#56- How to Listen to Classical Music and Actually Enjoy It: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and The Heiligenstadt Testament with Michelle Hawkins
In this week’s episode, Scott and Karl talk with Michelle Hawkins, music professor and Online Great Book’s member. The trio listen and discuss Beethoven’s Third Symphony and read The Heiligenstadt Testament, a heartbreaking letter written by Beethoven to his brothers.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony is regarded as a turning point in musical history, the ideas for which began during his tumultuous “Heiligenstadt Testament” period. Why is it that so few of us are listening to this landmark symphony?
In today’s music climate, understanding and enjoying classical music may seem far-fetched for some.
Michelle has a theory: “We’re living in a post-musical culture now… people are not growing up in the same musical atmosphere that used to be the case. It is harder to listen to these pieces of music because you do need to have a little bit of context. They are complex, it may be hard to enjoy something so complex when you have no context and no exposure.”
What if you want to explore classical music, but you’re not sure where to begin? We approach great music the way we approach great books— you don’t have to be an expert before going out and encountering the thing.
- Introduction of Michelle Hawkins
- Why the trio decided on Beethoven
- Post-musical culture
- The Romantic movement in music
- Discussion of who’s a platonist and who is not
- Innovations and Discoveries in western music
- Dissonance in Beethoven’s music
- Discussion of how Beethoven’s music can change you
- The first step to take in moving away from “post-musical” culture
- Karl’s pipe organ story
- Jacob Collier modern jazz plug
- Discussion of Heiligenstadt Testament
- Discussion of where to find Michelle’s work (michellehawkins.com)
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned In The Podcast
- Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament”
- “Simpsons” theme song
- Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring
- Charlie Parker
- Sonny Stitt
- Siegfried funeral in Wagner
- Darth Vader theme
- Jacob Collier
- Heiligenstadt Testament
- Light Phone 2
- Miles Davis
Scott Hambrick: today we have Michelle Hawkin with us. Say “hello” Michelle.
Michelle Hawkins: Hey everyone.
Scott Hambrick: Michelle’s an Online Great Books member and we were talking, as one does in slack, and we decided that we needed to do a show about music. The folks at St. John’s College do seminar over classical music and I’ve not been part of that, but I’ve read about it. Emmet has told me a little bit about it (our friend Emmet Penney) and I thought, “Gosh, we need to do something about that.”
Karl Schudt: I have some friends who went to St. Thomas Aquinas and I think they had to write a sonata to graduate (which I think is neat).
Scott Hambrick: When we said, “Let’s do something about some sort of music,” and Michelle said, “how about we read Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” and maybe discuss “Eroica” his symphony #3, the “Bonaparte” symphony.
Karl Schudt: This tiny bit of classical music you had us do, an hour and ten minutes.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s long, sorry about that. It’s one of the longest.
Karl Schudt: I thought that this was an interesting project. I don’t think anybody knows how to listen to this kind of thing. I am especially excited about it, given our approach at Online Great Books where you don’t have to read the history of music, you don’t have to read the Oxford Companion, you don’t have to know German history (or at least not yet). (Go listen to the thing and encounter the thing in it’s “thingness” and I wonder what you think of how to do that.)
Michelle Hawkins: I have a running theory that we are living in a post-musical culture now. You talk about living in a post-literate culture, and we’re definitely in a post-musically literate culture. Music education has been taken out of most schooling, compulsory or not, and people are not growing up in the same musical atmosphere. That used to be the case and it is harder to listen to these pieces of music because you do need to have a little bit of context because they are complex and it can be hard to enjoy something that’s complex when you have no context to put it in and no exposure.
Karl Schudt: Sure, but how do you go from zero to able to taste what’s there? (I’m going to make a very bad analogy. I partook in a chili contest. My son is part of a boy’s group and they had a chili cook-off for all the dads, and I cooked a standard “Karl” chili. It’s one can of peppers: and a bunch of good meat and none of them could eat it- it was too spicy. Here’s my analogy- Beethoven is a spicy pepper and if you come in fresh, you’re going to burn your mouth.)
Scott Hambrick: I think you’re right. Have you ever turned on the radio and it would be in the middle of the song and it would just be noise and it would take me a moment to find the downbeat and then acclimate to the key or something and then I would recognize it. But if you jump in and there’s no context, you’re not moored in it in any way, it just sounds like noise. I started listening to this thing and the first time it was mostly noise but when I found the main theme which is built around a triad, you could hear it over and over again and once you can find that then you are oriented inside this music. My grandmother would say, “You got to hear the ‘mainest’ thing before you can hear the other thing.” You’ve got a piano there, can you give us that triad, that main theme from the first movement?
Michelle Hawkins: Sure (plays chords on a piano).
Scott Hambrick: Once you hear that chunk, I think you start the rest of the song but until you hear that it’s a lot.
Michelle Hawkins: Can I make a confession? I haven’t listened to this symphony in twenty years, I’m going to listen to all nine symphonies in order, in linear progression, and see what happens. I listened to the first and second and admittedly, they are kind of boring. You get to the Eroica and there’s something significantly different about it. The first time I listened to the Eroica this year, by the time it got to the very end, I was mad at the way he ended it. I had to go back to the beginning and figure out why he made me so mad.
Scott Hambrick: Let’s talk about why it’s different. The first two symphonies are half the length of this, and I actually follow along with the score here. There are several more instruments in this, it’s a lot lusher and it’s got more range of emotion displayed in this thing than in the first two. We can compare it to the first two, but I think another good comparison is to everything else that came before it.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s the birth of the Romantic. He’s still staying within that structure of the symphony but now bringing in that Romantic aesthetic.
Karl Schudt: Can you dig in a little bit? When we talk about “Romantic,” what do we mean?
Michelle Hawkins: In general, the Romantic movement is about “feelings” so it’s not necessarily about romantic love or attraction to another person, but it is about the expression of your feelings. It’s a reaction to the Enlightenment- that hyper-rational, hyper-rational reason-based thinking- and this is feeling based.
Karl Schudt: If we wanted to do examples of enlightenment thinkers- it would be Kant.
Scott Hambrick: Or the Bach fugue which is flat and mathematical and geometrical.
Karl Schudt: I think it’s math in time.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s mathematical, for sure.
Karl Schudt: I love Bach so it’s not making a demand on me that I “feel” a certain way. It’s like a building with lots of open space and windows and a very neat layout and you can let your mind go wherever. I cued up symphony #3 and we’re getting to the second movement and he’s playing games with me.
Michelle Hawkins: I had a couple thoughts about that. Does he go to major because it’s the obligatory thing that you do when you’re in minor? You go to the relative major because they always go there or is he trying to say something more about mourning or death?
Scott Hambrick: We’re getting too heady. Michelle, will you state that theme again? Listen to this and when we play Beethoven, listen for it again. There we go. We’ll get about a first minute of symphony #3 in E flat major opus 55 (it’s Beethoven’s “Eroica”).
Karl Schudt: My sense of listening to that is “playfulness.” None of this stuff exists before the guy puts it down on paper and then gets a bunch of musicians to record it. None of it has to exist.
Scott Hambrick: That’s some weird Karl stuff- like the music existed and he was a conduit that brought it from the realm of forms on to paper and into your ear-hole. Is that what you think?
Karl Schudt: I sort of think that. Are you also a Platonist?
Michelle Hawkins: No, I don’t think that there are these things that exist outside of reality. There’s the “dogness” of a dog that’s not actually part of a dog.
Karl Schudt: Music- I think there might be some eternal bits there.
Michelle Hawkins: That’s an interesting question. Where does music come from? What is music?
Karl Schudt: Let’s do the basic thing- music is sound though it’s a particular kind of sound. My voice right now is not music, there’s not a discernible pitch but I’m not holding a pitch. Pitch, in music, vibrates at a state and is perceived as a particular sound. Then there are octaves and fifths, and harmonies and relationships between musical notes- that’s where, I think, the forms are.
Michelle Hawkins: I have this theory that music is an expression of reality because it’s a way of expressing something that already exists in physical form. Vibrations or their potential always exist (maybe that’s the Platonic aspect of it) but humans, over time, have discovered more and more aspects of the physics of vibration or sound. In the western world, the way that’s developed over time, is that they figured out a way to divide up the octaves. The octave is this fundamental thing in the sound where you can hear the sounds melt into each other. They are fundamentally the same pitch because we don’t hear it as the same pitch, we don’t hear it as two different things but if I play something else (like dissonant notes) those two sounds are not melting into each other.
Karl Schudt: If you want to get into the Platonic mathematics of it and take your graphic calculator and add the sine waves together, octaves add really nicely.
Michelle Hawkins: Yes, they’re just doublings.
Karl Schudt: When you played the major seventh, they don’t add up quite as much so there’s little beats that you can hear and if you’re only a little bit out of tune you can hear where the two frequencies are interfering with each other or complement each other according to mathematics. In other words- “Platonic forms.” That’s what I think.
Scott Hambrick: He has this wonderful theme built out of this triad- play a triad for us Michelle- the three notes inside that one particular octave that’s E flat and he uses those three notes to build that simple melody and it’s loose enough and simple enough that he can do all kinds of things with it for about 59 minutes. It’s pleasing and conformable to the ear and human nature that it seems like a thing of nature to me.
Michelle Hawkins: The triad is revealed within the note itself. Because of the physics of sound- every fundamental note that exists- once you start that vibration into motion you also trigger higher vibrations or frequencies that complementary- the first fundamental note that you get is the fifth. First, you’ll get the octave and all of western music is this tug of war between the first note and the fifth note.
Scott Hambrick: It’s like a rock ‘n roll power chord.
Michelle Hawkins: One of the innovations or discoveries in western music is the addition of the third which is the next partial that you hear in the overtone series. That is found in every single note that exists if you were to analyze the overtone series.
Scott Hambrick: You can make a tone generator, hook it up to an oscilloscope and you can see these waves appear on the oscilloscope and your ear is more sensitive than you think. Your ear can sense those things so when you build a chord out of those thirds it’s very pleasing.
Karl Schudt: I want to give an evil laugh right now because this is all playing into my clutches of Platonism everywhere. Music is natural.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s not arbitrary. I think it’s a discovery of what it already is.
Scott Hambrick: I agree with that and Beethoven has a keen sense of that which already is. Which seems easy right, but it’s really not. To be deeply rooted in that reality we and to be so keenly aware of what already is and then be able to select from his toolbox of elements and produce this thing that puts it all in front of you in this lovely, beautiful human way is why he’s so good. By the way, he’s doing all of this and his ears are ringing, and he never gets to hear the work- he never hears this thing. It’s all work of his intellect, he can’t even try it. He can’t even say, “I want to play this and see how it goes- “he can’t do it.
Karl Schudt: He’s doing memories of sound. I want to dig in a little bit more- Michelle do you happen to have the score handy?
Michelle Hawkins: Yeah.
Karl Schudt: My favorite part of movement 1 is when he starts hitting us with the repeated, I guess, sforzando chords.
Michelle Hawkins: Are you talking about the one where it’s a weird five chord and it sounds wrong?
Scott Hambrick: Is it the one where it’s the dominant over the major?
Karl Schudt: I’m thinking of the 1st movement. I think that might be the spot.
Michelle Hawkins: It sounds wrong like there’s a wrong note there.
Karl Schudt: I love it, I get chills, Beethoven is doing things to me and I’m letting him do it. Bach is (this is another weird analogy- the girl that sits out on the porch with you and your parents are inside and the window is open, and you have a nice chat over tea and cookies). Beethoven’s music is like that girl who’s a little forward.
Scott Hambrick: You can’t take Beethoven to mom. Is that what you’re saying?
Karl Schudt: This symphony’s going to grab you and do things to you whether you want it to or not and it’s going to hit you with those hammer beats and build up the dissonance. We talked a little bit about the octaves and 3rds and 5ths and how they go together. A dissonance- can you explain to us what a dissonance is what he’s doing with that chord you just played and why it strikes so weirdly.
Michelle Hawkins: I guess it’s the notion of tension and release and in music we call that dissonance vs consonance. The most basic thing in western music is that you have a place that you call “home” and “home” feels really nice and then you can go to the five chord…
Karl Schudt: If you stopped there I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight.
Michelle Hawkins: Also, there’s a reason why that’s the “Simpsons” theme. I’m disturbing you because I haven’t resolved it, tension, release. That’s what all of western music is based on that notion of tension vs release. The more notes that you add that are more tense, we consider that to be more dissonant so then the pay-off is much bigger because there’s so much tension it makes the release so much sweeter.
Scott Hambrick: Beethoven starts off not dissonant and then he ratchets up that tension and then he resolves it a little bit, he ratchets it up a little bit more and he never lets it all go away until maybe the end of the fourth movement (where Michelle’s really disappointed). My weirdo guitar teacher, Dick Gordon Jr, “All music is really the management of tension and the listener.” I think that’s true and Beethoven’s the best at it.
Michelle Hawkins: I don’t know that he’s the best at it because you’re implying that he’s the best composer of all time and I’m not willing to go there.
Scott Hambrick: Who is?
Michelle Hawkins: I don’t know but there are ones that I personally like better. Brahms, Tchaikovsky– I’m partial to the late, Russian Romantics. I’m not saying Beethoven is bad and he’s a monument in music, but I don’t think music evolution stopped at Beethoven.
Karl Schudt: I could go with you there, I’m a fan of the Russians myself. For me, as you go through and listen to 1st movement, and my score it’s 276, he’s been hitting it with these hammer beats and there are a little bit dissonant and they’re a little bit more dissonant and they’re a lot dissonant and he hits you with a bunch of them and in some recordings he really slows down to hit those. How much more can he take you away from home? How much more can he work you up? Beethoven, for me, finds something that he likes, and he repeats it and then recaps it later. It works me up and I can’t listen to it passively. Speaking of Russians and Romantic music. I remember, when I was a kid, I was very impressed that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring- “there was a riot at the theater.
Michelle Hawkins: Can you imagine?
Karl Schudt: That’s so punk rock. I’m thinking, “How could you listen to this music so passionately that it would cause a riot?” I think that would be great.
Michelle Hawkins: Just the idea that these aristocratic folks got so worked up into a lather that they started punching each other is fantastic.
Karl Schudt: I want tickets to that.
Scott Hambrick: You said you can’t passively listen to this and I think somebody who’s new to listening to this kind of music- that’s the mistake- it’s not background music. You really have to sit down with headphones on and listen to this if you want to bring some of the good out of it let alone all the good if you can. You have to listen to it multiple times. You can only get first listening stuff out of the first listen. It requires more and it holds up though.
Karl Schudt: We were talking about music on the slack channel and some people were like “yeah, I like to play classical music when I’m reading.” If it’s really good, I don’t know if you can read with it.
Michelle Hawkins: Definitely not, at least not for me, but I have a hard time ignoring music in general unless it’s really bland then I suppose…
Scott Hambrick: Enya to read by. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use it for background music because it’s going to train you to not listen to it actively, and it wasn’t meant for that. I don’t think that’s a good habit to get into if you want to develop a bigger, deeper appreciation of this stuff. It’s best to not treat it as background music because you’ll be conditioning yourself to treat it just like that.
Michelle Hawkins: Going on this Beethoven binge the last couple weeks- it does change you- it does have an effect. We went out for dinner last night and at the restaurant they’re playing whatever pop music and after having Beethoven in my ears for hours over the last few weeks, you listen to it and you go, “Blah, it just sounds like kindergarten.” “What is that?” It will change your ears and it will change your perspective of what’s possible.
Karl Schudt: There are so many layers to it that the theme that we played at the beginning gets turned around, upside down inside out, major, minor, there’s response themes to it. I think it probably comes back in the 4th movement a little bit. He’s taking an idea and doing a million things with it- it is in-depth, wonderful, it’s a big onion, and there’s just not that much to other music. It’s kind of like when you join us at Online Great Books, and you read the stuff that we have you read you might ruin yourself for small talk. If you’re hanging out with Aristotle and Plato and Lucidities and then somebody wants to talk about the football game, there’s so much more there. There’s a lot of “there” in this, it’s worth the effort but it’s a hard sell for these people coming in form zero, they’re used to three chords.
Michelle Hawkins: That’s what I mean: that “post-musical” culture that we’re in. Most of the music that you hear now (on a musical level, I’m not trying to judge it as good or bad) is very simple, it’s on a very simplistic level. Trying to go from that to Beethoven is a really big leap.
Karl Schudt: Michelle, if somebody wanted to get more into it what’s a good way to do it? If you flip on a Mahler symphony or Brahms- (who’s like Beethoven part II for me. Somebody said that to him once that he sounded like Beethoven and I think he got offended).
Michelle Hawkins: No, he actually said, “Oh, you think?” His first symphony is a rip-off, by Brahms, or an homage to the “Ode to Joy.” Somebody said, “It sounds like the ‘Ode to Joy’.”
Karl Schudt: Sonny Stitt was a jazz sax player who sounded a lot like Charlie Parker, and somebody heard him play and said, “You know you’re just ripping off Charlie Parker.” He handed him the sax and said, “if you think it’s so easy you do it.” To be like Beethoven is not a bad thing- Brahms is wonderful. But if you dive into something like that fresh off listening to country music or pop music, there’s more there. If you come from scratch, it might be too much and it might sound like noise because you don’t have any bearings. How do you go from zero to something?
Michelle Hawkins: I think you need a little bit of a bridge; you need to develop a little bit of context. Maybe you start with Mozart instead of Beethoven because Mozart is more straightforward. If you’re just trying to be able to hear melodies and notice them and follow them, Mozart leads you very nicely. He’s not trying to trick you, so that might be an easier place to start.
Karl Schudt: (If Bach is the girl who sits on the porch, demurely, and Beethoven is the girl you can’t bring home to momma, what Mozart?)
Michelle Hawkins: (Mozart’s easy.)
Scott Hambrick: (His porridge is just right.) I think you have to sit down and on the first listening you might not get it and see if you can pick out some of these melodic themes- Michelle’s played the triad theme over and over here for this 3rd symphony. Within this movement, you’re going to find that it has three or four noticeable chunks where the theme or the style of the thing changes. You can identify where those things are and then maybe go back and listen to it again and see what happens to that original theme as it moves through those different chunks. There are sub-movements? You have to start assembling it in your mind because it’s very difficult to hold this whole thing in your mind as you listen to it time after time.
Karl Schudt: I think if you can sing a little bit of it or whistle what you just heard, for me, that’s a good way to try to grasp it rather than letting it be noise. What did you hear? Did you hear something, maybe three notes, but that would be an approach. I also thought, Michelle, for the average listener (who’s not a musician) I was thinking: if you knew what a scale was it might be a big help- to know how music is structured. In other words, you learn what that is and then you’re able to hear it a little better.
Michelle Hawkins: The whole symphony is predicated on “do, re, mi…” and it’s the fight between this and that. If you have that in your mind you will hear that over and over again, that tension.
Karl Schudt: It might be hard the first few times, but you’ll start to see more.
Michelle Hawkins: If you go to the end of every single movement, Beethoven hits you over the head. He will hit you with five, five, five, one. He will just do it over and over again so there’s no way you can miss it if you skip to the end of the movement because he will hammer you with it.
Karl Schudt: He’s not subtle. You want to listen to a minute of movement II? Michelle, can you play the violin part? That very simple thing- it’s getting me right now.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s very sad because it is a funeral.
Karl Schudt: He’s going to take that main theme, and if you listen to that second movement, it’s going to go all over the place in different instruments in different modulations and it’s going to have a response them to it and it’s going to be done in the major section a little bit an if you can hum it, when you listen to it you’ll do it better. I’m going to cue up about a minute of this. But you hear that theme in the strings and then you hear it repeated in the oboe.
Michelle Hawkins: Beethoven (seems to use the oboe) when he’s trying to do something that’s really introspective or seems like Beethoven is the oboist- he always puts something poignant in the oboe.
Scott Hambrick: Such a weird instrument. Have you ever played that thing?
Michelle Hawkins: No, I’m a flute player and we sit next to the oboists.
Karl Schudt: If you were ever in a band or orchestra, instruments have personalities.
Scott Hambrick: The oboe is the platypus of the orchestra.
Karl Schudt: Do you know how trumpet players greet each other? You just shake hands and say, “I’m better than you.”
Scott Hambrick: The trumpet player’s the lead guitarist.
Karl Schudt: The oboe generally (in a high school band, because it is a technically instrument to do) sounds marvelous but a bad one sounds like a duck.
Scott Hambrick: The two reeds vibrate against each other, it doesn’t really have a mouthpiece, and the bassoon is the mature oboe. Why is there a funeral dirge in this thing that’s supposed to be about Bonaparte who he admired at the time.
Michelle Hawkins: He originally dedicated this whole piece to Napoleon, and when he found out Napoleon had declared himself the emperor Beethoven was furious, and he ran over to his manuscript and scratched out the name Bonaparte and he leaves a hole in the manuscript. So, we still have that of the actual copy that has the hole, and he eventually changes the name to “Eroica” which means heroic, and to the memory of a great man.
Karl Schudt: It’s the funeral of Napoleon’s glory.
Scott Hambrick: He wrote this before that.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s the inevitable funeral for any heroic person.
Scott Hambrick: There’s a story that when Beethoven lived to see Napoleon’s death (form what I understand) he said that the 2nd movement was written for the inevitable at the end.
Karl Schudt: It reminds me of a Siegfried funeral in Wagner. It has the same first three notes and that theme and it’s designed to sound sad. If you play the G and the C and the E flat- these are the Platonic forms in music that have effects.
Scott Hambrick: What does sad sound like?
Michelle Hawkins: (Michelle plays dissonance.)
Karl Schudt: That’s what it sounds like.
Scott Hambrick: But why? But how? I know that.
Karl Schudt: Is it cultural or is it universal?
Michelle Hawkins: That’s hard to say.
Scott Hambrick: If somebody in Tokyo, Japan in 1631, if they heard that chord would they cry?
Karl Schudt: In the church where I go we occasionally sing some Eastern music it doesn’t quite sound like that. It’s not on the western diatonic scale, there’s still fifths and octaves but the minor thirds are what you do for the sad bits. When you get into lent you’re going to do a lot of them. Plagal II, Greek tone, has a bunch of stuff in it.
Scott Hambrick: Play us a major third and then a minor third, Michelle.
Michelle Hawkins: Here we are (Michelle plays the chords.) and I just lower that and everyone’s going to get sad.
Scott Hambrick: Just take that third and you get do, re, mi and you take the “mi” part down a half step and everybody’s sad.
Karl Schudt: Isn’t that the Darth Vader theme?
Michelle Hawkins: It’s definitely a minor, you can hear echoes of Beethoven in “Star Wars.”
Scott Hambrick: John Williams is a crook. Is that what you’re saying?
Michelle Hawkins: Totally- he ripped off Dvorak, Stravinsky.
Karl Schudt: This supports my thought that this is rampart blatancy. If you make a movie and you want people to feel a certain way you have to play the music that makes them feel a certain way. You can’t play a polka during a sad part.
Scott Hambrick: Is that not okay or is that rhetoric? You’re trying to instill, in these people, an emotional state that they wouldn’t have been in otherwise. Is that ok to do? Is that an ethical, just thing to do?
Karl Schudt: That’s another good question but it’s what they’re doing.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s definitely manipulative.
Scott Hambrick: I think that’s what upset Beethoven, is that he knew when he wrote this, that this was a new thing. There are some letters that he wrote that he knew that this was the most important thing he had done (at least at that point) but he understood that this was something new and very good. He didn’t want this to be for Napoleon. He’s an enlightenment guy and he thought Napoleon was going to usher in an era of republicanism and humanism and abolish all the monarchies in Europe and change the political environment. When he didn’t I think he was probably mad and didn’t want him to use it as rhetoric or propaganda.
Karl Schudt: Funny story about the pipe organ. There’s a reason why the pipe organ is used in church music in the West. In the East, which no longer really exists, it was used for imperial music. If you went to the imperial hall in Constantinople to see the emperor, they’d have pipe organs playing and have out all the imperial robes and it’s designed to “wow” the barbarians. Charlemagne gets crowned emperor, the emperor (Maurice) sends him and organ, and Charlemagne gives the organ to the monks. The music which was all pomp and circumstance in the East became church music, but it was propaganda back then. (Could you imagine if you were a Viking or something and you found your way to the imperial court in Constantinople, and somebody’s pumping bellows and making air go through pipes and the sound that you heard. It would be like landing in the middle of the Amazon with Led Zeppelin.) What would people think?
Scott Hambrick: Those organs are tuned for the building; it would be like being inside the acoustic guitar when somebody’s playing it. There are some of those pedal tones that are way down there that are sub-audible, but you can feel them.
Karl Schudt: When I go to a rock concert I like to feel it right here, right in my sternum, I want that to be vibrating. There are intervals that these people don’t use.
Michelle Hawkins: There are?
Karl Schudt: The C to the F sharp. You’re not supposed to use that.
Michelle Hawkins: Supposedly that’s the “Devil’s interval.” (Michelle plays the notes.) It’s the key to everything. It’s actually the magical trap door that can go in all these different directions. It’s how the composer can get you from one place to another.
Karl Schudt: But if you just hung out and left it there that would be the “devil’s interval.”
Michelle Hawkins: Then you’re like Wagner- “I will not resolve.”
Scott Hambrick: Here are my questions. He writes this thing and he wants it to be a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte and it’s instrumental, there’s nothing to say in words. How do you do that? If you want to write this piece and make it evocative of a person or a virtue, how does that artist take this sound, this aural thing and make it evocative of a person? They clearly do it but the process by where they do that is magical and hidden from me.
Michelle Hawkins: In this case (I think even Beethoven would say) he purposely tried to break with convention. If you’re being heroic, and take Napoleon as an example, he’s breaking convention. He’s breaking down barriers and that’s what Beethoven is trying to do harmonically and expressively doing that in this piece. He’s effective in showcasing that. I, as an artist, can break down these musical barriers just like the hero in real life breaks down tyranny.
Karl Schudt: How far can you go though. Beethoven doing weird harmonic stuff to us and hitting us over the head, and it sounds heroic; to my ear, when you get to the early 20th century and somebody like Schoenberg- it’s a bridge too far and it doesn’t sound like anything to me.
Michelle Hawkins: He breaks the system completely, he’s not a reformer, he’s just a “I’m going to tear it down.”
Karl Schudt: A vandal, a Visigoth.
Scott Hambrick: Is this the part of the show where we crap on Jackson Pollock? It’s part of the same movement, right?
Karl Schudt: You’re pushing, you’re pushing, you’re pushing and it’s what artists do, and I think it’s what Michelle said it’s probably the reason- in order to mirror in the music what you’re trying to express. But, I think, if you go too far you lose the “human.”
Michelle Hawkins: I would agree but we can kind of blame Beethoven in a way because he’s the first person who sells himself and establishes himself as the artist as hero and the artist that itself is something to be celebrated in. He’s the first tortured artist- Mozart to some extent but Beethoven is really the one to break free and be successful being the tortured artist who lives for his art and only does his art and doesn’t compromise.
Scott Hambrick: In the Bugs Bunny cartoons here he wears the tuxedo and tails- he’s got the big, white hair and he pounds on the piano and it’s Beethoven. It’s a caricature of him like he’s kind of an early rock star. I would like to know more about the inner workings of the mind of somebody who’s going to create something that’s all sound that is evocative of an entirely different sense experience. Great artists do it all the time and it’s inexplicable to me. I hear what you say about breaking these conventions and his hopes that Napoleon would break these conventions and make Europe republican in terms of system of government- not party. I listen to the music and I hear some things in there that I associate with Napoleon- there’s some sort of Marshal themes or some sort of military music themes. The 3rd movement after the funeral is celebratory and light- Napoleon had things to celebrate about. He liberated some people only to then subjugate him later. The thing is evocative of him, but I can’t tell you why.
Karl Schudt: I have a theory; I just came up with it. Can I hit you guys with it? For you, Scott, the music is kind of a mystery and what I’m thinking of is what’s the “non-tortured” artist? Let’s go back three hundred years and what you have is church composers and I have been at camps where what I’m doing is filling time and space with sound and nobody’s paying that much attention. I’m in the right tone and you get into the mode of creating- it’s kind of like making shoes or doing a vamp in a coffee house. Making sound is one thing and what the artists do is not what you think they are going to do- not going to just produce music for the church service. (I remember, I went to a doctorate dissertation once where the guy was arguing that polyphony should be allowed in the Catholic church because it was too weird. His argument was that they made the wrong choice. It’s a bunch of people putting the chance through just for the liturgy and alternating lines to make something really neat. It takes the form that already exists and breaks it so it’s not out of zero or nowhere- it’s out of somewhere that working musicians have been doing forever. The working musician who has to earn a paycheck and has to produce sound for somebody’s wedding or something. What do you think of my theory? Am I completely wrong?
Scott Hambrick: There’s going to be an impulse to create something new and break down a barrier to introduce polyphony or whatever and then (like you say) you take it too far and end up with something like Schoenberg. If he’s going to do something new and original, what’s he going to do?
Karl Schudt: Go back to tonality.
Scott Hambrick: That’d be nice.
Michelle Hawkins: There’s this character on the scene nowadays named Jacob Collier and he’s from London, England and he is doing some really interesting experimental stuff. If you dig a little bit deeper into what he’s doing he’s taking the notions of western harmony to it’s outer limits without breaking it- without having to go down the Schoenberg twelve-tone rathole. He has an arrangement whereby exploiting the difference between Meantone, the way pianos are tuned, and true tuning like Pythagorean tuning to wear he ends up modulating to a key that you can call G half sharp major. It’s in between, you don’t know that it’s happening until you’ve arrived there, and it makes sense and it’s perfect and it’s beautiful. The reason why is that he’s going from maximum brightness- what’s the way that you can tune a chord within western our western notions of tuning?
Karl Schudt: That is another thing to talk about.
Scott Hambrick: Jacob Collier?
Michelle Hawkins: Jacob Collier- his music is jazz and a lot of times he’ll take a pop song and reharmonize it to make it really interesting.
Karl Schudt: The tuning is a math problem, Scott, so you might like that. If we base our scale off octaves and fifths and you tune your piano by going through that cycle you nearly end up back where you started. You have a little bit of leftover slop in your scale and what the modern piano does is that it divides it so that it’s equal temperament. Every key on the piano is slightly out of tune and we don’t notice because it’s just a little out of tune but when you hear something that’s in tune and it sounds different.
Scott Hambrick: Sometimes it sounds too perfect.
Karl Schudt: Should we look at the “Heiligenstadt Testament?” What’s the story behind this? Is this 1802 or so?
Michelle Hawkins: Yes. Beethoven knows there’s something wrong with his hearing and he finds this doctor who says to go out to the country and be around silence. He secludes himself and writes a letter to his brothers (that was found after he died) and he’s realizing that he’s not going to get any better. It’s kind of his “to be or not to be” moment. Will he continue, knowing that it’s his fate and if so why go on living?
Karl Schudt: If you are and you know it, the greatest thing musically since sliced bread, it’s the one thing you know you could do.
Michelle Hawkins: it’s like being trapped in your mind- it’s all you have left.
Scott Hambrick: He starts off: “Karl, and Johann Beethoven,” (it’s a letter to them that he just put in a drawer and shut and didn’t send away and probably should’ve sent to them, poor guy. I think Karl eventually got to read it and I’m not sure of that) but he starts off apologizing. He says, “You’ll probably think I’m rude, but I can’t hear.” He says, “How could I claim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men?” He’s ashamed that he can’t hear, that because he’s a composer that he should hear better. He thinks that if people find out he can’t hear maybe he won’t be able to work again, that he’ll be ostracized, that they’ll think he’s a freak- he has a great deal of shame about it. (Very sad.) He talks about his art and his virtue are the only things that kept him from killing himself.
Karl Schudt: I want to read a little bit from the middle. In his day a musician had to work with patronage- you had to have somebody pay (so I imagine you had to hob-knob) and if you’re deaf how do you do it? Right in the middle he says, “What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance, and I heard nothing. Or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair but little more and I would have put an end to my life. Only art was that withheld me, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I had felt called upon me to produce and so I endured this wretched existence.” He’s thinking of doing whatever they did in 1802 to kill themselves because he can’t hear, he can’t talk to his patrons, he’s afraid they’re going to find out. What keeps him from doing it?
Michelle Hawkins: The “Eroica” comes out after this period.
Karl Schudt: I think I’m up to opus 83 right now- I’ve been listening to the opuses of Beethoven in order and before this letter (it’s good but it starts to get really good) as his hearing goes away- (it gets better and better and all of the great stuff like) the c sharp minor string quartet- (it’s so good) and he never heard that thing. He was a tortured artist and all that kept him from dying was the thought of all the stuff that he could still do. (I love this line) he said, “Forced already in my twenty-eight year to become a philosopher.”
Michelle Hawkins: And then he says something funny like, “that’s especially hard for artists.” He says, “Oh it’s not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else.” What does that mean?
Karl Schudt: To be a philosopher, (I think they mean the stoics or Socrates) to accept death and there’s a line from Shakespeare “Never was born a philosopher who could stand a toothache.” The idea of being a philosopher means to not be affected by the things in my life. He’s forced to be a philosopher because he’s going deaf but it’s even harder for the artist because (I guess for him) the artist is about feeling. He has to be insensible to feelings he thinks is going to hurt his art.
Scott Hambrick: Does that just mean that makes him hyper-rational?
Karl Schudt: I don’t know that he succeeded because the music’s so passionate after this, but he managed not to kill himself.
Scott Hambrick: He says, “It was virtue alone which sustained me in my misery.” I have to thank her and art for not having ended my life by suicide. Recommend virtue to your children,” he says.
Michelle Hawkins: Here’s my tinfoil moment. This particular section of the letter is sometimes left out. The part where he says, “Recommend virtue to your children. It alone cannot make money happy. I speak from experience. This is what upheld me in my time of misery.” That section right there- I have a textbook from my undergraduate days and it’s all primary source documents through the history of western music, so it had the Heiligenstadt Testament in it and I read it and I checked out some other translations, found some other versions and there’s an extra paragraph that’s not in my textbook. Maybe that’s my tinfoil moment and if you look on different websites, some of them have it and some of them don’t.
Karl Schudt: (I like Beethoven, a lot, I don’t know if I could pick a favorite. For me, I think this is what the internet is for- the internet is a problematic medium. When I was a kid, my dad had a collection of classical music on vinyl, and I didn’t have the complete works, but the entirety of his works is available instantly. There is so much good art and beauty and literature and music available to us instantly.) If you are intrigued by this, this is what the internet is for- fill for life with beauty.
Scott Hambrick: I found sheet music for free on the internet and I downloaded the four PDF’S of each of the four movements and followed along as best as I could (it’s hard to follow along with the first movement- it’s flying) but I couldn’t have done that. Twenty-five years ago, I bought a copy of Norton’s and you’d have to go pay a lot of money for those things. Now you can find everything for free on the internet. Even if you can’t read music, you can see the direction: when it’s up and down, when it speeds up, when it’s silent, what horns are playing, what horns aren’t. I think that looking at the score of music, even if you don’t read music, can be an aid when you listen to this stuff. It can also be frustrating, just don’t get too hung up with it.
Karl Schudt: (I think it can be worth your time, I think by taking piano lessons or some sort of musical instrument for three months your understanding and enjoyment of music would go up 90%.)
Michelle Hawkins: Absolutely.
Karl Schudt: You don’t have to be great but knowing what a scale is and if you look at a piano, you can see the shape of the music like where the black and the white keys are.
Scott Hambrick: It’s a musical advocus.
Michelle Hawkins: There is this whole thing called “ear training” (you have your strength training) and you can train your ears. When I first heard that in my youth, I thought it was ridiculous, and I can hear what I hear and how that was going to get any better. You can learn to hear more, and it is like you’re hearing music in color instead of in black and white.
Scott Hambrick: I took perfect pitch courses where you hear the color.
Michelle Hawkins: It’s not about perfect pitch.
Karl Schudt: But when Karl’s like, “That’s a major seventh.”
Michelle Hawkins: That’s ear training.
Scott Hambrick: That’s not ear training that’s irritating.
Karl Schudt: Perfect pitch is really irritating.
Michelle Hawkins: But it’s also not terribly helpful.
Karl Schudt: The door squeaks, and somebody says, “F sharp.”
Scott Hambrick: I was in the University of Tulsa marching band, we had band practice one day, there were about four guys with leaf blowers gathering the trash and the whole marching band hit the same pitch of the leaf blower and we finally got loud enough that they could all hear us and they turned them all off. You start hearing it everywhere. I have a report to give, Karl. You want to see my new phone?
Karl Schudt: Sure. I have one more thing to hassle Michelle with.
Scott Hambrick: Do it and then we’ll do a product review.
Karl Schudt: When I found out we had you amongst our Online Great Books thing, I found that there are recordings of you.
Scott Hambrick: At michellehawkins.com
Michelle Hawkins: Good lord!
Karl Schudt: I listened to it and I thought, ‘When will we hear more?” When’s the EP release party? That’s some jazzy stuff, it was very cool, I liked it.
Michelle Hawkins: I’m primarily a jazz musician, that’s my passion and I’m not currently working on an album- I’m homeschooling my kids. That keeps me pretty busy.
Scott Hambrick: Thanks for doing that.
Karl Schudt: You are recommending virtue to your children, “It alone can give happiness, not money,” like Beethoven said.
Michelle Hawkins: I’m trying but it is hard.
Scott Hambrick: How old are they?
Michelle Hawkins: They are ten and thirteen. I’m not saying that they are not good kids.
Scott Hambrick: Do they lack in virtue, is that what you’re saying?
Michelle Hawkins: The culture that we’re in today makes it a challenge to stay grounded.
Scott Hambrick: You can go check out Michelle at michellhawkins.com and, Karl, Michelle is going to be running a session on listening to classical music and a discussion of those works that she has selected with our existing OGB members. We’ll probably open the enrollment next week.
Karl Schudt: That’s exciting.
Scott Hambrick: We’re going to kick off that pilot program and learn how to do that. I don’t think either one of us may know how to best do that in an online environment. Hopefully we will expand that program and listen to important things and then discuss them in a seminar environment like we would in one of our books. Maybe this is the alpha test today? Maybe we’ll do the beta very soon. Thanks for taking that risk, Michelle.
Michelle Hawkins: I’m thrilled, thank you for inviting me and I’m super excited about what you’re doing. I think it’s fantastic, it’s what we need.
Scott Hambrick: It’s what we’re doing now, you’re going down with us.
Michelle Hawkins: Scott, sent me a message saying, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” I didn’t care what it was, I said, “I’m in, whatever it was.” I love what you’re doing, I love what you’re about.
Scott Hambrick: Thank you. I got a new phone and I think everybody needs one- it’s a light phone.
Karl Schudt: How do you play videos on that? How do you go to facebook?
Scott Hambrick: It’s called Light Phone, it’s a Light Phone 2, it has an E Ink screen like your Kindle, it has a touch screen, it’s pretty slow which is good, at first it was frustrating but then it made me think about getting into a long text thread with people. It will call, I have a keyboard so I can text, I can do group text, and it has a phone book.
Karl Schudt: And nothing else.
Scott Hambrick: it has an address book, that’s it! My sister calls it my “Jitterbug.” You see those phones for kids that had grandma’s number, a mom number, a dad number, and police. I had turned on the screen time app theme so, on Sundays it would tell me how much time I spent on the phone during the week and this has cut it by about 70%. I still have my iPhone and it’s an iPod at this point.
Karl Schudt: I have a request for our jazz musician here. At some point, we should do intro to jazz.
Michelle Hawkins: Now we’re talking.
Karl Schudt: A podcast for the listener who says it’s weird- what is it, how do you listen to it, how do we make it go from randomness to sounding good.
Michelle Hawkins: To be fair- there’s a time period that’s optimal and there’s a time where they jump the shark and go “Schoenberg” on you.
Karl Schudt: That would be around 1967.
Michelle Hawkins: Don’t say John Coltrane.
Karl Schudt: I would say around “Bitches Brew,” I hate that album. I have it because it’s Miles, I can’t listen to it.
Scott Hambrick: We’ll wrap this thing up. If you’re interested in hearing Michelle’s work go to michellehawkins.com. If you think you might want to learn about classical music, and get into some of those discussions, think about joining us at OGB. We’re going to open enrollment again on Feb 14, 2019, that’s the next kick-off, if you want to get a heads-up on that, you can go to onlinegreatbooks.com/ogbpodcast and get on the list and we’ll let you know when that’s opening up and once you’re in you might get in a slot of one of michelle’s seminars. If you’re interested in the jazz thing, I wld do a thing once a year, Karl, on the barbell logic, do a christmas special and I play four or five or eight of my favorite jazz tunes and do a running commentary and try to do a little about what you’re talking about and why the song is important and why it’s interesting and what they might be listening for (when they hear some of that good stuff because I don’t pick any bad stuff). Come for the barbells and get me yelling about culture and get some commentary about Miles Davis. There’s another Online Great Books podcast and any questions you may have or books you want us to talk about to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will ignore that email and do whatever we want anyway. Thank you guys so much for listening and we’ll talk to you in another week.
#56- How to Listen to Classical Music and Actually Enjoy It: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and The Heiligenstadt Testament with Michelle Hawkins
By Scott Hambrick, Reader-In-Chief
Recently, I’ve had a few dust-ups with folks that don’t understand how VERY basic logic can be used to test for rhetoric and other nonsense. I’ve also had a number of very kind emails from readers who are interested in learning more about how we might do that. I’ve read a great deal on the subject, but it’s been a while, so writing a quick primer on the subject for ya’ll would help me a great deal as well. Here it is.
Firstly, I’m mostly Aristotelian. People that aren’t mostly Aristotelian are bed-wetters. Lots of clownery has been introduced in the world of logic since him, and some little good has been done too. We’ll get to some of that as well. But, I’ll be drawing mostly on Aristotle, the father of reason. Aristotle believed that his senses plus his rationality could be trusted to get at The Truth. Not everyone believes this. I do. I also believe all instrumentation is a rational way to increase the resolution and/or sensitivity of our own senses. I don’t think Aristotle would reject the thermometer, the microscope, the electron microscope, or the Large Hadron Collider, as means of gathering sense data. I don’t either.
Aristotle believed that his senses and his rationality were enough for him to undertake a deep study and to develop a better understanding of the world around him. As such, he starts with his senses and his mind. That’s where we’ll start.
In thought, as in all things, there must be a beginning. This is an axiom. It’s a self-evident assumption that requires no additional proof. Stuff has to have a beginning. If there is no beginning there is always another pre-condition, another input, another argument, something lower down, earlier, more primary. We never get to bedrock. This is the problem of Infinite Regress. This violates our axiom. If we assume there is no beginning we get the Infinite Regress paradox. That can’t be, reality can’t be paradoxical, it must not contradict itself. IF there is a beginning, there’s no Infinite Regress paradox. That lets us know we are on the right track. Where do we start then? Where do we begin when we think?
Aristotle tells us in his book IV of “Metaphysics” that we must start with the fact that stuff “is.” The fact that things exists tells us something. We need to start with the stuff that is true of everything that is. It’s the stuff that is true of all things that are. It’s Being qua Being. (“Qua” means “In so far as” or “as it is”.) These things that are true of everything are the primary principles that everything follows from. They are at the beginning. Everything else follows. That’s what the beginning is, it’s the thing everything follows from. Aristotle tells us that these laws are “Prior” to everything, and all that follows is “Posterior.” If we start with anything more complex or “posterior” to this stuff, we’ll be in trouble.
Aristotle goes to great lengths to show us that being exists. He even says in Book IV, part two of Metaphysics that even “non-being is non-being.” Being is the thing common to all things, and the study of this is the study of the attributes of the state of being qua being. This is Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of what we can know from the very fact that something exists. If your Metaphysics is wrong everything else posterior to that will be wrong.
Because everything has being, insofar as they “be,” they are the same. This makes the study of this stuff universal and primary.
Uncle Ari says, “…..the attempts of some who discuss the terms on which truth should be accepted, are due to a want of training in logic; for they should know these things already when they come to a special study, and not be inquiring into them while they are pursuing it. — Evidently then the philosopher, who is studying the nature of all substance, must inquire also in the principles of deduction.” Further, “he whose subject is being qua being must be able to state most certain principles of all things.” (Metaphysics Book IV part 2)
In other words, when it’s time to evaluate the truth of something we need to already know the “most certain principles of all things” and be able to build arguments from them.
Luckily these most certain of principles are self-evident. They are axiomatic. Bertrand Russell named these laws before World War I, but Aristotle told us what they were in the 360’s BC. Russell named them:
- The law of Identity (LOID)
- The law of Non-Contradiction (LONCON)
- The law of the excluded middle (LOTEM)
I’ll cover these in turn, very, very soon.
Originally posted at scotthambrick.com