Context is Everything


The title of this piece is a quote from a TED Talk that has become widely used. It makes the
point that facts in isolation have little meaning. Their context shapes their significance.
On Friday, we enjoyed a concert. The music was tuneful, cheery, delightful. It made for a
pleasant evening out.

But then we add context. The publicity for the program identified it as a celebration of
Beethoven’s 250 th Anniversary. Now we have expectations. This is the guy who composed the
Fifth Symphony, the Pathétique Sonata, the Ninth Symphony. Intense, dramatic, powerful music.
More context: the program had a title—Young Beethoven. Ah, that explains the happy, light-
hearted tone of the music. He was still expressing the inspiration he received from Mozart and
Haydn. He had not yet gone deaf. The stormy, crashing sounds that shocked the audiences of his
day had not yet found their way out of his pen.

Often, this is as much context as you get at a concert, apart from a few printed program notes.
But not on Friday. We had George Zukerman, and he provided a commentary that added an
entirely new level of understanding to our musical experience.

We learned how Beethoven’s experiences shaped his music, and how the mature Beethoven was
already beginning to emerge in his early works. We saw evidence of the creative genius that
found new ways to express musical ideas.

The opening clarinet-bassoon duet was not just a randomly-chosen combination. Beethoven was
playing with the latest technology, newly-invented instruments whose capabilities were growing
with each modification.

We saw hints of Beethoven’s future. The three French horns in the quintet were a first
experiment which opened the way ultimately for that memorable horn passage in his Eroica
Symphony. The mind that wrote the violin cadenza in the septet eventually composed his
majestic violin concerto. The entire septet prefigured his very next composition, his first attempt
at a symphony.

George even placed the simple number 6 in an entertaining context with his story of the obscure
composer Capel Bond who couldn’t sell a set of four concertos, added two more, and
immediately found a buyer. Who knew that publishers’ preferences influenced the groups of six
that characterized Bach’s suites, Corelli’s sonatas, and Beethoven’s early string quartets?
Honestly, context is not absolutely everything. Without it, the evening would still have been a
delight and would have sent us home happy. But with it, the experience was transformed. It gave
focus to our listening and afforded glimpses into the development of a genius.

I’m sure that is what made people stop on their way out to say how much they had enjoyed the
evening. If context isn’t everything, it does nevertheless count for a lot.


John Wiebe
The Valley Concert Society