MICHAEL-THOMAS FOUMAI (b.1987)

Becoming Beethoven (2014), 16 minutes

Michael-Thomas Foumai was born in 1987 in Honolulu, Hi. Becoming Beethoven was first performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Moody in Portland, Maine on February 17, 2015.

The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion and strings

Becoming Beethoven was commissioned by the Portland Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the organizations 90th season in which all nine symphonies of Beethoven were programmed. The work mirrors the orchestration of the Third Symphony, and is the equivalent of the Hollywood superhero origin story, using music to express the composers journey through hearing loss, retreat into nature, and lastly acceptance; drawing upon his deafness as a strength, and becoming the composer whose music would leave an everlasting mark on history. 

 

Motives and harmonies from the Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies are reworked so that fragments sound familiar but are blurred as if muted and distorted. One such example is the removal of the rhythm of the famous opening four pitches of the Fifth, and using them with different rhythms, in a different order, or sounding them together to create harmony.

 

In three large sections, the work unfolds in a large scale progression from darkness to light. It begins as the Ninth Symphony, with a crescendo. This large growl into existence begins with bell-like percussion to symbolize the ringing in the ear that foreshadows deafness. Descending scales and glissandi are used with several rhythmic and transformed melodic motives from the Fifth and Ninth to illustrate an aggressive descent into a kind of madness. This is the darkness and anguish of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his thoughts on suicide and the eventual blurring of familiar sound.

 

The middle section emerges from the darkness into a lighter and less heavy music symbolizing Beethoven's retreat into a realm of nature. Flourishing woodwind passages and fragments from the first and third movements of the Fifth blossom in the textures. An escape from the darkness, the music moves toward pastoral atmospheres. Glissandi and downward scales are still present as a lingering reminder of the struggle to cope with deafness and depression, but they are gradually transformed into qualities more luminous and magical.

 

The final section returns with the former turbulent music and quickly ignites into a triumphant transformation to light. This light is represented with the appearance of motives and progressions from the Pastoral Sixth Symphony. The work concludes in a fanfare-like ascent, transforming all materials that were used to signify madness and darkness into shimmering music of majesty. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on May 14-16, 2021.