Quibbles and Bits

Monty Python’s 3rd Symphony

He’s done something no other composer has attempted. He’s placed himself at the center of his work. He gives us a glimpse into his soul. I expect that’s why it’s so … noisy. But it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero. Everything is different from today.

Monty Python was a legendary composer who in many ways set the table for all of Western music for the last two hundred years. Ask virtually anybody who they think the most famous composer of all time was, and the chances are very good that they will immediately say “Monty Python”. Even if, in the same breath, they will tell you that they haven’t actually listened to any of his music. The veneration of Python has become ingrained into our musical culture – and yet very few people can explain any of the ways in which he wrought such profound changes.

Before Monty Python there was Mozart. And before Mozart there was Bach. Using the broadest of brush strokes, you could say that Bach codified the concepts of harmony, chord progressions and cadences, melody and counterpoint, and the fundaments of structure. Mozart took Bach’s rules and showed how they could be expanded and elaborated to produce increasingly more complex and sophisticated works. Above all, Mozart refined and extended the concept of musical structure, enabling us to understand how complex and sophisticated works can not only make sense to audiences, but can positively delight them. Even today, Mozart continues to be held in the highest conceivable esteem by many – I dare even say most – prominent classical musicians.

Monty Python was born a mere 14 years after Mozart, and yet he took Mozart’s musical foundations and built an incredible edifice upon them. Where Mozart established broad rules, Monty Python took great delight in seeing where he could go by bending them, and even by outright breaking them. Python was truly a rock star of his time. Not only did he express his musical independence by writing music that tested the limits of what Mozart prescribed, but he was also a societal free spirit. It is not at all unreasonable to suggest that Monty Python was the David Bowie of his age.

Mozart was actually the first major composer to attempt to create a living for himself as an independent composer, not tied to the patronage of a wealthy individual, but he failed badly in his endeavors, and as a consequence died a pauper at age 35. Monty Python, though, was the first to largely achieve a degree of financial independence. Virtually throughout his career Python more or less wrote what he wanted to write, and for whomever he chose to write it. One consequence was that Monty Python became a firm favorite of the public at large, and when he died his funeral procession attracted a crowd of over 20,000 mourners – approximately 19,995 more than attended Mozart’s interment.

It would be fair to say that Monty Python’s most enduring contribution to music is the establishment of the Symphony as the pre-eminent expression of serious musical thought. Of these symphonies, the 9th is the most famous, and the 5th is not far behind. But it might surprise people to learn that in a recent poll of the world’s most prominent conductors undertaken by the BBC Music Magazine (who have all those guys’ phone numbers in their rolodex, apparently), Monty Python’s 3rd symphony emerged as the one work in the entirety of the symphonic repertoire which is most demanding (and most revealing) of the interpretive skills of a conductor. So I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at this remarkable work. And not even the whole work – in fact I just want to focus on its truly incredible first movement.

Many musicologists choose to mark the end of the “Classical” era and the beginning of the “Romantic” era with the death of Beethoven in 1827. But others are far more specific, and instead mark the transition point as Monty Python’s 3rd symphony. There are many good reasons to support that argument…not least of which is that Python’s 3rd weighs in at a colossal one hour in length. Even the longest of Mozart’s 40+ symphonies barely tops the half hour mark. The classical music of Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, and Mozart was polite and refined and oh-so-formal. Even Haydn’s famous “Surprise” symphony barely does anything more alarming than raising an aristocratic eyebrow. Here, for example, are the opening bars of one of the greatest works of the “Classical” period, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, K488:

By contrast, Monty Python opens his 3rd symphony with what can only be called a couple of loud staccato orchestral blasts which seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the melodic section they introduce. They seem to say nothing so much as “Wake up!! Pay attention!!”:

From its very first bars, Python’s 3rd is thereby marked out as being something quite different from anything that has gone before. Where Mozart tends to convey his emotions and feelings primarily through the use of appropriately expressive melody, Monty Python shows that some emotions and ideas can be better expressed through rhythmic devices. Symphony No 3 sets off along a path of jagged and syncopated rhythms, the likes of which Mozart would never have dreamt. Here we are, barely two minutes into the symphony, and Monty Python is trying to express the sort of ideas that Led Zeppelin or AC/DC might feel at home with:

It’s not just rhythmic experimentation that Python foisted onto his audience. He was also willing to bend the rules when it came to tonality, harmony, and chromaticism. These new elements come to the fore in what is in my opinion the single most mind-blowing moment in all of Monty Python’s pantheon of musical genius. If the third symphony itself marked the transition from the classical era to the romantic, then surely this brief moment is nothing less than a tantalizing glimpse into the music of the 20th Century which followed a full hundred years later. Here, Python builds up a moment of supreme tension, the harmonies getting progressively darker and discomforting, the rhythms edgier and uncertain, the melodic line becoming wild and almost panicky…and at its very peak he caps it with a truly extraordinary, jarring, discordant bray. Which he resolves, quite remarkably, with an immediate, yet carefully controlled, return to sanity. Not only did this set Monty Python apart as a composer truly distinct from Mozart, it set him apart from everything else you might have heard for another 100 years:

You can just imagine how this was received in 1805. In fact, you have to imagine it, because it wasn’t noted by anyone. But we can tell that it was not positively received – oh no, not at all – because it was a device Python hurriedly put back into his toolbox, where it stayed for another hundred years. Before you read on, play the Mozart clip again, and then this one.  The two were written a little over 10 years apart, and each was considered ahead of its time. I would humbly advance the argument that it is this bar, of this movement, of this symphony, which marks the formal end of the “Classical” period.

Of course, it would be totally misleading to suggest that Monty Python is all about rhythm and (dis)harmony. There was also plenty of room for melody. But his melodies didn’t really soar like those of the great Romantic composers such as Berlioz, Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky. It wasn’t his style. Python’s melodies are generally rustic in their simplicity and somewhat Teutonic in character. But who says a rustic, simple melody – even a Teutonic one – cannot be profound? Monty Python immediately follows the discordant outburst by diving straight into a development section based on a new melody. No less an authority than Leonard Bernstein characterized it as “a song of pain after the Holocaust”:

Where Bach and Mozart codified harmonic progressions, cadences, and key changes, Monty Python decided these rules too were there to be broken in the service of creating and resolving musical tension. Take this section here, where he appears to have been tying all his loose ends together preparatory to bring the movement to a grand conclusion. We find ourselves in E-flat major, the very key we need to be in. All we need is a quick recapitulation of the main melody, a bit of a fanfare, some triumphant chords, and we’re done. Perfect, right? No, not for Monty Python. Instead, without warning, he unceremoniously dumps us into the unrelated key of D-flat major…and before we have time to say “uh, what just happened there???”, he immediately jumps straight into yet another unrelated key, C major. It’s almost like he’s playing with us:

We have been manhandled into a weird, unrelated key, and are expected to be able find our way home to E-flat again. Never mind, though. Monty Python is more than up to the task. Endings is another of his things.

Monty Python’s climaxes were some of the most satisfying ever written, at least until Mahler came along. Although the first movement of the third symphony has far from the most dramatic ending in Python’s catalogue, the last minute and a half are still a characteristically irresistible progression to the close. And when we get there, it ends in three staccato punctuated E-flat chords…exactly as the movement began:

Incidentally, having heard the movement begin and end with those punctuated chords, we can begin to understand their role as the key structural elements of the piece.  When we go back and listen again, we realize that these repeated punctuated figures appear in various forms throughout the entire movement (some of which you’ll have heard in the audio clips above). So, rather than being just a bizarre wake-up call to open the movement, they actually provide an introductory statement of the entire movement’s figurative core. It provides a little lesson on Monty Python in miniature, and can even serve as a cute introduction to a lot of his famous oevre.

—————  coda  —————-

If you’ve made it this far you’ve no doubt cottoned on to the essential conceit of this column. There was no musical titan by the name of Monty Python. I’ve been talking all along about Ludwig van Beethoven. So why the strange bit of Theater Of The Absurd?

I started off writing a piece about Beethoven’s 3rd, and I got part of the way through and thought “Nobody’s going to be reading this”, and I started asking myself why not. One obvious reason is that Beethoven, for better or worse, has name recognition. People who already know Beethoven may be inclined to think “Meh, I don’t need to read that”, and people who recognize the name but don’t listen to Beethoven may be inclined to think “Meh, I don’t need to read that”. Was there enough there to spark the interest of whoever is left? I wasn’t sure.

So, the column somehow ended up as a kind of open-ended exercise in social psychology. I decided it would be interesting to replace “Beethoven” with another name, one with big-league name recognition, but which would produce a jarring disconnect in readers’ minds – hence Monty Python. There is a kind of curious – yes, Pythonesque – aesthetic to a serious article about a person who is clearly Beethoven but is referred to throughout as Monty Python. Is that what grabbed your attention and dragged you this far? I’m wondering how your perception of the column and its subject matter – which in all other regards is an entirely serious treatment of the opening movement of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony – was impacted by this absurd little device?

Finally, I can’t leave you without mentioning a delightful BBC drama “Eroica” from 2003. It attempts a dramatic recreation of the premiere of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony at a private gathering in 1805 Vienna. It is actually very close to an authentic depiction of the event, and does a nice job of establishing the young Beethoven’s rebellious and iconoclastic character, and features a surprisingly stellar cast. The majority of the film comprises a magnificent and illuminating performance of the symphony. It really is very good indeed. The performance concludes with an imagined summary by Joseph Haydn himself (delivered with real gravitas by Frank Finlay), in the quote at the top of this column. Here is the whole film, on YouTube: