Beethoven and AI: the battle of the superhumans

Did you hear? They finally finished Beethoven’s tenth symphony using artificial intelligence! Pretty cool, right?

Well, no. That spectacular news story misrepresents Beethoven’s tenth and what AI can do for music.

Let’s start with the easy part.

Beethoven’s tenth is not ‘unfinished’, it simply doesn’t exist

While music history’s most famous unfinished symphony – Schubert’s eighth – is pretty much complete, Beethoven’s tenth was never begun. Even though the promo text of the AI project subtly tries to convince you otherwise:

“All he left behind were some musical sketches. Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.”

Really? Click here to listen to those sketches. Then let me know how they make you feel. Lamenting about unfulfilled promises? Or just ‘Meh’?

Blocks of marble
“It makes me crazy that we will never know how Michelangelo would have finished these.”

No, Beethoven fans and musicologists have not been madly pulling out their hair about what could have been. Most of them couldn’t care less. One of them already claimed to ‘finish’ the tenth more than thirty years ago. Which is to say: he wrote a symphony in Beethoven’s style using that handful of melodies. Because that’s all you can reasonably do. Unless, apparently, you can “harness the power of AI”.

The contribution of AI to the ‘finishing’ of the ninth is probably minimal

That aforementioned promo text is extremely vague about how they used AI to ‘complete’ Beethoven’s tenth symphony. So all I can do is make an educated guess – and I’m not an educated data scientist. Fortunately, this guy is, and he does a nice job of explaining how it works for Bach chorales, so I’ll start from there.

Up until now, those AI-generated Bach chorales are the most famous examples of computer compositions. They’re impressive, but the project is also a bit of a scam. The name ‘Bach’ inflates the implied accomplishment, while the key word is actually ‘chorale’.

A chorale is a four-voice setting of a Lutheran hymn. Here’s a classic example:

Beautiful. Yet also, in many ways, simple:

  • The main melody (usually in the top voice) is a given so doesn’t need to be composed.
  • The instrumentation – four voices and basso continuo – is fixed.
  • All voices have a more or less equal number of notes to sing and move together in the same rhythm.
  • It lasts no longer than a few minutes.

When you look at it from the standpoint of a computer, those are many fewer variables that it needs to worry about then when it’s asked to compose a, well, let’s say, … Beethoven symphony.

Nevertheless, the AI-composed chorales are extraordinary. How does it work? Not by music-savvy programmers – or IT-savvy musicologists – who write all the rules, that would take decades. It’s achieved by a process called deep learning where the computer kind of writes its own code. It works like this:

  1. The computer is given an input, such as a few notes of a melody of a chorale.
  2. The computer is asked to guess certain parameters, such as what the next note will be or what the underlying voices are.
  3. If the computer is ‘right’ – makes the same choice as Bach – the algorithm is slightly adjusted accordingly.
  4. After many, many trials and errors, the algorithm becomes so refined that it always guesses right or at least almost right.
  5. You can now use it to write new stuff in the style of Bach.

Number 4 is important here: you need a lot of input to train a deep learning system. In this case, there are about 350 Bach chorales, which our data scientist source calls “an extremely small dataset”.

Compare that to a measly nine Beethoven symphonies and you’ll probably agree that something’s not right here. The promo text of the project mentions that they used “completed compositions from Beethoven’s entire body of work”, but that’s not very impressive when you realize that a lot of that isn’t even orchestral, and that Beethoven significantly changed important aspects of his style during his lifetime. Is the AI offering us the tenth symphony as it would have been composed by the 1827 Beethoven or by the ‘average’ Beethoven?

For all those reasons, I find it hard to believe that this tenth symphony was completed by artificial intelligence. I suspect that a lot of work was done by the composers and musicologists involved. So much that they could have done it faster and cheaper on their own. But then of course, they wouldn’t have made the news.

Why is that idea so easy to sell? Why do we instinctively believe that artificial intelligence can do a better job of imitating Beethoven than a 21st-century composer? This quote from the CEO of Playform AI, the company that did the AI part of this project, speaks volumes:

“At every point, Beethoven’s genius loomed, challenging us to do better.”

For a man who probably uniwheels to work and says ‘engaging in ideation’ when he means ‘thinking’, that’s a statement with surprising 19th century overtones. Didn’t we put behind us this idea of ‘great men’ who lived in a ‘golden age’ and now hover like demigods over us mere mortals? Apparently not. A lot of us still believe that present-day composers (F/M) are no match for Beethoven. And that only our new deity can come to the rescue: the Almighty Algorithm.

AI and music: servant rather than master

All this doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for using AI in music making. In the end, artificial intelligence is no different than a harpsichord, a synthesizer or a laptop – a tool that can also inspire.

Instead of using AI to come up with music that we can just as well imagine ourselves, why not take advantage of its ability to make connections that we would never come up with, to think of completely weird, but sometimes oddly beautiful sounds? Please decide for yourself whether this piece of music falls under that definition:

Like it or not, this is what a computer composes when humans don’t tamper with it. Its creator Holly Herndon said this about it:

“I find something hopeful about the roughness of this piece of music. Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby.”

Amen to that.

More about Beethoven:

Why Beethoven wrote the best music ever

Although it was of course mostly awful, the coronavirus lockdown also brought a gift – the gift of time. Finally, there was a chance to get that body into shape, master a new skill, reconnect with close friends and family, …

Me, I seem to have spent it all watching YouTube.

That’s not a complete waste of time. There’s a lot of good stuff on there, not least for music nerds. People such as Adam Neely, David Bruce, David Bennet and 12tone manage to make music theory and analysis accessible, even fun. Quite an accomplishment.

And then, I bumped into this one:

I know that title is deliberately crude and silly. It’s supposed to make me mad so I would click on it and – even better – leave a comment. That’s how YouTube works. Well, how the internet works, really.

Beethoven best composer
It never fails.

The movie is a lot more nuanced than you would expect from its title. Its point is not that Beethoven sucks at music. Just that his status as the greatest composer in history is not – and cannot be – based on any objective truth. Because there’s no way to measure musical quality.

So why do we accept Beethoven’s greatness – or Mozart’s, or Bach’s, but never Chevalier de Saint George’s or Florence Price’s? The answer is that the canon of classical music was first compiled by late-19th century Germans who naturally favored the big names of German music.

And now we’re stuck with a classical music culture that’s biased against women, people of color, and all the other folks that 19th century Germans weren’t so keen on. It’s time for change. Let’s take Beethoven of the programs for a few years and give the stage to some unheard voices – as was suggested in this excellent, similarly themed podcast.

All this could have been the perfect intro to a good old rant about ‘woke madness’. But that’s not what I have in mind. In fact, a lot of these reevaluations of our classical canon make perfect sense. They’re also not nearly as new some people think. They’re just finally making it into the mainstream. Which is about time.

But I find it hard to believe that the canon, as 12tone puts it, “has nothing to do with musical quality.” Beethoven’s place on top of the musical Olympus is down to more than him being “in the right place at the right time”. Just consider that …

1. Not all attempts at shaping the canon are successful.

It’s true: the idea of the divide between serious/visionary versus popular/derivative composers is deeply connected to German nationalism. This official version of the musical 19th century can be summarized as follows:

  • All of music culminated in and started again with Beethoven.
  • The ‘progressives’ such as Liszt and Wagner explored Beethoven’s adventurous side.
  • The ‘classicists’ such as Schumann and Brahms devoted themselves to guarding Beethoven’s classical legacy.
  • These two factions were united by Arnold Schoenberg, who was deeply rooted in tradition and showed the way forward – in other words, a new Beethoven.

You might notice that there are a lot of people who don’t fit into that picture. Chopin, for example who didn’t even like Beethoven’s music very much. And indeed, there was a time when this Polish Frenchman was looked down upon in serious music circles. Not only because of his Polish Frenchness, but because his music didn’t quite fit the ‘logical’ progression that would culminate in Schoenberg.

Speaking about Schoenberg, does anybody still believe that he’ll be remembered as the greatest composer of the twentieth century? That he’ll be as popular as Beethoven once people ‘get over’ the unfamiliar harmonies and lack of singable tunes? On the contrary, the popularity of ‘reactionary’, ‘neoromantic’ near-contemporaries such as Vaughan-Williams and Copland seems continuously on the rise.

There definitely was – still is and always will be – an attempt at shaping the canon top-down. But it doesn’t always work. In time, an essential run-down of the top musical names of the last two centuries will include Chopin rather than Schumann, Elgar rather than Richard Strauss and Lennon-McCartney rather than Stockhausen.

Stockhausen Sgt. Pepper's
You might know Stockhausen from the cover Sgt. Pepper’s.

That’s because …

2. The opinion of the masses does matter

“Liking Beethoven is seen as a sign of class and taste”, says 12tone in his video. That’s only true up to a point. I dare you to introduce yourself to a group of pretentious classical music lovers with the confident declaration that you love Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy. You will be greeted with chilly silence and smug smirks. Perhaps someone will ask you if you also like Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812. If so, please don’t answer. It’s sarcasm at your expense.

If you really want to impress that imaginary group of snobs, clearly state your appreciation for:

  • Beethoven’s late string quartets, not the Mondschein sonata
  • Verdi’s Falstaff, not Aida
  • Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, not his Air
  • The list goes on and on.

There’s an unwritten rule among classical elitists that ‘great’ composers are great despite their popular appeal. In other words: if the masses also happen to like them, they do it for the wrong reasons.

When someone states that the elite imposed the canon based on their own aesthetic principles, they’re buying into this myth that the elite entertains about its own power. A lot of times, canonizing is just adding intellectual veneer to a choice that has already been made in the court of popular opinion.

This doesn’t mean that the canon is no more than a long-term hit parade. If that were true, Rossini would be considered the greatest composer of all time. Professional arbiters of taste – such as journalists, academics and musicians – can influence rankings by leveraging their standing in society. But catapulting a nobody with merely ‘interesting’ music to the musical pantheon? Never happened.

What works best is to encourage people to listen more closely to music they already like. Tell them to which deeper layers they should listen and there’s a good chance they will enthusiastically agree. If only because they don’t want to be thought of as unsophisticated. And sometimes because they truly enjoy the music on a deeper level. The chance of that happening is seldom greater than with Beethoven. That’s because …

3. Beethoven and his contemporaries hit a sweet spot that’s difficult to match

In his famous work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – The Classical Style – Charles Rosen writes:

“The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music. […] Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside – or better, fused with – the virtues of the street song.”

Rosen doesn’t include Beethoven in this list, except for the final movement of the Ninth. That’s because he seems to consider only recognizable (pseudo-)folk tunes as popular melodies. But isn’t something like the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of music?

Google search Beethoven 5
Yes, that one.

The whole art of this first Viennese school was to build sophisticated structures with simple elements. And maybe this is the reason why their music remains the best gateway into the pleasure that a complex piece of music can bring. The irresistible and instantly memorable tunes not only draw you in, but also help you to understand, experience and enjoy the larger form.

Once you’re into that listening habit, you can start enjoying music which is pure abstraction, foregoing those catchy tunes and other pleasing elements altogether. Although, quite frankly, why should you have to?

4. Beethoven is a rock star

Stop your eye-roll, I’m not claiming that Beethoven was the rock star of his times. I’m saying that he is one right now. Wait, didn’t Chuck Berry roll him over? But that’s the point. Chuck chose Beethoven – even though he didn’t even fit his rhyme scheme – because Beethoven is an idol. That’s also why 12tone chose him, and why we’re all supposed to get super mad because they’re trying to erase him from our history. Trust me, if Chuck Berry couldn’t cancel Beethoven, neither can a bunch of underpaid woke scholars in musicology. If they wanted to. Which they don’t.

Beethoven is not a darling of the elite foisted upon us, he’s a part of our global popular culture. That’s because of his literal image – the bushy hair, the shabby clothes. And because of his supposed unconformity and disdain for social conventions which aligns perfectly with how a lot of people like to see themselves – especially when they’re young.

The bottom line is: Beethoven is cool. And apart from his afro and his attitude, I think there are a number of musical reasons for why he’s such a good fit with our popular music culture:

  • His repertoire is mainly instrumental, which helps because the handling of the voice is what puts a lot of people off classical music.
  • His music has a rhythmic drive that combines a regular beat with plenty of syncopation, just like a lot of jazz and popular music.
  • His harmonic language is tonal – not too chromatic and complex but not too bland either, with plenty of major/minor shifts. From the classical/romantic composers, only Schubert was closer to pop music harmony in this respect.
  • Most importantly, but hardest to describe, Beethoven’s music – at least that from his ‘heroic’ middle period – has an emotional charge that resonates well with how a lot of people still define ‘depth’ in music. It’s sad but not schmaltzy, sarcastic but not funny, noble but not arrogant, … You get my point – or not. It’s why today we value acts like Nick Cave or The National. It’s not only about the notes, it’s also about the attitude.

To conclude: Beethoven is not the greatest composer of all time, but he is the greatest classical composer for our time. That’s not because his music is objectively the best. But it’s also not because we’re collectively brainwashed by a white supremacist elite. It’s because his music like no other from the classical tradition combines accessibility with what we perceive as emotional depth. And it’s because of his hair.

Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne
Perfect!

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

Review: Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

When I’m scanning the new classical album releases, I usually choose works I haven’t heard yet. As there’s still so much beautiful music to discover, why would I be interested in a slightly different version of, let’s say, Beethoven’s fifth?

There are exceptions to that rule. Those are works that I’m obsessed by – you could even say: in love with. I can’t stand the thought of missing out on the tiniest nuance of their character. And that’s exactly what a good new interpretation can reveal.

Coming of age

Schubert’s Unfinished symphony is one of those works. And I must say, the new recording by Concentus Musicus Wien, led by Stefan Gottfried, does not disappoint.

Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

Funny thing about Schubert’s 8th symphony: when I was first drawn to it as an adolescent, I fell for all the doom and gloom that seem to permeate it – or at least its first two movements. And I still enjoy that all-engulfing weltschmerz. But in smaller doses.

Luckily, performance practice has been so obliging to parallel my coming of age. Recordings of the last few decades have blown away the dust that all those romantic interpretations had strewn on the surface of the Unfinished symphony.

Schubert’s Pastoral

This exceptional recording sounds to me like the high point of that evolution. Gone are the days when the beautiful but heavy tapestry of strings muffled the overall sound of the orchestra. Those strings are now a backdrop to the delicate interplay of the woodwinds and irreverent, even cheeky blaring of the brass section.

To me, it changes the character of the symphony: from the tragic to the pastoral. In fact, the biggest revelation for me was how closely Schubert’s 8th sometimes resembles Beethoven’s 6th.

The slow one fast and the fast one slow

Stefan Gottfried chooses his tempos wisely: the slow movement is relatively fast, the last movement rather slow – almost hesitant. The added bonus is the reduced character contrast between the first two movements (the Unfinished proper) and the final two. Read what that’s all about.

Meanwhile, René Jacobs and B’Rock Orchestra have started their own complete recording of the Schubert symphonies. The first installment certainly sounds promising, but I doubt they’ll be able to top Gottfried’s interpretation of the Unfinished. I’m ready to be surprised, though.

You can listen to the interpretation of Schubert’s Unfinished symphony by Concentus Music Wien on cd, Spotify and Apple Music.

More about music from the romantic period

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Gustav Holst: Composer of The Planets (and Not Proud of It)

Are you one of those people who gets upset when Radiohead doesn’t play Creep? First of all: get over it. Second of all: take comfort in the fact that Radiohead is part of a respectable tradition of composers who despised their most beloved compositions.

Saint-Saëns hated Le Carnaval des Animaux, Ravel hated Boléro, Tchaikovsky hated the 1812 Overture, Beethoven hated Wellingtons Sieg, …

And Gustav Holst (1874-1934) hated The Planets.

The Planets composer: Gustav Holst
At the very least, its success left him in a permanent state of slight bewilderment.

The Planets: an unlikely success

The fact that The Planets was despised by its composer is strange in two ways:

  1. The Planets is the only composition for which Holst is widely remembered.
  2. Unlike the 1812 Overture or Wellingtons Sieg, The Planets is not a god-awful piece of classical music.

Holst’s orchestral suite is anything but a cheap crowd pleaser. Its musical forms are unusual, its time signatures often irregular and its instrumental combinations unorthodox.

In fact, during the first performances of The Planets, a few of the seven movements of the suite were always omitted. The idea was that the public wouldn’t be able to handle the full fifty minutes of such challenging music.

So why was the composer of The Planets later ashamed of it?

“The Planets seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar.”

Holst: composer in times of war

Holst wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916 – the first two years of the Great War. You would think that such an Armageddon would have influenced his composition, but Holst always denied that. His main inspiration did come from Germany, but it was a purely musical one.

A few years before WOI, the musical world was already in turmoil. Critics and public waged fierce battles over compositions that broke with musical laws that had held up for centuries. Suddenly, listeners were deprived of:

  • melodies they could sing along to
  • rhythms they could dance or clap to
  • harmonies that helped them to make sense of it all

In 1909, Schoenberg launched his Fünf Orchesterstücke, one of the first great examples of atonal music. Holst heard it, enjoyed it and bought the score. He liked it so much that he would name one of his next compositions Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra. Only later did he change the name of his suite to … The Planets.

Another ‘scandalous’ composition that influenced The Planets – just listen to the thumping irregular rhythms in Mars, The Bringer of War – is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which dates from 1912.

“Who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?”

Delicious mix of old and new

Holst was obviously excited by all these musical innovations. But that did not make him an avant-garde composer. In The Planets, he blended all these progressive elements and poured a generous helping of late-romantic sauce over it.

Or did he write a late-romantic composition and liberally spiced it with avant-garde elements? It doesn’t matter: the result is a perfectly balanced and extremely satisfying piece of classical music.

It was also exactly what the public needed after the horrors of the war: a composition that was new and exciting but also familiar and accessible. And with its more than fifty instrumental parts and two three-part choruses, it perfectly fitted the British love for pomp and circumstance.

Composing The Planets launched Gustav Holst into eternal fame

The emerging record industry also jumped on the success of The Planets. Jupiter was already recorded in 1922. A complete recording – conducted by the composer himself – followed in 1926. You can listen to it here. For comparison: Le Sacre du printemps had to wait until 1928 and Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke even longer.

And in 1983, the author of this charming article about “the new compact digital players and disks (known as CDs)”, hoped that very soon the record companies would put out something else than predictable warhorses such as the 1812 Overture, Wellingtons Sieg and … The Planets.

The Planets record sleeves
The Planets also proved to be a godsend for record sleeve designers.

The Planets by Holst: artistic anachronism …

So that’s what The Planets had quickly become in the eyes of the public and critics: a warhorse of classical music in the late-romantic style. It’s a judgment that deeply offended its composer. After all, who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?

It’s also a judgment that’s very unfair, inspired by the idea that ‘popular’ equals ‘inferior’ and that the only acceptable version of music history is a straight evolutionary line.

… or unintentional essay in escapism?

When you listen to The Planets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the unique sonic universe created by its composer. Because of the massive orchestra involved, its sound is big and expansive. Yet thanks to of Holst’s incredible talent as an arranger, it’s also light and transparent.

The result is music that seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar. It offers you a temporary escape from everyday life.

And that was not lost on an industry that specializes in such flights from reality.

The Planet’s satellites: from Death Star to Middle-earth

In case you were wondering, The Planets isn’t about space travel. Its inspiration is astrological rather than astronomical: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are character studies, not descriptions of big rocks in space.

George Lucas did not know that. Or, he didn’t care. Compiling the soundtrack for his Star Wars movies, he gave The Planets a spin. He particularly liked this fragment from Mars as the leitmotif for his main villain:

But he had no intention to pay any money to Holst’s descendants. So he asked composer John Williams to write something similar:

And John Williams wasn’t the only film composer inspired by Holst’s masterpiece. Echoes of The Planets also pop up in Braveheart and Battlestar Galactica.

And can you listen to this fragment from Jupiter without Middle-earth popping into your mind?

What would Holst himself have thought about all these bastard offspring versions of The Planets? Not much, probably. Though it’s safe to say it wasn’t the way he envisioned his legacy – if he had any vision of that at all.

But, as an almost contemporary of Holst – whose work suffered a similar fate – wrote: “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

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Was Beethoven Black?

When I think about classical music and racism, the second thing that springs to mind – after Wagner of course – is the surprisingly persistent question about Beethoven’s ethnicity. In three words: was Beethoven black?

Was Beethoven black? This silhoutte certainly is.

Yes, Beethoven was black

The story about black Beethoven peaked in the 1970s – together with the Black Power movement. Today, it regularly resurfaces on the internet. But its origin goes back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. You could even say: to Beethoven’s own lifetime.

“Why would an African guy named Beethoven turn up in 18th century Austria?”

You see, the doubts about Beethoven’s ethnicity do have some historical grounds. The people who knew him said he had ‘negroid traits’, bearing a ‘strong resemblance to a mulatto.’ During his youth, he was called ‘the Spaniard’ because of his dark complexion. You can even see it in some of its portraits, right down to the kinky hair.

Black Beethoven?

And there’s more: during the last part of his life, Beethoven lived in the Schwarzspanierhaus – which you could translate as the House of the black Spaniard.

Now you may be asking yourself: ‘Why would an African guy named Beethoven turn up in 18th century Austria?’ Well, Beethoven’s ancestors came from present-day Belgium, which had been occupied by Spaniards for almost two centuries. Since Spain had strong ties with North Africa, it’s not impossible that Beethoven was the happy result of an affair between a local maiden and a Moorish soldier.

And let’s not forget the rumour that he was the lovechild of Frederik the Great and his black chamber maid …

No, Beethoven was not black

Convincing stuff! Were it not for too many unanswered questions. Such as: why do most Beethoven portraits clearly show a white man?

And why aren’t there more eye-witness reports about Beethoven the Moor rising to the rank of Europe’s most celebrated composer? It’s not because people were blind to racial differences. Beethoven himself called his Afro-European friend, the celebrated violinist George Bridgetower a mulattico lunatico.

George Bridgetower, Beethoven's black friend
George Bridgetower

“Classical music is an almost exclusive lily-white affair. Wouldn’t it be great if its boldest innovator turned out to be of African descent?”

Like any conspiracy theory, the story about Beethoven’s ethnicity is entertaining but doesn’t hold up to closer inspection.

The House of the black Spaniard – actually Spaniards – was named after the Spanish Black Monks who occupied it long before Beethoven.

Those remarkable portraits are bad reproductions.

And the black people in Belgium are not descendants from Spanish occupiers, but more likely from African people brutally enslaved by the Belgians themselves – long after Beethoven’s grandfather left the country.

Black Beethoven death mask
Beethoven’s death mask

Was Beethoven black? Why should we care?

It’s easy to see why this story is so attractive. Classical music is an almost exclusive lily-white affair. Wouldn’t it be great if its boldest innovator turned out to be of African descent?

But even with the best intentions, rewriting history on false grounds is never a good idea. Besides, it’s not necessary. Many black musical innovators of the 18th century will forever remain nameless. But those of the 20th century are well on their way to the eternal pantheon of music.

Who knows, in 200 years some people might feel the need to claim that Duke Ellington was white. Or – and you really should have seen this one coming – Michael Jackson.

More about Beethoven

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Sympathy for the Unfinished: Schubert’s 8th Symphony

Feeling a bit gloomy? Make the most of it by giving yourself over to the heart-wrenching beauty of Schubert’s Unfinished symphony.

Also known as: Gargamel’s theme song.

Schubert’s 8th symphony is like the soundtrack for a movie that Hitchcock forgot to make. Its all-pervading darkness only now and then brightened by rays of Schubertian melancholy: waltz-like tunes that remind you of better times – now irretrievably lost.

“Sometimes the eternal promise of unfinished business is just much better than a slightly unsatisfying conclusion.”

It’s the ultimate triumph of Romanticism, the superb celebration of the fact that human existence, well, sucks.

What would Trump say about Schubert's Unfinished symphony?

‘SAD’ – #trumpreviewsclassicalmusic

Too bad it’s unfinished

Schubert’s 8th symphony was only discovered in 1865, 37 years after his death. Curiously, only the first two of the usual four movements were completed. Why did Schubert abandon his composition halfway? Nobody knows. But it does tickle our imagination. What would the rest have sounded like? What wonderful music have we missed out on?

It’s a question that applies to Schubert’s work as a whole. What might he have achieved if he hadn’t died at only 31 years of age? Brilliant things, no doubt. And music history is full of these maddening ‘what if’ questions:

  • Would Pergolesi be on the same level as Vivaldi or Handel, if he’d made it past his 26th birthday?
  • What would have happened if Mozart hadn’t died at 31 and instead worked side by side with Beethoven and Haydn in Vienna?
  • If The Beatles hadn’t split up in 1970, would they have invented disco, punk, hip-hop, …. gradually making all other popular music obsolete? (Well, that’s my theory anyway.)
Franz Schubert: composer of the Unfinished symphony

Franz Schubert and anonymous dog

Except that: Schubert’s Unfinished isn’t really unfinished

That’s right, the third movement is practically complete: we have Schubert’s full preparation in a piano version and the orchestration of the first thirty measures. As for the finale: Schubert wrote some ballet music the next year which contains a movement in the same key and with the same orchestration as the symphony. It’s very well possible that he recycled it from his own work – as he often did.

This is what those ‘missing’ movements sound like.

They’re … ok. But not quite as magnificent as the first two. Is that the reason why Schubert omitted them? I don’t think so. Just listen to his next and last symphony, which he certainly did finish. Its nickname is ‘the great’ – and rightly so. But I wouldn’t mind skipping the last two movements sometimes.

The problem is not Schubert’s compositional skills, but the classical structure of the symphony. Traditionally, its second half is comical, light-hearted and rooted in dance music. Rarely a satisfying sequel to an introspective and profound beginning.

The conveniently unfinished symphony

There are only a handful of recordings of the ‘finished Unfinished’. And I don’t think that’s because experts still quarrel over how valid those reconstructions are. Their objections would be easily cast aside if the public decided it loved the finished version.

Sometimes the eternal promise of unfinished business is just much better than a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. That’s why Schubert’s 8th symphony must forever remain incomplete, why The Beatles will always be better than The Stones … and why Gargamel will never find Smurf village.

Another unfinished job: Gargamel chases a smurf.

Unless it’s the last thing he ever does.

Looking for a good recording of Schubert’s Unfinished? Check out my review of the one by Concentus Musicus Wien.

Or read this article about Beethoven’s ‘unfinished’ tenth symphony.

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