Beethoven updated

About a year ago, Paul Wells offered his recommendations on the best recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Here’s what he had to say about Paavo Järvi and the philharmonic orchestra in Bremen, Germany:

This [recording] is in second place mostly because it’s still in progress, with only Symphonies 3, 8, 4 and 7 released in North America; and partly because the interpretations are a little quirky. I think it might be best to listen to something a bit more canonical and then you can hear how outside-the-box these Järvi interpretations are.

Aha! Here is an updated rendition of Beethoven! If Järvi hasn’t brought Beethoven into the rock ‘n’ roll era, he has at least updated him to the jazz era.

Why do I say that? Because a good jazz performance swings:  i.e., there’s a propulsion to the performance, as if the next bar is always pulling you toward it. We might refer to it as a “leaning-forward performance”, to distinguish it from what I will call a “vertical performance”.

I’d like to compare two recordings of Beethoven’s 8th symphony. But first, let’s orient ourselves to the music — odds are, you can’t hum the 8th symphony from memory.

CBC Radio 2 has produced an excellent series of podcasts on Beethoven’s symphonies, which you can download for free from iTunes. (Search for “CBC Radio 2 Beethoven”.) Bramwell Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, walks listeners through each of the nine symphonies in turn. Here, he introduces the first movement of Symphony #8.

Now let’s listen to an excerpt from Claudio Abbado’s version:

There’s nothing wrong with that recording. On the contrary, Abbado’s version of the nine symphonies has earned rave reviews (e.g. here).

It is, however, an example of what Paul Wells describes as a “canonical” version of Beethoven; what I have described as a “vertical” Beethoven.

Beethoven c. 1814

In the world of classical music, the ideal of Historically Informed Performances (HIP) is no longer in vogue.

HIPsters — I’m sure they don’t call themselves that — set out to reproduce the music of Bach, or whomever, just as it sounded during the composer’s lifetime. Such performances would, in theory, be more “authentic”.

A case in point is the complete cycle of [Beethoven’s] symphonies recorded by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe led by Nicholas Harnoncourt […].

What Harnoncourt did was to employ “modern” instruments (many of which are actually the same Stradivarius, Amati, etc. instruments used in Beethoven’s time and earlier but have since been modified to take higher tunings and produce more volume) with modern bows and strings. He also used period winds to a certain extent (ex., the valveless hunting horns used during Beethoven’s time). He employed a ensemble of approximately the same size as orchestras during Beethoven’s time (orchestral forces have gotten consistently larger until the early 20th century when we settled on Mahlerian/Wagnerian/Brucknerian-sized ensembles that have since played Beethoven and Mozart, often with part-doubling). He then went and studied the original scores carefully, coming to many of the same conclusions as his colleagues, Roger Norrington, et. al., have about tempos, phrasing and dynamics. Note that neither Harnoncourt or Norrington followed the metronome markings specified in the manuscripts slavishly, but did try to reflect their spirit throughout the score.

Here’s Mr. Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven’s Fidelio, composed in 1814. In this case, Harnoncourt uses modern instruments:

The HIP movement is a noteworthy example of the ubiquitous tension between tradition and transformation. HIPsters err on the side of tradition. Does authenticity require us to use inferior instruments:  e.g., pianos that are too quiet to be heard over the orchestra, or trumpets without valves? I seriously doubt it.

Surely classical composers were often frustrated by the limitations of the instruments of their day, which could not produce the music as they conceived of it. Consider this:  by the time Beethoven wrote the ninth symphony, he was stone deaf. He never had an opportunity to hear the symphony, except as he imagined it in his own head. One suspects that Beethoven imagined an idealized version of the symphony, which no instruments or musicians would ever be able to replicate.

The philosophy of this blog is that tradition should be retained but also adapted:  a concept that I call (dis)continuity.

It would be foolish to discard tradition; no one has ever surpassed the musical genius of Beethoven. On the other hand, it would be foolish to freeze a tradition at a certain point in history so as to limit its utility and appeal to contemporary individuals. We don’t want to succumb to a technological preoccupation with “fidelity” as the key to truth (in this case, musical truth).

As for Harnoncourt, he is no extremist:

“For me,” says Harnoncourt, “to play together and in equal pitch is not a goal. For me, the rehearsal starts with the content of a piece — what it means, how it can change the listener.

“I was an orchestral musician for 17 years and what I missed was the question ‘why?’. I wanted to know why [conductor] Bruno Walter asked me to play like this …. In those days, musicians were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about the conception. This is my way of working.” […]

“For me the question is always why a composer wrote in a certain way. And that’s what constantly interests me, the content not the form.”

Language wars

Ilona has an ongoing, good-natured conflict with a friend, Bob. Bob thinks the best English is English as it was spoken in the past. This messy business of language evolving with the passing generations doesn’t sit well with him.

Ilona is not above a little mockery:

So when in time would you draw the line and say “Ha! The language was PERFECT then, and that’s how we should speak it henceforth forevermore”? Mid-thirteeth century? Elizabethan (that would be Shakespeare’s era)? 18th-century? When was the language entirely perfect, and everything since then has been downhill?

Language is a great example of tradition and transformation in action. Re tradition:  think about etymology for a moment. For example, here’s Webster’s etymology of the word “gist”:

ME giste < OFr, abode, point at issue < from gesir, to lie < L jacere, to lie; sense infl. by Anglo-Fr legal phrase l’action gist, lit., the action lies.

This is a word with a long tradition behind it:  derived from a Middle English word, which was derived from the Old French, which was derived from the Latin, under the influence of an Anglo-French legal phrase. Word usage is traditional.

Re transformation:  language does evolve as the decades succeed one another. And in the past century, as technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human society, language has changed rapidly to keep pace.

As language changes, there is a risk that we will cease to understand one another. Consider this classic scene from Airplane!:  the flight attendant doesn’t speak jive, but Beaver Cleaver’s mother offers to interpret.


The adaptability of English is one of its strengths. Even so, Bob is hardly alone in his perception that the language is degenerating all around him. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post, explains how Tim Horton’s (a donut shop which is iconic in Canada) lost its apostrophe:

Early on, his coffee shops used an apostrophe in their name; dedicated punctuation fans claim that even now, in Hamilton, you can find original Horton’s with the apostrophe still proudly in place. These deserve designation as national heritage sites, remnants of a finer, more thoughtful and better punctuated Canada.

Like many traditions, the Horton apostrophe was a victim (so goes the accepted story) of Quebec nationalism. When Quebec decided that commercial signs should eliminate their possessive apostrophes, in the French manner, most companies hurried to comply.

[…] For the sake of efficiency and consistency [Tim Horton’s] decided to have all their outlets carry precisely the same logo, the one required in Quebec. Sea to sea, most Tim outlets meekly surrendered their apostrophes. The tragic result is that young English-speaking Canadians eat their Timbits and sip their double-double beneath signage that defies ancient tradition.

It was Fulford’s use of the word “tradition” that inspired this post.

I agree with Fulford:  careful attention to punctuation, including the use of apostrophes, is falling into disuse. As Fulford writes,

This is a defeat for clear expression. The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the written word. Without it, we are less able to understand each other.

Similarly, I can be a stickler for the precise use of words.

Still — on the whole, I agree with Ilona. English would be impoverished if we were to confine ourselves to words from the 16th century. Consider words like introvert and extrovert:  they enable us to think about ourselves in ways that otherwise, we could not. Or a word like black hole:  not only does it describe a fascinating phenomenon of the physical word, it has also developed a metaphorical usage. For example, depression as a psychic black hole.

Language evolves. That’s a good thing:  ye language curmudgeons of the world, deal with it!

Tradition vs. nostalgia

Do people who hold fast to a tradition necessarily live in the past? Not according to Edmund Burke, a conservative icon:

What distinguishes Burke from the French Revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality offered to us. …

Burke … recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

(Quoted by Peter Lawler at Postmodern Conservative, citing Scruton’s A Political Philosophy.)

One of the things that marks me as Canadian is my tendency to seek the middle ground. In this case, I think there are two extremes to be avoided:

  • Discarding tradition as worthless and useless in the modern context; or
  • Holding so rigidly to tradition that we cease to live authentically in the present.

The middle ground is the terrain Burke sets out to claim for conservatives:  utilizing tradition as a resource for living well in the present.

In fundamentalist circles, Burke’s position would be derided as “liberal”. People with a “liberal” belief system both hold fast to a body of tradition yet maintain a standpoint of critical detachment from it.

I agree with the quote:  the present is the only reality available to us. The mistake made by fundamentalists (whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) is to hold onto their body of tradition so rigidly that they repudiate modernity and become alienated from present reality.

Thus I like Burke’s distinction between nostalgia and tradition. As I see it:

  • fundamentalists repudiate the present and become captive to nostalgia;
  • modernists repudiate tradition and lose the capacity for critical discernment of the present; and
  • those of us who retain a body of tradition, while reserving the right to critique it, potentially have the best of both worlds.

As Jesus said, “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt. 13:52, NIV).

The photo, by Kirsty Wigglesworth of Associated Press, is from this week’s news:

“Part of a recently discovered hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold is displayed at Birmingham Museum in Birmingham, England Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009. Amateur treasure hunter Terry Herbert was prowling English farmland in Staffordshire, England, with a metal detector when he stumbled upon what has been described as the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered, a massive collection of gold and silver crosses, sword decorations and other items, British archaeologists said Thursday. One expert said the treasure would revolutionize understanding of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people who ruled England from the fifth century until the Norman conquest in 1066.”

Power to the planet

Here’s an interesting example of tradition and transformation in pop culture.

The other day, for the first time, I saw someone wearing a “Power To The Planet” t-shirt.

Power To the Planet

Most people will immediately catch the reference to a 1960s slogan, “Power to the people”. The t-shirt (and the campaign) both alludes to the slogan and simultaneously subverts it. (Hence, tradition and transformation.)

Once upon a time, it seemed that we needed to divert power from governments and patriarchs and redirect it to ordinary people. But now, from an eco perspective, people are the problem. We need to divert power from the people and redirect it to the planet. Thus the familiar slogan has been refitted to a new social consciousness.

The Power to the planet campaign is the brainchild of a corporation, Element:  a manufacturer of skateboards, clothes, and shoes. Not surprisingly, some folks are sceptical:

HOLY CRAP. […] Anybody ever heard the term GREENWASH? I would be so ashamed to be one of those 60 people that they fooled into being a part of this campaign.

Maybe that’s right. Corporations are extremely sophisticated about manipulating people into buying their products. In this case, the corporate branding begins with the name, Element. (Remember high school physics?) This company wants you to view them as eco-friendly.

It’s marketing, pure and simple. But it’s getting the eco-friendly message out there, and that’s a good thing. As St. Paul once wrote,

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. […] What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Php. 1:15,18, ESV)

I’m reminded of the United Colors of Benetton campaign:


A white baby suckling at the breast of a black woman? Think of this image the next time you’re listening to jazz, or even rock and roll. Many aspects of “white” culture are descended from Africa.

It’s a powerful message. And it’s a Benetton advertisement.

Again:  I’m reminded of Dove’s counter cultural message to everyday women:  you are beautiful just as you are.

This message has been brought to you by Dove, a manufacturer of soaps and anti-aging products. But truth has a power independent of its messenger.

Consumers must be savvy. If Dove, Benetton, or Element has corporate practices which contravene the values of their ad campaigns, consumers should hold them accountable. Perhaps by not buying their products.

Even so:  truth remains true even if it is violated by the very people who proclaim it.

(Why am I suddenly thinking of the Gospel again?)

Crucified raven

With the arrival of European settlers, Native American communities had transformation forced upon them. In some cases, traditional knowledge has been lost. Or it has skipped a generation or two, and a new generation is now trying to reclaim it.

Where traditional knowledge has been retained — or reclaimed — it has undergone a transformation. Inevitably, there is a process of syncretism at work:

the union (or attempted union) of different systems (especially in religion or philosophy).

Don Yeomans, Creator, 2008Don Yeomans, “Creator”, 2008, photographed by Trevor Mills

The photo and the accompanying text (excerpted below) is from a catalogue for an exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg (just north of Toronto). The catalogue is titled, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast.

The artist, Don Yeomans, has a Haida father and a Métis mother. Yeomans works within the stream of Haida tradition — but transformed as necessary to express his personal artistic vision.

“Creator” revisits a theme Yeomans originally explored 23 years earlier. The 2008 version adopts a more positive attitude toward Christianity than the original carving had:

The 1985 work depicts a raven held to a stainless steel cross. Above the raven is the title Creator. A superbly carved piece of yellow cedar, the work is a deeply felt meditation on what the church has done to First Nations people. The raven is beautifully rendered but, pinioned to the cross, is helpless, unable to fly away or assume a different form. The contrast between the harsh steel and the natural wood implies the imposition of a different order on the world of the First Nations.

The revision, shown here, depicts the raven on a wooden Celtic cross. The work is somewhat gentler, and the elegant Celtic knot forms provide counterpoint to the curves of the ovoid and feather shapes on the body of the bird. Yeomans describes how his thinking changed in the time between the two pieces:

When I had initially conceived of the idea, my notion was that the Natives gave up their culture, gave up their ideology for technology. But it was a superficial observation on my part, and I realized that Christianity had a lot to offer…. I’ve seen things in my life since then, like my father becoming a Christian, and how that transformed him as a human being and made him a better person. I felt the need to go back and respect the religion, make the cross more ornate, give it as much focus as the bird.1

Thus the second version of “Creator” expresses a relatively positive view of Christianity. Even so, I think this work of art is subversive.

As a religious symbol, the cross commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth:  a historical event with salvific consequences (so says Christian doctrine). The only person who can properly be represented on a crucifix is Jesus. Any other representation is subversive of Christian history and theology.

What does “Creator” say about the relationship between Christianity and the Haida religion? The following three possibilities come to mind:

Every moment, a funeral


From the chapter on Hinduism in Huston Smith’s book, The World’s Religions:

Strictly speaking, every moment of our lives is a dying; the I of that moment dies, never to be reborn. Yet despite the fact that in this sense my life consists of nothing but funerals, I do not conceive of myself as dying each moment, for I do not equate myself with my individual moments. I endure through them — experiencing them, without being identical with any of them in its singularity. […]

Again, science tells me that there is nothing in my body that was there seven years ago [not strictly true, but not entirely false, either], and my mind and my personality have undergone comparable changes. Yet, throughout their manifold revisions, I have remained in some way the same person, the person who believed now this, now that; who once was young and is now old. What is this something in my makeup, more constant than body or mind, that has endured the changes?

Seriously pondered, this question can disentangle one’s Self from one’s lesser identifications.1

Discontinuity — every moment, a funeral. Continuity — a Self which has persisted despite continual bodily and mental alterations.


1Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, revised © 1991, pp. 25 and 30.

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