China in Beethoven

Holiday time often provides spaces to take on a project or two that is speculative. Away from home and the desk there can be unscheduled time to study and think.  I say I will compose during the two weeks ‘away’ during the month of August, but time is not wholly my own – unless I get up very early! This holiday I’m in the Outer Hebrides with Beethoven. In spirit of course, and to be precise, the three volume critical biography of Thayer, a few carefully chosen recordings (Alina Abramigova playing the complete violin sonatas live at the Wigmore Hall) and scores of his early compositions (thank you IMSLP) up to and including the piano sonata op.53 in C ‘The Waldstein’.

This is not a whim, but preparation for a project that is currently called China in Beethoven. The title is an inversion of a recent book called Beethoven in China  – How the great composer become an icon in the People’s Republic – by Jindong Cai and Sheila Melvin. There’s a good introduction to the book here in a New York Times Q & A with its authors.


I have come late to Beethoven. In my early composing and musical life he hardly figured. Being a guitarist not a pianist his music did not lie under my fingers, and the nearest I got to playing his music was the occasional duet transcription of his symphonies, an experience that I enthusiastically recommend to anyone for whom the keyboard is not a first preoccupation or a companion to composition. My first engagement with this colossus of our musical world came with an invitation to write a companion piece to one of his piano trios. Being largely unacquainted with these compositions and indeed the medium, I chose the Opus.1 set, but also a contemporary piano trio I admired. Beethoven’s Op.1 Trio in Eb sat on the composing desk with Alexander Goehr’s startling but arresting Piano Trio of the mid 1960s, the result of his exposure to Charles Ives and the American experimental tradition.

Goehr is a composer who has rarely failed to excite my interest and attention. Some of his works, and particularly the chamber works, I return to again and again. My holiday listening includes his Since Brass Nor Stone for string quartet and percussion. The title is inspired by Shakespeare’s 65th Sonnet – a poem concerned with the effects of time on the physical world – and begins with a literal play of the opening line ‘Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea’. The score is a twenty-minute rush of invention that I have found totally absorbing and best listened to at night when I can’t look out of my window to the wonders of the changing light and weather of North Uist. You can access the PDF of the score here.

After Hindemith was my first and hopefully not my last venture into the world of the piano trio, but its connection with Beethoven was more about the sonic distribution and activity, the flow of beat and space, of the music across three instruments than anything thematic or harmonic. My next connection with Beethoven was a more direct attempt at coming alongside the legacy and experience of Beethoven. Four Commentaries for violoncello and piano took a hard look at Beethoven’s cello sonatas, compositions that stretch across Beethoven output in three distinct periods. Again sonic distribution was important, indeed intriguing, particularly the way Beethoven shared material across the registers of both piano and cello. The extensive range of the cello means it can be a bass instrument one moment and sing a soprano line the next. But one new aspect occupied my attention, that of Beethoven’s use of sequence, one phrase being used to support continuation through a mixture of repetition and transposition. In the first of the Four Commentaries I explored how a sequenced might be modified by pitch and rhythmic distortions.

Gradually Beethoven’s music has infiltrated my musical experience, but until very recently Beethoven, the phenomenon, has passed me by. The publication of Beethoven in China certainly made me sit up and seems to have sparked a series of personal investigations that has, at last, begun to make Beethoven real in my composing life and looks like bringing together certain other threads that have been present in other and wider concerns.

One of these wider concerns has been what Georges Steiner has labelled incipit, the beginning of things, at the start of his book Grammars of Creation. He writes about the first fruits of individual creative work, from the decorated and illuminated opening letter of a mediaeval text to the first published or acknowledged work, the Opus 1. In my last blog I shared an example of my own Opus 1, Nocturns for flute and guitar, a serious essay for the medium that used Carter’s metrical modulation technique. Nearer to the present, and what connects with Beethoven in China, is my own ‘first’ novel Summoning the Recluse set in 3rd Century China (currently in press). This has little to do with music except one of the main characters is a poet, singer and master of the guqin, or Chinese lute. During its writing over 3 years I have acquired more than a passing interest in Chinese history, culture and language. One can hardly ignore the fact that China has now some of the finest virtuosi of Western Classical Music, but that this fact was so hard won, through the political and social turbulence of the past century, is not a story that has been properly documented until now. China in Beethoven sets out to tell the story of the appropriation of Beethoven as someone whose ‘perseverance in the face of adversity and musical genius resonated in a nation searching its way forward.’

48-2Jindong Cai conducts a recreation of a performance in 1922 of a Beethoven symphony with an orchestra of Chinese students

The story of Beethoven in China is quite straightforward and certainly a ‘good read’. What intrigued me were accounts of the early performances of the symphonies in reduced versions and the very recent reconstructions by an orchestra of Chinese students under the auspices of Stanford University, who like many western universities now have a bridgehead facility in the major cities in China.  Performance traditions have now become an important aspect of contemporary musicology and it is particularly interesting to observe in China where public knowledge of the life of Beethoven preceded informed western performance. With what we now know about the extraordinary achievements of Chinese culture and science, see Simon Winchester’s wonderful book The Man who loved China, it seems strange that in the early years of the 20C Chinese intellectuals considered their own achievements vastly inferior to those of the West. The works of Darwin, Newton, Kant, Carlyle, Shakespeare , Shelley, Michelangelo and Velasquez should become widely published (in Chinese). Beethoven’s life story was regarded as having ‘moral qualities’ and a ’hero for all mankind’. Beethoven was placed in a Chinese context by comparing him to Sima Qian (c 145 -86 BC) who suffered castration for defence of a general wrongly accused of treason!

And so by virtue of recognising this fascination with Beethoven by the Chinese I began to look at what might be termed ‘sightings’ of China in European culture, working towards what seemed at first a preposterous idea that there might be ‘China in Beethoven’. Just what did China mean to Beethoven? Was he aware of Chinese culture and history, and if so, what and how?

I began by looking at what the composer might have read. Did records of his personal library exist? Indeed it did and the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn is gradually reconstructing his collection, much of it sold by Beethoven’s executors. He read widely and held books of poetry, philosophy, natural science and a large collection of the latest theoretical volumes on music. He certainly had the works of Leibnitz who in the early 18C had written extensively about the implications of a Chinese civilisation in his Novissima Sinica gathered from evidence of travellers and missionary priests. The poet and polymath Goethe, who Beethoven much admired and indeed met just before deafness came upon him, became seriously interested in things Chinese writing in his later years (though after Beethoven’s death) a sequence of poems titled A Chinese Book of Seasons and Hours. The poem below is not a translation from the Chinese but incorporates many of the common themes found in such poetry – the poet tired of official service as an administrator, springtime, enjoyment of wine and writing for pleasure.

48-3A poem from Goethe’s A Chinese Book of Seasons and Hours

This collection has become rightly popular with composers and numerous settings exist, my favourite being those by John Harbsion for voice, flute and piano, and the model for my own song sequence in this medium Heart of the Rock. I’m sure this lovely combination might hold a reference to one of the earliest collections of Chinese verse in French titled The Jade Flute, a collection Mahler turned to in his Songs of the Earth.

48-4An extract from Heart of the Rock for voice, flute and piano by Nigel Morgan

To move forward from sheer conjecture and what the imagination might suggest I realised I had to know more about Beethoven than his music. Biographies of composers can hold a popular fascination and there have been some inspired examples. Ken Russell’s films on Elgar and Bartok are wonderful recreations of ‘a life’. But there is one biography I hold as a startling different take on the medium. It is Professor Clive Brown’s Portrait of Mendelssohn. This approaches the composer’s life from a sequence of standpoints: his friends, his public reputation; his youth; his travels; his virtuosity. These aspects are not sequenced in time but arranged variously to gather together a portrait of a composer whose short and privileged life was so richly and lovingly woven together by music.  As I know the author I wrote to him (holidaying in Austria) to seek his advice on what to read of Beethoven’s life and times. His suggestion that I should read Alexander Thayer’s vast three-volume life surprised me. Hardly current scholarship, but a lifetime’s preoccupation begun close enough to the composer’s demise to allow interview with some of those who knew him. I have found what I’ve read so far – up to the composer’s Opus 1 Piano Trios – quite fascinating. I have accompanied this reading with studying some of the music Beethoven might have known, music by his teachers and colleagues – notably Neefe, Reicha and the theorist Albrectsberger whose outline of exercises require of Beethoven we can examine. Little known today, this music remains in early editions available in PDF format on the ISMLP website. Also, and to my surprise, there are some recordings of Neefe on YouTube, a composer entirely unrepresented on CD.

48-5The opening of Fantasia for piano by Christian Gotleib Neefe

From this immersion into the early life of Beethoven I feel able to piece together something of the elements from which he made his music.  I’m used to studies of figures in literature that begin from the idea that to read the books an author or poet might have read can reveal much. Katherine Raine’s study of William Blake is a rich example. To view scores composed by Beethoven’s teachers and contemporaries is an intriguing exercise. In ISMLP there were early editions available of the piano works by Neefe and Reicha that put beside Beethoven’s early scores began to demonstrate just how beautifully rendered his music was – from the outset of Opus 1.

48-6The first exercises from Anton Reicha’s Etudes ou Exercises for piano

Beethoven’s first published works were not his first composed works. It appears that despite opportunities to publish Beethoven held off allowing his work to come to print. I’ve studied some of these early scores, particularly the violin sonatas Op.12 dedicated to Salieri (to whom he went for advice rather than tuition), and the first piano sonatas (Op.2 No1 – 3) dedicated to Haydn, who it appears was neither a sympathetic or imaginative teacher – though his lessons with him were funded by the patronage of the Elector of Beethoven’s home town. What is perhaps even more telling is that he held off a dedication to one of his most long-standing supporters and patrons, the Count Waldstein, until he produced a work of a dazzling originality and musical purpose, the Piano Sonata Op.52 ‘Waldstein’, the piano work that, as things stand, I may use as a stepping stone to my Beethoven inspired (China orientated) work. Here’s the score and recording by one of my favourite pianist Mikhail Pletnev.

What has long fascinated me about the opening of Sonata No.53 is that it avoids a direct statement in C major, its root key, with a play of preparatory cadences in different keys. This is just the sort of thing a fine extemporiser, which by common consent Beethoven clearly was, would do to hold a listener’s attention (and curiosity) at the outset. Although the early works I’ve begun to look at, and admire, there is always the ghost of Mozart’s genius in the background. With ‘The Waldstein’ I think it would be fair to say that this music is wholly Beethoven’s, where he first shows us what he can do with a musical idea. There is nothing decorative or unnecessary about this work. It carries a great purpose within its most varied amalgamation of material. As a score it ‘looks’ so different in those textures and patterns that are commonplace in what we now term The Classical Style. There is real surprise in the spacing of registers, passages occurring in the extremes (then) of high and low. It is absolutely a work for the pianoforte, a work that is certainly no proto-symphony. For me its harmonic movement, its rhythmic journey through harmonic change is a gripping adventure. For the Chinese listener, whose music is largely without harmonic content, such music was a revelation, a music from another world altogether. The author of Beethoven in China writes ‘I still remember the sound of the ancient needle scratching the grooves of the battered record- swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. But I was transfixed by the music itself, which was so big or powerful. Hearing Beethoven for the first time . . . was a transformational moment: it helped set me on the path to become a musician.

Such reading and studying that this holiday time affords provides the impetus for continuing thoughts about my own musical progress. Reading about the extent of Beethoven’s formal studies under Albrechtsberger (the list of subjects covered is long and daunting) was a reminder of how our contemporary discipline now puts aside so much that was common-place in earlier times. Thayer comments that ‘rigid schooling in fixed rules is essential to the development of an independent artist. Even if he makes no use of them and that it is only in this manner that freedom in workmanship can be achieved.’  Those music educators among us, particularly in the UK, have lost the fight to retain much of the traditional musical schooling that once developed memory and internalisation. Even harmony can be marginalised in our curriculum with some courses following visual art education in offering self-directed learning, learning technique and acquiring knowledge on a ‘need to know’ basis – the information is at our fingertips so let the precise step by step approach to theory be considered dead. At least in the USA and in some mainland European conservatoires Music Theory is regarded as a distinctly separate and academically well-regarded discipline. In the UK we do ‘analysis’, which subsumes theoretical learning. I feel fortunate in having had a very traditional music education that enables me to hear the sense and sound of a Beethoven score in a musical and a historical context.


In similar vein an article by David Allen in the New York Times last week caught my attention. Titled Got a Classic Piece? Here Comes the Sequel discussed the increasingly common phenomenon of what I call Companion Pieces. It seems that one way to encourage audiences to put up with contemporary music is to commission composers to write new work that sits alongside well-loved music of the past. I heard Thomas Adès say in a recent interview ‘composers cannot really function without shaking hands with other composers’ and that ‘allusion is one of the principal ways of achieving this’. By and large for many composers in the market place I think this is true. I am certainly one of this number with my most recent composition modelled on music by Telemann. Even some of the arch modernists of our time have been known to look backwards as in Stockhausen’s homage to Schubert in his octet orchestration of Tierkries.

48-8The opening page of Nigel Morgan’s String Quintet . . .

Amongst my first experiments with the Opusmodus software was a String Quintet taking inspiration from Mozart’s celebrated Quintet K515 in C major. My opening music takes a visual scan of the opening pages of the Mozart score as a starting point rather than extracting any pitch or rhythm-related material. The orchestration and the density of activity relates directly to the Mozart original and it’s a similar aspect in Beethoven’s Waldstein I may well be drawn to as a possible starting point for my new piano composition.

String Quintet (pdf)

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