Beethoven, the Heavy Metal of the Early 19th Century!: Nicolas Ellis at TEDxYouth@Montreal (Transcript)

Nicolas Ellis at TEDxYouth Montreal

Nicolas Ellis – TRANSCRIPT

(Video )

That was Cellos on Fire, a metal band in which I used to play keyboard when I was in high school and… even during a few years in college. And I remember, you see, how happy I look.

I remember how much I loved to be onstage with the band and sometimes offstage as well. It was for me, as a classically trained musician, a way to disconnect through another kind of music. Today, I spend most of my time being a conductor. I don’t only walk my dog, I also conduct orchestras. And I simply love to work with 60, 70, 80 musicians.

And it truly inspires me to study and work on the great works of the great composers of the past. When I get to study Beethoven, there is something deep inside me that feels the same way. I used to feel when I was with Cellos on Fire, because Beethoven had that raw, direct and kind of thrash way to put music into your face. And with no doubt, he shocked many people around him as a loud and also noisy composer. And with no doubt, he was therefore the heavy metal of the early 19th century.

But why is it that at his time the people could not understand his music, and yet today we consider him one of the great masters of classical music? Well, Beethoven had a very particular life. Before he was even a teen, he was almost beaten to death twice by his alcoholic father. And in his early 30s, he started to have hearing problems, and by the end of his life, he became totally deaf. He never truly had a woman, no girlfriends, really, in his life. He used to move a lot from one apartment to the other; in fact, his apartments were always a huge mess with manuscripts all over the piano and uneaten food that had been hanging on the piano for several days.

And he also got frustrated and mad at a lot of people around him. In fact, one day, the Prince Lichnowsky, who was one of Beethoven’s sponsors, had threatened to fire him because he would not accept to play piano for French soldiers who were passing by his castle.

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So they got into this big argument, this fight, and Beethoven, very frustrated, leaves the room and slams the door. But before he does that, he leaves a little note on a piece of paper on which it said: “Prince what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.” How arrogant is that? But that was Beethoven, a man who cried for his independence. And while life could only offer him poverty and misery, his music was about triumph and joy.

So when he started to give his first concert as a composer, people just couldn’t figure out what this loud composer was doing. Because while just before him, Mozart would start a symphony with a beautiful melody like this one. (Playing piano) Beethoven, for instance, started his 3rd Symphony with these 2 massive chords. (Playing piano) And later on in the same piece, he would use even more thunderous chords like these. (Playing piano).

Can you imagine the aristocracy of the time who was hoping for some light concert and ended up with this kind of music, loud music in their face? And people also thought Beethoven had this very annoying way of not really finishing a piece. He would endlessly bang chords over and over, like in the last movement of his 5th Symphony, which goes like this (Playing piano).

People also thought he had very poor talent for writing interesting melodies, and probably the most boring melody he ever wrote comes from his 7th Symphony in the 2nd Movement. (Playing piano) Not very interesting. Three different notes and he uses them in a very repetitive way. Not much more original than maybe one of Lady Gaga’s greatest hits.

So you have got Lady Gaga on one side, whose beautiful melody goes like this. (Playing piano) Brilliant, isn’t it? And then on the other side, you have Beethoven, which is maybe not much more original, go like this (Playing piano). Some of you might think they went to the same music school, who knows? But in all cases, did you know that at Beethoven’s time, people thought he had a very poor talent for writing interesting harmonies, interesting melodies, and they certainly didn’t think he had any kind of finesse or elegance. And all that can actually be true from one point of view but that would be misunderstanding the essence of his genius. We were talking about his lack of melody imagination.

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Let me play for you one of his most jarring melody openings he ever wrote. (Playing piano) Now I hope you know this one. It comes from his 5th Symphony. And if you think this is a melody, you must also think how – that it is a very boring and maybe stupid melody. Three repeating notes followed by a longer one.

It does not go anywhere, it is not building nor decreasing in tension; it is simply what it is. Totally unoriginal. And that’s what people thought of his music. But Beethoven’s genius resides in what he was about to do with these three repeated notes plus a longer one. So at this point of my talk, I want to do a little experiment with you guys.

Because when I was in high school and I was your age, I remember having music classes, and sometimes it just felt so useless to bang on a xylophone or to blow into a flute. Maybe some of you went through that. And I realized today that the main problem I was experimenting with my teachers was that they’ve never taught us how to listen to music and understanding the beauty and the genius behind it. So you remember how Beethoven starts the symphony (Playing piano). Well, he uses this idea as a building block, the same way your body is built of trillions of cells. (Playing piano)

Did you hear how he uses the original motive and builds a first phrase out of it? That is way beyond your Justin Bieber on your iPod, right? It is. No, don’t pretend. In all cases, let me play again for you just a bit slower, and try to listen to how he develops those three repeating notes plus a longer one. So from the beginning, from the top (Playing piano). Now at this point, he is about to start the second phrase of his symphony, and he is going to do the exact same thing.

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He is going to use those three repeating notes plus a longer one and build something more out of it. So, I’m going to play it for you, and I want you guys to really listen carefully and try to follow how he develops the original idea, okay? So we were at (Playing piano). We could go through every single bar of this symphony and find a way at every instance, a way to highlight how he uses and develops the original idea.

And that is what makes Beethoven a true genius of structure and form because he could build a whole symphony out of one single and simple idea. And that is the proof that sometimes genius and beauty reside in simplicity. Now, even though this is pure genius, you must also know how much Beethoven struggled to put together a big piece of music like a symphony, how much he changed, crossed out, and tore up his manuscripts at madness, and wrote an unbelievable amount of sketches before finally writing down what he had in mind. When you take a look at some of his manuscripts, like this one from his 9th Symphony, you really feel and see the agony and the struggle and the inner battle this man was having. He just couldn’t figure out what to put down on the piece of paper.

Here is another one. How crazy is that? And even though a lot of people around Beethoven thought he was some kind of freak, he held on to that heavy metal he was writing down. And even though he was different and unusual, the same way Cellos on Fire and Lady Gaga are being different in their own way. But Beethoven’s masterpieces, how ever different they are, were and still are avant-garde and timeless. Listen to this. (Playing piano). Thank you very much.

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