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One Class, One Day: Beethoven

Jeremy Yudkin an exuberant musical guide for Evergreen, undergrad students


During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature music.

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

You’ve been warned: Jeremy Yudkin’s love for Beethoven is contagious. During spring 2016 semester, he is teaching one of his popular Selected Topics in Music History classes, this one focusing on the 18th-century German who was arguably the greatest composer of all time.

At a recent lecture on the Fifth Symphony, the College of Fine Arts professor of music and codirector of BU’s Center for Beethoven Research leads the group in a spirited contest to identify Beethoven’s stealthy recapitulation of that unforgettable four-note motif—dah-dah-dah-DUM—throughout the complex, dramatic piece. A musicologist, ethnomusicologist, and author, Yudkin jokes that the contrabassoons “have been sitting reading Louis L’Amour novels” until their big moment in the third movement. He wraps up the proceedings by playing recordings and videos of various adaptations of the symphony, ranging from the stultifying to the silly, dancing along with disco Fifth and hip-hop Fifth. He concludes with a classic, circa 1970s PDQ Bach video of the symphony staged as a football game, complete with musicians with numbers on their backs, play-by-play announcing, cheerleaders, and a hapless French horn player being sent to the penalty box.

PD who? The grainy video, depicting one of the many whimsical inventions of the alter ego of Peter Schickele, aka the fictional 21st of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20 children, might have been new to some of the students, but not to the majority, who happen to be auditing the course through Metropolitan College’s Evergreen program, which offers courses to students 58 and older. In fact, there are more Evergreen students (25) in the class than undergraduates (20).

Beverly Wiggins (left) is one of 25 older students  auditing Yudkin’s Beethoven appreciation class through Metropolitan College’s Evergreen program.

Beverly Wiggins (left) is one of 25 older students auditing Yudkin’s Beethoven appreciation class through Metropolitan College’s Evergreen program.

“I love Beethoven. Who doesn’t?” says pianist and former Northeastern University faculty member Blanche Korngold (SED’81), who describes herself as “an old lady.” She was motivated to audit the class through Evergreen after hearing a rave review from her friend Joan Naimark, who is an Evergreen sponsor and had taken Yudkin’s opera course. Naimark was so impressed by Yudkin, she decided to audit the Beethoven class as well. “I always get myself here, twice a week,” she says. A sponsorship, good for January to August, runs $200, what she calls “the best deal in town.” (It costs $195 to audit a single course.)

Undergrads might wonder: are the Evergreen students overly talkative? Do they dominate the class? By all accounts, they do not. During the class on Beethoven’s Fifth, it was the younger students commenting most and asking the most questions. Roberta Sheehan has been taking classes through Evergreen for eight years. She says that the older students are the type of people who “are passionate about learning.” In Yudkin’s opera class, she recalls, “we had to sit back. You don’t need people saying, ‘I heard this at La Scala.’ We’re all deferential. We like to give the kids a chance.”

With a piano he uses to play brief passages and the help of assistant Shaoying Ho (CFA’18), a PhD candidate in musicology, who is ready to queue up recordings at precise points, Yudkin weaves music and words to foster a new intimacy with a piece most adults have heard countless times. With just those first four notes, he says, Beethoven asserts his individuality and his genius. Because most pieces of music in Beethoven’s time were in major keys, there is the expectation of a major-key opening, followed by a resolution, a sense of “when you hear this, next you’ll hear this,” he says. Beethoven defied musical convention, with startling results, he tells the class.

He resumes the recording of the symphony’s first movement, an impatient finger comically tapping on his folded arms, as the class waits…and waits…for Beethoven’s opening to resolve. In the Fifth Symphony, we soon discover, the piece is going to be largely in C minor, one of Beethoven’s favorite keys, a key he chose when he wanted to do something “dramatic and turbulent.” And then there’s the four-note motif, famous all over the world. “It’s the thing that ties the whole symphony together,” Yudkin explains, then demonstrates that every movement has something that either repeats or subtly recalls that arresting four-note opening.

Yudkin, codirector of the BU Center for Beethoven Research, with a group of older students auditing his class through the Evergreen program.

Yudkin, codirector of the BU Center for Beethoven Research, with a group of older students auditing his class through the Evergreen program.

To the visible delight of all of the students, Yudkin proceeds to annotate the symphony in a manner not unlike that of PDQ Bach’s announcer, if far more rigorously. “Here’s the momentum building up again—do we believe it this time? Seems like it…it’s an announcement of our second key…the rest should be devoted to our new theme…but wait…the motif has taken over the second part…this key becomes commandeered by this very aggressive moment from the first movement…and that’s not supposed to happen, it becomes obsessive, it takes over, until we’re left with nothing but our motif…”

How, asks Yudkin rhetorically, does Beethoven do it?

With the class now in the palm of his hand, he tracks the recapitulation of the four-note motif. Along the way, there’s “little Miss Oboe clearing the space for that very touching solo….What a magical moment in the midst of this aggression.”

“We’re dealing here with a genius of the highest purpose, someone on a par with William Shakespeare,” says Yudkin, proceeding to conduct the class in a group humming of the second movement, where the motif appears again. As it does in the third movement, the scherzo. He calls the scherzo “one of the great moments in music,” for the way it defies standard symphonic form to spill right into the finale. And he has some fun with the grand conclusion of that finale, which booms back to life after each of what seems, unmistakably, to be the last note.

Yudkin is also a fount of bonus factoids. Who knew, for example, that, straightened out, a contrabassoon would be 17 feet long? Or that in Beethoven’s time, metronomes didn’t make a clicking sound—they just lurched back and forth? Or that the metronome was “invented by a scoundrel?” And as for a rapper called Tight Eyez krumping to Beethoven’s Fifth, Yudkin seeks the class’ verdict. “Love it?” he asks. “Hate it?

“I’ve listened to Beethoven for a lifetime,” says Korngold. But, she adds, there’s an endless amount to learn about the music—and this class proves you can have a ball doing it.


2 Comments on One Class, One Day: Beethoven

  • Julia on 07.05.2016 at 7:39 am

    Yudkin is hands down the best professor I have ever had the pleasure of studying with. He’s also an incredible kind and generous human being. He is, in a word, brilliant.

  • Mary Hubbard on 08.02.2016 at 9:33 am

    We definitely need more like Yudkin! Classical music has suffered from the earnest and elitist label it gets, most undeservedly. Bravo!

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