In March 2020, I was commissioned by The Apollo Chamber Players to write a work for Electric Violin and String Quartet for their Beethoven 250th Celebration Program. I saw this as a challenge that fits right in with my approach to composition. Many different genres of music have influenced my composing style, and many times those genres overlap in a single work. Not purposeful by technical design but by what feels right for me and my emotional state at that specific time.
With this work, I wanted to find, through my compositional voice, a way to speak to the current social and cultural climate we now face. I see a commonality with Beethoven, who, as a composer, was never fully understood during his life. He lived during the Age of Enlightenment (American Revolution, French Revolution), and those tumultuous times shaped his approach to life and conversely, his musical purpose. Many thought his music to be quite unorthodox. To use the terminology of today, he was a Liberal in a Conservative world (Vienna). The Conservative audiences did not appreciate his underlining premise of composing provocative music. They felt they were being forced to think what the music was about instead of enjoying a pleasant, entertaining tune as with Haydn and Mozart before him. Beethoven took his audiences on artistic journeys with thematic descriptions using innovative tonalities. This approach to composition became the basis of most composers who followed him and continues to this day. The famous conductor Nikolaus Harnancourt has said in part of Beethoven's 5th, "This is not music; it is political agitation." Political Agitation was just one of the motivations that inspired Beethoven to compose. He felt that his musical expression could affect change - Hence my inspiration to write this piece.
A speech by a politician is not expected to be the equivalent of poetry, or to cast a lasting memory in popular culture, and especially not one given 155 years ago on the occasion of a renewed 4-year term of a government office. But that is precisely what the phrase, "with malice toward none, and charity for all," has become, in our American lexicon. It is the definition of politics seamlessly intersecting with art.
So should it be any different from having music intersect with politics? Not for Beethoven, as most students of his music are already aware. And today, especially in the Western classical genre he is known for, there is still a need for "socially responsible pieces of music" that can address our human failures with a non-verbal message that can find a way to convey as much hope as it does despair.
We are together here in 2020, facing challenges old and new, internal and external. We are re-hashing past grievances, unique to the United States. And we have reached a low point when a People, born more American than African, finally demand that the value of their lives be recognized.
It is obvious that their lives did not matter when they were kidnapped and brought here 400 years ago to provide free labor to a country that became the richest on Earth. Their lives did not matter even during a war to set them free when treated as contraband and fugitives. Their lives did not matter when their own homeland refused them human dignity without a century of struggle for it. And now their lives do not matter enough to allow them to choose that very word for themselves.
And so continues the malice. To provide "Charity for all" would have cost nothing more than to give them respect and equal opportunity.
But on this occasion in 2020, we celebrate lives who still remind us that we can speak up every time we think, breathe, talk, act, move, and live. We can use the language of music or the music of speech; we can do it from a podium at the US Capitol dome, or from a podium at a concert hall.
Today, Beethoven would encourage the un-trained, and teach the intuitive to thrive. He would liberate style, modes, genres, and stereotypes with one angry eye. He would shout--- not even hearing his own voice or the voices of his opposition--- that it is our world to change, and that we do not need to ask permission from above.
He would write us an anthem we could all stand for. And using the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address of 1865, we would have another chance to make them true: "With malice toward none."
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