Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D Major

I work in a restaurant now. I used to sit at a desk for six or seven hours of each work day. Now I run around a cavernous room alongside a bar lined with backlit bottles of craft whiskey, static in glass, fossilized amber free of prehistoric insects. One of the servers came to work recently with a book. I asked her what it was – science fiction, alternate history about nuclear war – and she went into how much she reads and when. “I like to read on the train with some classical music in headphones to drown out the noise.” I started doing exactly the same.

I do most of my reading on the train and have since I lived in Brooklyn and spent three hours on the train five days a week. After three years I moved closer to work and found myself reading far less. Then I quit my job and landed at the restaurant and found a sort of balance: two hours each work day. The time is perfect – enough to submerge myself in the pages fully, but not so much that my day is lost to fluorescent lights and radio static. I’m reading more than I ever have, but I run into a problem: I can’t read when distracted by other words.

Loud noise, sudden noise, crowds, smells, music, even conversation in languages I don’t understand are all fine. My wife can read dense textbooks in front of the television, but I can’t ignore words when they emerge as distinct from the din. Song lyrics, television even behind closed doors, a conversation across the aisle becomes interference, noise drowning signal. During some commutes I’m stalemated for twenty minutes at a time between pages of a book and infernal shouting of tourists across the train. It doesn’t happen so often – a thousand voices layer into unintelligible cacophony, white noise – but when it does, the entire commute is worthless. It’s petty. It makes very little sense. But it’s how my brain works.

Instrumental music (or choral music in other languages) is more pleasing and reliable as white noise than the insufferable racket of a subway car. So for two hours each day, five days each week, each week for the last four or five, I put headphones on and listened to classical music. Eventually I began doing the same during the hours I spend writing in the mornings. Idle hours add up over time and I exhausted the staples of my classical music collection. In college I listened more broadly, but since graduation only that which I listened to obsessively avoided obscurity.

I still bring out Bach’s Cello Suites occasionally, Brandenburg No. 6 rarely; the sonatas, partitas, and other suites once in a blue moon. The Passion, B Minor Mass, and hundreds of cantatas and small pieces decay in compost. Missa Papae Marcelli tumbles from the speakers now and again but otherwise Palestrina ceases to be; Firebird a couple times in six years but the rest of the Russian canon languishes. I lived inside the life’s work of Villa-Lobos, Brouwer, Ponce, Barrios-Mangore, and a dozen other composers for four years but shed them like the beard I kept on occasion. I literally forgot the names “Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa” and “Francesco da Milano” until I concluded the sentence before this one. But after weeks of three, four, five, even six hours of listening each day, I exhausted the interests of my college years and tentatively peeked under the street lamps of unfamiliar alleyways.

I started with areas visible from comfortable sidewalks. J.S. Bach absorbed more time than any other composer in my four years of school. He came up in ensembles, theory or analysis classes, and even technical studies in jazz guitar lessons. Performing the entire Cello Suite No. 3 in C major (transposed to G for the guitar) uninterrupted and from memory is still the single most difficult task I’ve ever completed. But until two days ago, I’d never listened to more than the most famous of his ninety-six pieces for Well Tempered Clavier. I listened to them all, straight through, three times over these two days.

I used to joke that I preferred to skip from the year 1750 (Bach’s death) to about 1850, the year that music unquestionably began tipping from the Classical to the more ambitious Romantic period. I loathed the homogeneity, predictable harmony, polite aesthetic, and rigid forms of the Classical period and frankly much of the early Romantic period as well. Truth be told, I never listened to quite enough of it. We also forget that everything a genius produces need not be a masterpiece. Bach’s Wachet auf ruft unst die Stimme is a masterpiece but all two-hundred-odd cantatas? Not particularly. Haydn and Mozart, the Classical Period’s most prolific masters, wrote absolutely absurd quantities of music. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is so adored as to be almost cliche, but many of the others – beautiful, though they are – remain anonymous. Haydn wrote over a hundred symphonies. No. 94 is a self-contained phenomenon, but the rest are forgotten to all but scholars.

It didn’t help that I played guitar in college. There’s absolutely wild guitar music in the standard repertoire – Andrew York, Villa-Lobos, et al. – but the instrument was just getting its sea legs during the Classical Period. Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Matteo Carcassi were pioneers, but I couldn’t muster better adjectives for them than “pretty” or “nice.” My thumb plodded along with consonant basslines while my girlfriend’s roommate thundered about the keyboard a few doors down and Liszt cascaded out into the hallway.

I still don’t love Mozart or Haydn, but at the time I wasn’t even interested in Beethoven. Now it seems more like resentment than taste. Guitar is a quiet instrument, pomp and grandeur of the symphonies removed out of necessity, shrunk to a size befitting the parlor. The ability to wrench volume from an instrument for its own sake made me fume with jealousy. I think I wrote the whole style period off out of spite. Our music history teachers usually considered Beethoven to be a sort of fulcrum. Those who preceded Beethoven were unquestionably “Classical.” There seemed to be some disagreement over whether or not he should be classified that way or whether he was a true “Romantic.” Was he “Classical” with a “Romantic” sensibility or vice versa? It obviously doesn’t particularly matter. What everyone seemed to agree on was that Beethoven changed something, the weight of his genius bent the line of history and directed it toward Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss.

Beethoven is the order and rules of his Classical forebears scrubbed of the manners; Haydn’s stately fanfares and Mozart’s sturm und drang taken beyond their emotional extremes. A sudden explosion in Haydn’s work earns a centuries-long nickname. Such bursts of sound are routine in Beethoven. Keys change, allegros dart, largos warp time and melt between seconds, fortes pound, pianos trickle delicately.

For no particular reason, my first choice for train reading was a collection of all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies. On some level, I was probably looking for sensory deprivation – to sink in the wash of strings and shear length and opacity of the music. Is this a new movement? Wait. No. I think we’re still in the development of the first. Christ, Eroica is long. Of the nine, No. 5 is far and away the most famous with No. 3 likely the runner up and Nos. 6 and 9 in a tie for a distant third. No. 5 contains the single most recognizable phrase in the history of music, but my favorite was always No. 3 – Eroica, or “The Heroic,” named for Napoleon until he made himself Emperor, at which point Beethoven revoked the dedication. Listening to it now, I struggle to grow attached to anything but the first eight notes of No. 5 or the loping entrance of Eroica. That’s to say nothing of the music and a great deal of my fickle interest. Everything goes in cycles, so I’m sure they’ll regain their appeal. But for some reason, I’ve been listening to No. 2 in D Major over and over again.

Eroica contains the revolution, but there’s something appealing about a genius who hasn’t quite figured that bit out yet. No. 2 still has all the convention of Mozart and Haydn, but he’s bouncing off the walls. John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space is astounding, but the work happens in My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. By No. 3 – Eroica – Beethoven is putting dynamite around the foundations and, helmet and goggles on, aiming the bulldozer. Watching brilliance unbounded is rewarding, but it’s more fun watching a person inspect their boundaries, kick the molding, peer into the corners, draw a great red ‘x’ on a weak wall, and pick up a sledgehammer. Listening to the frenzy of brass in the final moments of No. 2 is like the euphoria of fresh air rushing through a newly gaping hole in the living room wall.

The idle hours add up. Hours idle with Beethoven add up to a new appreciation for a man razing conventions to the ground and playing with the rubble like legos. There’s a lifetime worth of listening in Beethoven’s collection of nine, let alone the sonatas and the rest of it, but pretty soon it’ll be time to move on, to spend the idle hours elsewhere and see what there is.

MusicPeter Amosreview