Sunday, March 5, 2017

Beethoven in Havana

Over at Slipped Disc I ran into this arrangement of the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 as a rumba:

In the comments there we get the two typical responses: "it's fun and creative" versus "it's a vile, tasteless desecration." You might expect me to come down on the side of those who dislike the whole idea, but I have a bit more nuanced view. I don't think that we should be in the habit of thinking that any composer, even one as great as Beethoven, is not to be desecrated. A piece of music is not a sacred object. It is also kind of fun to hear this familiar music in a radically different arrangement.

But notice what happens when you alter Beethoven in this way: instead of the shades and hues of the original, we have the more one-dimensional motoric frenzy of Cuban dance. Nothing wrong with that, but it is like taking a colorful original and making a sepia reduction. It rather illuminates the quality of the original, doesn't it?

Or, in a more romantic vein:

Essentially, rumbaizing Beethoven takes a complex manifold of musical moods and gestures and turns them into a single mood.


Anonymous said...

I am a big believer in such practices. Not because it produces great music but because it's how musicianship develops. What did Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy have in common? All of them were peerless improvisers who learned their craft by retooling the classics. Of course, I'll take the Beethoven original any day over the Cuban version. But that's not the point. The point is that the pianist who did the arrangement refined his knowledge of Beethoven in the process, not as a monkey parroting music note-for-note, but as an active participant in a living art form. I don't necessarily want to listen to the result, but I wish all musicians would engage in that form of exercise (which of course they still teach in some conservatories).

As for desecration, this is a strangely defensive, insecure reaction. Beethoven's 7th is a masterpiece that nothing can "desecrate." It stands on its own, thank you very much, and it's ridiculous to think it should be treated as some of sacred relic.
It betrays a lack of confidence in the music's genius.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's an excellent argument for the virtues of arranging and improvising. And you are absolutely correct about the improvisatory powers of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy. But improvisation by composers seems to have largely disappeared. Were Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokofiev great improvisers? Not that I have ever heard. What about Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Esa-Pekka Salonen or John Adams?

Anonymous said...

I don't know the answer. I also wonder about performers. I know that Andras Schiff and Alfred Brendel are not just great pianists but great musicians tout court. But I also know of some very famous virtuosos (names unmentioned) who can only play what's on the page and would be completely lost without the memorized notes.

Bryan Townsend said...

I spent the first few years of my career improvising everything because I played in a rock band. Then, when I converted to classical guitar I quit improvising entirely--except for certain kinds of contemporary music and things like ornamentation in Baroque music. Classical musicians, as a rule, are taught to learn to play pieces perfectly from the score. That's what wins competitions and that's what they pay us for. In thirty years as a practicing classical musician I can recall almost no occasions when I improvised. Once I met a very fine violist with whom I spent an afternoon improvising, but that was very much the exception.

Patrick said...

The underlying assumption is zero sum - if the rumba 7th has merit, that must be subtracted from the original. And of course that the 19th century musical expression is superior to that of other times and places.
One possible plus is that it might reach people (the rumba version that is) who will then have motivation to check out the original.
Chopin was reportedly another great improviser and someone quoted to me a contemporary who said that his written music was but a pale version of his improvisations. After listening to a performance of Brad Mehldau, I thought it gave credence to that report.
The abandonment by classical musicians of the skill of improvisation decreases the richness of the genre. It really requires a deeper understanding of how music works. Part of me sometimes thinks of musicians who are only note readers as trained parrots.
And don't we feel that one of the qualities of the most amazing performances of notated music is a sense of spontaneity, of it being created on the spot, in the moment? I certainly aspire to that in my playing.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very good point, Patrick! Just because someone wants to do a rumba version of a symphony movement IN NO WAY diminishes the original, which isn't sacred anyway.

Yes, I read the same thing about Chopin somewhere.

There are two interesting and diverging senses when we listen, I think: one is, as you say, the sense of spontaneity, that the music is being created magically out of nothing on the spot. But the other is the sense of inevitability, that this music is exactly as it should be and could be no different. When we have them together, as perhaps in a fine performance of Bach, then we really are confronted with the mystery of music.

I think that the reasons that classical musicians no longer, as a rule, improvise, are quite complex. I have had discussions on this in the past, but it sounds like a good topic for a post.

Some classical musicians can and do improvise, but they rarely do it in a public performance...