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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

2 Classes For 0 Credit: Beethoven to Mahler and Paradise Lost by Anna H. '14

That can be rearranged to say: Paradise lost to Beethoven and Mahler.

Beethoven to Mahler

Last semester, I took my first music class at MIT: 21M.235, or “Monteverdi to Mozart”. 21M.235 is offered in the fall, and as you might guess it focuses on music spanning from Monteverdi (ca. 1600) to Mozart (ca. 1800). In the spring, a class called 21M.250 (“Beethoven to Mahler”, for you words people) takes up the baton and covers music spanning from Beethoven (a Mozart contemporary) to Mahler (ca. 1910).

I loved having a class that taught me to listen, and was all set to take 21M.250 this semester — until I found out that it conflicts with one of my physics classes. My friend Ben H. ’14 was in a similarly tragic situation: he took 21M.235 with me, wanted to take 21M.250, but had a conflict.

What were two music nerds to do?

We e-mailed Professor Neff, the WONDERFUL wonderful professor who in the past few years has taught 21M.011 (Introduction to Western Music), 21M.235, 21M.250, and 21M.295 (American Popular Music).

“Professor Neff!” we (digitally) cried. “We were hoping to take Beethoven to Mahler, since we really enjoyed Monteverdi to Mozart last semester. Unfortunately we both have class conflicts.” We were wondering, we continued, “whether there might be any opportunities to listen to the music ourselves and discuss it with you.”

“Hello!” Professor Neff replied, fewer than ten minutes later (I mentioned that she’s wonderful, right?) “That sounds wonderful to me!”

As a result of that e-mail exchange, I now spend one hour each Thursday afternoon with Ben and Prof. Neff. We meet in a little room in the Music Library, that has three comfy armchairs and a big TV. This week, I learned that to be a great composer in ~1800 Vienna you had to excel at writing symphonies, string quartets, AND operas. I was unsurprised to learn that Mozart made the cut, but was shocked to learn that Beethoven didn’t. In Vienna, Prof. Neff told us, Beethoven was known as a pianist and not as a composer.

I was also shocked to learn that Beethoven may have met Mozart. I’m not sure how to describe why this seems so strange to me, but it’s something like this: each of those composers is, in my mind, an abstract idea and not a human being. The idea of them interacting is just bizarre.

But yes, apparently Beethoven went to Vienna in order to work with Mozart. There’s controversy in the music history community about whether and for how long they actually met (an afternoon? a week?) but for some reason their partnership never took off. Beethoven went to study under Haydn instead (ahh! more weird spacetime collisions!) and there’s a lot less controversy about the fact that their student-teacher relationship existed for years and was a complete disaster.

Also a disaster, at least initially, was Beethoven’s one and only opera Fidelio. Apparently insensitive to current events, Beethoven tried to produce an opera about wrongful imprisonment for a French-occupied Vienna. His primarily French soldier audience was not amused the first time he tried to put it on, and they were not amused the second time he tried to put it on. By the third attempt, Napoleon was gone and Fidelio was much more well-received. (Is there anyone else out there who had NO IDEA that Beethoven wrote an opera, or was that just me?)

We spent the first ten minutes of class or so watching and listening to a scene from Fidelio (notable because four characters express four very different emotions using the exact same melody, in a round) and the last ten minutes listening to the Sonata Pathétique. I didn’t recognize the name of the piece, but my ears recognized the melody and apparently my fingers did, too: I had the ghostly experience of feeling them begin to move on their own accord. I was suddenly very certain that I played that piece as a kid.

Muscle memory is a magical phenomenon, and so are professors who are happy and excited to do an extra hour of teaching per week, just for fun.

Paradise Lost

I will always remember John Milton’s 400th birthday: December 9, 2008. I was a junior in High School. In the morning, Mr. Potchatek got up on a table in the English pod with an apple in one hand and a copy of Paradise Lost in the other, and I don’t think he got down again until he had read the entire book out loud from start to finish.

Here at MIT, Professor Mary Fuller teaches a renown Paradise Lost seminar in the spring. Every spring, I try to fit Paradise Lost into my schedule, and every spring I fail. The thing is, it’s very difficult to get through any literature class without stumbling across a reference to Paradise Lost and feeling embarrassed about the fact that you haven’t read the original text. Tragically, my Old English class conflicts with Prof. Fuller’s course this semester.

“That’s tragic, Anna!” Professor Bahr replied, fewer than ten minutes later, and then: “I’d be happy to read it with you.”

As a result of that e-mail exchange, I now spend one hour each Thursday afternoon with Prof. Bahr (immediately after hanging out with Prof. Neff and Ben). We meet in his office. This week, I learned that Milton was actually something of a rebel: he was a powerful influence during the English Revolution that lost King Charles I his head, and held office (he was basically the Secretary of State) in Cromwell’s protectorate. When the English monarchy regained power, many of Milton’s friends were executed for treason. Being an acclaimed poet saved Milton’s life.

Milton was revolutionary in other ways: he wrote a treatise advocating for divorce and freedom of speech, one or both of which might sound completely normal to you but were about as revolutionary as 1600’s England could be.

By the time Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he was completely blind. So far I’ve only read Book One of the poem, but it’s impossible to read all his descriptions about Darkness in Hell and Light in Heaven without wondering what it would be like to live in complete darkness on Earth. On the 22nd line of the poem, Milton calls on God to bless his work:

“What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men.”
and one can’t read that passage without wondering whether he meant it literally.
I promise that I’m actually taking some science classes this semester, so stay tuned for a description of those. For now, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage so far from Paradise Lost:
“The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (254-5)