Can you remember the last time you listened to classical music, with undivided attention, for more than fifteen minutes? Do you think there is merit to listening seriously to classical music? Does it seem strange to imagine taking several hours away from work or study to sit and attend a concert that is not pop? While this type of leisure is not currently in vogue, the recent virtual concert commemorating Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday by the Baylor University piano faculty proves that there are some who continue to celebrate and treasure the classical repertoire as more than background study music.
Due to pandemic restrictions, each professor’s performance was recorded beforehand in Roxy Grove Hall. The clips were edited together with spoken commentary by Dr. Robin Wallace and the final product premiered virtually via YouTube streaming on November 17. “Live” audience members demonstrated the camaraderie of Baylor’s music community through the chat feature, with faculty supporting the performances of their colleagues with comments like, “This is a difficult section and she’s handling it very well!” Meanwhile, students past and present cheered on their professors with pride: “THAT’S MY PIANO TEACHER!”
Some of the defining characteristics of Beethoven’s music expressed so skillfully in this concert include:
Intense emotions and vivid personalities (Dark, stormy passion comes through in both Dr. Hosoda-Ayer’s virtuosic performance of the “Appassionata” and Dr. Hudson’s rendering of Prestissimo in Op. 109)
Skillful use of a classical style similar to that of Beethoven’s contemporaries, Mozart and Haydn (Dr. McAllister displays the clarity and precision required for a pianist to achieve the desired light, crisp sound in the Bagatelles)
Dramatic contrasts of mood, character, and dynamics (Note how Dr. Parsons uses her body language and facial expressions to communicate the teasing, joke-like quality of the Scherzo, as Beethoven switches moods from “settled” to “ominous” to “uncertain” to “jovial” to “talkative” in the space of a minute)
Creating a sense of exploration through vast spaces by using “modulation”—changing from one key to another—to create fluidity and quick shifts of harmonic center (See an example of this in Dr. Bolen’s skillful performance of thePolonaise)
The use of rhythmic themes and motifs but also beautiful, lyrical melodies (In Op. 109, Dr. Hudson achieves a gorgeous, tender tone while keeping the flowing nature of the line in tact; Dr. Marks also shows how Beethoven can use such a simple melody to communicate profound beauty here)
The repertoire presented in the concert highlights Beethoven’s unique standing within the creative arts. Having inherited the strict forms, polite style, and simplicity of the Classical era of music, Beethoven managed in his 56 years of life to challenge these norms and stretch the boundaries of composition. Considered a musical revolutionary, Beethoven was a key figure in the transition from the strict, orderly Classical era into the free, expressive Romantic period. His works are said to exhibit a spirit of humanism and an assertion of the human will and to reflect the turbulence of both cultural events like the French Revolution and personal struggles like Beethoven’s encroaching deafness. Beethoven’s music plumbs the depths and complexities of human emotions and experiences in altogether new ways.
Baylor’s School of Music regularly hosts high-quality performances by students and faculty, as well as professional musicians from around the world. These are done through forums such as the Distinguished Artists Series and the Lyceum Series and in 2019 included Canadian pianist Vicky Chow and Swedish pianist Helge Antoni. Although these concerts are not expensive and such high-caliber musicians typically fill large halls around the world with high-paying concertgoers, Baylor’s auditoriums are rarely full. For the majority of Baylor’s students, who have a large array of student activities and heavy amounts of homework competing for their time and attention, attending a classical concert is simply not a priority.
As a secondary music major, however, I am required to attend numerous performances, like the recent Beethoven concert, that I would not have made time for otherwise. Yet I have never left the concert hall without a sense of profound awe at the beauty I have witnessed and gratitude for the gift of music so readily available at Baylor.
Music has a transcendent quality. It transcends our own emotional experiences. It transcends the power of language and allows us to experience the feelings of others in very keen and powerful ways. In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper describes music as transcending the “workaday world” of practicality, use, and need. It is an end in itself, calling us simply to behold, to listen. For philosopher Michael Oakeshott in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” “poetry”—which includes music—is a distinct “voice” in the ongoing conversation of mankind which in recent years has been shouted down by the twin voices of practicality and science. Music is completely independent of need or use, dates or deadlines, fact or falsehood. It invites us into the aesthetic mode of contemplation and delight.
College students are especially prone to becoming focused on the shallow, workaday world at the expense of all else, frantically completing each new task and jumping through each hoop—to pass the test, to make the grade, to earn the degree, to get the job. So perhaps it is college students most of all who need to slow down and savor the distinctly human privilege of recognizing and appreciating God’s gifts of beauty and art, of things wholly unnecessary and delightfully impractical. Some things—such as a Beethoven concert—are worth seeing, hearing, and doing simply because they are, and that is enough.
Caelan Elliott is a junior University Scholar studying literature, political science, and music. She also works as a research assistant to the Dean of the Honors College and competes in Model United Nations. If she goes missing, check the best local bookshops, the nearest campgrounds and hiking trails, or the most aesthetic piano practice room.