“What is it about three G’s and an E flat – three eighth notes and a half note – that are so pregnant and so meaningful that a whole symphonic movement can be born of them?”
– Leonard Bernstein, 1954
I’m guessing such a question about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one that, when explored by any composer of music, has the potential to yield a wealth of insight into the craft. I say “I’m guessing” because I’m not a musician or a composer. I can’t even sing. I have a guitar, but it cringes when I come near it. I am pretty handy with a tambourine, but that’s just one note. Jingle, jingle, bang, bang. Rhythm I can do … sort of. Start adding notes and I’m way out of my element. I’m a writer. I work in words. But, I learned something about notes this weekend: apparently, they aren’t very different from words – at least when using them to create art.
I was in my shop working on a Christmas gift for my wife and listening to a local public radio station, when I heard a wonderful analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Leonard Bernstein. It came from a 1954 television broadcast in which Mr. Bernstein looks at the composer’s own sketch book, examining eight years of notes, revisions, and rewrites. He considers Beethoven’s early drafts and why they might have been rejected. Accompanied by The Symphony of the Air (formally The NBC Symphony Orchestra), the great American composer and conductor demonstrates some of those drafts so the viewers can actually hear the evolution of one of the world’s musical masterpieces.
Beside being thoroughly entertained by the historical aspect of the program (not to mention the great music), I was deeply impressed (and surprised) by its relevance to me as a writer. Having about as much musical talent as one might find on the head of a pin, I’d never realized the similarities between writing a play or novel and composing a symphony. As Mr. Bernstein notes in the program, “… many of us assume that – when we hear the symphony today it sounds so simple and right – that it must have spilled out of Beethoven in one steady gush.” This was always my impression. I am so amazed by the ability of anyone who creates music to do so, that it rarely occurs to me that it requires work. It’s more like magic. (Surely, to me, it might as well be.)
Mr. Bernstein’s explanation of Beethoven’s process – the way the master looked critically at his own work, discovering the themes buried in it, drawing them out, cutting and trimming away all the extraneous notes until all that was left was what was needed, what was right, exactly right, nothing more, nothing less – could have as effectively been a lesson on writing words rather than notes. In fact, from moments into the program, that is how I took it.
Hearing the music and the discussion of the writing process in musical terms allowed me to see my craft from yet another perspective. Things that I knew were there but had a very difficult time seeing became crystal clear as I heard them. The notes, the music, gave form where words alone fell short. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to look at my work as a playwright through some new lenses – among them, poetry and dance. Now, I have music to complete that circle.
I can’t begin to explain all the lessons about writing that I’ve gleaned from Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of Beethoven’s process in composing his Fifth Symphony. In fact, I’m still learning. As the music continued resonating days later, I found myself digging up a YouTube video of the original television broadcast. Ten minutes into it, I went back and replayed portions. The audio was good, but the video adds another dimension as Mr. Bernstein used it handily to illustrate many of his points. As a tour of the mind of one master guided by another, the piece is a treasure trove for any writer of notes or words. Of course, simply mentioning Bernstein and Beethoven is probably enough to attract the attention of any music composer. But writers of words, take note: this is a lesson on our craft too!