Why Do We Listen?

As I said in my last post, subjective tastes from person to person as well as who we are as individuals moment to moment will determine what music we choose to listen to at a given time. Sometimes we want to hear something fun and lighthearted. Other times we want to hear something which will reach the core of our pain and suffering. Still other times, we want to listen to be intellectually stimulated – for music to challenge us and bring us out of ourselves. This is why no single composer or genre of music can give us everything – because the depth and vastness of human experience is far too great to be limited to only one personality.

Differences in Mozart and Beethoven

In looking at the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, I have been especially asking myself what the difference is between how they handle their slower movements which often tend to be the “heart” of their large-scale works. There is quite a difference between them, but until now I have not yet tried to express just what this difference is. It has often been said that in Mozart’s music, even when he is displaying a more “serious” tone in his minor key works, there is a kind of “detached” quality in his work, unlike that of Beethoven. I believe this is one of the reasons Mozart’s music is often described by some as “divine,” or “otherworldly.” While there is a kind of “transcendence” in Mozart’s music because of its exceptional and extraordinarily rare beauty, it does seem to come from the perspective of an “observer” instead of one who is actually living in the mood which is being expressed. This is why I think his music is often perceived to have a kind of “detached” quality. With Beethoven, I almost never feel this “detachment.” I feel as if I am truly hearing Beethoven himself, and am almost eves dropping on his most private thoughts, fears, hopes, and joys. Beethoven brings us into his private world, gathering us to himself, and has a kind of “heart on his sleeve” quality in his music, as does Mahler, while Mozart seems able to somehow not ever truly reveal himself – the man, through his music.

I feel this way about Bach as well. His slow movements in his violin concertos are extraordinary, and contain some of the most expressively passionate and beautifully heartfelt music I have ever heard. However, I still don’t feel as if I am hearing Bach himself, but rather Bach’s truthful conveyance of the emotions of passion itself, or any other given emotion or aspect of life. With Mozart and Bach, we cannot know the man behind the music. In that regard, Mozart and Bach are very similar. There is a lack of ownership in what they are expressing. It is never really personal. It feels like a non-personal third-party observation of human experience, but it is not necessarily about their experience. While they express through their unique personalities, resulting in a different “sound” in their music, it is never really about them, but about the music itself and what mood they are trying to express. The difference between the two is with Bach, he is expressing emotion, although not his emotion, while Mozart, while capable of evoking emotion, is not about emotion, but the beauty of the perfect balance of the universe. This difference was due to the different ideals of the Baroque and Classical eras. This lack of personal expression is as the patrons and public Mozart and Bach were writing for wanted it. Personal expression was not the concern of those patrons in a culture under aristocratic rule in which composers were mere servants. Beethoven did not see himself as a servant, but as an individual artist, bringing forth the Romantic era with full force like a thunderbolt clap. Personal, individual expression is what the Romantic era was all about, and it all began with Beethoven.

Beethoven could be said to be the first true “romantic” composer, whose goal was personal expression of the individual, which was further emphasized with the rise of the virtuosic concerto form which symbolically displayed this clear delineation between the individual and the mass – the soloist against the orchestra. In Beethoven’s concertos, there is a more clear separation between the soloist and the orchestra, unlike in Mozart, where the soloist and orchestra are a more unified whole, and even less like Bach in which the soloist and orchestra are more integrated still. However, Mozart clearly paved the way for Beethoven in his piano concertos in D Minor, K. 466 and C Minor, K. 491, both works which Beethoven greatly admired. He modeled his own C Minor Piano Concerto, Op. 37 after Mozart’s K. 491 C minor concerto. Beethoven also composed his very famous and often performed set of cadenzas for Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. The darker tone of these two famous minor key concertos by Mozart naturally had an appeal to 19th century composers, especially Beethoven. On a more subtle level though, this separation between the individual and the mass is perfectly symbolized by the entrance of the solo piano part in each of these Mozart concertos with new melodic material not stated in the orchestral exposition. Mozart had begun this separation in several of his late piano concertos, and Beethoven expanded the concept, made it his own, and put his personality in his music in a way which had never been done before him. This is what separated Beethoven from every other composer. He truly served notice to the end of the aristocratic “old world” and marked the beginning of the democratic “new world” which saw the rise of the middle class, and the weakening and ultimate demise of the aristocracy. Beethoven’s music perfectly personified the social change of his world. This more “democratic” ideology reflected in Beethoven’s music speaks to us to this very day. That, combined with his highly personal self-expression is what I think makes Beethoven the “world’s favorite” composer. Mozart’s music is highly popular and I feel easier to listen to than Beethoven’s on the whole, but Beethoven speaks to the individual struggle and triumph over hardship we all can identify with in a way no other music did before him, and in many ways, after him. Beethoven took his personal story – his struggles and triumphs in dealing with his deafness, and put it in his music, telling the world the story of his life in his compositions. Mahler can be said to have done the same. In that regard, Beethoven and Mahler are very much alike, even if not alike stylistically.

Beethoven’s individual works also seem to have had more ultimate significance to his career than any one piece had on Mozart’s career. Perhaps this was partially due to Beethoven’s comparatively smaller output, and also due to the lofty status major works had come to attain in the 19th century. In Mozart’s day, new compositions were to be enjoyed, and then replaced by newer works. Music was “here today and gone tomorrow,” and was a means of entertainment, a part of the social climate in which musical works were not necessarily considered or recognized in the 18th century as “masterpieces” in the romantic sense as we think of works after Beethoven. This again links back to the fact that in Mozart’s day composers were considered servants, and not artists. Beethoven’s insistence on being considered an artist and taken seriously as one helped him establish a solid reputation and created genuine anticipation for his new works. In that sense, Beethoven may have “marketed” himself better than Mozart ever did, who had great success for a time in Vienna as a much sought-after pianist and composer in the early 1780s, but could not sustain his success with the rise of recession and war, and eventually the death of Joseph II in 1790.

When we think of Beethoven, we think of the Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” melody and the extremely famous opening of his Fifth Symphony. The only work of Mozart which has this kind of presence in the consciousness of the global culture is his “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” for strings. Given this snippet of music samples from each of these composers in the public awareness, it is no wonder Beethoven is often generalized as “more serious” and “deeper” than Mozart, while Mozart is often thought of as being “less serious,” and more “light,” whose music is best suited for pleasant entertainment at cocktail parties. On the contrary, Beethoven can often be quite light, as in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, and the playful second movement of his Eighth Symphony, while Mozart can also be quite serious and “deep.” Even the second movement to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” K. 525 has more depth than it appears to have. There is a disturbing quality to this music behind the beautiful façade, in much the same way this is present in the famous beautiful slow movement to the 21st Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467. Mozart’s “depth” may appear less obvious, but in other works, such as the “Kyrie” of the unfinished “Mass in C Minor,” K. 427, and the slow movement of his “Sinfonia Concertante,” K. 364 for Violin and Viola, there is a real depth and a dimension to Mozart well beyond the superficial. The slow movements to his violin concertos, especially those of his third and fifth concertos are more examples of the depth of Mozart. Even so, Mozart still manages to maintain a kind of “detached” quality, even in his “deeper” pieces, which makes him all the more mysterious and enigmatic.

Classicism and Romanticism

Another thing which gives Beethoven perhaps the broadest appeal over any other composer is the fact he composed in essentially two different styles in two different eras. His earlier works recall the compositions of his teacher Haydn and also Mozart, while his later works, possibly beginning as early as the “Pathetique” Sonata for piano in C minor, Op. 13, and certainly with the “Moonlight” Sonata for piano in C# minor, Op. 27, No. 2, reflect a new style which came to be broadly known as “Romanticism.” This new “Romantic” era lasted just over a century, ending with Mahler’s symphonies of the early 20th century, and was extended by Rachmaninoff into the first half of the 20th century, while at the same time several other composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, and Stravinsky were composing in a more “neo-classical” style, rejecting the “excesses of romanticism” which they felt had run its course.

Classicism and Romanticism in a sense, embody two opposite ideologies. Classicism is about balance, clarity and precision of formal structures, purity and beauty of tone, and generally contains limited if any personal emotional expression. While various moods and tempi are explored, there is always a kind of “discipline” to music of the Classical era which is never really about emotion even if it can evoke emotion. This is the exact opposite of Romanticism, which is all about emotion and personal expression. The Baroque era was also about emotion, unlike Classicism, but unlike Romanticism, it was never personal. It was not about personal emotion, but about emotion itself. Romanticism, while still adhering to formal structures, generally embodies an expanded view of form not as apparently “precise” or as “tight” as Classical music structures. Romanticism is also about personal, emotional expression, which thrived especially in late 19th century opera by Wagner, Verdi, and Strauss, and the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Restrictions of form and personal emotional expression were much relaxed in the Romantic era. “Program music,” in which composers attempted to tell a “story” either generally and implicitly as in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, or specifically and explicitly as in Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” came to the fore in symphonies like Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, and the new “tone poem” form made especially famous by Richard Strauss in works such as the very famous, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Op. 30.

In general, Romanticism embodies a greater “fluidity” in form and expression than does comparably rigorous Classicism. The works of the Romantic era were generally longer in duration, and in some cases, much longer in duration than the works of the Classical and Baroque eras, and generally tended to employ much larger forces than those used in works of the Classical and Baroque eras. The rise of the prominence of the brass section of the orchestra in the 19th century helped bring about this expansion. Berlioz, with his “Symphonie Fantastique” almost single-handedly revolutionized the orchestra and its size overnight, employing a large brass and percussion section. Romanticism could be said to be the most popular style of “art music,” as exemplified by the fact it is the foundation for much of the film scores we hear today.

There are times I need the purity, clarity, and certainty of music of the Classical era. When I feel this way, I listen to Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven. When I want to experience the openness and vastness of looser formal structures and personal emotional expression, I listen to Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and middle-to-late period Beethoven. When I want a kind of balance between Classicism and Romanticism, I listen to Brahms and Mendelssohn. A child prodigy like Mozart, Mendelssohn was truly a classicist at heart while composing during the early Romantic era. His formal structures are tight and clear, as are his orchestrations, as epitomized in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op. 61, and his “Italian” Symphony in A Major, Op. 90. He was capable of writing very warm, beautifully romantic music, as found in the second movement of his very famous Violin Concerto, Op. 64. Johannes Brahms was among the most conservative of the romantics. A huge admirer of Mozart, even once owning Mozart’s autograph score of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, he embraced tighter formal structures while maintaining a distinctive and very passionate Romantic feel in his works, especially in his piano works.

I once studied with a piano teacher in New York who was also an author named Seymour Bernstein. He once told me Beethoven is the world’s favorite composer. As I said in my last post, it is my opinion Mozart is the greatest composer of all time due his mastery of all forms of music in a way unmatched by any other composer in history. However, Beethoven’s mastery across styles is also unmatched by any other composer in history. Since Beethoven’s music embodies both the Classical and Romantic styles in a way and with an assuredness and quality other composers’ music generally do not, it is no wonder he is the “world’s favorite” composer, as he can appeal to “classicists” and “romantics” at the same time. I can now today better understand what Seymour Bernstein meant when he said this of Beethoven. On top of Beethoven’s stylistic diversity, his story is our story of struggle, hope, fear, triumph, and joy. We can identify with him because he wears his “heart on his sleeve,” because he reveals himself in his music, unlike Mozart. For my general tastes and personality, I have always preferred Mozart over any other composers overall. The reason for this may be due to the fact I am an OCD perfectionist who prefers clarity of thought, structure, and line, all qualities epitomized in Mozart’s music. Ironically enough, the reason I likely desire this clarity is because I am truly a romantic at heart, and tend to be less disciplined. Therefore it is precisely structure and discipline I need to balance my Romantic, less structured nature. This is because we often need what we are not. This could even be said for Mozart himself, who led a generally otherwise undisciplined life outside of music, and seemed to “need” the discipline of Classicism to balance his less structured nature. This need for balance is true for everyone, which is why one’s “favorite” composer or composers is very personal.

I must confess in the past I never quite gave Beethoven his due, but after revisiting his earlier symphonies and piano concertos, I could not help but be incredibly impressed with his amazing mastery of the Classical style while still making it his own. It makes his achievements in his later style all the more astounding because whether in his earlier style of Classicism or in his later style of Romanticism, Beethoven always was comfortably and assuredly himself. This is the mark of a truly great composer. Beethoven is certainly one of the greatest.

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