Lockdown learning: How a techno-head got into Beethoven
In my years as a dance music critic I’ve analysed the finer points of house and techno, but always felt lost when it came to Bach and Mozart. The compositions sound overstuffed to my ear, long symphonies test my patience and, inevitably, the music slips into the background, making me feel like I’m living in a period drama.
The repetitive structures of contemporary composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich make sense to a techno-head, but pure classical has remained frustratingly out of my grasp.
This year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, andcelebrations – all now sadly on hold –were planned around the world. As I I’ve got plenty of free time during lockdown, I decide to give Ludwig another shot, starting with his Symphony No 5 in C minor, possibly the most famous piece of classical music ever written – but my eyes glaze over after the dramatic da-da-da-DAH intro.
Luckily, the internet offers plenty of help. The online Khan Academy has a video series on this very symphony, with a wildly enthusiastic conductor telling how when this music debuted it sounded innovative, even daring. The bombast of Beethoven would have been as thrilling as a Marvel fight scene to 19th-century Vienna. But even imagining this I still can’t find the piece “mind-shattering”.
Another lesson breaks it down musically, highlighting a moment where the strings drop away to leave a single, plaintive oboe, before erupting back into action. It reminds me of how electronic dance music uses the dynamics of gentle breakdowns and explosive drops for maximum drama. So Beethoven had killer drops, too?
The pandemic has sent the world’s orchestras into hibernation. I find a touching virtual performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, each player contributing from self-isolation. Hearing those strings soar, apart but together, I feel a genuine tingle.
I’m ready for the real thing. There are many options for virtual Beethoven concerts, including performances from Oxford and Berlin. I choose the Philadelphia Orchestra, who filmed themselves performing to an empty auditorium when their 12 March show was cancelled.
The lessons have made a difference. I can identify instruments and follow melodies, so feel more engaged. But I still get distracted. Beethoven, the Khan Academy teacher said, needs your undivided attention. So I put everything else aside, stand up, and Beethoven’s emotional volatility suddenly surges through me. I do it the way I first fell in love with techno — checking nobody’s there to see, I dance.