For more than 200 years, Beethoven has been considered the iconic composer of Western modernity and his music the very embodiment of Enlightenment values. Beethoven’s oeuvre and persona have thus been integral to the consolidation of a canonic repertory and to the establishment of institutions of higher learning that, like Juilliard, have devoted themselves to championing classical music as a living performance tradition.
During the last two decades, digital technologies have reconfigured the music industry on a global scale, posing numerous challenges to that living tradition and threatening the long-term sustainability of symphony orchestras, concert halls, and even conservatories. The COVID-19 pandemic and the dire restrictions imposed on the performing arts writ large have heightened those challenges, making persistent concerns about the future of classical music more urgent than ever.
As the entire world was forced to postpone ambitious celebrations planned for the composer’s 250th birthday, [email protected] will address today’s pressing concerns and intertwine past, present, and future seeking to
- reappraise the ways in which Beethoven’s music and critical reception have shaped the performance and listening practices that remain linked to the cultural domains of classical music;
- assess the transformations that old and new technologies have had on those practices and on the very notion of sonic experience after the alleged end of modernity;
- contemplate how new media and technologies open untapped possibilities not only for Beethoven’s music but also for the future of classical music as a whole within the media ecologies brought by the Digital Age.
Note: the conference will be livestreamed. Please register for remote access.
Friday, October 22, 2021, Morse Hall
9:15am Welcome remarks by Jonathan Yaeger and Edgardo Salinas
Jonathan Yaeger, Chair
9:30–10:10am Roger Moseley (Cornell University)
10:15–10:55am Elaine Sisman (Columbia University)
Jane Gottlieb, Chair
11–11:40am Scott Burnham (CUNY Graduate Center)
11:45am–12:25pm Edgardo Salinas (The Juilliard School)
Elizabeth Weinfield, Chair
2–2:40pm Emily Dolan (Brown University)
2:45–3:25pm Alexander Rehding (Harvard University)
Anne-Marie Reynolds, Chair
3:30–4:15pm Tom Beghin (Orpheus Institute, Belgium), lecture-recital
4:15–4:30pm Wrap-up discussion moderated by Edgardo Salinas
Manuscript Exhibit, Lila Acheson Wallace Library
4:30–5pm “Juilliard’s Beethoven Treasures,” manuscript exhibit at the Juilliard Library
Curated by Jane Gottlieb, Vice President for Library and Information Services and
Director of the C. V. Starr Doctoral Program
Closing Concert, Paul Hall
5:30–6:30pm Featuring Juilliard student ensembles
Curated by Aaron Wunsch, Director of Keyboard Studies and Piano Curriculum
Concert coordinated by Annabelle Avenier, Events and Projects Producer, Music Division
“Beethoven Off the Cuff” Roger Moseley, Cornell University
The phrase “off the cuff” can be traced back to the practice of reading lines from a theatrical script from the cuff of an actor’s shirt. As such, it captures the fundamental tensions between literacy and orality, preparation and spontaneity, and ingenuity and charlatanry that have long attended improvisation in Western art music. As a composer who was initially more renowned for these extemporary powers, Beethoven cuts an ambiguous figure in this regard. Accounts from Carl Czerny and others describe the rapturous response that Beethoven’s improvisations elicited from listeners and the victories they earned him in keyboard duels with Joseph Wölfl and Daniel Steibelt. Improvisatory practices were meticulously notated in multiple piano sonatas as well as the Fantasia, op. 77, and the Choral Fantasy, op. 80, while improvisation-shaped holes pockmark his piano concertos at predictable intervals; at the same time, Beethoven’s sketches testify to emergency measures that needed to be hastily taken when inspiration struck, regardless of genre or occasion. Yet Beethoven reportedly placed relatively little stock in his improvisatory abilities, and even expressed disdain for those who admired them.
Taken as a whole, Beethoven’s relationship with improvisation thus reflects the historical and material exigencies of his time and place: while we might conceive of his improvisations as the idealized effusions of an untrammeled musical spirit, they can also be apprehended in terms of expediency, convention, agonism, and opportunism. This has implications for what it might mean to revamp Beethoven’s music for the twenty-first century. While still relatively uncommon, the incorporation of improvisation into performances of Beethoven’s works has been hailed as a means of achieving both historical accuracy and contemporary relevance. Beyond its immediate effects, however, it reveals the epistemological conditions under which improvisation became dialectically embroiled with composition as its sublated other, a complex process in which Beethoven was both actor and acted upon. Getting to grips with improvisation compels us to question how much we value Beethoven’s volatility in the midst of musical action in relation to our investments in the particular outcomes that he captured on paper, and to hear what this tells us about the precepts held to underpin musical cultures writ large.
“Paratextual Beethoven” Elaine Sisman, Columbia University
Beethoven’s music comes to us wrapped in words, many of them his own. From “La malinconia” and “Sinfonia Eroica,” to “Heilige Dankgesang” and “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” inscribed on instrumental scores, Beethoven’s words seem both transparent and opaque, multiplying meanings and receding as we try to understand them. As delineated by the late literary theorist Gérard Genette, these paratexts include words essential but still peripheral to the work (titles, inscriptions, dedications) and the words written or spoken by the artist in response to the work’s performance, publication, and reception. But Beethoven’s works are accompanied by other paratextual elements as he himself has become an object of contemplation and his biography a template for critique. The dire language in current use for his “late style” makes it harder to recover and to value the disparate and sometimes comic sensibilities of the late quartets. The circumstances surrounding Beethoven’s comic canon of August 1826, "Here is the work, now give me the money” (WoO 197), offer a clue to solving one of the greatest paratextual mysteries: the title page of the Grande Fugue, op. 133, published as a separate work and the Allegro in B-flat joined to the other five movements of Op. 130. What kind of opus concept did Beethoven bequeath?
“Late Beethoven and Perpetual Modernity” Scott Burnham, CUNY Graduate Center
In one of his published conversations with Robert Craft, Igor Stravinsky famously claimed that Beethoven’s 1826 Grosse Fuge is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will remain contemporary forever.” This talk asks what it can mean for a piece of music to “remain contemporary forever,” and thus to be perpetually modern. In particular, what it is about some of Beethoven’s late music that attracts and sustains such a characterization? Taking its cue from the Grosse Fuge, the talk will address striking aspects of this and other late-style works, listening for the material effects of extreme contrast and extreme concentration, as well as unrelieved dissonance, distortions of voice and subjectivity, and the deployment of the sonic "non plus ultra” as a dramatic design feature. All this will then be drawn back to the initial question: what is perpetually modern about such music?
“Music Amid Covid: Beethoven’s Immediacy in Cyberspace” Edgardo Salinas, The Juilliard School
Amid the global lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, virtuoso pianist Igor Levit began livestreaming “house concerts” from his apartment in Berlin’s Mitte district on March 12, 2020. Between March and May, Levit livestreamed on Twitter fifty-two evening recitals that quickly became an Internet sensation and turned him into an international media star. Beethoven’s piano sonatas were prominently featured in the series, which opened with a moving performance of the “Waldstein.” Levit had released his first complete recording of the 32 piano sonatas in 2019 just in time for the ambitious celebrations planned all over the world for Beethoven’s 250th birthday. For Levit, Beethoven’s music embodies the progressive political values he vigorously endorses and instills a “feeling of togetherness” that links performers, music, and audiences to nurture community. As we have witnessed, the pandemic abruptly took away the very possibility of experiencing this “togetherness” suppressing the corporeal forms of communal immediacy that live music affords.
Examining Levit’s livestreamed concerts, I discuss the unforeseen ways in which they restaged and amplified a concert format as traditional as the piano recital while giving new symbolic dimensions to the aural experiences of immediacy delivered by Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Levit’s musical experiment complicated aesthetic distinctions between the private and the public and nurtured a rather tenuous, disembodied type of affective bond between performer and listeners who remain separated by the vacuum integral to the media landscapes of the Digital Age. The concerts thus cross-pollinated musical intimacy with cybernetic event, proliferating the rich mediations among the sensory, the material, and the symbolic that digital technologies routinely perform in our daily lives. Taking stock of the event’s exceptionality, my paper contemplates the potential for aesthetic critique and communal immediacy that Beethoven’s piano sonatas still harbor within the hypermediated ecologies of algorithmic distraction that saturate postmodern existence. In a transhistorical paradox, Levit’s “house concerts” appear to fulfill an entrenched romantic desire to channel and transcend the opaque materiality of new media, overcoming constraints of space and time as the sound of music traveled globally throughout the virtual continuum of cyberspace.
“Materiality’s Late Period” Emily Dolan, Brown University
In Joseph Willibrord Mähler’s famous arcadian portrait of Beethoven, the composer is depicted holding a lyre in his left hand. It is not an ancient lyre, but rather the then-popular lyre-guitar, a late eighteenth-century invention. That Beethoven should be depicted with a fashionable instrument speaks to music’s technophilic obsessions. Indeed, it is easy to imagine taking this portrait as an invitation to consider what kind of thing the lyre-guitar was, and what it can reveal about early nineteenth-century ideas about instruments and instrumentality. As an instrument that was visually beguiling and famously awkward to play, it might tell a useful story about the myriad lives of instruments beyond being obedient transmitters, mediating the composer’s imagination and vibrating sound.
Or it might tell a very different story, one far removed from its cumbersome materiality, about the early romantic musical imagination and the music’s ability to bypass the material. Until recently, scholars could speak out about musicology’s “material turn”; these days, it seems that the shift is complete and that materiality has assumed a comfortable, even complacent, position within music studies. Scholars such as Holly Watkins and Nicholas Mathew have made compelling arguments for renewed attention to music’s less corporeal sides. What could music studies’ ideality look like, post-materiality? This talk uses the lyre-guitar as an entry point for thinking about some of the intersections between music’s materiality and immateriality.
“Beethoven in the Stars” Alexander Rehding, Harvard University
“The starry sky above us” has long been known to play an important role in Beethoven’s thinking. As we know, Beethoven was not merely paraphrasing a Kantian aperçu, but he was specifically referring to the Viennese astronomer Joseph Johann von Littrow. Space has not lost any of its fascination in the intervening 250 years. But it has been especially in recent decades, thanks no doubt to new technological possibilities, that artists and scientists have attempted deeper explorations of Beethoven’s cosmic connection.
In Earth-Moon-Earth (2014), the Scottish artist Katie Paterson converted a performance of the Sonata quasi una fantasia op. 27 no. 2 (the “Moonlight” sonata) into signals, transmitted them to the surface of the moon using military technology, and recovered the reflection, which she then reconverted into piano sounds. The reflected signal returns to Earth in fragments—the piece completes its journey, but leaves the music in its wake incomplete and fragmented.
The Russian astronomer Aleksandr Zaitsev, assisted by a group of teenagers, included a rendition of the “Ode to Joy” for theremin in their TAM (Teen Age Message) to ETI (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) in 2001. The timbre of this electric instrument may not have been on Beethoven’s mind, but as a pure sine wave the theremin sound is uniquely suitable for transmission into outer space. Despite these rather technical concerns, the purpose of the transmission of music emphatically transcends science: as Zaitsev argues, any extraterrestrial civilizations capable of picking up our messages will understand math perfectly well, what makes our human message unique and distinctive is its music.
Sound, structure, message, and music’s journey into the unknown – they all appear in new and complex configurations in these projects. None is perhaps more monumental than the recording of the Cavatina op. 130 that has been carried into the farthest ranges of our galaxy since 1977 onboard the Voyager spacecraft. Here the Cavatina becomes a symbol of the relationship between astronomer Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who both met and fell in love while working on the Voyager Golden Record. Will Beethoven’s music be able to communicate these deep human feelings to extraterrestrial civilizations if – or when? – the Voyager spacecraft make contact?
“Reliving Beethoven’s Erard Frères Piano: A Digital Perspective” Tom Beghin, Orpheus Institute, Belgium
Beethoven’s Erard Frères piano en forme de clavecin arrived in Vienna in late October 1803, prompting a period of intense pianistic activity that resulted in the production of his Piano Sonata Op. 53, now known as “Waldstein.” A new replica of Beethoven’s French piano allows us to relive Beethoven’s technology-related sonic exploration.
My lecture-demonstration will start with a series of C-major scales, jotted down as a stand-alone exercise among the many sketches in Landsberg 6 (Lockwood/Gosman 2013). They provide an intriguing glimpse into Beethoven’s coming to terms with what I call the “horizontal vs. vertical paradox”—inherent to any keyboard mechanism, but in the context of adjustment to a new instrument having broad aesthetic and compositional implications. “Horizontal” refers to the Viennese way of conceptualizing and executing gesture, while “vertical” applies to a fundamentally different engagement with heavier and deeper French piano keys. By extension, these descriptors of motion also apply to a French-inspired use of the Erard’s four pedals, operated either individually (foot down) or in combination (foot sideways). Beyond finger-and-foot acrobatics, such embodied performance reveals the deeply French acoustical roots of Beethoven’s Op. 53.
One must make a distinction, though, between the work’s pre-publication and published versions—a distinction that may well reflect the original and revised states of his French piano. By January 1805, Beethoven had given in to ill-advised “Viennicizing” revisions to his Erard. Four months later, he published Op. 53 no longer as the four-movement Grande sonate he intended but as the two-movement “monumental” piece we now know. About his Violin Sonata Op. 47 Beethoven said he wanted to dedicate it to both Adam and Kreutzer, because he “owes Adam on account of the Paris piano.” In hindsight, Op. 53 could have been the perfect “Adam” Sonata—its “Frenchness” so openly manifest—if it were not for an overwhelming association with a Count who sent Beethoven to Vienna “to receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”