"They read other people's mail." That was the standard response of a graduate-school acquaintance when he was asked the inevitable question: "What do musicologists do?" As of this week, I have another answer: "They argue about C-sharp."
Not just any C-sharp, of course. There's a famous one at the beginning of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, and we've been discussing it all week on the American Musicological Society's list-serve, formally called ams-l.
Why do so many people care about this note? Well, to begin with, it's the main thing that distinguishes the opening melody of this epoch-making work from a similar one that Mozart wrote as a child, in the overture to his opera Bastien und Bastienne. For another, it sounds strange. In musical terms, the first six measures of the symphony, including two "wake-up" chords from the full orchestra, are built out of what musicians call the tonic triad. Think of it as home base. Since the symphony is in E-flat, this is an E-flat major chord.
In measure 6, though, the melody slips down to a D, which is what musicians call the "leading tone." If you sing DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI, the leading tone is TI. It naturally leads back to DO. If you stop before returning to DO, anyone who has ever heard a major scale will know that you haven't finished—that there's another note yet to go. Now imagine that you are singing the scale the other way around: DO-TI-LA, etc., but that instead of LA, you follow TI with a kind of super-TI, a TI on steroids, as it were. You've now squared the power of the leading tone. It's obvious that whatever you're singing is nowhere near done.
This is roughly what Beethoven does with the C-sharp in measure 7 of the "Eroica," and many people believe it is this gesture that allows his first movement to last 17 minutes, compared to about 2 minutes for Mozart's overture. It announces very emphatically that the piece is not finished, and that GREATTHINGSAREGOINGTOHAPPEN.
Or maybe not. The discussion began when my friend Bill Meredith wrote in to point out what he considered a misleading interpretation of the famous C-sharp in Burkholder/Grout/Palisca, the legendary textbook used for most college-level music history courses. According to BGP (actually according to Philip Downs, but let's not go there), the C-sharp indicates an inner weakness, which is only overcome at the end of the movement when the theme reappears, "no longer falling at the end but sustaining its high note in a sign final triumph." [sic]
The discussion on ams-l, to which I have been a primary contributor, has focused on whether, and to what extent, this interpretation is accurate. If you're wondering why this is important, consider the following questions: Can a musical event, including an unexpected and surprising turn of phrase like this one, have meaning? Can a musical theme represent a character, and if so, who? Can an extended instrumental piece illustrate personal psychological growth, making it analogous to (or perhaps even superior to) the established Romantic genre known as the Bildungsroman?
To say that these are vexed questions among musicians is an understatement. For years, though, I have presented this piece as part of an interdisciplinary humanities course, which requires me to situate it within the Romantic movement and justify—or at least explain—its inclusion as a primary text. Thus, I have a vital interest in the topic. If I can't explain to an audience of college sophomores why this piece revolutionized the world of music, and why it should still be of interest to them, I'm not earning my keep. I'm pleased to say that my Beethoven lecture is widely considered one of the highlights of the course. That's because I offer my own set of answers to the questions posed above.
Since I've been told that I should keep my blog posts short (hi, Leonard!), and since I've obviously failed with this one, I will simply pose a few further questions for discussion. If anybody is still trying to figure out what, exactly, this blog is about, I imagine this won't help.
• Why is familiarity with the Beethoven symphonies not considered as important, for an educated person, as familiarity with the plays of Shakespeare or the paintings of the French Impressionists?
• Can, or should, music convey ideas, or are composers and listeners who expect it to do so simply confused?
• If you don't C-sharp, you will ... ?