Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824" by Harvey Sachs



Many years ago I would often lay awake at night and tune-in to the classical music station (WFMT FM 98.7) in Chicago.  I wasn't necessarily all that knowledgeable about classical music pieces; and I always leaned more toward classic rock and the great American songbook, but my fondness for this music came from somewhere and I don't know where it came from.

On one particular night back in the late 1980's a late night on-air personality said in a deeply embedded German accent "tonight we will be listening to the masters - Haydn and Handel (pause) Bach and Beethoven."  You had to hear him say it to appreciate why I remember it to this day.  It was the way he pronounced their names.  I still say it out loud when I want to get a laugh out of my mom.

My exposure to classical music in the last twenty years was pretty much relegated to seeing Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," several shows at the Hollywood Bowl and motion picture scores. The only way we get new music in the vein of the masters is listening to film scoring achievements.  Thankfully, movies need music.

I came across the book "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824" when Borders was going out of business last summer.  I put it on my nightstand and finally got around to reading it this past month. I had loved the film, "Immortal Beloved" starring one of the finest actors of all-time, Gary Oldman.  Watching Oldman interpret the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven was a grand achievement.  Not as good as his take on Sid Vicious, but the music was far more soothing to the soul.

Of course, my fondest Beethoven moment is exactly what most people would say.  Yes, I love the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony. It's beyond description.

Writer and music historian, Harvey Sachs has written a 200 page dissertation on the life of Beethoven's world back in 1824.  It was the year the then deaf Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony.  Beethoven would be dead three years later.




The book meanders into some areas that seem completely out of place in a book with this title, but what the book does do is supply a detailed analysis of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Sachs manages to explain this 75:00 masterpiece (massive understatement) and he manages to make it somewhat accessible to any reader that approaches the work.

Quite frankly, 1824 was not a particularly interesting year in world history and Sachs' attempt at letting us think it is interesting fails, but Beethoven wrote the Ninth during the first quarter of that year, so that alone makes this worth reading.  Keep in mind, in 1824, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive.  If you are a history buff a thought like this one makes it almost exhilarating.  I'd like to think that Jefferson and Adams heard pieces of the Ninth during some gathering they may have attended.  Genius to genius experience.

Sachs keeps placing his political ideology into oddball locations, but you breeze right past the self-indulgence and pretentiousness.  He even manages to bring up the war in Vietnam.  He is a gifted writer who spins this non-fiction moment in history into a compelling piece of prose.  Yes, I love Beethoven's music!     

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 is indeed one of the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music.  This is the first line of the book and it is shatterproof, because it is the truth.  Since I started reading the book I have been listening to the Symphony over and over again. It is mesmerizing whether you are listening while lying on a couch in total concentration of the piece or if you are letting it ride as the background to cleaning day. I'm listening to it as I write right now.

The Ninth is an auditory experience that is downright extraordinary. The first movement is like being in a maze with no way out. It's a mysterious piece even if you have heard it multiple times.  For a fuller examination of the symphony one must read David Levy's "Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony" which was published seventeen years ago.

No one with a brain that works could ever possibly listen to the Ninth without being in awe; and if you know music you are astounded at the complexities of the music.  Beethoven was doing things that no one had done before; and Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart all existed before Beethoven. No one had ever placed a choral section inside the body of a symphony before. This was historic.

Attempting to describe the Ninth is virtually impossible. Anyone with reasonably advanced musical training can see and hear what Beethoven accomplished in the Ninth and since a great deal is known about how he honed his craft you can understand how he got where he got from a technical perspective.

Sachs gets us into meters, rhythmic underpinnings, crescendos, beats, notes.  It gets technical and only the finest musicians could possibly understand the complexities that we delve into, but you are fascinated by each sentence and you keep going with the read. The "Ode to Joy" choral section is intensely difficult to perform.  It is almost impossible to perform and Beethoven knew that even though he never heard a single note of his own masterwork.

Sachs makes the story of the Ninth quite readable, but the distractions of stories on Napoleon, Pushkin and assorted other people is too off course for a book of this kind.

Just give me Beethoven.  That is indeed an "ode to joy!"

I learned a great deal from this book and I look forward to many more moments alone with the music.  It is deeply satisfying and gratifying.       

Copyright 2012 Read On Read Now 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review - Food, Inc.



I have been meatless since July (I am still eating fish) and I am eating organic animal and plant products as much as I can. Organic, pasture fed milk has been easy to find and I've been basically only indulging in organic, free range sources of ice cream.

I don't think I could ever go completely vegan, but I am a Pescetarian and it is working out well.  My energy levels are higher than they have been in years. I had been heavily influenced to alter my eating habits after reading about the health benefits, the environmental issues behind food and the cruelty to animals on industrialized farms.  I am not anti-meat since I have no problem with eating meat if the animals are being treated well.  I realize they will be killed at some point, but I repeat, I am not anti-meat, but I am anti-meat from industrialized farms.  Pumping animals with hormones, antibiotics and all of the other junk will cause us to have physical issues.  By eating that meat, we are eating that junk.    

I had seen the documentary "Food, Inc.," so I decided to read the book that accompanies the film.  What I don't understand is why we have politicized food.  The book version is far more political than the film, but this doesn't mean that the book isn't enlightening on many levels.

I am not into the notion of telling people what to eat.  Personally, I don't want to become a pain in the neck to my friends and acquaintances.  If they want to eat meat, let them eat meat, but it would be helpful if they were educated on the issues surrounding the concept of eating meat.  When I came of age, we didn't have industrialized farms. Meat in the "old day" was meat. The old days aren't that long ago.  I'm not that old!  Today, we should encourage our elected officials to pass environmental laws that would force the factory farms to clean up their waste. We should make laws that inform us of what is "really" in our food. Animal welfare laws should be enacted to end unnecessary cruelty.  This isn't difficult to do, but does anyone have the courage to do it?  Probably not.  The average person isn't thinking about food. I basically don't want the government to get bigger than it already is, but with all of the regulation on food we still don't get it right. Of course, we don't.  I haven't heard one single elected official discuss this issue.  Check out the sites of your respective Senators, Reps in the House and state elected officials and see if you find one of them that has a page dedicated to preserving and protecting our food supply.  If you find one, please let me know. 

The average Joe and Mary are eating their beef sandwiches, hot dogs, cheeseburgers and deep fried chicken wings without any thought as to what they are putting into their bodies.  Their temples. We can purchase sustainably raised meat and dairy products.  Do some research.  Buy your meat directly from a local farmer or at a farmers' market. Organic meat means that the products have met standards about how the meat was produced. It's relatively simple, but also keep in mind that eating organic doesn't necessarily mean you are eating from a free range farm.

Write your representatives in Congress (Senators and Representatives) regarding farm policies. Sounds boring?  It isn't. Be self-involved (probably not hard to do) and think about what is going into your body.  Think about your children. Think about your grandchildren. Think about you.

Do you have any idea what you are putting into your mouth? Cows, pigs and chickens are sitting in their own poop and guess where it ends up? Do you have any idea how cruelly these animals can and often are treated?  By the way, when the poop drains out from where that cow is standing ---- it ends up where?  I don't think I need to spell that one out.

We eat out too much. Yes, let's keep the economy going, but attempt to do more than watch the Food Network. Cook. You can use your creative skills and eliminate the salt.  Salt increases your blood pressure and high blood pressure left unchecked can kill you.

I highly recommend Stonyfield milk.  It's organic and the dairy cows are free range.  It tastes fantastic and the price isn't high.  The price isn't much more than the average half gallon of non-organic milk. There are several other organic and free range milks out there, but I have settled on Stonyfield.  Organic Valley milk is also quite good. I like Oberweiss dairy products very much.  Oberweiss is found in the Midwest.  Excellent milk. I also have enjoyed soy milk.  Almond milk hasn't caught on with my tastebuds, but I know many are enjoying the almond milk.

Most people don't eat to stay healthy.  They like the taste of a hot dog, therefore they eat a hot dog. Studies show that almost every single one of us living in the United States doesn't get the nutrition they need because of modern food production, processing and the distribution of food.

The lack of good nutrition interferes with the body's ability to heal itself which ultimately causes disease and early aging. The foods we eat no longer have sufficient nutrition in them. Tests show that we would need to eat 10 to 15 carrots to get the same amount of zinc found in one carrot from 50 years ago; and you would have to eat four carrots to get the same amount of magnesium.


Food, Inc.- the book is too political. We are all involved in the issue of food.  Whether you are liberal, conservative, ultra-left or ultra-right, food should be important to you.

By the way, McDonald's recently fired the egg company that was abusing chickens, so that's a smart move.  Learn more. Just learn more.

In this case, you may want to watch the movie as opposed to reading the book. Get involved. Write your elected officials.  

Copyright 2012 Read On Read Now