Sunday, September 25, 2011

Related Reading and Viewing of Interest

I was very glad to see that Nicholas Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction begins Chapter 1 with a discussion of music and visual culture (“A Television Commercial” is the section heading). As Wayman Chin pointed out in class last week, too often we think of appreciating music as a purely auditory experience, and write out the great influence of the visual. Investigating how we think about music visually can often illuminate the cultural work that music is doing at the moment, and the wide variety of contradictory messages that can be sent simultaneously (Cook points out in the Prudential commercial how, while you see representations of rock music, you hear classical music, reinforcing the advertisement’s claim that one can be young and hedonistic while still making sound long-term investments).

A more recent article by Cook (“Representing Beethoven: Romance and Sonata Form in Simon Cellan Jones’s Eroica) provides a nice complement to Chapter 1 and 2, tackling both visual culture and the influence of the cult of Beethoven. Here is a link to the article on Google Books, appearing in the collection Beyond the Soundtrack ( ).

The Eroica that the title refers to is a BBC television movie representing the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. It is a subject particularly ripe for investigation, because, as Cook points out, it is so different from other composer-biography dramas such as Amadeus. The majority of the film (which is set entirely in one day) consists of a full performance of the Symphony by John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Like a music video, the musicians on screen are miming in sync with their own recording.

While the musicians play, a large part of the film is dedicated to representing how aristocrats of the time (and their servants) listened to Beethoven. The result is somewhat similar to the drawing on page 21 of Very Short Introduction. Ultimately, the overall shape of the film uses the dedication of the symphony to Napoleon to comment on the impending fall of the aristocracy in Europe – Prince Lobkovitz is physically and economically in decline, even as he continues to hire Beethoven for more engagements. Many discussions of the merits or evils of Bonaparte ensue, and the film ends with Beethoven’s disillusionment when learning that Napoleon has crowned himself emperor. Cook does a fine job in his article of showing how the film tweaks the historical materials on which it is based to create the drama surrounding Napoleon’s coronation, and to craft a tone that equates the concepts“Beethoven” with “revolution”. The conservative aristocracy, in this film, is on the wrong side of history, both musically and politically. While some conversations are based on Beethoven’s own writing and letters, some of the listener’s comments reflect much later 19th century ideas of Beethoven’s writing, especially the notion that he has written himself into his own work (that he might be the titular hero). These ideas about authenticity and authorship of course come up again in Chapter 2 of A Very Short Introduction.

Overall, the article is great, and the film is a great pleasure to watch, so I'd recommend taking a look, no matter how quick. Of course, the central historical problem is that while Gardiner’s musicians play beautifully, the actual rehearsal was a disaster, but that would not be nearly so entertaining to watch. The DVD is not very available in US libraries; you can of course buy it, but if you just want to see it for academic purposes only, the entire film has been posted to Youtube (part 1: )

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