Posts tagged ‘beethoven’

July 16, 2012

The Sweetness of Thunder

Plugging away at a Beethoven sonatina, after months of on-again off-again indecision about whether it was worth my time. The other two pieces I’ve learned, a simplified transcription of the Haendel aria “Ombra mai fu” from his opera Serse and Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor, never lost their initial seductiveness. It was never a question of just putting my mind to the job until I could play them whatever thrill or lack thereof I got after hearing them twenty or two hundred times. They still move me no matter how often I play them, though now I’m more intent on discovering their inner secrets than from recapturing that first, breathtaking rush.

The Sonatina in G Major has been another matter entirely. Like many, many pieces I’ve taken up, then lost enthusiasm for, like a fickle musical Don Juan, the sonatina moved me for a time, then seemed to elude my efforts to get a handle on it–much more so than did the Chopin, though the piece seemed to require less fancy finger work than did the Chopin. I finally gave up on it the way I did so many of those other pieces that tickled my fancy for a time and then lost the sense of urgency I felt first toward them. I felt guilty about not sticking with it, but I told myself, this wasn’t a homework assignment or a paid job. I was playing purely for my own gratification.

But something, maybe that same frustration that caused me to set it aside after so much effort expended on it, drew me back. I might, I thought, at least learn to play it passably well so the time already devoted to it wouldn’t have gone for nought.

But this time I discovered something that made the piece catch fire for me emotionally.

Part of my problem with it was its composer. I have always found Beethoven to be remote–exhalting at times, certainly larger than life, but less relevant to me personally than other composers. Stravinsky is Olympian in the same way. His Sacre has moved me to terror, reaching into deep recesses of my mind I had never experienced before. But I don’t listen to Stravinsky, or much Beethoven. I gravitate toward so-called lesser composers–the Elgars, the Rachmaninoffs.

I associate Beethoven, even a simple piece like this Sonatina in G, with those great symphonies and concertos I no longer listen to (there’s some argument, by the way, whether Beethoven is the real composer of this piece, but we’ll leave that aside for now). And this was the rationale I made to myself why I didn’t finish learning it properly–too remote, too “Beethoven.”

I also made the mistake of listening to how others played it, on YouTube. And that was a mistake not just because it can be discouraging to see how other proficient other amateurs are but because even they play everything fast, if just to show that they can. Besides, I knew there was great sweetness in the piece (it’s even marked “dolce” in some places–Beethoven? dolce?). And that was the cue I needed to rethink it. Maybe it shouldn’t be played “like Beethoven,” at least not by me. All those YouTube performances had thundered away like the composer himself, making spaghetti of the strings on his piano till it was unplayable. Who says genius is its own best interpreter?

The truth was, I hadn’t been playing the sonatina any less authentically that those show-offs in the online videos. Played more slowly and with simple (ha!) attention to detail–the strict value of the notes and the scant dynamic markings–the piece became not less easy to play but infinitely more subtle and thus more interesting. And, once it began to reveal its possibilities, it has become moving again in a way it hadn’t since I first hesitantly sounded its notes.

I don’t think I’ll abandon the sonatina again, no matter how long it takes me to play it to my satisfaction. What’s more, it’s opened up an interest for me in learning other Beethoven. Just as his fifth symphony only truly lived for me once in that performance by a chamber-size Little Orchestra Society I mentioned in my previous blog entry, the “real” Beethoven, or at least “my” Beethoven has been revealed to me in this simple piece, rather like that moment we have when someone we thought we knew well reveals something to us about themselves that makes us see them as if they were a different person.

December 8, 2011

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” ~Beethoven

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” ~Sergei Rachmaninoff

(With thanks to Janet Song.)

September 26, 2011

Lives of the Great Composers

Lives of the Great Composers
By Harold C. Schonberg

I rarely read biography, especially biographies of writers and other artists. I assume anything worth knowing about them is in their art, that the source of their creativity is a different self from the person the artists’ friends and family and public know. Also, artists are notoriously mistaken about themselves. You could even say they know themselves less well than does the average person who would no more think of writing a poem or a symphony than s/he would sign up to take a trip to the moon. Notorious bigots, if they happen to be good writers, create sympathetic characters whom by right they should be portraying in the worst light. Think Anthony Trollope’s MP in The Way We Live Now. And walking saints can produce pap and cant. But not always. Chekhov was saintly in some ways, and no one has matched him as a short story writer.

And then there’s the question of biography being just another form of fiction, or at least being as much about the author of the biography as about the subject.

Even so, I overcame my aversion, made an exception, as it were, for Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers and then for his The Lives of the Great Pianists. The reason is my schoolboy-like adoration of classical musicians. I know what neurotic jerks writers usually are (I’m one myself…a writer, I mean). But I put great composers and their interpreters high up on pedestals–or did until I read Mr. Schonberg’s books.

This “lives of” genre, of course, started with the medieval Lives of the Saints, and continued in the Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which tells you something about how Western culture has progressed or a least changed its focus over the last thousand years. By the 19th century artists pretty much had a clear field to themselves, and they played it for all it was worth.

Not that the Bachs, Chopins and Prokofievs or Liszts, Hofmanns and Horowitzes come off badly in these books. If anything, Schonberg is an even bigger groupie than I am, though much better qualified to see his subjects’ moral and social warts. It’s not a matter of any one of the greats being brought down a peg or two by what he puts in these volumes but of a cumulative impression one is left with and the standards of value by which a modern musicologist like Schonberg (not to be confused, by the way, with the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg) evaluates them and their work.

I don’t know why I was so naïf as to think musicians were not, like fiction writers, subject to the academic bent for seeing art as a progressive historical process classifiable into schools and periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, Modern, Post-Classical and God knows what else. Scholar’s minds work that way. But it never occurred to me that great musicians could fall for that kind of silliness. They create because they are moved to do so, and what comes out of them is the only thing possible. Or, so I had thought.

But they were in fact frequently all too conscious of the imperative to be innovative, if not always original. Truly great artists break the molds, create new forms, because the content of their art, what they must express, demands new forms. Beethoven didn’t have to think about in what ways he could show up Haydn and out-Mozart Mozart. He spent a few years under the influence of those two, but then found his own voice, matching it to the powerful creation inside him. He didn’t innovate for the sake of innovation. The content of his art dictated the form and the expression.

But others were more self-conscious. Brahms was looked down on as old-fashioned by the school that saw Wagner as the future of music, and then of course Wagner suffered the same fate, until by the time we reach the twentieth century composers would rather die than be thought anything less than avant garde. In consequence we got a dogged academic adherence to innovation for its own sake (and, perhaps, more tellingly, combined with mediocrity) that has driven otherwise sympathetic listeners in our own time to rock and jazz (which have their own issues with innovation for innovation’s sake).

The backbiting that went on in this fight to be at the head of the pack is worthy of a high school locker room. It’s embarrassing to read some of the things composers said about each other, and no doubt still do. I suppose they did so partly to keep their stock up in their own estimations. Unless they were fools they knew what Bach or Beethoven meant to music no matter how they tried to trash them with glib asides (they probably stayed up nights thinking up those nasty one-liners). What’s more disconcerting is the way they worried about their place at the cutting edge of their art. God forbid they should write something that was behind the times. Ever onward. The past, if not prologue, is something to be spurned. Who can write as if there had been no Wagner? Or no Stravinsky? Well, Brahms could, for one. And Rachmaninoff for another.

We’ve seen the same thing in literature. Who could expect to be taken seriously as a serious writer unless s/he wrote in a post-Joycean style? Not Saul Bellow. Not John Updike. And then who could expect to get the lit-crit establishment’s seal of approval if they ignored the tenets of Post-Modernism? How many first-rate talents have succumbed to this orthodoxy and diminished their talents rather than end up as, God forbid, “popular” writers?

Walter Kaufmann, best known as the translator of Frederic Nietzsche, pointed out that all the great philosophers were what today would be considered amateurs. Maybe something similar could be said about great writers and composers. The best educated in their craft are self-educated, i.e. they learn by experiencing others’ art. Frequently they are mentored by another great talent. But with the ascendance of the academy and its minions we have just the opposite situation: a cadre of mediocrities mass-produced and as conformist in their thinking and creations as any mainline clergyman.

It’s in the nature of the academy to foster conformity and uniformity, even when it professes to want the opposite. The firestorm of petty invective and personal insult that met B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto a few years back showed just how sensitive and insecure the establishment is to any questioning of its authority. The Inquisition was liberal-minded by comparison.

Schonberg seems surprisingly deaf to the diktats of the establishment of which he is of course a part. But I still say “surprisingly,” because the man is nothing if not a passionate lover of music–all music, it seems, though he is lukewarm about some composers I would think he would be enthusiastic about–Prokofiev, for example, who managed to write fabulous music despite the towering presence of Stravinsky. And how dare he! (I mean Schonberg) leave out George Gershwin in a book like this, while including, not to mention–not to mention–infinitely less talented contemporary composers.

Even so, The Lives of the Composers is a valuable book, as is The Lives of the Great Pianists, if only as an introduction to the subject, or subjects. A decent bibliography of related readings is included; musicians then as now are a garrulous and scribbling lot.