Beethoven Speaks To Me
December 2, 2011 Comments Off on Beethoven Speaks To Me
Lots of musicians lead full and productive lives without ever learning to read music. Whole musical civilizations rise and fall without leaving a written record. YouTube, iPods, Pandora, iTunes, Amazon and all the other cosmo-industrial recorded music machines can deliver sound to your ears from anywhere in the world and you never need to read (or play) a note.
Learning to read music is hard work for most people. As Stephen Pinker of Harvard said about learning to read words, the music-reading module isn’t part of the basic package of human skills. It has to be bolted on in every generation. We piano teachers are some of the people down in the shop, making that after-market addition to every year’s model. It is hard work for us and hard work for our students. Yet we happily do it year after year.
Why go to all this work? Why can’t we just learn by listening and copying, using our great technology to beam the music into our brains?
For one thing, the music that is written down comes out of a written music tradition. That kind of music developed along with the tools to write it. Musics that didn’t develop with a written tradition work differently. They have to be absorbable by the human ear and memory, which means certain types of complexity have to be left out.
If you’ve heard pop music described as being “only 3 chords”, you’ve heard a description of a type of music that can be learned without written notes. It is, for the most part, an aural music. The same is true of jazz. All those wondrous and elaborate inventions are hung on a harmonic structure that can be learned without recourse to written notes. Or at least that was true in its beginnings. It has become far more complex now and jazz musicians are increasingly sophisticated about music writing.
Even if you have a phenomenal ear and memory and can learn Beethoven easily from listening to recordings, as one of my friends can, you still need to grapple with the score. There is no other way to get inside the way Beethoven thought and played. The things he had to say he said on paper with pen and ink and the lines of the staff. If you want to get as close as you can to Beethoven or Chopin or Liszt and see and hear them play, you have to get your hands into their music, starting from the notes they left.
The illustration of this post is a page from Beethoven’s piano sonata “Quasi una fantasia”, the Moonlight Sonata. I’ve played and taught this piece a million times. Why did seeing this page stop me in my tracks?
What is astonishing is what is left out. All the familiar notes are there, the restrained melody, the ominous bass line, the worried triplets-but no helpful directions for the pianist on how to play it. No fingering, no attempt to line up simultaneous notes, nothing that really even looks like piano music. It is just pure music, ideas written down at speed, every shortcut taken but nothing essential left out. There it is, the real stuff. Direct from Beethoven to me.
Here’s the melody. Here’s the bass. Here’s the middle voice in triplets. The pen is confident, decisive. It is the work of a person who knows his music and knows how to get it down on paper.
There is also a message. It sings out, clear as a trumpet, across the 210 years since Beethoven put these notes on paper. It is a message you will never get from an iPod: you’re a musician, figure out how to play this. These are my ideas, now make them into music.
If my teachers hadn’t bolted the music-reading module onto me years ago, I wouldn’t be getting this message from Beethoven today. And that is why this afternoon I will be deep into the mysteries of notation with some school kids, so they can communicate with Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms and Scarlatti and all the rest, getting messages they would never get from their iPods. They are musicians, and we need to make some music.