OLD LYME — “If you asked people to name one composer representative of the summit of western notated tradition, many would choose Beethoven,” according to Yale School of Music Professor Paul Berry.
More the reason to take apart the idea of Beethoven as the towering genius — a notion that can overshadow the listener experience of the music, explained Berry about his upcoming lecture, the second in a three-lecture series, examining musical phrases in Beethoven’s work as well as the relationship between his biography and music.
Berry’s lectures complement the 29th season of Musical Masterworks, which will include all of Beethoven’s violin quartets in two three-day weekends of music March 13-15 and May 1-3.
“Lecture two is about the basic building block of this music: the phrase. Can we hear it, can we perceive it? Can we perceive parts of the music that sound coherently rooted in a phrase and other parts that may sound less rooted in a coherent phrase structure and more dynamic or chaotic? That distinction is really important,” he said.
The goal is to teach people to apply the concept of a musical phrase like a musician or composer, he said.
“When we think ‘phrase,’ we think of a coherent part of a sentence and the analogy holds pretty strongly. That’s how I want them to hear it,” he said. “The way I don’t want them to hear it is the in the context of singing where a phrase is what you can fit under one breath.”
A musical phrase is more or less analogous to written syntax.
“You’ve got to have a verb in your sentence otherwise it’s a fragment or bullet point and at some point the sentence comes to a natural conclusion,” he said. “In the musical phrase, it has to do with cadences, which are like punctuation points that a composer will use to say ‘phrase over.’”
As a composer, Beethoven has to be understood in his historical context and as part of a broader tradition, said Berry.
“Beethoven doesn’t just invent this stuff — he’s completely reliant on larger tradition that predates him.”
That tradition originated in comic opera and spread across all styles of notated music in Western Europe in the later half of the 18th century, said Berry.
“He’s operating within a really rigorous system and this is great because it allows us to parse his music. We can tell where he wants things to sound finished and where he wants things to sound not yet finished,” Berry said.
“Just as you place a semicolon in the middle of a two-part sentence, and divide two relatively equal halves from each other, you can put a half-cadence in part-way through a phrase and you can divide its halves very strongly so that you can hear a balance between the halves.”
Berry said he will use a piano and recorded music during the lecture to illustrate these concepts.
“The piano allows you to zoom in on a particular feature. I can play the left hand really loud if I need to and bring out something I want people to hear and then we can listen to the recording and since they’ve been primed to hear it, they can hear it there,” he said. “My goal would be to equip people to hear this more clearly than they have in the past because it’s a way of making sense of things as they go by.”
Berry said that he wants to give the audience an awareness of phrases, and the experience of listening for them in the music.
“It’s about finding the resting points in the music and assessing how restful they are relative to each other and then putting these together into larger structures,” he said. “Once you can do or aspire to do that, it gives you a scaffolding to listen with.”
Berry said that the first movement in every one of Beethoven’s string quartets, with one exception, has an arrangement of phrases called the sonata form.
“It’s a particular way of arranging musical time and space to generate contrast between different types of phrases and then that contrast [concludes] in a dramatic way toward the end of the piece,” he said. “It’s something that can be heard by lay audiences if you pick the right examples and that gives you something to listen for, something to latch on to.”
Berry will also discuss the biography of Beethoven, what particular phrases might have expressed within his compositions and the impact of Beethoven’s life and legacy on subsequent composers.
“He is pivotal as a composer. The things he did were exciting and fascinating for other composers but he also had the image of a kind of tormented genius, working away, not acknowledged by contemporaries, constantly frustrated, increasingly deaf, isolated from the world,” Berry said. “That image of him brings together the music and the biography in an extremely compelling way, which became applied to other people whether they wanted it to be or not.”
Beethoven’s politics and the context of the historical period also contributed to his near cult status.
“I think Beethoven’s politics were important to him biographically, that’s part of why he became a cultural hero because of those beliefs,” Berry said. “He believed in representative government and lived in a period of huge social change and political upheaval. He was nineteen when the French Revolution started. He was sixteen when the American Revolution began.”
Ultimately, the goal of his lectures, Berry said, is opening ears.
“I like to perturb listeners a bit because I think we listen better when we’re perturbed. If you can perturb people enough to listen freshly, to have their ears open enough because they’re surprised by what you’ve said, that they’re willing to be surprised by the music, then I’ve done my job.”
Berry’s lecture, “What is a phrase about? Classical syntax, biography and types of musical meaning,” will be held on Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. at Lyme Art Association, 90 Lyme Street, Old Lyme. Berry will focus on Beethoven’s repertoire to be performed in March, especially Opus 135; Opus 18, No.1; Opus 18, No.6.
Berry’s final lecture will be on April 26 at 3 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme in the Fellowship Hall.