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.
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-
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
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
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
That’s not an actual tune. Just giving
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
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
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.