Beethoven’s shock and awe

Even cranked up to 11, Deep Purple aren’t a patch on Beethoven. But their music can be equally stirring.

Patrick West
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People have been arguing for what seems like ages about what constitutes high and low art, if we can distinguish between the two and, if so, whether we should. ‘We’re as valid as anything by Beethoven’, pronounced Deep Purple’s Jon Lord in 1973, echoing Tony Palmer’s infamous remark in the Observer five years before that ‘Lennon and McCartney are the greatest songwriters since Schubert’. Lord’s assertion proved similarly contentious, but it would be less so in today’s ‘anti-elitist’ times, when to assert the inherent superiority of one type of music over another would mark you as an appalling snob.

I love Deep Purple as much as I do Beethoven; Lord’s death last month and the current BBC Proms season have provided a neat excuse to return to them both. Yet it strikes me that it would take more talent to compose a symphony such as Beethoven’s Seventh than it would take to compose ‘Smoke On The Water’. Nonetheless, to my ears, they can be equally stirring. And this is the point. To the listener, the issue of musical merit need not be an issue. What is more relevant, in this case, is what the two have in common. Deep Purple and Beethoven, hard rock and classical music, share a predilection for the loud and the vicarious, the passionate and life-affirming.

This puts them in opposition to a society that frowns upon excess, not least in music. Just consider Bruce Springsteen, who had the temerity to play for longer than his allotted time at London’s Hyde Park recently, only to be cut short so as not to disturb local residents. And let’s be honest, there is a time and a place. Who hasn’t wanted to wrestle a mobile phone from someone playing music loudly on public transport or been subjected to annoying noise from nocturnal neighbours? Earlier this month a man in Texas shot dead a neighbour at his wife’s birthday party, which I think is going a bit too far. Noisy music can be a nuisance, but – here’s a surprise – there is the temptation to overstate its risks.

Most people know that pubs that play loud music do so to deter conversation, to encourage customers, deceived into believing they are being boring, to drink more alcohol. One study from France has showed this does have the desired effect. (My cunning tip here is to avoid loud bars.) We are aware, too, as Action On Hearing Loss reminds us, of the dangers of excessive exposure to music played at high-decibel levels. Rock stars who have suffered permanent injury to their hearing include Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Mick Fleetwood, the latter reflecting: ‘I was a major glutton for volume: “Gotta feel it, gotta hear it.” Sooner or later you’re going to pay the reaper.’

But that’s just it, isn’t it? One should be moderate in one’s excess. Townshend might be hard of hearing as a consequence of The Who’s ‘Maximum RnB’, but I doubt most fans who saw the band ‘Live At Leeds’ went deaf having done so. Many people in the crowd at Hyde Park grumbled that they could hold conversations during Springsteen’s set, such was the feeble volume it was played at, no doubt to placate the dainty souls who frequent the park’s environs. Yet the idea that one concert will make you deaf is as baseless a notion as the idea that eating crisps will inevitably make you fat (Oi, you! Oliver!). The fact that a woman is reportedly suing Justin Bieber for $9.2million, alleging his music ruined her ears, tells you more about our litigious culture than about the way the human body works. Dvorak’s clamorous eighth symphony won’t make you deaf, though some venues won’t let it be performed on health-and-safety grounds.

Deep Purple’s performances once earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the globe’s loudest band’, a dubious accolade really, as it only strengthens the perception that hard rock is crass, obsessed with quantity and not quality. Stack up the Marshall amps and turn the volume up to 11 (sorry, but it’s mandatory to make this allusion in articles of this nature) and to hell with the content. Yet doesn’t the symphony rely on the same shock-and-awe tactic? Does an orchestra really need all those trumpets, violins and cellos? I would argue that it does, because symphonic music uses the same sturm und drang methods that heavy rock does: to seek to rouse and electrify the audience. Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’ overture needs its cannon as much as ‘For Those About To Rock We Salute You’ by AC/DC does its. And let us not forget that The Planets by Holst was originally a piano composition, and few would dispute that it improves vastly as an orchestral piece.

Jon Lord’s obituary in the Guardian states that ‘he believed with some justification that his group’s music was profound in structure and as significant in cultural impact as any work from the symphonic canon’. I wouldn’t know how justified this is, but it is worth keeping in mind that Beethoven transformed the traditional symphony which had relied on lyrical themes, instead placing emphasis ‘on rhythmic dynamism and the development of short melodic fragments, or motifs’. (1) In other words, riffs. Whatever the comparative merits of the two types of music, they do both evince vigour and intensity, the minor key notwithstanding. Counter to a common saying, they demonstrate that sometimes more is more.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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