Archive for Beethoven

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

The Vale of Clwyd

Posted in Music with tags , , , on August 19, 2017 by telescoper

Why did nobody tell me that Beethoven wrote a collection of 26 Welsh Folk Songs? I had to rely on BBC Radio 3 to educate me about them!

Here’s one example, Number 19 in the published collection, arranged for soprano voice with piano, violin and cello accompaniment and  called The Vale of Clwyd .

Here is a picture taken across the Vale of Clwyd, taken by Jeff Buck.

 

Photo © Jeff Buck (cc-by-sa/2.0)

 

Egmont

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on July 12, 2016 by telescoper

It was just brought to my attention that one of the historical landmarks of Ghent, the location of the conference I am currently at, is the home of Lamoral, Count of Egmont whose execution in 1568 sparked an uprising against Spanish occupation that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands. The house itself is extremely old, being built in 1200 from roman bricks.

Egmont was also the inspiration behind Beethoven’s  famous overture played here in suitably dramatic style by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

 

Who needs critics? Or peer review for that matter…

Posted in Art, Literature, Music, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today so I’m going to rehash an old piece from about six years ago. In particular I direct your attention to the final paragraph in which I predict that peer review for academic publications will soon be made redundant. There has been quite a lot of discussion about that recently; see here for an example.

Critics say the stangest things.

How about this, from James William Davidson, music critic of The Times from 1846:

He has certainly written a few good songs, but what then? Has not every composer that ever composed written a few good songs? And out of the thousand and one with which he deluged the musical world, it would, indeed, be hard if some half-dozen were not tolerable. And when that is said, all is said that can justly be said of Schubert.

Or this, by Louis Spohr, written in 1860 about Beethoven’s Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony

The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in it’s grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.

No less an authority than  Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Fifth Edition) had this to say about Rachmaninov

Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians regarded it with much favour.

And finally, Lawrence Gillman wrote this in the New York Tribune of February 13 1924 concerning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

I think I’ve made my point. We all make errors of judgement and music critics are certainly no exception. The same no doubt goes for literary and art critics too. In fact,  I’m sure it would be quite easy to dig up laughably inappropriate comments made by reviewers across the entire spectrum of artistic endeavour. Who’s to say these comments are wrong anyway? They’re just opinions. I can’t understand anyone who thinks so little  of Schubert, but then an awful lot of people like to listen what sounds to me to be complete dross.

What puzzles me most about the critics is not that they make “mistakes” like these – they’re only human after all – but why they exist in the first place. It seems extraordinary to me that there is a class of people who don’t do anything creative themselves  but devote their working lives to criticising what is done by others. Who should care what they think? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but what is it about a critic that implies we should listen to their opinion more than anyone else?

(Actually, to be precise, Louis Spohr was also a composer but I defy you to recall any of his works…)

Part of the idea is that by reading the notices produced by a critic the paying public can decide whether to go to the performance, read the book or listen to the record. However, the correlation between what is critically acclaimed and what is actually good (or even popular) is tenuous at best. It seems to me that, especially nowadays with so much opinion available on the internet, word of mouth (or web) is a much better guide than what some geezer writes in The Times. Indeed, the   Opera reviews published in the papers are so frustratingly contrary to my own opinion that I don’t  bother to read them until after the performance, perhaps even after I’ve written my own little review on here.  Not that I would mind being a newspaper critic myself. The chance not only to get into the Opera for free but also to get paid for spouting on about afterwards sounds like a cushy number to me. Not that I’m likely to be asked.

In science,  we don’t have legions of professional critics, but reviews of various kinds are nevertheless essential to the way science moves forward. Applications for funding are usually reviewed by others working in the field and only those graded at the very highest level are awarded money.  The powers-that-be are increasingly trying to impose political criteria on this process, but it remains a fact that peer review is the crucial part of the process. It’s not just the input that is assessed either. Papers submitted to learned journals are reviewed by (usually anonymous)  referees, who often require substantial changes to be made the work before the work can be accepted for publication.

We have no choice but to react to these critics if we want to function as scientists. Indeed, we probably pay much more attention to them than artists do of critics in their particular fields. That’s not to say that these referees don’t make mistakes either. I’ve certainly made bad decisions myself in that role,  although they were all made in good faith. I’ve also received comments that I thought were unfair or unjustifiable, but at least I knew they were coming from someone who was a working scientist.

I suspect that the use of peer review in assessing grant applications will remain in place for a some considerable time. I can’t think of an alternative, anyway. I’d much rather have a rich patron so I didn’t have to bother writing proposals all the time, but that’s not the way it works in either art or science these days.

However, it does seem to me that the role of referees in the publication process is bound to become redundant in the very near future. Technology now makes it easy to place electronic publications on an archive where they can be accessed freely. Good papers will attract attention anyway, just as they would if they were in refereed journals. Errors will be found. Results will be debated. Papers will be revised. The quality mark of a journal’s endorsement is no longer needed if the scientific community can form its own judgement, and neither are the monstrously expensive fees charged to institutes for journal subscriptions.

Hubble + Beethoven

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 10, 2015 by telescoper

In an attempt to get away from the horrors of the last few days I thought I’d offer this video I just found on Youtube. It features majestic, life-affirming music from the 2nd Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major along with some wonderful astronomical images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Science and art for all humanity. How pathetic our petty squabbles appear when we think about the Universe or listen to great music.

The Last Song on the Voyager Golden Record

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 22, 2014 by telescoper

Totally spontaneously and without any prompting whatsoever from any reader of this blog (?), I’ve decided today to post a piece of music. I don’t usually like posting single movements from classical works. I much prefer listening to them in the context for which they were orginally devised rather than as “bleeding chunks” because the entire composition should be greater than the sum of its parts. That is true of Beethoven’s magnificent late String Quartets, but some of the parts are nevertheless so exquisite on their own that I don’t mind at all hearing them separately. I posted the wonderful Heiliger Danksgesang (the third movement of Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132) some time ago. That’s a piece of music that is very special to me for a number of reasons. This time, though, it’s String Quartet No. 13 in  B♭ major, Opus 130.

This is an unusual quartet, consisting of no less than six movements. In the original version the last movement was a very long and intricate double fugue, but for all its magnificence this enormous movement perplexed audiences who were no doubt expecting something closer to the traditional structure of a string quartet. Beethoven then wrote an alternative final movement, much shorter and lighter, and published the original final movement as a standalone work, the Große Fuge (Opus 133).

But it’s the penultimate, fifth, movement that I wanted to share. This is marked “Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo.” This is one of those pieces of music that makes everything else disappear from my mind whenever I hear it. Its poignancy and lyricism are felt even more deeply when you realise that Beethoven himself never heard it, except in his mind’s ear. He was already profoundly deaf when he composed this work and indeed he died before the first performance of the final version of the quartet, so never even saw it being played.

Of all the pinnacles of European culture and civilisation, Beethoven’s late quartets must be among the very highest, but this short movement transcends even that level of achievement and reaches something utterly sublime. I think it’s entirely apt that this is the last piece of music on the famous Golden Records which the Voyager spacecraft are carrying into the depths of interstellar space. Close your eyes and think of that as you listen to the music.

PS. A “cavatina” is a “short and simple song”, hence the use of the word “song” in the title, but it doesn’t really do this piece justice, but there really aren’t any words that can describe it adequately.

Critical Theory

Posted in Art, Music, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2009 by telescoper

Critics say the stangest things.

How about this, from James William Davidson, music critic of The Times from 1846:

He has certainly written a few good songs, but what then? Has not every composer that ever composed written a few good songs? And out of the thousand and one with which he deluged the musical world, it would, indeed, be hard if some half-dozen were not tolerable. And when that is said, all is said that can justly be said of Schubert.

Or this, by Louis Spohr, written in 1860 about Beethoven’s Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony

The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in it’s grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.

No less an authority than  Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Fifth Edition) had this to say about Rachmaninov

Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians regarded it with much favour.

And finally, Lawrence Gillman wrote this in the New York Tribune of February 13 1924 concerning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

I think I’ve made my point. We all make errors of judgement and music critics are certainly no exception. The same no doubt goes for literary and art critics too. In fact,  I’m sure it would be quite easy to dig up laughably inappropriate comments made by reviewers across the entire spectrum of artistic endeavour. Who’s to say these comments are wrong anyway? They’re just opinions. I can’t understand anyone who thinks so little  of Schubert, but then an awful lot of people like to listen what sounds to me to be complete dross. There even appear to be some people who disagree with the opinions I expressed yesterday!

What puzzles me most about the critics is not that they make “mistakes” like these – they’re only human after all – but why they exist in the first place. It seems extraordinary to me that there is a class of people who don’t do anything creative themselves  but devote their working lives to criticising what is done by others. Who should care what they think? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but what is it about a critic that implies we should listen to their opinion more than anyone else?

(Actually, to be precise, Louis Spohr was also a composer but I defy you to recall any of his works…)

Part of the idea is that by reading the notices produced by a critic the paying public can decide whether to go to the performance, read the book or listen to the record. However, the correlation between what is critically acclaimed and what is actually good (or even popular) is tenuous at best. It seems to me that, especially nowadays with so much opinion available on the internet, word of mouth (or web) is a much better guide than what some geezer writes in The Times. Indeed, the   Opera reviews published in the papers are so frustratingly contrary to my own opinion that I don’t  bother to read them until after the performance, perhaps even after I’ve written my own little review on here.  Not that I would mind being a newspaper critic myself. The chance not only to get into the Opera for free but also to get paid for spouting on about afterwards sounds like a cushy number to me. Not that I’m likely to be asked.

In science,  we don’t have legions of professional critics, but reviews of various kinds are nevertheless essential to the way science moves forward. Applications for funding are usually reviewed by others working in the field and only those graded at the very highest level are awarded money.  The powers-that-be are increasingly trying to impose political criteria on this process, but it remains a fact that peer review is the crucial part of the process. It’s not just the input that is assessed either. Papers submitted to learned journals are reviewed by (usually anonymous)  referees, who often require substantial changes to be made the work can be accepted for publication.

We have no choice but to react to these critics if we want to function as scientists. Indeed, we probably pay much more attention to them than artists do of critics in their particular fields. That’s not to say that these referees don’t make mistakes either. I’ve certainly made bad decisions myself in that role,  although they were all made in good faith. I’ve also received comments that I thought were unfair or unjustifiable, but at least I knew they were coming from someone who was a working scientist.

I suspect that the use of peer review in assessing grant applications will remain in place for a some considerable time. I can’t think of an alternative, anyway. I’d much rather have a rich patron so I didn’t have to bother writing proposals all the time, but that’s not the way it works in either art or science these days.

However, it does seem to me that the role of referees in the publication process is bound to become redundant in the very near future. Technology now makes it easy to place electronic publications on an archive where they can be accessed freely. Good papers will attract attention anyway, just as they would if they were in refereed journals. Errors will be found. Results will be debated. Papers will be revised. The quality mark of a journal’s endorsement is no longer needed if the scientific community can form its own judgement, and neither are the monstrously expensive fees charged to institutes for journal subscriptions.