Tag: Beethoven

American Shakespeare?

American Shakespeare? posted in Eleison Comments on March 17, 2012

A number of people will find it absurd to compare anybody involved in modern cinema with one of the greatest poets and dramatists of all time, but St. Patrick’s Day may be the right moment to commemorate a great son of Ireland, the American film-director John Ford (1895–1973), by pointing out a few similarities between his career and that of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). A John Ford may be as close as our poor modern age can get to producing a Shakespeare – let’s see:—

To begin with, both men were highly successful popular entertainers. Shakespeare set out to write not English Literature but scripts for the Globe Theatre company, always in need of new plays to put on stage. Between 1592 and his exile from the London stage less than 20 years later, he wrote some 35 plays of all kinds: history plays, comedies, tragedies, romances. They were all popular, because Shakespeare was so involved in the Globe Theatre and so close to its audience. As for John Ford, to satisfy the insatiable demand of the American film-going public for new films, between 1917 and 1970 he directed, with a company of actors appearing repeatedly, over 140 films, which mix, like Shakespeare, comic and serious, high life and low life. Many of these films were great box-office hits, because Ford like Shakespeare knew his public.

Both men were highly successful because they were story-tellers, stories being the heart of popular entertainment. Both men grip their audiences and hold them in suspense – what happens next? And as story-tellers can have considerable influence, so both men helped to mould their nations’ character. By his history plays acting as propaganda for the recently established Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare has permanently influenced Englishmen’s view of themselves coming out of the Middle Ages. Ford likewise had a keen sense of American history (e.g. The Last Hurrah), and by creating the myth of the “Western” that fabricated America’s “Wild West,” he so defined the American national character as to have made people associate Americans with cowboys ever since.

Both men served a serious apprenticeship to their craft, Shakespeare on the boards of the Globe Theatre, Ford by spending several years as a cameraman before graduating to the direction of films. Shakespeare as a poet is an incomparable wordsmith, yet Ford’s poetry might be his camera work. Film directors without number have watched his films to learn how to use the camera because Ford had an eye for the detailed composition of his pictures in movement, or “movies.” When asked to name the film directors who most appealed to him, another famous film director, Orson Wells, replied, “I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Yet another film-maker compared Ford’s films for the “simplicity and strength” of their style to middle-period Beethoven!

Finally both men were Catholics. The deepest drama of Shakespeare’s plays arises surely from his Catholic sense, necessarily disguised, of the tragedy of Merrie England’s irreversible slide into apostasy. John Ford was the tenth of eleven children of two immigrants to the United States, both born in Catholic Ireland. No doubt the Faith of his ancestors enabled him to commemorate the relative innocence and decency of yesterday’s America, with its womanly women, and its manly and upright heroes as typified in Ford’s films by John Wayne. A king of modern cinema may never make it to the Pantheon of all-time greats alongside a Shakespeare, but John Ford was that modern king.

Thank you, Ireland, and America. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to both of you!

Kyrie eleison.

Hammerklavier Sonata

Hammerklavier Sonata posted in Eleison Comments on September 12, 2009

Music, history and theology are closely intertwined, because there is only one God and all men were created by him to go to him. History relates their actions amongst one another according as they go to him or not, while music expresses the harmony or disharmony in their souls as they make their history towards him or not. The music of Beethoven (1770–1827), taken as dividing into three Periods, is a clear illustration.

His First Period containing the relatively tranquil works of his masterly apprenticeship to Mozart (1756–1791) and Haydn (1732–1809), corresponds to the last years of pre-Revolutionary Europe. The Second Period containing most of the glorious and heroic works for which Beethoven is best known and loved, corresponds to the French Revolution’s spreading of upheavals and wars throughout Europe and beyond. The Third Period containing profound but somehow puzzling masterpieces, corresponds to Europe’s attempting after the Congress of Vienna (1815) to re-construct the old pre-Revolutionary order on post-Revolutionary foundations – a puzzle indeed.

As Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (1805), by first giving full expression to his heroic humanism of a new world, was the pivotal work between the First and Second Periods, so his 28th Piano Sonata, the “Hammerklavier” (1817), was the pivotal work between the Second and Third Periods. It is a huge piece, lofty, aloof, admirable, yet strangely inhuman . . .The first movement opens with a resounding fanfare to be followed by a wealth of ideas in the Exposition, a climactic struggle in the Development, a varied Recapitulation and an again heroic Coda, features all typical of the Second Period, yet we are in a different world: the harmonies are cool, not to say cold, while the melodic line is rarely warm or lyrical. The brief second movement is hardly more friendly: a stabbing quasi-Scherzo, a rumbling quasi-Trio. The third movement, Beethoven’s longest slow movement of all, is a profound and almost unrelieved lament, in which moments of consolation merely highlight the prevailing mood as of a resigned hopelessness.

A pensive introduction is needed to make the transition to the Sonata’s last movement, normally swift and uplifting, but in this case swift and grim: a jagged main theme is worked over, slowed down, turned back to front and upside down in successively ungainly episodes of a three-part fugue. To the slow movement’s raw grief is responding raw energy in a musical struggle more brutal than musical, with the exception again of one brief melodic interlude. As in the “Grosse Fuge” string quartet movement, Beethoven is here foreshadowing modern music. “It is magnificent,” the French General might have said, “but it is not music.”

Beethoven himself climbed down from this Mount Everest of piano sonatas to compose in his last ten years some more glorious masterpieces, notably the Ninth Symphony, but they are all somehow overcast. The hero’s uninhibited exultation of the Second Period is a thing mostly of the past. It is as though Beethoven had firstly basked in the godly old order, secondly stridden forth to conquer his human independence, but thirdly been driven to ask: What has it all meant? What does it mean to make oneself independent of God? The horrors of modern “music”are the answer, foreshadowed in the “Hammerklavier.” Without God, both history and music die.

Kyrie eleison.

Coriolanus Ouverture

Coriolanus Ouverture posted in Eleison Comments on March 7, 2009

Several of Beethoven’s most popular masterpieces give musical expression to a tremendous struggle within the human soul. Some, like the Third and Fifth Symphonies, finish in a blaze of heroic glory. The famous “Appassionata” Piano Sonata finishes in a storm of heroic destruction. The “Coriolanus Ouverture,” dating from the same peak of Beethoven’s creativity, ends in the hero’s undoing.

Beethoven loved reading Plutarch, whose parallel lives of great men of Greece and Rome have been called “a school for heroes.” Coriolanus was a conquering but proud General of the early Roman Republic who, considering himself at one point insufficiently appreciated by his fellow-Romans, offered his services to their enemy, the Volsci, and with a Volscian army advanced on Rome to tear it to pieces. Roman leaders, senators, friends and family begged him in turn to spare his own country. In vain. Only the pleading of his own mother at last broke down his anger. Sparing Rome, he doomed himself to exile and death amongst the Volsci.

Beethoven wrote his “Coriolanus Ouverture” to introduce the theatrical presentation not of the last of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, but of a play with the same title by a contemporary dramatist, H.J.v.Collin. The Ouverture is not programme music insofar as it stands on its own, purely as a drama of the soul in Sonata form, regardless of the story which inspired it. Nevertheless, it is easy to read the music in connection with that episode of Roman history:—

The Exposition’s first Subject in two parts would portray the General’s anger (bars 1–14) and his agitation (15–27), developed angrily (29–50), but running straight into the smooth and lyrical second Subject (52–77), which it is easy to visualize as the tender pleading of a strong and sure Roman matron. Anger returns (84–95), to fade into a little falling motif (96–100), which will quietly monopolize the Development (101–152) – mother winning the argument by gently wearing her son down? With the Recapitulation (152–229) the General’s anger breaks out again, more violent than ever (167–176), only to run into the pleading, also more insistent than before (178–206) – with Beethoven, a Recapitulation is liable to sharpen rather than soften the conflict which enlivened the Exposition!

The Coda, or tail of the piece (230–314), begins with mother again winning the argument (230–240), stalled by her lyrical pleading (242–254). A final confrontation (255–269) and argument (270–275) conclude in a last outburst of the General’s wrath (276–285), only this time it breaks down in a series of falling and quietening chords (286–294) for just the first phrase of the General’s agitation to re-appear four times (297, 299, 300, 306), each time slower and more subdued than the last, until the Ouverture dies away in silence. The General and his wrath are undone. Rome is saved!

Catholics, if you do not wish to tear Rome to pieces, listen to your Mother! Non-Catholics, if you do not wish to help to tear your country to pieces, listen to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of us all, from the foot of the Cross!

Kyrie eleison.

Heroic Harmonies

Heroic Harmonies posted in Eleison Comments on February 7, 2009

Just before the media uproar of the last two weeks a dear friend asked me to write about any piece of music that I especially liked. It would have to be a piece by Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Then I might single out the first movement of his Third Symphony, known as the “Eroica,” or Heroic Symphony.

Really the whole symphony is heroic. It is the musical portrait of a hero, originally Napoleon, until Beethoven learned that from First Consul of the French Republic he had made himself into an old-style Emperor of the French Empire, whereupon Beethoven ripped out the dedication page to Napoleon and dedicated the symphony instead to a hero. But the music remained unchanged: the revolutionary expression of Beethoven’s ardent hopes for a heroic new age of mankind to emerge from a tired old order of kings and cardinals.

It was however that old order, as expressed by Haydn (1732 – 1809) and Mozart (1756 – 1791) in particular, that gave to Beethoven the musical structures within which to shape and contain his dramatic new emotions. The first movement of the “Eroica” was unprecedentedly long in Beethoven’s own day – over 600 bars, lasting in performance anywhere around a quarter of an hour. Yet from first bar to last, the varied wealth and dynamic force of the musical ideas owe their tight unity and overarching control to the classical sonata form which Beethoven had inherited from the 18th century: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation (ABA), with a Coda mighty enough (innovation of Beethoven) to balance the Development (ABAC).

Leaping into action with two E flat major chords, the hero strides forth with his main theme, the first subject, built solidly out of that chord. The theme goes to war. A valiant re-statement precedes several new ideas of varying rhythms, keys and moods until moments of calm come with the classically more quiet second subject. But war soon returns, with off-beat rhythms and violent struggle, culminating in six hammering chords in two-time cutting right across the movement’s three-time. A few vigorous bars close the Exposition.

Upheavals and calm alternate for the rest of the movement. Notable in the Development is the most tremendous upheaval of all, culminating in a threefold shattering discord of F major with E natural in the brass, out of which mouth of the lion comes the honey of a brand-new lyrical melody, but still striding! Notable in the Coda is the fourfold repetition of the hero’s triumphant main theme, climaxing with inexorable logic in a blaze of glory. Lord, grant us heroes of the Faith, heroes both tender and valiant, heroes of the Church!

Kyrie eleison.