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A bluesy improvisation on the theme from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto inevitably leads me down the path of noninevitability.

But why did it lead me back to Leonard Bernstein for the 2nd episode out of the last four? I mean, I love Lennie and all, but really, I don’t normally think about him two out of four times I’m thinking about things. And yet here he is again.

The reason is that the 3rd motif of the aforementioned Beethoven slow movement is basically the same as the opening of Bernstein’s equally gorgeous tune Somewhere from West Side Story. Bernstein, in fact, said that he borrowed the theme from the concerto. Which is fine.


It’s not exactly the same, is it? The 5th note of Bernstein’s theme (on the word “us”) is different, and that small difference leads the tune somewhere else entirely. And this leads me back to the point I mentioned in Episode 9—that all of these supposedly meaningful connections between disparate pieces of music are not that big of a deal, certainly not epiphany-worthy. They’re just more evidence that there are a limited amount of lyrical melodies available in our universe. Happily, though, there are unlimited variations on those basic themes.

So it’s not so much the immediate theme that matters as what comes after it.

Links Mentioned:

  • Emperor Concerto This is a recording with Bernstein conducting and the great Rudolph Serkin at the piano. (This is on Apple music, but you can find the same on Spotify, Tidal, etc.) Something I notice right away: when the piano enters at around 1:41, it has an improvisational feel. Which reminds me of a salient fact about this period of music. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven, both virtuoso pianists, often didn’t write out many sections of the piano parts in their concertos, particularly the cadenzas, until after the fact, when it came time to publish. Mozart, in particular, whose late concertos are absurdly beautiful, rarely wrote out the piano part at all before the first performance. He was either improvising, playing the part he had in his head, or probably some combination of both. This should remind us that the music of that period was far more “improvised” than we tend to think nowadays, when “classical” music has been put on a pedestal, objectified, and consecrated like the god of a major religion.

  • Somewhere This is Barbara Streisand’s recording from her 1985 Broadway Album. Very 1980s in its production, excess, and the goddamn Phil Colinsesque gated snare drum. But, holy crap, that voice—one of the greatest in recorded history—transcends everything.

Episode #12 Transcription


And I’ll stop right there because I realized it was going down a path where it could only get worse. Now, some of you may recognize that theme. It’s an improvisation on the second slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor, and I occasionally start improvising on these slow Beethoven movements. Another one is, uh, the violin concerto in d major.


That one. I just will find myself randomly improvising on these themes. They are very soulful, simple, but deeply emotional. Of course, those who know me know that I revere Beethoven as the greatest practitioner of our art, the greatest composer, and that’s part of it. There are other, perhaps lesser composers who have equally strong themes, but there’s something so fundamental about these slow Beethoven movements. All the complexity in his first movements generally and often the last movements of Sonatas, symphonies, concertos leads to a need for simplicity in the slower movements, Song-likemovements.

So they lend themselves to interpretation in an improvisational setting because fundamentally they’re songs and as someone who grew up playing jazz, the foundation of improvisation in jazz, of course, is the song, popular song, particularly the early to mid period of jazz going back say to Ellington and through the bebop era, through the even post bop up to the modern era of Coltrane and Miles. Mostly we’re dealing with songs as the foundation for building larger compositions, meaning the song is the vehicle to create something bigger than the song. This is no different than what Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn or Shubert we’re doing back in the late 18th, early 19th century, using the song as the foundation and this is all the more true in the slower movements because they are literally song like. Whereas in some of the more complex, faster opening movements, the so called Sonata Allegro movements, while there is still a connection to song, it’s more about motif, usually shorter motifs like and and basically Mr Beethoven builds the entire movement on those.

Three g’s and one e flat. He builds the whole thing on a short motif, which is not to say there are not song elements in it, but that it’s primarily about developing that very short motif in numerous and ingenious ways. But you notice that he follows that very intense driving complex first movement with a song.


That was the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony.


That doesn’t work quite as well as a vehicle for improvisation. And at least for me. But it does highlight my point about the song as the basis of developing musical ideas, particularly in slow movements. One of the things in a jazz, you had to prove your mettle with the ability to play up tempo, be bop tunes like Confirmation…


And be able to improvise on those changes as we call them, chord changes. And you had to be able to play the modal tunes like So What?


And improvise on those, uh, single chord or two cord tunes. But the sign of a truly mature player was, can you cut it on a ballad? Can you make music on a slow tempo? A very songful type of movement. So once you got beyond the kind of athletic demonstrations in the faster, more complex movements, what could you do when you brought the lights low and it wasn’t about a lot of notes, too many notes as the emperor said in Amadeus. That of course is a movie, not real life. So what can you do with something like this…


That’s not an actual tune. Just giving a example of a slow jazz ballad. I try to avoid too many actual tunes that are not in the public domain so I don’t have to pay licensing fees to be honest, copyright laws being what they are. But getting back to Beethoven, the slow movement of the emperor concerto. In an earlier version iteration of this podcast, believe it was the first episode a friend came over.

We were considering using him as a kind of counterpoint to our JingleJews episode because he came up, this is Marc Stopek. He came up with the idea of jingle Jewswith a cartoon from several years ago, which got him into a lot of trouble even though he was Jewish—and still is. But during that recording session Marc, we were somehow talking about Leonard Bernstein again and he mentioned somewhere along the line that the theme from “SOMEWHERE” from West Side Story that Bernstein said that he got it from the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto. I had never really thought about this connection, but if you’ll notice the second or third phrase of that piece, let’s do it again. I’ll do it in the original key.


You can hear there’s a place for us. I’m not going to sing it right now cause that key is too high for this time in the morning


and so on.

Mark pointed this out and I immediately pulled out my score because I have the complete Beethoven concertos and symphonies and Sonatas and all that stuff on my bookshelf here. Pull out my score and checked it out. And he was right. There’s a connection between those themes, and apparently Leonard himself said that’s where he got it. Uh, so I suppose in the modern world, contemporary copyright laws being what they are, he would have been sued right there. Fortunately Beethoven’s work is all in the public domain. Unlike Bernstein’s work, which may never be in the public domain because they keep extending copyright laws out into perpetuity through the known universe. Anyway, I pulled out the score and started playing it and Marc was incredibly impressed that I could just do that. I’m not, Why shouldn’t I be able to do that? I’m a composer. I studied all those works very intently back in the day when I was in my teens and twenties. That’s how I learned to compose…by Primarily studying Beethoven and the rest.

What I thought about after that encounter with Marc was the absurdity of this notion that that one thing in the Beethoven Concerto, Bernstein somehow came up with the melody based on that. He may have or may not have because the truth is it’s not exactly the same. One goes like this, the Beethoven


and what is Bernstein do? He goes


so it’s really four notes that are exactly the same. Otherwise, it’s completely different. And this gets back to a point of mine in an earlier podcast, I believe it was called, Everything Relates to Everything Else. And so what. That’s my point. So what? Speaking of, so what …


It’s four notes, man, it’s not that big of a deal. If we’re getting to the point where we’re saying Bernstein owes Beethoven for those four notes, I mean, folks, you could come up with a million themes on those four notes.


Hmm. Well, it is kind of a distinctive four notes.

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