Image: portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler from 1820

c/o Joseph Karl Stieler

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., the University Music Department will host “Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Bash,” in Crowell Concert Hall. The concert program will include several of Beethoven’s pieces, complimented by selections by the Indian composer Tyagaraja, as well as original pieces by graduate student composers Aliya Ultan’s and Stuart Wheeler.

The concert is particularly significant because it includes so many different members of the University Music Department community. It represents the most organized effort in many years to arrange a performance of the University’s exceptional private lesson faculty. The concert features private lesson teachers Libby Van Cleve on oboe, Charlie Suriyakham on clarinet, Robert Hoyle on French horn, Gary Bennett on bassoon, Julie Ribchinsky on cello, and Carolyn Halsted and Yvonne Troxler on piano; the West End String Quartet—Sarah Washburn and Marianne Vogel on violin, University Chamber Music Ensemble Director John Biatowas on viola, and Anne Berry on cello; and University South Indian music faculty—vocalist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Music B. Balasubrahmaniyan, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music David Nelson on mridangam.

“The whole idea is to contextualize Beethoven in ways that people are not used to thinking about him,” Professor Neely Bruce, who helped organize the concert, told The Argus. “This has been an occasion for me to think through Beethoven as a major influence in my life,” he added.

The concert will begin with Tyagaraja’s music. Bruce chose to feature Tyagaraja’s compositions because he is known as “the Beethoven of India,” an epithet that, as Bruce points out in the program notes, bears the question “Why is Beethoven not the Tyagaraja of Europe?” Both Tyagaraja and Beethoven are notable for having written works that continue to be performed and to inspire contemporary composers. 

“What we hope will happen is that hearing Carnatic music at the beginning of the concert will clear out everyone’s mental baggage and clean their ears so that you’re hearing this extremely pure intonation, very elaborate melodic configurations, and then we’re going to go to equal temperament and structural things that rely on a sense of harmonic direction and so on,” Bruce explained. 

The concert will feature a variety of Beethoven pieces: the Quintet in E-Flat for Piano and Winds, Op. 16; Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69; and Grosse Fugue for string quartet, Op. 133. These pieces were chosen to represent all three periods of Beethoven’s work—early, middle, and late. 

The Quintet for Piano and Winds is essentially a miniature concerto for piano, while the Cello Sonata is the composer’s most famous of his five cello sonatas. The Grosse Fugue, considered one of Beethoven’s most contemporary pieces, is also one of the most notoriously physically demanding of his works. 

“We are playing these pieces over and over and over, and if we are going to do that, we sure as hell need to play it the way in that moment it has to happen,” graduate student Aliya Ultan said of the Fugue. “I feel like the Grosse Fugue actually forces people to do that because it’s so physically taxing…that you can’t help but surrender to the music in a way, whereas a lot of other pieces you can just have more control the whole time because it’s less impossible.” 

Ultan, who is also a cellist, used an opening portion from the second (allegretto) movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major as the jumping-off point for her composition, “Ode.” Ultan began her composition process by trying various processes of adapting the fragment, but frustrated at the results, decided instead to chop the fragment and turn it into a loop that lasted over an hour. Then, she played the loop continuously through her house’s sound system while going through the motions of her day—singing, playing cello, cooking, washing dishes.

“At the end of the day I listened through it…and I transcribed moments that I found interesting,” Ultan explained. “And that’s literally what the piece is—just transcriptions of me messing around.” Ultan also included the Beethoven phrase, played by a string trio, woven throughout the original compositions.

“I’m seeing it as transcription as a means of photography almost, like photographs of a time—just like the way Beethoven’s music is a photograph of him,” Ultan said. “Another thing I’ve been thinking about is a friend of mine died recently, and his Facebook page is still there, and people are commenting on it and people are interacting with it…and it’s like wow, these virtual identities, this virtual information, it doesn’t die, it’s still there but then how it shapes the way we remember that person is something we don’t maybe know totally yet…and I think it’s fascinating to kind of in some way try and superimpose my way of remembering present moments here and now, and how there’s technology in that, but using an old technology to do it for this kind of context.”

The second graduate student, Stuart Wheeler, took inspiration from two divergent musical traditions when writing his piece, “H A R P,”: Beethoven’s “Harp Quartet” and the tradition of the vocal “harp,” which was used to describe hymnals performed in the American South and New England during Beethoven’s lifetime. 

“I had this idea: what if I went though this string quartet and just found every time that all four of the strings are playing a rhythm exactly together, and just erased everything else,” Wheeler said. “So that’s what I did, I went through and created this rhythmic skeleton for all of the moments in each movement when they play together.” 

Rather than present the movements individually, though, Wheeler decided that they would be performed simultaneously in the concert.

“My idea is if we have a bunch of things together, you have a lot of sounds emerging and overlapping with each other in somewhat unpredictable ways, because they’re not really coordinating with each other,” he said.

In addition to performing the four musical movements, Wheeler also composed a piece for a speaker to read simultaneously. The piece originates from an essay written by Roland Barthes about Beethoven; Wheeler then ran the essay through a web tool called Translation Party that translated the text back and forth between languages until the English became somewhat obscured.

“It’s a sort of manipulation and subtraction of the text going through different translation processes,” Wheeler said. “So it ends up being somewhat nonsensical, which is sort of what I’m interested in in the whole piece in general…sort of a pleasant nonsense.” 

Libby Van Cleve, one of the private lesson teachers performing in the concert, emphasized that the concert will be particularly significant in representing a long-overdue opportunity for so many teachers to be featured performing together—and performing student-written music.

“This is a pretty significant event,” Van Cleve said. “I’ve been on faculty for a quarter of a century at least and I don’t think this has ever happened at Wesleyan.” 

Van Cleve mentioned that the concert rehearsal process was already shaping up to be a positive process for the Music Department community.

“I’m an educator at heart, so I love working with students,” Van Cleve said. “We had rehearsal…and the sense of openness and collegiality and wanting to help the students understand things…was so touching to me.” 


“Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Bash” will take place on Friday, Feb 21, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall.

Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at

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