About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beethoven vi (on the expression of grief in late works)

I wanted to continue talking about how "subjective intensities" in late Beethoven well up in the midst of the new relationship to "objective" forms (often Baroque forms like the fugue). The two slow sequences prefacing and interrupting Beethoven’s final fugue in his opus 110 piano sonata, his thirty-first among thirty-two sonatas, are marked dolente, and this "Arioso" is full of sorrow, even as it partakes of the fluidity, the unstoppable flow of melody, characteristic of late Beethoven adagios (the beautiful and most extended example is the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, in which – as here – even the moments of halting seem extensions of or preparations for yet more lyricism).

Two effects in particular are poignant and powerful. One is a feature of the upward arc of melody, moving up through each trembling, unstable interval often of the seventh chord, cresting and then descending in painful half steps (measures 9 and 11, for example, at the beginning of the “Arioso dolente”). And the melody’s notes often reach up toward each of those trembling intervals, only to fall back a half step to create over and over the piercing dissonance of a flatted or minor second (from A-flat to G, from F-flat to E-flat). Particularly in the return of the Arioso, the recurrent melody searches through shifting keys, and the modulations from harmony to harmony are accomplished repeatedly through these poignantly painful flatted seconds, as if Beethoven wants to expose rather than smooth out the music’s search through the keys.

That sense of the materials of the music being exposed – of its modulations and melodies being unpacked in all their vulnerability and power is reminiscent of an effect to be encountered in the late works of other artists – one thinks of Michelangelo’s late works, the Dying Slaves, in which the artist’s working the stone is exposed to view rather than smoothed over in the perfections of the earlier sculptures. And there is Yeats in his final decade making explicit the process of creation from “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” And the composer, the sculptor, and the poet each incise their materials with what is a notably steady, purposeful, even serene hand. It is as if, in their late works, these artists have finished with the well-hewn mastery of technique in their earlier great works and seek out a new relationship to their art, to its technique, one that willingly exposes the process itself. And in the Arioso passages of opus 110, Beethoven achieves this effect in order to create a beautiful and moving upwelling of grief.

The second remarkably poignant effect Beethoven creates in these parts of opus 110 involves the phrasing of melody, the creation of a certain brokenness of utterance. This is particularly the case in the second appearance of the Arioso, interrupting the two iterations of the fugue (and as I tried to show in my previous post, the use of fugal form here is itself significant in late Beethoven). In the equivalent passage to the opening melody in measures 9-11, each of the rising and falling notes is voiced essentially as a sigh or short gasp or, rather, a crying out (measures 116 and following). Each central note of the melody is sounded not at the start of the beat in a triplet but in the middle off-beat, then always moving toward a second note of the melody, in cries which yearn for what follows, but each two note phrase is immediately broken off, giving ways to instants of punctuating silence on the beat, and so the triplet breaths of melody move on in broken off-beat cries. This effect is brought to a pitch of intensity when each two note phrase repeats the same pitch, echoing rather than descending, so that each cry pierces as it echoes (in measures 125 and following). At the end of the Arioso (in measure 130), these two note phrases become even briefer echoes, tiny thirty-second note cries, nearly silenced.

The stripping down to bare utterances of pure grief which Beethoven achieves in these passages of the sonata is to be found also in another guise in his thirteenth string quartet, opus 130. The slow movement, the Cavatine, of this late Beethoven quartet, has a middle section marked “Beklemmt” or anguished. Much of what I’ve described above in the Arioso can be heard even more poignantly in this sequence, for the violin’s sounding of those sighing cries is more “speaking” and heart-breaking than what the piano can achieve. And it is especially powerful that these same exploratory effects of the flatted seconds, the off-beat echoing cries, and the rest lead within a few seconds to the assaultive opening chords of the Grosse Fugue, with its declaration of a new dimension of music. The logic of that sequence of movements seems to pose the question of what is to be done in the face of the death of earlier classical musical forms, the end of their order, their period of grace.

No comments:

Post a Comment