C O U R S E L E C T U R E
Historical Background: Beethoven and Bach
Notes taken on September 15, 2013 by Edward Tanguay
our response to Beethoven's sonatas
music undeniably has an ineffable quality that can't be explained, but a large part of how we respond to it has to do with how it fulfills or confounds our expectations
effect the structure, harmony in particular has on us
the reason that we're still playing, listening to, talking about the Beethoven sonatas some 191 years after he completed the last of them is because they are monumental and mysterious enough to be able to accommodate endless points of view, they are indeed endlessly interesting.
Beethoven only has three predecessors who were connected to him in any meaningful way: Bach, Haydn and Mozart
Bach didn't invent music, of course, but what he achieved moved Western music so drastically forward that his predecessors, marvelous as some of them are, were made to seem as if they came from another musical universe entirely.
Beethoven, like every significant composer in the last 250 years studied Bach. Beethoven was also a great admirer of Handel, but any influence of Handel is occasional and incidental, but the influence of Bach is inevitable and everywhere.
Beethoven studied with Haydn, who was a master of piano sonata, symphony, and string quartet in which Beethoven made his greatest impact.
When Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, it was in hopes of studying with Mozart, and while this never came to pass, Mozart cast a long shadow on Beethoven, throughout the 1790s, Mozart's music was a clear point of reference for Beethoven, a model to be followed, rebelled against, and ultimately, he hoped, surpassed.
today when we think about the dissemination and sharing of music, we think primary of concerts and recordings
in the 1800s, of course recordings didn't exist, but what's important to remember is that going back to Bach, the concert didn't exist either
the oldest music hall in the world is the Holywell Music Room at Oxford, opened in 1748
instead, music had a private function in the home, a political function, and above all a religious function. As strange as it may seem, the closest Bach's music came to a concert performance during his life time was as an accompaniment to coffee drinking at the Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus in Leipzig.
Bach's etudes were meant to engage the brain, and doubtless the soul as well as the fingers, performance was not on his mind when he wrote these.
Weimar, Köthen, Leipzig
it's not that Bach fits the cliché of the artist genius that is totally unappreciated in his lifetime, it's just that appreciation for a musician didn't look anything then like it does now, or even like it looked in Beethoven's heyday, which was 50 or 60 years after Bach died in 1750. Bach was respected by his employers and therefore given increasing latitude as he advanced in age, but he was, in essence, a servant. In his final post in Leipzig, Bach's responsibilities included giving singing lessons to the borders of the Thomasschule. Think of it, Bach was nearly 60 years old, definitely old age by the standards of the time, having written what have long been considered some of the greatest works of Western art, and he was simulaneously teaching local teenagers to sing.