Is Beethoven a brand?

There is something that has been knocking around in my mind. I am not sure what to make of it.

We rarely use full composer names.  I often hear statements like these, “What do you like better, Mozart or Haydn?” “I am playing the Dvorak.” “Mendelssohn is my favorite.” “Last year they played lots of Bach.”

There is nothing wrong with this. But it somehow gives me a funny feeling.

In your daily life you can often hear, “What do you like better Coke or Pepsi?” “I am a huge fan of Dell.” “U2 is the coolest.” A brand has all these ideas and emotions associated with it. Coke and Pepsi are more than just types of soft drink. When someone says that they like the band U2, they may be talking not just about the band’s music but also about their image and attitudes.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a person, not the word Beethoven. A person that lived about 200 years ago. He had ideas, feelings, habits, a family, a life story. How would we play his music if one day we could meet him and talk to him? If we could say, “Hi, Ludwig. How are you? I am playing your sonata right now.”

What does it mean when someone says, “I am playing Beethoven for my next concert”? Are all his pieces so closely related?

What does it mean when someone says, “I am playing the Brahms E Minor”? This refers to the Sonata in E Minor by Johannes Brahms. Should not one say, “I am playing this haunting piece with soulful harmonies and a beautiful theme at the beginning”?

Sometimes I worry that we may not play the music in the piece but rather express the brand in some way. There is something interesting in playing a piece for someone and not telling them its name.

What do you think? Is there anything to what I am saying?


  1. Every profession has its own professional language, jargon and acronyms that practitioners use to communicate meaningfully in shorthand. I think our use of composers’ names to identify the music we play is like that, and yes, it’s kind of like a brand. It conveys a lot of information about the piece to the knowledgeable, without having to say a lot of words. I think because it does so we pick up the habit when we are novices – we can relay meaningful information to others before we actually understand it ourselves!

  2. i agree with you completely, i didnt notice it until you pointed it out. i think its not always convenient to say something like “I am playing this haunting piece with soulful harmonies and a beautiful theme at the beginning” but on the other hand to say it with better grammar, like “I am playing the Em sonata by Brahms,” is more appealing, and respectful, than “I am playing the Brahms Em,” which definitely has a “commercial”, abbreviated ring to it. “I am playing Brahms’ Em sonata” would also be more grammatically accurate, and i think making this slight effort rather than sounding “busy” is a very subtle, but interesting point.

  3. Yes, I agree. I think remembering that the composer behind the music was a real person adds depth and meaning to the music.. the element that the notes can’t fully convey on their own. I also think it is about respect.

  4. I think all three of your responses are really thoughtful and excellent. I am not used to blogging and reading these is really insightful.

    There is something which may be related that I wonder about. If I was to ask someone, “Who was Beethoven?” I think the first thing they might say is, “He was a genius.” It is certainly one of the first things that comes to my mind. I get the feeling that sometimes when we put a composer on a pedestal we also dehumanize him or her just a bit. We don’t meet that many geniuses in our daily life. It makes the person seem distant and unusual.

    I am trying to imagine Ludwig van Beethoven as a person. I am sure that Ludwig hugged somebody in his life. He made dinner for somebody. He sat down and worked on a piece.

  5. I *totally* agree with what you’re saying here, Luke, particularly about the fact that referring to composers by their last names tends to dehumanize them. About two years ago, my brother and I (we’re 19, me, and 22, him ) home-produced a DVD which had as a goal introducing children to classical music. In it, we referred to the composers *only* by their *first* names, or sometimes by a nickname. It made our “purist” friends totally crazy, which, to be honest, we’ve sort of enjoyed. But kids seem to just *love* it, especially our younger music-playing friends. It’s funny when they sit as a group and try to guess, for example, who “Eddie” might be, or “Gabby,” or “Papa Joe.” We did this partly for fun, but truly had the serious purpose of trying to get people to start thinking of the great composers as, well, *people*! Besides… I started playing piano (formal lessons) three days after I turned two, and cello when I was six, and I’ve spent a *lot* of time with the music of such wonderful composers as Eddie and Gabby and Papa Joe (and Louie, too, for that matter!). So I really do feel that I’m on a first name basis with them. (And Fred and Franz, we’ve discovered, are our great-great-great-great grandteachers, so it just seems *wrong* to refer to them only by their last names!) We were talking with the wonderful pianist, Walter Cosand about this, and he said that he couldn’t quite “get there,” and still felt better about using each composer’s last name, e.g., “Brahms.” But, he added, “Brahms has always called *me* “Wally!”

    By the way, thank you *so* much for starting to blog about your thoughts. My brother, Johnny, and I have *loved* watching your playing, and have had running conversations with you in our heads, but hadn’t felt, before, that we had full access to you. We didn’t want to intrude, etc.

    Isn’t video-blogging *amazing*?! We put up a web site with videos of our playing about 2002-2003, but the blogging technology allows *so* much more than that did. We’re in the process of putting up a video blog, but it’s not ready to be seen quite yet. One of the first things we’re going to put up is the third movement of Papa Joe’s wonderful piece, uhm, “The Papa Joe C,” the same piece you just did your *fabulous* video of, with organ (of the *first* movement). Shall we flip a coin to decides who will post the second movement? If you’d like to see our “better quality version” of the 3rd movement (our YouTube version isn’t up yet), and see how your younger cello-playing friends are doing with “your” piece, it’s at:

    (Sorry that it may take a while to load … it’s kind of a big file!)

    Thank you for being so inspiring! And… I’m assuming that, in keeping with having All-Things-Classical-Music properly humanized, it’s okay for Johnny and me to call you “Luke,” instead of “Pomorski?”!

  6. Chris – That is neat how you used those first names in the video. That is very innovative. I could see it making music more accessible to children.

    I listened to your Haydn 3rd movement. It sounds great!


  7. Luke, I really appreciate that you took the time to watch our Haydn 3rd movement. Thank you! And we’re *very* happy that you think it sounded great! It’s a wonderful piece, isn’t it?

    A suggestion… Your “regular” blog posts have (already!) been interesting and thought provoking … you’ve obviously thought a lot about the things you’re writing about, and are in the process of starting what could be some terrific conversations. Have you thought about maybe adding a Forum to your site? I feel some concern that, by the time you’ve posted 20 or 30 thoughtful items, the *beginning* of conversations, started in the “comments” section, will simply get buried, and most people who visit probably won’t see them, or be likely to add to them (they’d have to work too hard to try to go back through all the comment sections). But a Forum would allow ongoing discussion, and people could jump in at any time, read a thread, and add their thoughts. Maybe better, from a community-creation point of view? I’m guessing you could pretty easily add even a vBulletin forum to your site, given your expertise with computers. (You might want to take a look at, e.g., … it’s a Christian home schooling board which has had quite good participation, over time.) Your Cello Journey site is so *elegant* (a *very* tall order to create, from the point of view of those of us with less computer-related skills than you have!). Wow, has it ever been a challenge for us to try to put up a WordPress site … we’re going to have a forum, but vBulletin has just seemed over our heads … but *you* could do it. Anyway… It seems to us that *community* is something which tends to be lacking, yet it’s been *very* possible, in our experience, to create community around music. So perhaps it would be a logical development for your site to feature a Forum? It would make it easier, I think, for those of us who are “your” people, who are drawn to your music and to a conversation you lead, to be able to interact with you, and with one another, and with ideas we all find interesting, if such a vehicle were available.

  8. Chris – I appreciate your comment. A forum is something that might be added in the future. In the meantime, some blogs have Open Threads where people can write anything. I could put up one of those.

    It is a good idea. I am trying to put together some other things first, an audio podcast, more blog posts, a new episode. I am not sure how much time and maintenance a forum would require. I am into trying different ideas out though.

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