Before They Turn the Lights Out: The Shadow of Beethoven and Beyonce’s “XO”

In which a pop star inherits tertial harmony, film scores exemplify a heroic style, and Daniel probably unintentionally offends a whole bunch of people.

beyonce_xo

To my dear reader,

I have a clear memory of discussing favorite composers with a fellow music major in college and reaching the subject of composer Ludwig van Beethoven. For those unfamiliar, Beethoven – alongside Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – is considered one of the greatest Western classical composers of all time, if not the single greatest one, and his shadow has loomed impossibly large over successive composers. Well after this conversation, I was suddenly reminded of it when I realized that the reason my favorite song by pop star Beyonce is “XO” relates to the parallels between her and Beethoven.

Given the fact that Beyonce’s music is pop, it has naturally inherited much from the classical canon (i.e. functional basslines, tertial harmony, equal temperament tuning, etc), but this is not my primary concern. What is of greater concern to me is the way that, much like Beethoven, the personality she expresses through her music is like a force of nature. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – sometimes called  the “Choral” Symphony – is one of his quintessential pieces, and is a powerhouse of a symphony that helped to define the grandiose style we now often associate with noble heroes and epic film scores. Similarly, one of the quintessential Beyonce songs is the marathon of a pop song “Love On Top,” and while not heroic in nature, it demonstrates a similarly bold musical personality primarily through her wide belting range, demonstrated to ever greater extremes as she vocally cartwheels through a seemingly endless series of key changes.

So, real talk for a second: I don’t like Beethoven that much. I also don’t like Beyonce that much.

I KNOW. I’m an abomination of a classical musician and pop music lover. How can I NOT love these two musical giants that, in so many ways, have come to define their genres? The truth is that, while I respect and admire their clarity of vision, precision of execution and boldness of musical personality, they’re often just too much for me. Have you ever been offered a big meal, and while you thought “Gosh, that does look good,” you knew that what you really wanted was a light snack? That’s how I usually feel about Beethoven and Beyonce. My favorite Beyonce song is “XO” because, unlike so many of her other songs, it uses a very small vocal range, making use of a few very clear melodic ideas, and using antiphony (call and response) to emphasize the important ones. Don’t get me wrong; just as studying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony taught me a good deal about what we now consider bold and powerful classical music, listening to Beyonce has often been an excellent outlet for times I just want to belt my head off, singing along in the car. But, for better or worse, while discussing my favorite composers with that fellow music major back in college, Beethoven did not make it onto that list.

(Neither did Beyonce.)

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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