The College Of Musical Knowledge: Self-Edited Genius

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognized pieces of music in the world.  The first few notes — da-da-da DUM, da-da-da-DUM, supposedly reflecting “fate knocking at the door” — are known to pretty much everyone.

45270796_303Recently I heard an interesting broadcast on how hard Beethoven worked at the Fifth Symphony.  (You can read about the creation, and the critical reception, of this ground-breaking symphony here.)  Beethoven wrote it over the course of four years, from 1804 to 1808, and during that time he experimented with a series of different approaches to the different parts of the composition.  His notebooks and papers include “sketches” of some of those efforts that Beethoven tried, tinkered with, and ultimately rejected. 

In the broadcast, the host and a small orchestra played some of the efforts that ended up on Beethoven’s cutting room floor.  Many of those efforts were beautiful, and would have satisfied, if not delighted, most composers — but Beethoven wasn’t just any composer.  He was constantly searching for improvement, and when you hear the first drafts and failed forays compared to the finished product, you’re glad that the man was a perfectionist who was always driven to come up with something even better.  

Those of us who aren’t musically talented tend to believe that talents like Beethoven’s genius for composing are just a gift that comes naturally and without much effort — like Mozart’s character in Amadeus jotting down finished music, without edits, as he bounces a ball around a billiards table.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds pure and seamless, like something that came to him as a package in an inspired dream.  But the reality for most prodigious talents, like Beethoven, is different:  they had to work hard to bring their talents to full flower.  And that’s where there’s a lesson lurking for the rest of us.  We obviously aren’t as gifted as Beethoven, but we can still apply ourselves and self-edit our work to come up with something better.

Thomas Edison is supposed to have observed that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an example of that.  The next time you hear those familiar opening notes, think about the sweat that went into their creation, and I think you’ll appreciate that wondrous piece of work all the more.

The College Of Musical Knowledge: Giovanni Battista Viotti

The Idagio cellphone app offers a “radio play” feature that allows you to listen to the music of favorite composers — and a little else, besides.  From time to time, the folks at Idagio will include a piece by a different composer, just to mix things up a little.

892px-giovanni_battista_viotti_aftertrofsarelliThat’s how I discovered the music of Giovanni Battista Viotti.  I was listening to “Mozart radio” and a piece that didn’t sound quite like Mozart began playing.  I checked the app and saw that the radio was playing a piece by Viotti — a composer that I had never heard of or, to my knowledge, listened to.  I liked the piece that was playing, so I decided to see if there was a Viotti radio option.  Sure enough, there was, and after listening to it I found that I liked Viotti’s work quite a bit.

Born in 1750, Viotti was a violin virtuoso who was a prolific composer of violin-centric concertos and other pieces.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the violin features prominently in his pieces.  He lived a colorful life that saw him working at the court of Marie Antoinette, became embroiled in the French Revolution, and was later expelled from England for a time due to concerns about his potential revolutionary sympathies.  Along the way Viotti and his Stradivarius helped to establish the French school of violin playing, and his compositions influenced Beethoven and Brahms.

Viotti doesn’t exactly get a warm reception from the critics — and I suspect that the fact that some music historians view him as a kind of suck-up to the nobility of the day doesn’t help the reviews of his music.  One article about him, for example, says that the quality of his playing was vastly superior to his compositions, variously describing them as “sweet but anaemic” and “tedious.”  Another article acknowledges that Viotti’s music was admired by his contemporaries and that his violin concertos show true compositional prowess, but his other pieces are “relatively uninspired.”

Not being a musical scholar or analyst, I can’t comment on Viotti’s composition — but I can say that I like his music quite a bit.  It’s very melodic and often uplifting, and is great walking music.  I particularly like his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 15 in B flat major and its jaunty third movement.  It and other pieces have been added to my Idagio list of favorites.

One lesson in the College of Musical Knowledge is that you shouldn’t let what critics say define your personal playlist.  I enjoy Viotti’s music, and I really don’t care whether he’s acclaimed by modern critics or not.