Glenn Gould and glenn gould on Beethoven

…you… have clearly developed a resentment pattern in relation to those tunes… You resent the fact that… those motives … can be sung, whistled, or toe-tapped by anyone–any laymen. — “Glenn Gould Interviews Himself about Beethoven”

Gould slips this admittedly elitist anti-Beethoven argument in a strange rhetorical context – “gg” interviewing “GG” – and “gg” (the reasonably pro-Beethoven interviewer) is accusing “GG” (presumably some other, more anti-Beethoven version of Gould).  It’s enough even to make Kierkegaard accuse Gould if dissembling.

Even so, it gets to an ambiguity in music I’ve experienced many times – let me explain.

There’s a commercial I see a lot – it’s for a pickup truck.  It’s got the climactic moment of Beethoven’s 9th symphony’s final movement (as if proving the point – that link is from an excerpt from the Die Hard soundtrack) – the full choir sings the chorus of the “Ode to Joy” melody.

Now of course, me being the snob I can’t avoid being, every time I see this commercial I think how terribly that little 2-second clip debases the grant edifice that is Beethoven’s 9th.  It’s more than an HOUR of music – four movements each with intricate structures and a layered nexus of emotionally evocative moments – and this commercial (or Die Hard) has just cut right to an out-of-context moment midway through the 4th movement, being used to summon forth the shallow “joy” of owning a new pickup, or killing German terrorists.

And then I think about a great Arcade Fire line –

We used to wait for it/We used to wait for it/We used to wait for it/now we’re screaming sing the chorus again! (We Used to Wait”)

And on from there I move on to all the angry critiques of soundbite culture as the evil nub of capitalist advertising culture, blah blah blah, that I carry around, half articulating for a few seconds whenever someone will listen and then fulminating on my own about it at in this half-anxious pitch all day long.

Gould is obliquely suggesting something different: what if this isn’t Ford/GM/whoever’s fault for debasing Beethoven’s 9th, what if this isn’t just another instance of destructive culture-wide ADD?

What if, finally, the fault lies with Beethoven?

Sure, he wrote the full symphony, but the fact that it could be excerpted like that, does that say something about the inferiority of the music?  And if you’re not familiar with Beethoven’s 9th, exactly the same argument could be made for the opening bars of his 5th – you know “duh duh duh duuuuh….”  One of our more widely diffused cultural cliches for “something bad is about to happen.”  And I’m sure there several other Beethoven moments that are as easily cliched.

Gould’s claim seems to be that that cliche was so easy because the music itself was already, in some sense, cliched.  Sure, when you listen to the whole, you might capture a fully formed musical thought-feeling, but the fact that you can so easily excerpt these pieces (and Beethoven in general) suggests there is a problem.  Or does it?

I want to connect this now with my own ongoing musical ambivalence about a certain kind of pop-indie-rock.   Ever since I was 12 or so, I’ve been stuck on two sides of a dichotomy at once.  Sure, when I was 12 I started listening to R.E.M., and I will still defend those albums to the death (at least that ones that had come out by 1989, which is when I was 12).  But on the other side of that coin, at that time, I LOVED U2.  Now the whole time I knew that a lot of U2 was overblown, melodramatic, junior-high poetry.  I knew that.  But I also listened and listened to Joshua Tree, and I can still remember where I was (in a cabin at the now defunct Camp Horseshoe) the first time I heard that album’s first three tracks – “Where the Streets have No Name“/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“/”With or Without You.”  To my 12-year-old self, there were some huge emotions in those songs – especially “With or Without You.”  But on the other hand, a big part of me was embarrassed for liking this stuff, because it was overblown, melodramatic etc. etc.

What U2 was for my early teens, the Smashing Pumpkins were for the late ones (and heck, the early 20’s, and still at plenty of my more melodramatic moments at 36).   Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an album name that’s embarrassing to type, much less an album I could ever listen to without headphones if anyone else was going to hear it.  But again, I’ve got a really vivid first-listening experience – I’m in the car with a few of my friends in high school when “Today” (from Siamese Dream) comes on, and I am totally overwhelmed by its opening chords.

For most of that period, the music I was much more proud of listening to was all the punk and post-punk that seems to deride even the idea of a 2.5-hour-long double album.

Same again in my 30’s, to some extent at least, with Arcade Fire.  It’s great when I listen to it, but can I really quote lyrics like

never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount

without blushing in embarrassment?  And yet, “City with No Children” is a haunting and totally overwhelming song, and so is the rest of The Suburbs.

And that’s true for Beethoven, for me, too.  The first time I really listened to Beethoven’s 5th (I’m sure it wasn’t the first time I heard it) but – it was Leonard Bernstein’s recording – I was listening to it on a flight from Savannah to Chicago last year.  I was weeping into the headrest of the seat in front of me when the fourth movement’s trumpet blast opened up.  I still can almost not bear to listen to that recording, it’s so overwhelming.  But still, there is a resistance, a skepticism.

Instead I can listen to Bach, or Schoenberg, and sidestep all of that.  These are things “laymen” can’t just listen to or hum, and there is a distance, a different kind of appreciation there.

With the pop things I was talking about, that’s not quite the same.  It’s not that REM’s not hum-able (because it is, and it’s not like it requires great vocal professionalism on Michael Stipe’s part to perform it).  It’s more that it’s not this immense EXPERIENCE to hear it.  It’s plenty personal, but there is no grand drama, no tragic consciousness, no delusions of grandeur – no “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.”  And maybe that’s a good thing?

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9 Responses to Glenn Gould and glenn gould on Beethoven

  1. Nates says:

    I don’t mean this to take away from the larger point you’re making in this post, which which I like and agree with. But I wonder if this is really what gg is getting at.

    As you quote him: “…you… have clearly developed a resentment pattern in relation to those tunes… You resent the fact that… those motives … can be sung, whistled, or toe-tapped by anyone–any laymen.”

    To me, it sounds like he’s accusing GG of resenting the fact that Beethoven has managed to produce musical greatness that lacks performative complexity–and thus fails to show off GG’s own genius as a pianist. That’s not necessarily a critique of Beethoven at all. In fact, it might even be praise, if we think (as I do) that combining greatness and simplicity is a rare achievement.

  2. Josh says:

    Nates –

    Isn’t that the like performative corollary to the argument I’m making about listening?

    There’s also the added issue that it could be meant as praise by gg (who’s the speaker here) but not by GG. And what Glenn Gould, the actual person, who is presumably some amalgam of gg and GG, is even more confusing.

    • juan says:

      Let me baldly state the following fact: there is nothing wrong with melodrama.

      There is also nothing wrong in itself with music that is grandiose or beautiful, and that just happens to also be excerptable. I don’t think anyone has ever produced anything close to an argument that if something is humable or accessible to the lay person it’s automatically bad. And what necessary connection could there be? There is none whatsoever.

      There is good and bad music, but its aesthetic value doesn’t depend on how accessible it it. Some Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi (too bad people only know the Seasons, which have been nigh killed by over-exposure), these are all great musicians. They can’t be less valuable because they are more accessible than Schoenberg or Stockhausen. Whatever consensus there is in music criticism I think supports this view (I take it that music critics and historians would have let us know by now if accessibility was a hindrance to greatness).

      The question about Arcade Fire is a little different, it seems to me. Let’s assume that some line they wrote is embarrassing to quote. Maybe it’s a bad line. But why is that on the same footing as the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony? That one is not embarrassing at all, it’s not a bad opening. So it seems like the cases are different. So what if people know it? Maybe it has accessibility to the masses built into it. Maybe Beethoven himself realized this. So what? It’s still great. By the way, most people don’t know the ending of that symphony, which is devastating.

      I don’t think there need be any worries about listening to U2, those songs are great, even if they are melodramatic or overblown or whatever. Wagner is overblown too. But in Wagner that’s not a defect. If you take that dimension out of Wagner, you will not have Wagner any more. Melodrama is also a respectable genre in cinema, and there are masterpieces in that genre (D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance are pretty much melodramas). Now, are these works valuable because they are melodramas? Maybe, maybe not. What seems clear is that it doesn’t hurt.

      One thing about music is peculiar: some music, like pop or rock, has lyrics too. And some lyrics are not so good, even if the music is great. That happens in opera a lot. Also some Beatles songs, although musically they are inventive, have not so great lyrics. That’s ok with me, because I have a more music-oriented attitude to music, not so much lyrics-oriented. That’s why I don’t mind if rappers only talk about girls, cars and money, so long as the music is good. I know other people care a lot about the lyrics, but I’m just saying.

      To sum up, I think that if the artist knows how to incorporate elements of accessibility, appeal to the masses, melodrama, then the work may be valuable. It all depends on the skills of the artist.

  3. Nates says:

    Well, I suppose the difference is that, on my reading, it’s no longer an “elitist anti-Beethoven argument.” Instead, it’s an anti-elitist, humble-pie kind of remark: that Beethoven just doesn’t need GG (even if Bach might), because the brilliance of his music can reach the audience successfully without the need for any piano-playing pyrotechnics.

    (I make no commitment to what GG–or Glenn Gould–thinks, as I have only the one line from gg!)

  4. Josh says:

    “Let me baldly state the following fact: there is nothing wrong with melodrama.”

    I’m willing to argue about this, but it’s hardly a FACT, right? Obviously a norm.

    I really didn’t mean to say that it’s bad, just that it generates this ambivalence about it in my listening. I have listened to Joshua Tree AND Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness more times than I care to admit. It still seems to me, though, that if something had that effect (intended or not) it’s worth questioning. I guess what you’re saying is that I need to take that ambivalence and “learn to stop worrying and love the melodrama.” Maybe that’s fair.

    I didn’t mean to be making a lyrics vs. music distinction. I find that Arcade Fire lyric itself both terribly affecting AND embarrassingly cliche. It’s not that I like the song it’s in but don’t like the words.

    I also don’t quite think the argument I was trying to make was “accessibility bad.” What I took from the Gould quote was something like – when melodies are so brief as to be motto-like, it prevents a certain kind of extended melodic experience that is less easily extracted, and so becomes more intrinsic to the piece of music as a whole [Gould often writes about one of Bach’s best qualities being that it is so un-extractable] . In a preceding paragraph, GG defends himself against gg’s accusation by making that very point about Mendelssohn’s melodies. They’re plenty “accessible”, but they’re not extractable. Those are different, though related qualities. Wagner might be a relevant example to illustrate the contrast – there’s no “duh duh duh duuuh” or “Ode to Joy” moment in a 6-hour Wagner opera.

    And now it becomes clear that the point I was making about pop music and the point Gould was making about classical music clearly diverge.

    Nates – I gave this some thought and realized Gould might partially be talking about performance, but considering the plethora of symphonic examples given, it can’t quite be just that. Also, Beethoven’s piano sonatas are known (I think anyway) as being extraordinarily difficult to play. Probably far more difficult than the first movement of the 5th symphony is for any member of the orchestra to play, or for the conductor to conduct. The fact that the 5th symphony is humm-able is not a point against its being difficult to PLAY, it’s a point against its being difficult to LISTEN to.

    I tried to find this interview on the internet to share the link, since it’s also really funny at points, but I can’t.

  5. juan says:

    Well, if you believe in aesthetic facts, it might be a fact about melodrama that there is nothing wrong with it. But I see your point, Josh, it was on the face of it a normative claim. Maybe I should have said ‘the following truth’. But imagine the uproar at that (how dare I claim to know the truth about that, and so on; ‘fact’ just seemed tamer).

    I think that stopping worrying and learning to love the melodrama was part of what I was saying, but I should have distinguished between a weaker and a stronger claim here:
    1. Stronger claim: do not think that, because your emotional sensors detect melodramatic elements in a work, that is a sure sign that the work is not as good as the more ‘serious’ works. You said you didn’t mean to claim it’s a bad work, but the way you are questioning your feelings about it suggests that you feel it’s somehow ‘not as good’ or inferior or defective in certain respects, when compared with the more ‘serious’ stuff.
    So I’m saying that you should trust your feelings because they are part of the informed aesthetic judgment you are making. This point does not generalize to everyone.People who do not have a developed music taste should NOT trust their feelings. Teenagers listening to the latest crap from Miley Cyrus, for example, should not.But you can.Look what’s happening: with all your experience in music listening, you have built an evolved taste,but you are still moved by U2.I think that shows that there is probably nothing wrong with your emotions, and that U2 are actually valuable.
    2.Sometimes we should just enjoy melodrama that is really inferior,and we know it. We should still enjoy it with the consciousness that it is inferior, but also with the knowledge that we are under no obligations to partake only in the higher pleasures. This is how I don’t feel bad about listening to Lady Gaga. I know she’s no Bach, but there’s still something about it that is good and gets to me, so why not enjoy it?

    I take the point about the motto-like character of some melodies, I understand now what you were getting at.Personally, I don’t feel like this character detracts from appreciating the entire piece as a whole. It’s more like a motif that haunts the entire piece, it’s something that stays with you while you are enjoying the rest of the symphony.That was the point of it too, I guess.

    Glad you clarified the Arcade Fire example as well, with me it happens that I like the music but not the lyrics. But this is a different case. You have an ambivalent attitude to the lyrics, as I understand.

    One remark I would make is that the value of some lyrics depends on the context they are in. In themselves they may not be much, but when you add the music they become part of an aesthetic whole. Experiencing that whole can’t be parsed into experiencing the lyrics by themselves and the music by itself. Only together do they work. Arguably, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles transcends the mundaneness of the lyrics. They become something else when incorporated into the song. Similarly, some preaching on rap albums about social injustice or whatever may be annoying if someone said it in real life, but with the music it’s different. I don’t know if this illuminates the Arcade Fire lyrics at all. But it was something that came to me yesterday while thinking about this post.

  6. Nates says:

    OK, fair enough.

    So I wonder what Gould (or Beethoven, for that matter) would make of this?

  7. Alan Hill says:

    But isn’t that the whole point, Beethoven was or at least in his larger works more about writing music that was “for the people”?, I wonder if there are as many cliche moments in his string quartets or the vast majority of his piano sonatas? I think he thought of himself has having a revolutionary heart, he was even going to dedicate his 3rd symphony to a character he thought shared those views until, well he didn’t and revolutions are often thought of being by and for the little guy (or at least that’s how they are sold). So maybe there is genius in writing great works that are still accessible to a larger less educated musical audience and standing to the test history throws at it.

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