I have this friend I really like messing with. He’s brilliant in his areas–math, economics, music, athletics, computer pro… He has a lot of areas. But I can still occasionally find ways to put one over on him. One of our overlapping interests is music, but he is much more into rock music than I am, whereas I have listened to certain Bach and Beethoven and Chopin pieces over a hundred times each. And that’s just in the last year.
Beethoven and the Boogie
So imagine his look of doubt when I told him that Beethoven had written a piece of music that recognizably sounds like boogie. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Basically, there was this thing in French classical music where they would use syncopated rhythms that sounded a bit like swing. Here’s a quick example of it in Bach
But for some reason when Bach does it, it sounds like… French baroque music. You know: simple, joyous, flowery. Something you can imagine a court dancing to, sweating under their frilly dresses and coat-tails. In this strident version from Glenn Gould, you can hear how the syncopation can sound portentious, even wrathful. But it still solidly sounds like baroque music, not rock music. But when Beethoven does it (starting at 16:45 of his 32nd Piano Sonata), he’s using thicker and more dissonant chords, more repetition, and, well…
Needless to say, I find this sort of thing fascinating. People have such fixed ideas about the German musical tradition. From the way most people avoid listening to classical music, you’d swear every piece they wrote sounds like “Für Elise”–light and sweet with just a hint of picturesque longing. As if Germans never danced or had sex or got into fistfights. As if German artists never reflected these chaotic feelings in their work. But as much as knowing that 18th and 19th century Germans were real people does indeed help me to appreciate why music like Sonata 32 might exist, knowing a bit about music theory and history makes it, in some ways, all the weirder for me.
I know. I just said that human emotions are universal. But that doesn’t change the basic point that, with ONE exception, Germans… didn’t write music like this. Leastwise not until the mid-twentieth century when everyone was writing music like this. Yes, all countries have these kinds of emotions under the surface. But they find different ways of expressing them. Finding a fragment of boogie in a Beethoven sonata still feels to me like finding a hotel that had been carved out of rock by erosion: That’s not where hotels are supposed to come from. Yet here this one is.
Anyway, you can skip to the part where the boogie starts, but when I decided to play a little joke on my friend, I made him sit through the whole piece leading up to that moment. It wasn’t punishment. He likes classical music. But think about it this way. It’s one thing to just sit down and listen to Beethoven. The music will wash over them and they’ll feel the grandeur (or intimacy, depending on the piece in question) sweep through them. But it’s a completely different listening experience if you tell them something is going to happen at some point during the piece, if you even tell them what, but you don’t tell them exactly when.
Suddenly they’re listening like a detective rather than like an appreciator. They’re impatient. Their minds keep telling them: is it now? It’s now! Wait–is it now? Is it? I’ll admit that it was a little bit mean to do that to him. But when the moment finally came, the look of shock and confusion on his face, followed by joy, was worth it. For me, obviously, but also for him.
So much so that he brought it up more recently. We were hanging out and he said something like: “Remember that time you played a piece of boogie by Beethoven?” We shared a good laugh and then I said: “I’m going to do it again.”
Bach and Rock Music
I told him something similar was going to happen; this time with Bach. He was skeptical, but agreed to sit on the couch. I put the Netherlands Bach Society’s production of the Brandenburg Concerto #5 on YouTube. And then we listened for about six minutes as the instruments traded melodies and variations around. At some point in the six minutes, he said: “Yeah… this isn’t heavy metal.” And he wasn’t wrong. So far it was sounding like any beautiful baroque concerto. At around minute 6, the harpsichord starts playing a solo as the other instruments drop out. (It’s not just a harpsichord concerto. there are three solo, or “concertino,” instruments, including a flute and a violin. But, in this movement at least, the harpsichord is the star.)
Let’s take a step back and put ourselves in the mindset of the 18th century listener Bach was writing for. There had not really been a keyboard concerto before this piece was written. So when the piano emerges from the rest of the instruments, it’s an interesting event in and of itself. And from there, the audience has only about 2 minutes to come to terms with the fact that this is happening at all before they have to reconcile themselves to what comes next. And what comes next is… bonkers.
It’s not a stretch to say that the climax of the harpsichord solo, starting at around 8:45, would sound perfectly at home on a heavy metal album from the late 1980s. I’m thinking Guns and Roses–that combination of lyricism, noise, and virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. The music to this point has been light and sweet. Complex? Certainly. Difficult to play? You bet your ass. But the overwhelming feeling has been one of a garden-party. Then the harpsichord comes in and keeps incrementally raising the tension of the music until we’ve gone from the Black Forest to Black Sabbath.
But it was hard to hear all of that nuance over the sound of my friend laughing in delight. Because it’s common knowledge that Bach is a composer of unsurpassed sensitivity and excellence. But that’s nothing compared to finding out for the very first time in your life that he’s a rock star.
Side note. This recording, in particular, makes me smile every time. If you listen to a fair amount of rock music (and I do) you start to hear people talk about costume and spectacle. And against all that–against the studied flamboyance of band like Kiss or the studied nerdiness of a band like Weezer–take a moment to appreciate this portly European man with frizzy grey hair shredding the shit out of this keyboard solo like he’s Jimmy Page. The barest smile curls his lips as the audience is this close to standing up and head-banging in the aisles.
I’d really like to repeat this process every year or so. My friend–the one I keep doing this game with–is such a good sport that it makes me wish I had more examples. But, much as I’d like to pull a recording out of my back pocket where, I don’t know, a Tchaikovsky quartet starts sounding like hip-hop or something, I am kind of tapped out. Though, if anyone has any suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them.
The other thing I ponder over is that, for each of these two musicians, these discoveries, if you can call them that, were a cul-de-sac. Beethoven, old as he was, didn’t devote the rest of his career to exploring this new ‘boogie’ genre. And Bach, who lived another thirty years after he wrote the Brandenburg Concerti, likewise did not become known for his rock-and-roll shredding. (There’s plent of shredding in Baroque music.) Why did they leave the matter there? Did they not know what they had? Or do those two pieces sound different when played by people who have heard rock music? It is so frustrating that we will just… we will never know something as simple as whether or not we are listening to the music the composer wrote.