Friday, October 21, 2011

Eroica Mix'n'Match

So, having found a way to link up score and video for the lengthy Act II Finale of The Marriage of Figaro, I went right to work on the next big piece we're tackling in music history this semester: the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, a movement lasting more than fifteen minutes (if the repeat is taken) and even more continuous as musical argument than the Mozart. I'll admit to being a bigger fan of Beethoven 1, 5, and 7 (yes, I'm one of those "odd number Beethoven types"), but there's no denying the monumental, revolutionary quality of the "Eroica." There had certainly never been anything like it before it debuted.

To try it out, roadmap-style, click here. (See disclaimers about user experience in the previous post.)

Again, my goal is to create a sort of one-stop shopping for navigating this sprawling musical landscape to help the listener develop a big picture view of its structure and scope. The fact that the entire outline appears on one page (with score and video) is crucial - I'm always annoyed when a student submits an outline of a work that bleeds over to the next page, because an all-in-one visual is a great way to "think" of a work as a whole. My hope is that the user can feel as if all 15 minutes and all 63 pages are just a click away.

Admittedly, a visual like this, on its own, is a bit depressing.

However, when all those mathematical-looking letters can instantly be turned into music (music both heard and seen on a page), all sorts of significant connections can become apparent. I don't mind admitting that my favorite thing about these experiments so far is score-hopping - trying out all appearances of "Tr1" (Transition Theme 1) in succession, for example, or looping the first few seconds of a theme DJ-style. It's also useful in the classroom to be able to play a theme in contrasting keys in quick succession. Almost exactly in the middle of the movement is a gorgeous "new theme" (maybe the only really good tune in the piece!) that follows the moment of greatest discord - this melancholy theme first appears in E minor, which is far, far away from the brilliant main key of E-flat Major. That's the kind of detail that's hard to put into words (I'm struggling with it right now!), but clicking back and forth between the very first PT and the first NT, I think it's pretty easy to hear.

Not only do these score/video projects build on a recent interest of mine in "big picture" listening - they also are inspired by a long-held belief that the score is underrated as a potentially engaging visual, even for audiences that don't read music fluently. Yes, a score exists first as a set of instructions and, true, those instructions only begin to suggest all that happens in a performance - but it can be fun to follow musical ideas across a page and, as I've suggested often before, a score runs less risk of distracting the listener from listening than Disney animations or the like. Many of the moments in the Fantasia films are so engaging visually that the viewer could be excused for not really paying a lot of attention to the music. (Is it always the listener's job to "pay attention" to the music? Of course not, but if you're reading this, you probably agree that it can be very satisfying and rewarding.)

By the way, I'm aware that the San Francisco Symphony's excellent "Keeping Score" series has an "Eroica" chapter. (Warning: I only just realized that it's one of those annoying sites that plays music upon loading. Bad idea, SFSO.) It has a lot of good features, and certainly provides a lot of detail (especially descriptive) that you won't find on my barebones site. It also does something I haven't managed yet: turn the pages for you. On the other hand, I'm not a fan of the awkward "time-beating" bar that moves fitfully across the screen, bar by bar, and yet somehow not rhythmically. I also don't like the ugly, computer-generated look of the score, and it's very frustrating not to be able to go full screen. And, of course, I don't like that you can't "see" the whole movement in a glance.

It's also annoying that the "Keeping Score" site doesn't let you hear the whole thing. Really? I know there are probably union issues and the like, but c'mon. It's not that I'd go there to hear it all at once, but I'd like to be able to hear any part I want to hear. However, this brings up the slightly awkward "rights" issue of my own site, since I'm "borrowing" a video of Paavo J√§rvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen that I found on YouTube. I'll do the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer defense here and say that I don't really understand how this whole brave new world works - your free-flowing videos and mixed media messages frighten and confuse me. ("When I see a big symphony orchestra playing pretty tunes on this smooth, flat, glowing rock, I think, 'Oh no, did an evil fairy shrink them?'  I don't know. Because I'm a caveman. That's the way I think... those violas sound awesome, though!") The classical blogger-twittersphere relies heavily on all the audio and video that's sketchily posted on YouTube, and the music industry seems to be OK with some of it, and it's...well, it doesn't seem like such a big step from linking to these videos to re-posting them myself. If nothing else, I hope you get a chance to appreciate the amazing playing of these musicians. (I did buy their disc - so should you.)

One last thought for now: as I mentioned above, the "Eroica" has never been my favorite Beethoven symphony, though I admire and respect it. ("Ouch," says Ludwig.) But the experience of putting this outline together and tossing these musical ideas around has made me remember how fantastic this music is. Honestly, I think the "Eroica" always suffers in my memory because that opening tune is so...not great. Maybe it's true that Beethoven's greatness comes from getting more out of less, but because that tune comes to mind first when I think of it, I tend to forget all the great stuff. My fault, of course. I remember having the same experience when we played it for Piano Hero - a few bars in and I was riveted for the rest of the symphony. And for me at least, the experience of chopping the music to bits only makes it more rewarding when everything is back in its rightful place.

If you stick around to the end of this video, you'll see what I mean by chopping it to bits. (I'm a little sad I missed Charles Ives' birthday by a day.)

Quick Analysis Notes: I threw the chart above together pretty quickly, changing my methods as I went along, so it's not the most elegant of analyses. The labeling of themes is a bit idiosyncratic, and I was particularly interested in keeping the labels short so that the table didn't get too big. The key areas listed simplify things to some degree, but I think they give a useful sense of the important tonal milestones. If you go to the site, you'll find I added one more fanciful set of links at the end of the outline - these "Big Bangs" are not really thematic, but they capture the "big picture" spirit of the piece quite well.

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