Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Beethoven in Memphis

In 1838 Ole Bull, the Norwegian violin virtuoso, gave the first classical concert ever heard in Memphis, Tennessee. I don’t know what he played on that occasion, but that’s beside the point. What could he have played? That was the year that Felix Mendelssohn thought of writing a concerto in E minor—which would come to be known simply as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a staple of the classical repertoire—for his friend, Ferdinand David. Obviously Bull could not have performed this work. But he could have performed Bach, Hayden, Mozart, or Beethoven. Classical music was in full flower and the blues, jazz, rock and roll, they were still in the distant and unforeseeable deeply unpredictable future.

I would like to think Ole Bull performed some Beethoven, who had been dead for eleven years. Even more, I would like to think that Ole Bull was a pianist, not a violinist, and that he performed Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, the one with rocking and rolling passages in the second movement (starting are roughly 14:20):

That passage certainly marked the remotest outpost of the Western musical imagination, which didn’t become comfortable with that kind of expressive material for another three-quarters of a century. Even then the comfort was strictly circumscribed. And Memphis in 1838 would certainly have impressed Ole Bull, or any other civilized European, as being pretty near the dropping-off point of Western civilization.

The sexuality which Beethoven had evoked and expressed so directly in the second and third variations of the “Arietta” was quickly sublimated, urging composers to ever more subtle and complex chromatic games, stretching movements over longer and longer time periods, from ten minutes to twenty, to half an hour or more for a single movement of a Mahler symphony. Haydn and Mozart wrote complete symphonies that weren’t that long. It did the same thing to opera, most particularly, to Wagner’s opera. Wagner would stretch it to four, five, or six hours, flowing and ebbing, building and collapsing, and ultimately exhausting. But never really fulfilling.

At roughly the same time when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring scandalized Paris society (1913) with its driving rhythms, the blues, ragtime, and jazz would emerge in still-barbarous America. W.C. Handy wrote his “Memphis Blues” in 1912 and “Beale Street Blues in 1917. But back in 1838, Ole Bull could not have imagined music like Stravinsky’s nor could he have heard music like Handy’s, though the music he played contained the roots of one and the music he heard on the street was the roots of the other. In point of sophistication and complexity, the music Bull heard would have been less so than the music he played, just as Handy’s blues was less sophisticated than Stravinsky’s ballet. Yet with all these differences and distances these musics did meet, and that miscegenationating rhythm has been a driving force in twentieth century culture, popular, high American, Western, and world. Through these rhythms the mind of man, and woman, has been seeking a more generous and fulfilling interaction with the body.

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