidebar.

What do you do after a catastrophe?

Last time we looked at the wholly remarkable "train wreck" which punctuates (with several exclamation points) the development of the Third Symphony.  It is, in short, a total musical catastrophe.  The development section, up to the train wreck, is a seething mass of competing themes already.  Indeed, even without our catastrophe and the third theme to follow, this development section would have been unusual in Beethoven's time for its length and intensity.  But the train wreck raises the bar.  It plunges the piece into a warlike chaos, destabilizing any sense of harmonic, melody, or even rhythmic balance.

So what do you do after a catastrophe?  Beethoven, in a sense, had written himself into a corner with the train wreck.*  So he responds by doing something completely new and different.  He plays us a melody.

* In a hilarious understatement and/or misunderstanding and/or ironic quip the editor of the Liszt piano transcription notes, in the space between the train wreck and the theme to which we are, by degrees, coming: "Here the genius of Beethoven saw the necessity of a change."  Um, yeah.  Considering the entire piece just fell apart, I don't know that it takes a genius to see that something pretty amazing has to happen.  No, the genius is the one who can put it back together.**

** Scratch that, the genius is the one who is so confident in his ability that he knows he can put it back together, and therefore chooses to break it in the first place.  The "genius of Beethoven" saw this whole thing coming a mile away.  Then again, maybe that's the ironic quip: the necessity of a change is not in this piece, but in composition itself.

Not to say that the previous two themes are not melodies.  They are, in a rudimentary, arpeggiated kind of way.  But this one actually is a melody.  It includes tones that are not the one, three, or five of the tonic chord.  Said another way, it moves stepwise instead of by chord tones.  Said another way, it's something you can actually sing without sounding totally ridiculous.*

*Seriously, try singing the opening theme with this lyric I was cursed enough to hear: "Oh my word, it's Beethoven's Third, again."  It may be a fantastic theme, but I defy you to take it seriously as a melody.

What do we make of this melody?  Well, on its own it's quite pleasant.  It's not harmonically all that complex (just a series of tonic to dominant and back; about as simple as it gets).  It's rhythmically straightforward.  It's, well, a song.  Which is perhaps nothing special in itself, but remember how we got here.

You see, what strikes us as a simple, pleasant, but largely uncomplicated melody on its own is transformed into a kind of symphonic messiah in context.  This third theme literally saves the movement from total chaos, swooping in just after some of the most dissonant, ugly, weird chords that any composer has dared write into a symphony.  It's simplicity is chief virtue: we are rebuilding a melody.  Indeed, we are rebuilding melody itself.

Following the metaphor from the last post, this theme is an attempt to recreate that beautiful life of the Viennese waltz after bombardment has destroyed the city.  It is not melancholy, particularly, even if it has a touch of minor tonality.  Rather it is resignedly determined, complete with a simple-minded view that everything can and will be alright, that the city can and will be rebuilt.

But war - and music - is never that simple.  For where do we go after this theme but once more unto the proverbial breach.

The third theme - as you may have noticed in the first two snippets - doesn't resolve itself.  Instead it launches right back into the opening theme.  That opening theme, far from being a return to "normal," becomes a catalyst for rapid and unpredictable harmonic motion.  We sway from major to minor and back, we change keys, and we end up back at the third theme, only a half step (!) higher.  This time the third theme isn't around for long, either, taking a new melodic turn before leading us into a new statement of the opening theme in which it's not clear where our attention should go.  Are we meant to follow the broiling flutes, or the arpeggios in the bass?

This potential second train wreck is stopped by a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic reset that is not quite as intense as the one that introduced the third theme, but is jarring nonetheless.  Instead of chaos, we see a kind of sickeningly quiet order, a plucking of pizzicato strings set against the tension of a sustained dominant chord.  And then, of course, the horn comes in (early), and we're back to the opening of the symphony in the form of the recapitulation, where things are very much the way they were when we started.  Except, they're completely different.  All of which will be the subject of part five.

Anyway, the purpose of all that is to give us context for thinking more about this third theme.  As a piece of music, this third theme is hardly amazing.  As a piece of narrative, it is brilliant.  Standing between total destruction and the remainder of the development section, it speaks to a kind of naive optimism that, once beaten down, cannot help but return again (and once against get sent away).  Now, I don't think that Beethoven means to discount this theme, but I also don't think that we can take it at face value.

What would taking it at face value look like?  Well, I think it would be easy to look at the third theme and to say it's a nice maneuverer, a clever ploy to allow Beethoven to go boom boom and get away with it.  It's easy to say it's pretty, and nice, and beautiful.  It's easy to say that it's genius.  It's a lot harder to say why it's all of those things, however, and harder still to say that, maybe, we're not supposed to actually like this theme.

That is, we are supposed to like it, but only because it's so much nicer to listen to than the noise that came before it (or, for that matter, the strangeness that comes after it).  We like it by contrast.  But, as mentioned above, it's not a particularly great piece of music, nor does it really get its chance to play itself out.  No, I believe this theme is a stand in, a joke, a classic example of Beethoven thumbing his nose at his listeners (especially the uptight ones that would have really hated the train wreck).  It's a statement that, no, everything is not alright anymore.  In the face of the kinds of harmonic and melodic atrocities - so-called, anyway - Beethoven commits in the development section, the tradition of music cannot be the same.

While examining the opening theme, I talked about the infamous C#.  It raises questions about heroism, about music and narrative, about harmonic and melodic function.  This third theme, I think, starts to answer those questions, but in a subtle and subversive way.  If music is powerful, I asked, is it also dangerous?  The answer, in this development section, is yes.  Music is dangerous.  Music can change mediocrity into greatness, or vice versa.  Music can tell a story about power and conflict, music can persuade, music can frustrate and anger, music can inspire.  All of that makes music dangerous.

I don't think, to be clear, that it's the train wreck that is dangerous, for all of the chaos that it embodies.  No, it's this third theme that's the dangerous one, precisely because it's so perfect.  The chance for easy redemption, the opportunity to pretend that a revolution isn't really a big deal, these things are a danger.  And music, too, is a danger, if it chooses not to unfurl itself.  Before Beethoven composers rarely, if ever, wrote about themselves, about music, about power.  They wrote, largely, to be pleasing, to make money, and to praise God.  Beethoven does all of those things, but he also drives deeper, and in so doing unearths the flaw of the music of his predecessors (however great much of it was): it can't stand up to true musical force.

We have further to go in this movement, but I want to leave with a glimpse of the entire development section.  In the last two posts I've subdivided the development into two parts: pre-train wreck, and post.  It's worth listening to the whole thing as one unit.  I won't offer any more commentary, since the last two posts have more than enough.  Rather, I'll let the music do the talking.  Here's the entire development section of the Third Symphony. 

No comments:

Post a Comment