Tag Archive: Beethoven


 

Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's opus 111.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opus 111 is the publication number given to Beethoven’s last piano sonata (no. 32 in C minor).  Outwardly, the sonata is unique in that it’s in two-movements: Beethoven had begun sketches for a third, concluding movement, but eventually scratched convention and left us with a searching sonata in two parts.  A music professor in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus suggests that this signals the end of the sonata form itself.  And my impression is that Debussy said something similar some thirty-plus years before Mann’s novel.

The sonata’s first movement is a restless pronouncement; it urges forward in darkness.  The gorgeous second movement, the Arietta, changes course: a set of variations that take us per aspera ad astra, from darkness to the stars, from struggle into light.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the sonata.  Musicians and critics of the nineteenth century did enough of that: Slaves as they sometimes were to a general state of aesthetic heat, it didn’t take much to set them reeling in fits of poetic adulation.  But it would be a mistake to see the sonata as incomplete, or to take away from its mysterious quality.  If it lacks a third movement, if the feeling is sometimes one of open-endedness, it is only because the sonata searches, probes mysterious regions often left uncharted in music.  I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that mysteries, unlike puzzles, are deepened, not solved.

There’s a moment towards the end of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the author speaks about Beethoven’s late music.  He suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies represent an epic journey outward, the variation movements of the late sonatas draw us inward.  They mark a progressive unfolding of the inner life, the search after the elusive goal of the creative process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to stress the searching quality of Opus 111’s variations.  The Arietta is an instance of music that is meditative rather than heroic, reflective rather than epic.  As the variations unfold, they give way to increasingly unexpected and inventive music.  It is a case of Beethoven, within the apparent confines of a traditional classical time signature, pushing the rhythmic pulse of this music to something that hints at jazz of the next century.   (You can hear for yourselves here.)

Even Stravinsky heard in this music the emergence of the “boogie woogie.”  And though the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff might protest such a view in this insightful clip (which I highly recommend checking out) there is something compelling in the idea – again recalling Mann’s Doctor Faustus – that “there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come.”

In the second half of the variations movement, where radiance ultimately counters the darkness of the first movement, we have one of the many meditative moments of Beethoven’s late period.  This is music that can capture the imagination.

Opus 111 is by no means a work of jazz, but it does manage to create the illusion of jazz.

Its journey hints at the shape of music to come.  And I will sometimes catch myself thinking of it as the first birth of the cool.

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Recommended Recordings:

  • Claudio Arrau – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the 60s, Phillips; reissued in 2001)
  • Anton Kuerti – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (I am in love with this 1974-75 set, reissued on Analekta in 2006.  It has since been discontinued, though Kuerti has recently rerecorded the last five piano sonatas for the same label.)
  • Maurizio Pollini – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the late 70s, Deutsche Grammophon; reissued in 1997)
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 & 111 (Phillips, 2006)

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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s second symphony (the “Resurrection”) ends with a beautiful choral movement that’s based in part on a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  Mahler once wrote that it was his intention to capture the idea of a life beyond death: “The last movement of my Second Symphony really obliged me to search through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in order to find the liberating word… .”  There’s nothing new in the yearning for life after death, but what I’m wondering is whether there’s such a thing as the “liberating word”? 

Does music need words?  Can words, lyrics, liberate music?

The most famous instance of an orchestral work culminating in a choral finale is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which ends with the “Ode to Joy,” that grand statement of faith in the universal brotherhood of humanity.  The Ninth looms large over music history, and many composers have been conscious of its shadow.  Even Mahler worried that people would perceive his Resurrection Symphony as a “superficial imitation of Beethoven.” 

To push the idea a little further: Wagner saw Beethoven’s Ninth as the culmination and end, the death of orchestral music pure and simple.  The entrance of the voice in the finale signalled the eclipse of the orchestral era and, with it, the dawn of a new age: that of the Gesammtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” Wagner felt that this supposedly higher form of art would successfully integrate music, drama and poetry.  The way I read him, Wagner thinks that the written word was needed in order to free music from the tomb of tradition and to elevate it to the symbolic realm of art and myth.  “Where music can go no farther, there comes the word,” he says.

Now, I disagree with just about everything Wagner ever wrote (and this is no exception), but I’d like to rein things in before they get needlessly heavy.

I realize that words can help to give symbolic power to music, but I’m not sold on the idea that the written word is “greater” than music itself.  I’m reminded of a small 1927 miracle: Delta bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a gripping three-minutes of wordless moaning over a solitary slide guitar.  Ry Cooder considers it the “most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th century.”  Part of this so-called “transcendent” quality comes from the very fact that there are no words.  If the song is religious, there is no theological baggage to weigh it down; if it is a cry from the American Delta, there is no English to restrict its reach.  The only language here is music, and there is nothing to limit its communicative power.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)In some ways, music can be limited by words.  They can tie it down.  I don’t say this to suggest that the word has to die if music is to find new life.  I simply don’t think that Wagner is right in suggesting that the age of purely instrumental music has died. 

Music does not die.  And if there is no death, then there is no need for the dream of a resurrection.  

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Short Note:

The ideas are all my own, but I should point out that I drew the Mahler quote from Kurt Blaukopf’s critical biography Mahler.  The Wagner quotation comes from Maynard Solomon’s Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

Recommended Recordings of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony:

  • Otto Klemperer / Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra (recorded 1962; released on EMI Classics in 2000) 
  • Pierre Boulez / Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)

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The Complete Beethoven String Quartets - by the Alban Berg Quartet

From the Dizzying Heights of Beethoven’s Genius: Die Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

Like other works from Beethoven’s late period, the Great Fugue contains some of the most searching language in all of music.  Its region, not always sweet to the ears, is one of struggle, of profound introspection.  These are soundings into uncharted depths of the artistic imagination.

I am here reminded of Einstein’s notion that “the imagination is more important than knowledge insofar as it encompasses the world.”  The sense is that we cannot begin to know the world, to know ourselves, without first imagining what is possible.  I suppose it is for this reason that we call them, in music as in science, visionaries: The great composers are able to see farther than most of us can; they allow us a glimpse of what lies beyond the horizon of accepted taste.  That is but one function of the thing we call art. 

Beethoven’s contemporaries certainly didn’t respond positively to the Great Fugue when it was first performed in the year before his death.  A noted critic of the day even called it “ugly,” an “anachronism,” an assault on the then-current principles of so-called “proper” music.  Another suggested that it was as incomprehensible as Chinese.  (It’s safe to assume that the reviewer was not from China!)  So it was that Beethoven, on the advice of his publisher, opted to remove it from the String Quartet for which it was originally conceived (No. 13 in B-Flat major, Op. 130) and to publish it separately as Opus 133.  The vision of the artist did not jive with the taste of his Viennese contemporaries, and the Great Fugue was placed under quarantine. 

Despite such initial, hand-from-the-burner response to the work, the Great Fugue has come to be regarded as a self-contained masterpiece.  Igor Stravinsky went so far as to call it the greatest piece of music ever composed, “a perfect miracle.”  Perhaps what is perfectly miraculous about the Great Fugue is that it still sounds so utterly modern.  Composed in 1825, it doesn’t sound of a time.  Its place is Utopia, which is to say no place at all.

And so the Great Fugue continues to challenge our sensibilities, to call us to refashion our accepted ideas of what can be called beautiful.  The small miracle is this: a music that is timeless precisely because it is always timely.  And while I don’t think it would be wise for the marketing team at Hallmark to include the fugue in its series of musical greeting cards, I do wish that more people could have the chance to hear it. 

Granted, it is a difficult work to enjoy on first listen.  Perhaps it is that a work of art must first hit us over the head if its beauty is to strike us.

Roll over Chad Kroeger.

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