Finding Meaning in Fun Music

Widening the ambit of this column slightly to include music which – for obvious reasons – does not form part of Tyne Consort’s immediate repertoire, there was on television last week an archive performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto from a previous Proms season. The Emperor is the magnificent apotheosis of Beethoven’s five piano concertos which together have come to define the modern piano concerto as a vehicle of depth and complexity equal to the symphony. What I found particularly interesting about the television coverage though was the tendency to focus on the slow second movement as the real heart of the concerto. This was no aberration; the same tendency was apparent when the same piece was performed at a recent final of the Young Musician of the Year competition. Nor is it solely a BBC phenomenon; the Sage programme for the forthcoming year refers to the work’s “profoundly exquisite slow movement”, to the apparent exclusion of the outer movements (in fact this tendency is not even limited to the Emperor, being apparent also in treatment of the Fourth).

At the risk of setting up straw men here, I think the use of the word “profoundly” encapsulates a belief, widely held among students and critics of classical music, that music which makes less of an instant impression on the listener is necessarily of more intellectual value than more “accessible” music like the first movement of the Emperor, with its fairly persistent high tempo and plethora of memorable melodies. Certainly no-one would deny that the most intellectually rewarding music does not reveal all of its treasures on a first hearing; however this is quite different from arguing that the more voluminous treasures are always the best-concealed. It is akin to assuming that someone who looks plain must have a good brain. This dangerous stereotype leads to unmerited intellectual credit being given to music which is sometimes perversely abstruse, such as the atonal postmodernism which continues to prevail on university campuses at the expense of music which has the temerity to try to please the listener as well as challenge him. Of course the slow movement of the Emperor is very far from being atonal. But, having no illusions about my own intellectual deficiencies and therefore having nothing to lose, I am happy to say it: the foremost pleasure of the Emperor is the first movement, not the second. Furthermore it is an intellectual reward as well as a purely sensory one which accrues to the listener. In fact if anything it is the slow movement which could be described as a mere pleasant diversion, never threatening to disturb the memory of what went before.

No doubt it is taken for granted that in most classical forms faster movements tend to predominate. Wondering why this is may be understandable, but it is surely not simply because slower movements are harder to write. For as the Emperor Concerto aptly demonstrates there are serious intellectual riches to be mined from what is, put simply, fun music.