A Lefty Writes Complete Sense

by Richard Girard

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Karl_Stieler (1781-1858)

Beethoven Haus Bonn Public Domain

Three G’s and an E-flat, or Why Beethoven Rules!

By Richard Girard

Three G’s and an E-flat. Bom-bom-bom-Bomb! The Morse Code three dots and a dash for “V,” and “V” is for victory. Fate knocking on the door.

All of these descriptions have been used to describe the first four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And all of them are completely inadequate to describe the power and majesty of this orchestral masterpiece; or any of Beethoven’s other voluminous folio of work.

I have been listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony closely for over forty years, and I am still surprised at new discoveries almost every time I listen to this work of genius. This is the statement of a man who was very nearly deaf when he wrote this work, whose first movement is a shout of defiance at an implacable fate, whose final movement is the greatest statement of personal triumph of a man over the inevitability of loss ever made by a human being.

The body of Beethoven’s work is more than just his Fifth Symphony. Many would argue that Beethoven’s Ninth (The Chorale) is his greatest Symphony, others would argue for his Sixth (The Pastoral), the Third (The Eroica), or the Seventh (The Apotheosis of the Dance), as his best. But it is certain that no theme in Beethoven’s Symphonies is better known than those three G’s and an E-flat.

Beethoven began to go deaf in his late twenties, possibly from the effects of syphilis. As his deafness became more profound however, so did his music. By 1805 when his Third Symphony was first performed, he could only hear the very loudest sounds — such as the crescendo of an orchestra — or by the conduction of sound through his skull, by laying his head on the top of his pianoforte. Eight years later, when his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were premiered, even that was denied to him.

Beethoven’s music represents the triumph of a man who, because of his illness, was denied the joy of the music that he gave to the world, but gave that joy anyway. His music is freedom, compassion, and triumph over tragedy, hope, and a love offering to all of humanity. Beethoven purportedly stated that anyone who heard and understood his music would never be unhappy again. V.I. Lenin stated that he could not listen to Beethoven’s music: that it made him feel tender with compassion that was contrary to what was needed to carry out the revolution.

No revolution is worth denying yourself Beethoven. His music is liberation. And hope.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is opus 67; his Sixth Symphony is opus 68. These two amazing works are cataloged one right after the other in the Maestro’s collection of musical works. I always play the two symphonies together, just as they were heard for the first time in Vienna in December, 1808. I listen first to the Fifth, and then the Sixth.

If you play them together–first the Fifth, and then the Sixth–they blend together into a giant orchestral work of struggle, triumph, liberation, celebration, reaffirmation of liberation, and finally, Peace. The first CD collection I ever bought was Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s 1962 recordings of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. I spent forty dollars on it in 1992; money that I have always felt was well spent.

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17 responses to “A Lefty Writes Complete Sense

  1. Fabulous post. Absolutely love it.

    My first 5th arrived courtesy of the cheap Ace of Clubs label – back in about 1955 I guess. Wore that one out very quickly (but still have it) then went through a whole series of further ‘the 5th’ 33s. My family all thought I was crazy. If only they knew that when left alone I’d really crank up my dad’s old 5 speaker Grundig Balmoral’s volume. To me, it became a pop song and I became so familiar with it – in its entirety – that I could whistle it from start to finish. Best thrill of all though was listening to it being played live in Bonn by their (and HIS) very own orchestra. (They played it at the Festival Hall about ten years ago and there I was again, like a child, listening as if for the very first time) Swear they cheated me in Bonn however: seats were being vacated and the thing was all over in what seemed like only ten minutes. Maybe I’d died and gone to heaven.

    Can someone please tell me what has since happened to music? Has mankind’s soul been damaged – was war to blame? Have we already drifted into an unstoppable rate of artistic decline? Come on Sean, you’re a smart and musically inclined fellow, say something…

  2. When I read the title “Three G’s and an E-flat” I thought the author was going to refer to the most startling facet of this symphony; the ‘three G’s and an E-flat” are in fact part of an E flat MAJOR chord, whereas the symphony is of course in C MINOR, as is dramatically revealed by the bars which immediately follow. If I were conducting I would skip lightly through the opening ‘fate knocking at the door’ motif and treat it like the major chord it is, until the minor chords come crashing though the door to shatter everybody’s illusions a second later. This tonal shift from light to dark in the opening bars is countered by the blaze of light that introduces the finale. Talking of which, it was Beethoven who is responsible for the various unfinished symphonies left by Schubert (including, of course, the “Unfinished”). Prior to Beethoven, the weight of a symphony had always been contained in the tonal arguments of the first movement; the finale was just a rounding off exercise. Beethoven changed all that, from the Eroica on, and he made the finale the weightiest movement of the symphony. Poor old Schubert, a mere tunesmith like Mozart, was left floundering. He didn’t know how to deal with this, which is why so many of his symphonies remain unfinished.

    Some parts of this article are nonsensical – the idea that the 5th and 6th symphonies ‘go together’ somehow. The 6th was a bit of light relief after the exertions of the 5th, and the 7th is positively Schubertian in the sense that he sets up a rhythm and just maintains it throughout, as Schubert does in almost all his works. Incidentally, I don’t know much of Schubert’s work in detail, but if you look at the Ab Impromptu, which is truly beautiful in spite of all that I have said, (and is one of the few pieces which sounds more difficult than it is!) you can literally photocopy the first section, just alter the last two bars, and you have the third section. Beethoven would have completely re-written the piece, subtly altering chord spacings, phrasing, and a dozen other things. That is the difference between a composer and a tunesmith.

    And Syphilis? Beethoven? Utter tripe!

  3. I’d respect your judgments more, Hugo, if you didn’t continually denigrate Mozart. He may not have been your cup of tea, but was undoubtedly one of the greatest men who ever lived.

  4. Most of what I have written above does not consist of ‘judgements’ on my part, but objective observation and musical analysis. But I have never liked Mozart. He could write music “as easily as other men piss” was I believe the phrase he used. And it shows. Beethoven, on the other hand, wrestled with every note he committed to paper (and then scratched out, then re-wrote, etc etc etc). And it shows.
    Now Haydn, there was a composer of true genius. He could compose vast (for the time) symphonies out of building blocks consisting of nothing more than a couple of notes. Beethoven owed a lot to Haydn, despite his repeated denials. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote tunes. Melodies. Beautiful melodies perhaps. But there is none of the sheer joy that shines through every page of Haydn’s music, and especially Beethoven’s. And Dvorak’s, whom I regard as a 19th century Haydn, there is so much similarity of spirit in their music. And Mozart has an undue fondness for feminine cadences, which I find very namby pamby and irritating. Mozart wrote very good operas of course. But opera is not music.

    What you say about Mozart, that he was “undoubtedly one of the greatest men who ever lived” is exactly what I would say about Beethoven. He was so much more than just a composer, as the original article hints at. I sometimes wonder whether God exists, but I know Beethoven exists.

    Now tell me why Mozart was ‘one of the greatest men who ever lived’.

    • I won’t argue with you about Mozart. If you don’t like him, that is your right and your misfortune. For myself, I bless the day I fixated him him when I was twenty.

      Of course, I also like Haydn. And I am slowly working my way for the first time into a more than casual appreciation of Beethoven. But it’s Mozart I hope to have played to me when I’m dying.

    • “objective observation and musical analysis. But I have never liked Mozart.”

      When it subject rises above a basic level of competence, musical analysis doesn’t say whether one composer is better than any other. Instead, it helps us to understand how someone has been working, and what effect he is trying to achieve. It’s up to each individual listener to decide if he likes the composer in question.

      I like Mozart, you don’t. We can argue over which of us is luckier, but that’s about it. I could say, of course, that Haydn’s opinion of Mozart was higher than yours. Despite certain reservations, not all of them musical, so was Beethoven’s. But that may not be an argument for you to reconsider yours.

  5. I was merely asking you to justify your assertion. Unlike you to run away from an argument?

  6. Voldemort au Vent

    You could call Mozart a song-bird, but “tune-smith” is ludicrous. I prefer Beethoven nowadays, but maybe I shouldn’t. There is a lot of truth here:

    Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan

    The composer was certainly a genius, but he diverted music from elegant universality into tortured self-obsession


    And can anyone imagine Alex of A Clockwork Orange committing rape to the sound of Mozart?

  7. “And can anyone imagine Alex of A Clockwork Orange committing rape to the sound of Mozart?” Beethoven didn’t write the bloody film score you know! I can’t remember which piece accompanied that scene (was it the scherzo from the 9th? or part of the 5th?), but to me the contrast was between the height of civilization demonstrated by the music and the absence of civilization displayed in the act. I dunno, I’m not a film critic. But I do understand music, and I somehow doubt that Beethoven wrote it as ‘music to rape to’.

    The reason I refer to Mozart (and Schubert, and others of the ‘Galant’ school of J C Bach) as ‘tunesmiths’ is to distinguish them from true composers. Let me explain – Haydn, Beethoven and Bruckner, for example, could all compose comparatively gigantic musical structures out of fragments which in themselves contained a much music as a house brick. Mozart wrote tunes. Ok, melodies, I admit I was being provocative. Ok, beautiful melodies even. But that is a quite different art. It is 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration, whereas with the former (Beethoven / Haydn etc) it is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. All Mozart had to do was hear the melodies in his head and write them down, filling in the harmonies. That was a unique gift he had, but it came easy to him, and true art should never be easy. It is like a rich kid who inherits money as opposed to somebody from a council estate who succeeds by dint of perseverance and hard work. Mozart was born with this great advantage – that he could just pluck tunes out of the air. Beethoven wrote great music which he could not even hear.

    Now, Sean, you say “When it subject rises above a basic level of competence, musical analysis doesn’t say whether one composer is better than any other.” I must disagree with you on this point. I have already given the example of Schubert’s Ab Impromptu. This is in ABA format, and the two A sections are literally identical in every last detail except for the closing two bars. He could literally have photocopied it, and probably would have done if he had had a Xerox machine. If you look at Beethoven, whenever he repeats a passage, he completely re-composes it. Everything is altered, from the spacing of the chords, phrasing, dynamics – he has obviously gone through the whole piece note by note and re-written it. Beethoven would never have lowered himself to just copying it out note for note. That is the difference between a great artist and a mediocre one.

    You say “I like Mozart, you don’t. We can argue over which of us is luckier, but that’s about it.”. Not quite. I believe you described Mozart as one of the greatest men who ever lived. I was hoping you might say something in support of that statement, other than “I like Mozart”. You never know, you might convert me!

  8. There’s a tiny village in Wales called Capel Curig. There’s a blackbird living close to my house that I refer to by that very name because his summer song very closely repeats the sound. He sings his song, I whistle his song back to him and then back and forth we go. It’s great. I once read that it was the four notes of a song-bird that inspired Beethoven to kick off his fifth.

    Hugo, you’re a cantankerous old bugger you know… but I like you. You’re lucky, at least Sean answers you. Anyway, I’ve learnt something new and interesting on this site again today. Many thanks to all.

    ‘Fate knocking on the door’ though sounds like a load of old bollox to me. “Capel Curig’ being sung by a bird works much better. You say that Beethoven was ‘totally’ deaf; which rules out what I read. But how do you know he wasn’t a lying old git upping his benefits?

  9. Beethoven’s deafness was gradual, beginning in his twenties. He wanted to be a pianist but because of his encroaching deafness in what should have been the prime of his life, after briefly contemplating suicide (see the Heilgenstadt Testament) he shook his fist in the face of the Devil, as it were, and turned to composing. By the time of the first performance of the ninth symphony he was so deaf that they had to turn him around on the stage to witness the rapturous applause of the audience.

    Mozart, you see, was born with this wonderful gift – this facility with melody. Beethoven, on the other hand was dealt this overwhelmingly tragic hand yet overcame his adversity to write, in my opinion, some of the greatest music ever written. And the most remarkable thing is that through every note, there shines what can only be described as Love, a joy that bubbles up through the music everywhere. That is why I describe him as being much more than just a composer.

    The same could be said of Haydn, but he enjoyed a much more comfortable life. His wife was a shrew but apart from that he was ok.

    I was thinking about this the other evening, and my thoughts strayed to Mozart’s ‘Musical Joke’ (Musikalischer Spass or whatever the German is). Mozart has to announce it as a joke – it might as well have had written in black felt tip on the score “This is ein joke, ja!”. And what does it consist of? Lots of breaches of the rules of harmony and syntax, ending with a series of crashing chords of wrong notes. A clodhopping Germanic attempt at humour. A bit like Les Dawson playing the piano (with apologies to Les Dawson). Listen to the music of either Beethoven or Haydn, by contrast, and you will find subtle wit everywhere. They just couldn’t stop themselves. There are hundreds of examples, but I will just quote a couple; apart from the obvious ‘Surprise’ symphony by Haydn, there is this wonderful minuet in one of his string quartets (sorry, I can’t remember which one) which is phrased, and sounds, as though it were in 4/4. You end up with five bars of three sounding like four bars of four, except you’ve got a crotchet left over at the end (or you’re one crotchet short of a picnic, depending on your perspective). Haydn’s audiences would have known how to dance the minuet, of course, and the mental image of dainty ladies trying to dance to that one will stay with me forever. And just one from Beethoven for now – one of his violin sonatas (again I must apologise – I can’t remember the opus no.) features a succession of eleven very fast repeated notes. Or it would do, except the piano can’t play repeated notes that fast, so it has to play alternating adjacent notes (dominant and sub-dominant) instead, almost like a trill. Then right at the end Beethoven slows the whole thing down so the piano finally gets a turn to play those repeated notes at last. And what does the violin do? It mocks the piano by playing alternating notes, effectively sticking its tongue out at the piano. His music is just fizzing with stuff like this, and the point is you wouldn’t notice it just by listening to it – it’s only when you sit down and think about it that you get the joke.

    As I keep saying, much to Sean’s annoyance, you just don’t get that sense of pure joy in Mozart. Unless Sean is going to give me an example. I do like the Magic Flute, by the way. But that is opera, not music.

  10. I see you’re a man who loves music hugo, must say, Mozart, I have listened
    to on odd occasions, but must confess not adicted to it, what a poor end
    the man had. I used to watch top of pop’s, not always for the music. liked pans people swinging those hips about. I think I’ll leave the composers to
    you, seems to be your brief, no arguments here.

  11. Voldemort au Vent

    That was a unique gift he had, but it came easy to him, and true art should never be easy.

    That’s Romantic “I am a Tortured Titan” narcissism. It was v. effectively satirized by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein:

    Thus not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe; the very accents of love were ineffectual. I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate. The wounded deer dragging its fainting limbs to some untrodden brake, there to gaze upon the arrow which had pierced it, and to die, was but a type of me. Sometimes I could cope with the sullen despair that overwhelmed me, but sometimes the whirlwind passions of my soul drove me to seek, by bodily exercise and by change of place, some relief from my intolerable sensations.


    B is for Byron, B is for Beethoven. I don’t think Byron was a genius, whereas Beethoven may have been the greatest genius of all, but Byron’s is the franchise Beethoven bought into. Byron, Beethoven, Wagner, Nietzsche, Marx, Hitler, Stalin, Blair — when God is dead, men want to take His place.

  12. “Satirised” by Mary Shelley? What marks that passage as satire? (I am not contradicting you – I just might need you to explain it to me).
    You make an interesting observation at the end. But I must take issue with you when you describe Beethoven as a ‘narcissistic hooligan’ (as you did in an earlier post.) Hooligan, maybe, but I don’t know what leads you to describe him as a narcissist. I believe this term has a precise medical definition, but using layman’s terms Beethoven was totally devoted to his Art and cared nothing for himself. And I do not believe he ‘bought into’ Byron’s or anybody else’s franchise. He just did what he did, literally in a world of his own.

    I said earlier that my definition of art is that if I can do it, it’s not art. Similarly I tend to denigrate anything that comes easy. It recently occurred to me that I myself could have written most of Beethoven’s subject matter (or Haydn’s for that matter). Mostly they consist of just a fragment of a scale or arpeggio or a combination of the two. They are frequently banal in the extreme. Take the ‘fate knocking at the door’ motif, or the EU’s ‘National Anthem’, which is just a series of adjacent notes. Works of genius? I don’t think so. The skill is in the construction of a beautiful vast edifice from such basic raw material, which in and of itself means nothing . And that is something I could never do.
    Mozart, on the other hand, constructed his work from melodic building blocks that were in themselves beautiful. The beauty is in the melodic line itself, rather than the construction, and the melodies were, in a sense, given to him on a plate. He was born with this extra-ordinary gift for plucking beautiful melodies ready made out of thin air, as were Schubert and Mendelssohn for example.

    Mozart was indeed blessed by being dealt such a good hand by Fate, whereas Beethoven was cursed with the most dreadful affliction.
    Just look at one of Mozart’s tidy manuscripts and compare it with Beethoven’s scribbles, scratchings out, re-writings and scratchings out of the scratchings out. Compare the ease with which Mozart committed tunes to paper, with the sheer effort Beethoven put into making every piece as good as could possibly be. That surely is worthy of admiration in itself?
    I suppose in today’s ‘caring’ world Beethoven would be living on disability benefit and watching daytime TV.

    • Of course Beethoven is worthy of admiration. I, for one, have never denied his genius. At the same time, you do often belittle Mozart to the point where he sounds like one of Paul McCartney’s assistants.

      You can write page after page of analysis – for which, many thanks – to show what you like in LvB. So far as he had different purposes and different means, this says nothing about WAM.

      Why not just give thanks for both, though giving greater reverence for the one you prefer?

      By the way, I’ve just looked up The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto. On p.83:

      “Beethoven admired Mozart profoundly. Identifying him as one of music’s ‘great men’ and regularly requesting copies of his instrumental and vocal works from publishers, Beethoven explains: “I have always counted myself amongst the great admirers of Mozart and shall remain so until my last breath.’ This high regard for Mozart’s music extends to the piano concertos and is recorded most famously in Beethoven’s statement to Johann Baptist Cramer after a performance of K. 491 in 1799: ‘we shall never be able to do anything like that.’”

      I agree with Beethoven.

  13. Voldemort au Vent

    “Narcissistic hooligan” were Dylan Evans’ words, not mine. They’re obviously hyperbolic, but the article makes some good points. Beethoven didn’t write music to rape by, but his music is full of aggression and will-to-power, which makes it much more suitable for narcissistic hooligans like Alex than anything by Mozart, Haydn or Vivaldi. After Beethoven and Wagner, the Nazis do not come as a total surprise.

    Compare the ease with which Mozart committed tunes to paper, with the sheer effort Beethoven put into making every piece as good as could possibly be. That surely is worthy of admiration in itself?

    Yes, of course, but Beethoven wasn’t an ordinary mortal who achieved what he did by willpower alone. He was born a genius as much as Mozart was. But a more troubled and “complex” one, which is why he appeals more to Romantics. As for Haydn: yes, he’s very good and sometimes hard to tell from Mozart. My test is listen and ask whether the Haydnesque music is perfect. If it is, it’s not Haydn.

  14. Sean – no, I wouldn’t compare Mozart with Paul McCartney (or one of his assistants). Andrew Lloyd Weber is a much better parallel. Mozart’s music has always had popular appeal, but that is no measure of greatness. Musical fashions are fickle. Mozart has always been in fashion, whereas Bruckner (for example) has always been out of fashion. Yet his music is much more profound. Or more likely it has been out of fashion BECAUSE it is much more profound. The same comparison holds good between Beethoven and Mozart. Mozart could never have written Beethoven’s ninth, for example. His (Mozart’s) music is literally superficial, in that it skates over the melodic ‘surface’ of music rather than focussing on the harmonic relationships. ‘Tunes’ are much easier for people to deal with, and Mozart wrote beautiful tunes. Beethoven’s music (together with Haydn’s) hardly has any ‘tunes’ at all. And if you want a real challenge, listen to some of Bruckner’s symphonic material – it is seriously weird, yet he has managed to make it sound very conservative, and as such he has always been dismissed by the likes of the BBC as old fashioned. A very under-rated composer if ever there was one. As I have said earlier, if you think there is something in Mozart that I am missing, I would be very happy to be enlightened.

    Now Mr Vol-au-Vent, I have no idea who Dylan Evans is, but you are just quoting his opinion. I prefer to form my own. I do take your point about ‘aggression and will-to-power’, but I don’t see it as aggression at all. ‘Power of the will’ maybe, but you are missing out all the humour in Beethoven. Hitler didn’t have much of a sense of hunmour either, which could be why the Nazi’s never adopted Beethoven’s music. Nor did Wagner, incidentally – he re-arranged the (seventh symphony?) for piano or something (sorry to be so vague) and ‘corrected’ all of Beethoven’s mistakes! I can understand how a reading of Beethoven’s life would lead you to describe him as ‘troubled and complex’, but a study of his music would reveal the opposite to be the case. He struggled with life certainly, but he was a very simple man to the point of naivety (as was Bruckner) and there is no his music is ultimately pure joy. You will be hard put to find a piece which ends in the minor.

    Mr Vol-au-Vent, you should know that perfection is not to be found in any form in this imperfect world, not even in the music of Mozart. I have a much more way of telling Haydn from Mozart than yours. Two, actually. If it has a ‘tune’ it is Mozart, and if the music is entirely predictable it is Mozart.