Listening Guide #11: Beethoven & Strauss

TURINA  La Oración del Torero (“The Bullfighter’s Prayer”) 
performed by Leopold Stokowski’s Symphony Orchestra

R. STRAUSS  Metamorphosen
performed by The Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra

BEETHOVEN  Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major
performed by pianist Ji Youn Lee & the New England Conservatory Symphony

Listening Guide #11


Jonathan Borden, host

Over the course of writing these guides I’ve realized that many of them are independent from one another. They’re like little short stories, instead of chapters in a novel (ok maybe more like a textbook, I’m trying to be interesting ok?) I think it’s time to change that. A few weeks ago, I wrote about “musical sentences”, showing you how composers order their musical ideas to flow logically from one to another. Last week I wrote about motifs, showing how a musical idea can be used to symbolize something external like a person or idea, and then repeated over the course of a piece of music to give the listener a musical “hint”. This week, we’re going to take those ideas and use them to help us understand entire compositions.

Put yourself in the composer’s shoes. I know, they probably don’t fit but just indulge me for a minute here. Ok, composer mode: you’ve got some sweet licks, a banger of a bass line, maybe some cool breakdown section with a marimba solo, I don’t know, you do you. What do you do with all that stuff? You gotta put it all together, that’s what. What’s going to start your music? End it? Where are you gonna put that marimba solo so that it gets the attention it deserves?

These questions are at the core of composition. The answers to those kinds of questions are what make your musical ideas really stick. Just think: the marimba solo might not be that cool at the start of your composition, but if it appears after everything else, well that might just be the trick, right?

Ok you can take those composer shoes off now and put your normal shoes back on. Or slippers, whatever, I don’t judge. 

You might not realize it, but as a listener of music, you’re highly aware of these details all the time. While you listen to a pop song, for instance, your brain is constantly analyzing what you hear. It asks questions like “have I heard this musical idea before?” and “does this sound different than what I just heard?” and “why is Taylor Swift doing all this folk stuff again cause I’m totally over it”. Yeah me too. 

To prove my point, take a listen to this Beatles tune. While you listen, try to identify the moment you hear the music shift into a new section and keep track of the pattern the song is following. People often use terms like “verse” and “chorus” to describe the different sections of a pop song, so use those terms if you feel comfortable with them. Really what you’re doing is asking yourself this question: is this music a new section or something I’ve heard before earlier in the song?

Part of the reason the Beatles were so catchy is because of the pattern that their songs followed. The musical ideas themselves are incredibly catchy, but they’re also organized so that you and everyone else can quickly anticipate when your favorite tune is going to make a reappearance in the song. Having those expectations be met is a satisfying experience. Conversely, hearing the music go in a new, unexpected direction can be surprising, and you might either find it interesting or a letdown, depending on your taste.

This all comes down to a simple idea: the repetition of ideas. Imagine music that never repeated itself, but always went in new directions that have nothing to do with what came before. It’s hard to imagine, right? That’s because it’s so rare. Music is always repeating itself. In fact, many of today’s most popular songs are a singular idea “looped” throughout the entire song, without any contrasting ideas or sections like you heard in the Beatles song earlier. And no, before you go there: I’m not bashing popular music. Simplicity doesn’t make music “unworthy”, nor does complexity earn it worthiness. 

But this does mean that there’s a scale of complexity within composition. In other words, not all composers or styles of music use the same patterns. Not every Beatles song uses the same pattern that you just heard, and you wouldn’t find that identical pattern in classical music either. I mentioned earlier music that uses one idea and no alternating sections – conversely, you could have music that uses 12 different ideas in a unique combination. It’s all up to the composer.

So then, what patterns does classical music like to use? Remember: classical music is a genre that spans over 400 years worth of music. It’s too diverse to be able to prescribe one neat little compositional template that fits them all. There’s a lot of fancy vocabulary I could teach you, but it’s not important to memorize those things. What is important is that you begin to listen for and recognize repetition in music. You’re more than capable of doing it – you’re just not used to doing it with classical music. 

Big surprise! This week’s concert is a great way to exercise these new listening muscles! Crazy right? I love how these things work out, it’s like I planned it or something. Anyway, I’d like to focus your attention on comparing and contrasting the two pieces by German composers on this program: the Beethoven piano concerto and Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Specifically, I want you to listen for these things: 

In the Beethoven:

  • First notice that the concerto is divided into three movements, which are complete ideas themselves, separated by a period of silence. You can think of movements as like different songs on an album.
  • In the first movement: notice how the orchestra begins the piece for quite a while before the piano enters. Does the piano play something similar to what the orchestra played, or is it completely different?
  • In the third movement: here, the musical ideas are shorter, and the roles are reversed. The piano begins and the orchestra follows. Listen closely to what the piano plays at the start, and see how many times you hear that same melody played over the course of the movement.

In the Strauss: 

  • This piece has no movements: it is one, continuous musical idea. This does not mean that there is no repetition, however. The repetition is motivic. Remember that a motif is a short musical idea that represents something else. Try to listen to see if you hear a certain musical phrase repeated many times over the course of the piece.
  • Take note of how the piece begins and how it ends. It’s a long piece, so don’t feel embarrassed if you want to go back to the beginning to remember. Are they similar or different? What does it mean? Were you expecting it to end this way? 

Discussion Questions:

  • Which piece was more complex? In other words, in which piece was it harder to identify separate musical ideas? Which do you prefer: complexity or simplicity? Keep in mind that you don’t have to like one or the other – you’re allowed to have your own opinion!
  • Compare the process of identifying sections within the Beethoven to identifying sections within the Beatles song. Which was more difficult, and why? Was there a movement of the Beethoven that seemed easier to understand than the others?