Beethoven meets metal (and they seem to get along)

In my last post about Tartini’s devil’s trill, I made a joke about crossover artist Vanessa-Mae. This amused me so much that I decided to fill a whole article with hilariously disastrous attempts to make classical music look cool.

Making classical music look cool

This stuff.

Sounds like fun? Well, too bad. I changed my mind and will now serve you a distressing insight into my sometimes weird musical taste. Do stick around, though.

“You don’t need to be cool to win an audience.”

Good, bad, brilliant

Why did I change my mind? Not because of a lack of material, that’s for sure. For hilarious examples and an intelligent argument about why classical music shouldn’t even try to be cool, read this article.

Anyway, as I was mining the internet for some more ‘good bad’ stuff, I stumbled upon this video.

That guy is Michele “Dr. Viossi” Vioni, Italian guitar virtuoso, composer and producer, playing the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. The video went viral a couple of years ago, but I somehow missed it. And now I can’t stop watching it.

Blended to perfection

I know, I know, … ‘Beethoven meets metal’ sounds like a terribly tasteless idea. Just like ‘Schubert meets metal’. But in this case, I think it actually works. Thanks to Vioni, who not only seems an incredible virtuoso but also an intelligent musician. He strikes a balance between remaining faithful to Beethoven’s score and imposing the typical metal mannerisms upon it. In fact, to me, the backing track is even more interesting than Vioni’s finger acrobatics you see in the video.

Of course, Beethoven deserves some of the credit. Vioni tried this trick on a few other classical compositions, but the result isn’t nearly as good. It’s the amazing drive of that third movement of the Moonlight sonata that blends so well with the metal style.

Acquired metallic taste

Metal is a peculiar musical genre. People who claim to like ‘good’ pop or rock music, usually look down on it. Yet it surprisingly often touches a nerve with jazz or classical enthusiasts. Maybe not that surprising, since metal partly grew out of progressive rock.

Progressive rock meme

Anyway, I recently developed a taste for metal music – at least some of it. This earns me a lot of looks of disbelief. Understandably, since I was once a teenager who preferred Beethoven over Black Sabbath. (Yes, I did get beat up a few times, why do you ask?)

Partners in being uncool

Sure, metal is often needlessly loud and aggressive. But it can be surprisingly adventurous as well, or delightfully silly. Maybe that’s because a lot of metal musicians don’t take themselves too seriously –  despite all the tough posturing. They do whatever they want to do, even if it’s playing a Beethoven piece note by note on an electric guitar. Not cool? As 11 million YouTube views prove: you don’t need to be cool to win an audience.

And isn’t that an uplifting thought for fans of metal and classical alike?

Tartini’s Devil’s Trill

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find the devil at your bedside. It actually happened to 21-year-old composer Giuseppe Tartini in 1713. This encounter brought him eternal success. And, also, terrible doom. But we’ll get to that later.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

This might be a dramatization.

The story behind Tartini’s Devil’s Trill

Tartini waited to tell anyone about this remarkable incident until he was 78. So he might have been mistaken about a few details. But there’s no reason to doubt his story.

The short version is that the devil wanted to buy Tartini’s soul. In exchange, he would perform some – strangely unspecified – services. Tartini jumped at this chance. And indeed, his horned servant ‘anticipated’ his ‘every desire’.

“The devil really does have the best tunes.”

When his desires were fulfilled, Tartini handed the devil his violin. Satan started to play a sonata ‘so wonderful and so beautiful […] as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy.’

Tartini woke up and immediately wrote down – as well as he could remember – what the devil had played for him. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as what he had heard in his dream. Nevertheless, it was the best thing he ever wrote and Tartini’s violin sonata in g minor or devil’s trill sonata remains today one of the most beloved showpieces for the violin.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

‘Excellent deal.’ – Giuseppe Tartini

A trilling and thrilling piece of music

The first two movements of Tartini’s devil’s trill sonata – a slow introduction and a dance – are beautiful. But it’s in the third movement that all hell breaks loose.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

This man’s technique is as fabulous as his shirt.

Everybody always talks about how this piece is so hard to play. In fact, the rumor is that Tartini had six fingers on his left hand. But does that really matter – unless you’re a violinist? Above all, it’s a freakish and haunting composition. You can hear the devil putting on all his moves: taunting, seducing, and overpowering you. He really does have the best tunes.

Tartini devil’s trill: the backlash

So: Satan gained another soul, Tartini got immortal fame, and we have a wonderful violin sonata to listen to.

Everybody happy?

Not quite. It may take some time, but if you make a deal with the devil, you will always pay a terrible price.

 

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 a few 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?

The answer is as simple as it is predictable: because of a massive eurocentric cover-up.

“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? That certainly would be a nice blow to the idiots trumpeting that symphonies prove the superiority of the West. As if, by the way, all the Beethoven symphonies and Mozart operas could compensate for the atrocities that were committed in the name of Western civilization.

But even with the best intentions, rewriting history on false grounds is never a good idea. Besides, it’s not necessary. The African 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 ask if Duke Ellington was white. Or – and you really should have seen this one coming – Michael Jackson.

So no, Beethoven was not a soul brother. He might have been the world’s first metalhead though. And did you know that George Frideric Handel shared his home with Jimi Hendrix?

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Music as movement: Table music by Thierry De Mey

One of my many unproven theories is that there are two kinds of people, depending on the way they respond to music:

  1. by dancing
  2. by playing an air instrument

Me, I belong to the second group. Through the years, I’ve mastered the air guitar, air piano, air drums, all the instruments of the air string quartet, … even the air marimba on occasion.

Marimba

A 5-octave concert model, no less

Either way, music and movement are intimately connected. And there’s one man who devoted his life’s work to that idea: Thierry De Mey, composer of the fabulous Musique de table or Table music.

“One of the main reasons we make music is the simple pleasure of using or bodies to make sounds.”

Table for three

Table music is a composition for six hands on three tables. Performing it looks like immense fun:

As you probably guessed, none of this is improvised. De Mey developed a special notation system to prescribe exactly what each hand should be doing at any moment.

Thierry De Mey Table music score

No longer seems so much fun, does it?

Table dance

Would I enjoy this music as much if I just listened to it, without watching the performance? No. But that seems to be the point. De Mey is not interested in making ‘absolute music’. In fact, he is best known for his collaborations with dance choreographers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus.

“Music is just as much art as handicraft.”

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of modern dance – or classical ballet for that matter. Maybe that’s because I’m one of those air instrument people. But Table music does speak to me. It reminds me that one of the main reasons we make music is the simple pleasure of using or bodies to make sounds. Just look at the moment when the middle guy can no longer hide how much fun he’s having.

Performance of Thierry De Mey's Table music

“Stay cool, stay cool, … Oh, forget it.”

The take-away from Table music

In the end, there’s no such thing as absolute music. Most of the fun of attending a live concert is watching the players work their magic and sharing in their enjoyment. Even when I’m listening to a pure stream of sound through my headphones, I can’t help imagining the movements that produced it. Until I start making those moves myself, in endlessly ridiculous ways.

Maybe that’s why the dance people were the first to really appreciate electronic music. And yet, even DJ’s feel the need to visibly but – as many suspect – pointlessly fidget with buttons and sliders. As De Mey’s Table music literally illustrates, music is just as much art as handicraft.

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.