Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He produces the Café Concerts series and the podcast/show Conducting Business. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Beethoven Enters the 'Mad Men' Universe
Monday, April 16, 2012 - 10:33 AM
A season of AMC's “Mad Men” that began with the French pop ditty "Zou Bisou Bisou" has now progressed to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Sunday night's eventful Episode Five included multiple references to Beethoven and, as is often the case in film and television, his music was used to underscore darker themes.
Early on, Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy host a dinner party in their Cos Cob, Connecticut house, in which Pete shows off his big new console stereo to Ken Cosgrove and Don Draper, imagining a "tiny orchestra" playing inside. As Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony swells in the background, Pete marvels at the size of the hi-fi cabinet: “It’s a beautiful piece of furniture. It’s seven feet long.”
An ongoing theme of this episode is Pete’s misery in his suburban isolation, which is juxtaposed with Don's more swinging urban lifestyle. Attempting a happy spin on his situation, Pete boasts that he can play the music as loud as he wants living in Cos Cob in a house instead of a New York City apartment. "Do you like the music?" he asks, and Draper replies, "I do." (Whose recording of Beethoven may the "Mad Men" writers have in mind -- Fritz Reiner's? Leonard Bernstein's?)
Beethoven returns at the end of the episode, with Ken Cosgrove, sitting in bed and scribbling a story on his notepad called “The Man With the Miniature Orchestra” using a new pen name, Dave Algonquin. Ken imagines his fictional Pete hearing Beethoven on the “miniature orchestra” and reflects on the composer’s solitary life, beset by personal disappointments and encroaching deafness.
"He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails," Ken writes. "Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”
We hear his story in voiceover as we watch the miserable Pete enduring a driver’s ed class in Connecticut. Fade to black, with the sound of a dripping faucet in Pete’s house followed by the strains of the Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" over the credits.
Weigh in: What did you think of the use of Beethoven in this episode? Was the soundtrack in keeping with the show's themes of violence and isolation (and perhaps, transcendence through art)? Leave your comments below: