Sunday, February 13, 2011

If you don't C-sharp

"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 ... ?


  1. I'm not clear on why you limit this to familiarity with Beethoven's symphonies. Why not his string quartets (particularly his late string quartets)?

    Don't we also expect educated people to be familiar with Shakespeare sonnets? Are sonnets not the chamber music of prose?

    Educated people ought to listen to Beethoven's symphonies, Robin, but your post is to music appreciation as quantum physics is to driving.

  2. The late quartets are phenomenal - particularly my personal favorite, Op. 132, which I would put on an equal plane with absolutely anything ever produced by the human imagination. Quantum physics? I don't know about that. What I do know is that it's very hard to explain why I value works of music like this so highly to somebody who doesn't already get it. Any attempt to say "why" quickly involves you in musical terminology that most people can't understand.

    I think that's the main reason most general humanities textbooks go very light on musical content. I had the experience of serving as a reader recently for a new text that made a real effort to say as much about music as it did about art and literature. The results were embarrassing. There were so many absolutely fundamental mistakes that I had to send large portions of the manuscript back to the drawing board. I don't mean picky things that only musicians care about, either. I mean absolutely fundamental errors of fact, akin to saying that Shakespeare wrote in Greek or that Michelangelo did drip paintings.

  3. I'm listening to the Eroica opening right now. I fail to understand how the C# can be considered a weakness. I'm probably writing nonsense here, but to me it leads into that little false modulation that brings us back around to the Eb and a restatement of the original theme. It allows the theme to come back stronger, I think, right there in the opening. We don't have to wait until the end of the movement for that to happen.

    By the way, in the recording I have, Roger Norrington takes it at a brisk tempo and the first movement only lasts a bit over 15 minutes!

  4. Oh yes, the Norrington! He actually follows Beethoven's metronome marking (pretty much) which means he seems to feel the music in one rather than in three.

    The word "weakness" was exactly the problem that started off the ams-l thread. One person said pretty much exactly what you did, Don, so you're definitely on the right track.

    The final statement of the theme, though, does have an almost cathartic effect, and part of it is because it has absolutely balanced phrases and nothing but tonic and dominant underneath it, so it sounds very different than it did at the beginning.

  5. I believe that music should and does convey many ideas. You can search online for "inspirational music quotes" and an endless supply of quotes from famous musicians, philosophers, etc. about how music can express the inexpressible. I believe that music can also reflect the thoughts of the composer or of the human mind. When I listen to the Eroica and hear the C# I don't necessarily hear it as a weakness but almost a "second guessing" from the composer. Beethoven starts off, with what seems like a great opening, but when the C# comes in it sounds like he is second guessing himself. The syncopation in the violins at this point unsettles the music as well. To my ear, there seems to be an indecisiveness in the music that is resolved when the opening theme comes come back triumphantly around 30 seconds or so into the work. Very interesting discussion.

    On the question of why familiarity with Beethoven Symphonies, and symphonies in general, are not considered as important. I believe it is because it is harder for the general public to understand what in the music makes them feel the way they do. The reasons that I like Shakespeare are because I appreciate that his words are witty, his plot lines comical and well written. In art, I can appreciate an artists use of color, dimension, shading. As a layman in those fields I can still express with words what I like about them, but for the general public it's hard to express the aspects of music that connect with their soul. How do express in words, the inexpressible? You can't. If you give yourself up to the music and let it become you, which happens in performances and in listening to music, then you get the idea. It's easier to feel more educated when you can express why you like something and talk about it. With music it feels like a funny story you try to tell your friends but isn't as funny the second time. I guess you had to be there!