Beethoven wasn’t big on tunes; but melody wasn’t really the point.
In some ways we might see him as a precursor of minimalism. Too young to know any better, I immersed myself in his music through my teens; but later I tended to steer clear of his music, with honourable exceptions like the late quartets. For the thoughtful Susan McClary, he’s the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music.
To be fair, the 7th symphony is exhilarating, both to play and to listen to—DO bask in Carlos Kleiber‘s performance! As I comment in a note there, it seems unlikely that Wagner’s authority for calling the symphony “the apotheosis of the dance” was based on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene.
The 1st movement eventually gets going with a wacky motif (the mot juste) on flutes:
My idea of a tune, by L. Beethoven *
(aka “A stack of poppadoms”—cf. Berlioz)—
not to be confused with Taco taco taco burrito or Papa papa papa papa papapa…
Beethoven clearly reckons he’s onto something here, as he wastes no opportunity to repeat it, sometimes even on a different note (YAY! And again, yes I know that’s the point…). In the coda, after the bass section treats us to ten more bars of it, against a deep pedal point on E they start grinding away on a chromatic motif (now using all of three notes—I say, steady on!) (cf. Unpromising chromaticisms), like a dog with a bone:
OK, this whole build-up is glorious…
Even in the slow movement, Beethoven holds out against giving us a Proper Tune (Viola Grade 8—cf. Viola jokes and maestro-baiting):
The Plain People of Ireland: Begob—this composing lark, it’s a doddle…
The finale is obsessive too—without venturing too far into the art of conducting, Kleiber is exhilarating, highlighting its mechanical drive without making it seem too brutal. It opens with more minimalism from the hapless basses:
The violin, um, theme that it accompanies does have a lot of notes (progress), but unless conductors go to considerable lengths to adjust the balance, Beethoven’s instrumentation often drowns out the melody with manic off-beat sforzandi:
More unlikely chromaticism from the basses (another pedal point in the service of an exhilarating climax):
The symphony, built around ostinati, might be considered a response to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution—returning to Wagner and clubbing, maybe it’s the apotheosis of the techno garage trance dance. But for a really funky ostinato, how about Herbie Hancock?
I must confess that my musical examples above are no more successful in encapsulating Beethoven’s genius than were the Bolton Choral Society in summarising Proust…
I’m very fond of the story about the opening bar of Beethoven’s violin concerto; just as drôle are his Wimbledon debut (“the second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was ‘just a harmless bit of fun’…”) and Creative tribulations. And do listen to PDQ Bach’s stimulating take on the 1st movement of Beethoven 5!
For an enchanting antidote, see Dream a little dream…
* On a technical note, this rhythm can easily slip from
In my experience, even with experienced orchestras this can catch on quite often; it’d be interesting to listen out for how often this happens in performances and recordings.