23 July 2005

Pro Bono and Beethoven

Let's be honest, my all-time favorite musicians are U2 and Beethoven. It's no secret (this is a U2 allusion to The Fly; I am shocked and pleased if you caught it) that I really enjoy U2, but I haven't really openly talked about my obsession with Beethoven, unless you know me personally. For those of you who know me from school, you might have noticed that the room numbers in the hallway outside of the graduate studies office include 109, 110, and 111 - conveniently the opus numbers of Beethoven's last sonatas. Sometimes (and by sometimes, I mean usually) when no one's around (although this is not necessarily true; there are normally people around), I sing the opening themes to the sonatas as I walk by each corresponding room. It's actually pretty darn tricky if you're in a hurry...

So, interestingly enough, I link to Alex Ross's awesome blog, who in turn, links to On An Overgrown Path, which in turn, linked to an article in The Guardian - "Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads". When I saw this, I was SO excited - Beethoven AND U2 in the same headline! What could be better?

So, to make a short story long, this article became the impetus for today's blog entry. I've always pondered about the parallels between U2 and Beethoven and shared my thoughts with generous listeners, scowlers, and judgers, but have never written them down. Please hang on; it'll be a fun ride.

What I love about U2, I love about Beethoven. Here are some of the musical parallels I've noticed between the two. A stretch? Perhaps. But I think I might be on to something. Please note that I have only listed a few examples for each similarity; I could go on and on, but after all, it's only a blog entry, and I'm only human. Some of these ideas (i.e. - octave displacement and minimalism) are obviously exemplified in other composers' and artists' work, however, I am focusing on U2 and Beethoven. I've included numerous Beethoven piano sonatas as examples; the piano sonata was the genre to which the composer made his greatest contribution (symphonies maybe tie with sonatas, or come in a close second), and I also happen to study piano! The common appearance of late Beethoven sonatas in my comparisons is due to the fact that I've studied them the most thoroughly and because they are the most widely discussed out of the thirty-two. My observations are in no way exhaustive; I encourage you to read with a large grain of sea salt. After all, I'm just having some fun. Enough with the disclaimers; here we go :


U2 has established themselves as a timeless band of coolness. The raw sounds of Boy and October permeate the radio waves of classic rock stations all over the country, and they're still looked to as bulwarks of early 80s groovy tunes. When Pop was released in 1997, U2 was completely ahead of their time with the transient and techno grooves that emanated from this album, now popularized by the likes of Paul Van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, and Groove Armada. Like Beethoven, U2 points back and looks ahead.

One of the many reasons for Beethoven's broad appeal is that he's bi-focal, that is, he both looked back to the Classical Era, and pointed ahead to the Romantic era. He utilized the techniques of the high Classical style in his early period - his first set of sonatas was dedicated to Haydn, Alberti bass figures are used (Op. 2, No. 1, I), and four-movement structures are more frequented. However, he also foreshadowed the Romantic era, namely in terms of large-scale sweep across a whole formal structure (see his later sonatas - Op. 109, 110, 111). Incidentally, every classical music history course ends with Beethoven, and every 19th Century / Romantic course begins with Beethoven.

OCTAVE DISPLACEMENT (when a theme is repeated an octave lower or usually higher, my personal favorite) :

U2 - Ultraviolet's chorus - "Baby, Baby, Baby, Light My Way", later in the song.

Beethoven - Op. 101, III, Allegro - Pick-up to mm. 33 in right hand, pick-up to m. 41 in left hand.


U2 - With the brilliant sound engineers and and groovy people like Brian Eno working with them, U2's layers of sonority and color is amazing. My favorites are Surrender and the chorus of Lemon (actually, pretty much the whole Zooropa album).

Beethoven - Op. 110, III - The use of "Bebung" - the repetition of a single note connoting a sense of heightened emotion. Also, at the beginning of Op. 27, no. 2 (Moonlight Sonata), the composer designates that "the entire piece must be played as delicately as possible and without dampers." The resulting effect is an incredibly mystical and magical sound, especially effective on a period forte-piano.

MINIMALISM (the idea of using a simple, repetitive, yet effective idea over and over) :

U2 - Always Forever Now, and pretty much the whole Passengers album.

Beethoven - Last movement of Op. 111 (especially at m. 89 and ff., all that "doodling" in the treble clef). Although this is not officially considered minimalism per say, it clearly utilizes the same sort of technique. Isolated from the rest of the movement, you might think you're listening to a passage by John Adams!


U2 - The end of Falling At Your Feet - The beautiful chorus is cycled.

Beethoven - Op. 57, III, coda - A frenzied repetition of the opening thematic material.


U2 - Music loaded with spiritual undertones - I Will Follow, 40, Falling at Your Feet, Gloria, Yahweh, With A Shout, Rejoice, Crumbs From Your Table. Music imbued with political meaning and/or social commentary - Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bullet the Blue Sky, Silver and Gold, Numb, Daddy's Going to Pay for Your Crashed Car, Discotheque, Love and Peace Or Else, Pride, MLK, One Tree Hill, Mothers of the Disappeared, Peace on Earth.

Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 - Yearning for the divine, sublime, and unification of humanity. Op. 110 - It is said that the second movement utilizes two German folk tunes that say : "My cat had kittens" and "I'm a slob, you're a slob". In the final fugue of the last movement, the second movement's theme comes back in a more of an exalted, more learned fugal style, thereby redeeming the prosaic folk tune. This piece was written at a time when Beethoven was shunned by others because of his ever-increasing deafness. It was one of his worst fears stated in his Heiligenstadt Testament - that he would be misunderstood...Now, in this sonata, the profane was redeemed, perhaps what Beethoven himself desired.

As always, comments are warmly welcomed.


At 8:57 AM, Blogger Joy Renee said...

I'm not a musician nor have I studied music apprecian so I can't make one intelligent comment about it. But I have been a Beethoven fan for over a decade. As an amatuer listener. Wore out two CDs of Symphony #9. It is like an addiction. Listening to it is like riding a roller coaster of emotion.

Never did pay much attention to U2. Lost interest in rock after the late 70s. That may change now thanks to your juxtaposing them as you did here. Hope our local library has a few of his CDs.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey, Joy Renee!

Thanks for your comment, and I hope you enjoy your U2 exploration. I'd recommend maybe starting out with "The Joshua Tree" or their "Best of 1980-1990" album...People seem to like those the most.

I own and enjoy all of their albums; my personal favorites are "The Unforgettable Fire" and "Achtung Baby".

And cheers to Beethoven, too!

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Beth said...

I am devoted to U2, and it was fun to find this since I did my music history comps presentation (for a BA) on Beethoven piano sonatas (we were required to choose a genre/form that was different than the one we'd been concentrating on, which for me was vocal/choral music). That was yeeeears ago but I love your juxtaposition.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey, Beth!

Thanks for your comment, and nice blog yourself! I have been meaning to read "Get Up Off Your Knees"...

At 3:02 PM, Blogger indj said...

very interesting parallels.



At 3:58 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Thanks, Jay!

At 5:47 PM, Blogger D-Thinker said...

I am writing a short piece, though I have not finished it, I have done a mix of it :

I'll download Beethoven from Napster, I wish your Blog well.

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Scrawler said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment! I'd only just set it up and was amazed at the response! :)

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey Diary Thinker,

I'll be checking out your piece!

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey Inky,

I'm glad to have found your entry on "Claire's"! Thanks for stopping by my blog as well.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Amanda said...

Um, this is slightly disturbing. You really are a nerd. It's a good thing I am, too. Love love.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Thanks, Amanda. :)

At 6:57 PM, Blogger birdwoman said...

never, ever would have compared U2 to LvB. Just not even in the same universe, in my head.

But then again, I'm a weirdo.


At 7:55 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey Birdwoman,

Yes, it is indeed an interesting comparison...I had lots of fun with it. :)


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