Saturday, August 09, 2014


I love Beethoven!

There's a new book out, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford, which seems to be striking a chord with the public. I may need to check it out.

NPR's interview with the author covers how the Eroica symphony revealed his personality.

The New York Times also covers the book:
Swafford's voice is genial and conversational, that of a friend who loves to tell you about his fascinations: the foibles of court life, logistical problems of the musician. He supplies a generous chapter on the German Enlightenment, connecting threads of the 1770s and '80s, opposing currents of rationalism and expressive release: Schiller, Kant, Goethe, the American Revolution. He nods toward Beethoven's unhappy childhood, but emphasizes "the golden age of old Bonn's intellectual and artistic life" and "the town's endless talk of philosophy, science, music, politics, literature."
An excerpt is available online.

Music is hard to write about, and the Times includes an example of "silly": a sonata "begins with a couple of can't-get-started stutters followed by sort of a sneeze." But I think that sentence is rather evocative. And if the MOOC I took earlier this year (Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas) is anything to go by, musicians actually talk that way. We can't all be poets. How else can you describe music if not by the noise it makes?

I include here for your entertainment the essay I wrote for that MOOC. Students ranged from serious experts in music theory and performance to music fans who wanted simply to explore a different genre (I fall somewhere in between). Truly, one got from the course what one put into it, and it's one of my favourite MOOCs to date.

The assignment was to choose one of nine stated sonatas, "imagine that you are hearing this sonata as a contemporary work or that you lived when it was a new work," and write a review, and to: 1. Refer to concepts covered in the lecture, including at least five historical and stylistic questions, and 2. Describe what you heard and how it made you feel, with two specific examples.

Without further ado...

Six Keys in Search of a Composer (with apologies to Pirandello)

A review of the Fantasia for piano in G minor, Op. 77, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Written 1809, published 1810. (Performed by Dino Ciano.)

Ah, phantasie. Some kind of cruel joke. A full ten minutes of unmusical noise mixed with show-offy flourishes.

"Fantasy" is the only appropriate categorization for something so unreal wrought of an unholy imagination. It is carnivalesque, bordering on grotesque.

It is a curious phenomenon that Beethoven should produce a fantasy at all. As of the publication of this phantasie, Beethoven has only once before dabbled with this "form" [issue 1], and given his propensity for structure it seems out of character to eschew it altogether.

It is striking in that it is a single-movement piece [issue 2], and it is the first time Beethoven embarks upon such a proposition [his only other single-movement composition, a polonaise, will be published in 1815].

It does not resemble, in its form or its content, anything else [issue 3] this reviewer has ever heard, in Beethoven's repertoire or that of anyone else. In its singularity, one may surmise that it was conceived as a companion piece for something that is yet to come, though what oddity that may be is difficult to imagine. The bulk of the piece is in B major (but more on this later) — so uncommon a choice my ears are barely attuned to it.

The whole of the approximately nine minutes it takes to perform this piece gives the impression of improvisation [issue 4]. It is highly involved, but with an adventurous spontaneity – Beethoven is intent on keeping us in the moment, with no glimpse of the future.

It seems not composed for human fingers, as if anticipating its performance on some autopiano. This phantasie must require inhuman preternatural skill to play, of which Beethoven has a full store, perhaps harboring in his soul a multiarmed creature both fanciful and monstrous. Beethoven's musical vision must be distorted by a blight he carries within. He must be seeing things, or hearing things. Or not hearing things.

There is an absurdity in naming this work as one in G minor – it starts in this key and stays there for all of twenty seconds. It wanders through several keys [issue 5] before settling on an organizing principle, strange though Beethoven's choice of B major may be.

Yet the atmosphere carries with it some ironic knowledge. Just past the two-minute mark, Beethoven plays allegro con brio [example 1], for almost a minute. I imagine this music accompanying some dastardly rogue villain as he ties a despairing damsel to the railroad tracks, her fate to be consummated by an oncoming steam locomotive, a hostage in his scheme; he twirls his moustaches and winks with a glint as if at an audience.

It is without a doubt a new kind of metamusical narrative. It conveys an awareness of itself, with self-deprecating wit, and an awareness that everyone (that is, everyone who matters) is aware of, and in on, the joke.

This has become music about music, lightly mocking musical tropes. The music is self-referential not just within a piece (as Bach so mathematically exemplified), but between works. Beethoven may be the father of metamusic.

The passages of villainy are followed by harp-like runs. They are disconnected form what comes before and what follows. At about three minutes, where again Beethoven slips into adagio, there is such a run in the fifth bar [example 2] that marks our entry into a different landscape – we have crossed the threshold from chaos to calm. And yet another series of runs in the opposite direction lead us back into presto.

The up and down, back and forth, disorients but also unifies: the runs are the connectors between the disparate, contrasting parts.

Although musically jarring, these runs serve a narrative function, to draw a curtain between the frenzy and calm, dream and nightmare – between fantasy and reality. But which is which? Despite the disorientation, they are in perfect balance, the yin and yang, wholly necessary to each other [issue 6].

With this phantasie, Beethoven has ventured into absurdity. It is illogical, yet logically so. Its search for structure has become its own structure. In a Hegelian manner, Beethoven’s musical dialectic becomes fundamental to its nature. It is in its becoming.

He anticipates an existentialist stance, while maintaining authenticity. One feels in his music the existential despair of the human condition, brought to the brink of the yawning void of meaninglessness. Beethoven heralds modernity, in an already postmodern way.

Certainly Beethoven has taken Kant's words into his head and his heart:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.
Beethoven continues to connect our finite existence to the infinite.

The fantasia is a bizarre composition, disturbing upon first hearing, but surefooted in the path it forges. Intended for ears strong enough to bear music's schizoid future.

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