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.]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Healing Light Illuminates John Banville's New Novel

A review of mine appeared in The Plain Dealer this Sunday, October 28; here's the link to that review posted on the paper’s website: http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2012/11/john_banville_makes_ancient_li.html#incart_flyout_entertainment
My post here offers my fuller, original thoughts at about twice the length of the edited version appearing in the newspaper:

A Healing Light Illuminates John Banville’s New Novel Ancient Light.

Alex Cleave has turned sixty-five, an age when the siren song of memory can call with particular urgency. It is a memory of adolescence that fills the character’s mind in this brilliant new novel by award-winning Irish writer John Banville. During the summer Alex was fifteen, his best friend’s mother – Mrs. Gray – seduced him.

The extremity of the subject is complicated in John Banville’s new novel by telling the story from Alex’s doubly unreliable point of view, reflecting both the adolescent’s unsteady initiation into sex and the aging man’s searching yet nostalgic memories of youth.

After young Alex’s first encounter with Mrs. Gray, “the April day that I stepped out into was, of course, transfigured, was all flush and shiver and skimming light, in contrast to the sluggishness of my sated state.” The singing lyricism of memory is shadowed here by irony (“of course”). The disturbing yet compelling beauty of the novel is that it balances luminous prose with a darkly realistic sense of life’s fragilities and fatalities.

In the novel, a series of deaths confront Alex Cleave, including the “decade-long grief” resulting from the tragic and mysterious suicide of his adult daughter, Cass. His grief floods his consciousness, just as it haunts his wife Lydia, yet Alex also manages partly in defense to immerse himself in memories of his adolescent tryst with Mrs. Gray.

Ancient Light – Banville’s latest work after The Infinities, the Booker Prize winning The Sea, and the dark Benjamin Black mysteries – contains many flashes of comedy. Alex Cleave is a stage actor toward the end of his career (he had a disastrous on-stage breakdown ten years before; that experience and the discovery of his daughter’s suicide are narrated in Banville’s earlier novel Eclipse from 2001). To his delight, he has been offered a film role, in a docudrama, playing opposite the beautiful young star Dawn Devonport, “grave and grey-eyed, sweetly sad, omnivorously erotic.”

The mature Alex Cleave is as capable of delight as of profound self-criticism and is the source of the novel’s probing, humane comedy. Compassionate and ironically apologetic, Alex is always as open to life as he is alert to death’s power.

The role he plays in his film is that of the aging and corrupt academic Axel Vander. Even as Dawn, the young star, is seduced by him, she exposes him as a fake, an “old monster” with a fascist past and a false identity. (Vander is the subject of Banville’s Shroud from 2003; he is reminiscent of the disgraced literary theorist, the late Paul de Man.)

Ancient Light is, in any case, an independent work. Its tragicomic power arises from the collision between its plots – the headlong rush of Alex’s often bawdy evocation of being seduced as an adolescent by an older woman versus the developing possibility that the aging Alex may attempt to seduce the young actress. To do so would create a dangerous off-screen echo of their on-screen plot, and such a scenario would also be an inverted repetition of what happened to Alex at fifteen.

Even, as it happens, an incestuous repetition: Alex’s memories of his late daughter continually impinge on his meetings with Dawn, and in one of the novel’s sinister parallels the actress attempts suicide, echoing the daughter Cass’s suicide. Feeling himself become more and more “a thing of fragments,” Alex finds the example of Vander’s rapaciousness almost “overtaking” him. Then, an even more sinister parallel involves the suggestion that Cass was driven to suicide ten years before by the monstrous Axel Vander, whom Alex Cleave plays in the film.

Late in the novel, Alex writes, “But what, you will be asking, what happened” between him and Dawn? In unexpected ways, Alex holds his own against the looming tragic possibilities of the plot; he manages to refuse the pressure to descend to the lowest level or to act out the most destructive roles.

If we were to subtract Alex’s probing, mordant, and humane voice from the novel, the multiple parallels in its plotting could resemble a rather ornate maze, and Banville’s lush prose can verge on the overwritten, that of a “chap who writes like Walter Pater in a delirium.” The words are Alex’s about the screenwriter of the film he is in – known as JB.  Part of the comedy of John Banville’s novel, with its moments of intentional self-parody, is that it includes a self-mocking portrait of the novelist. And it is testimony to how fine a character Alex is that Banville’s surrogate JB remarkably befriends him toward the end of the novel; they are to go to California to attend an Axel Vander conference together.

By the ending of this brilliant novel, Alex discovers that he “was mistaken about everything,” above all about Mrs. Gray, and the plot reversals involving her are as stunning and moving as those in Julian Barnes’ recent The Sense of An Ending. Alex is a wonderfully living character, who honors the elegiac wisdom of Ancient Light, the light from the past, and it is that contingent, fragile, yet healing light which illuminates Banville’s tragicomic new novel: “all my dead are all alive to me, for whom the past is a luminous and everlasting present; alive to me yet lost, except in the frail afterworld of these words.”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

an essay on "responsibility" by Adam Thurschwell

Adam Thurschwell was a wonderful member of our Cleveland reading group for some years in the late 1990s and 2000s, before moving to Washington D.C. His extraordinary contributions are evident from what his brilliant essays offer – for example, one on Derrida and law, or the fine essay entitled “Cutting the Branches for Akiba – Agamben’s critique of Derrida.”

I’ll not attempt to summarize the essay – or its response to Agamben’s use of the Haggadah’s Talmudic parable about Rabbi Akiba, who succeeds in contemplating the transcendent whole, in contrast to Aher, who analytically isolates the separate qualities of the whole, thus “cutting the branches for Akiba.”
Instead, I’ll just mention some of what I found particularly stimulating about the larger themes at work in Adam’s essay.
The potential to achieve the highest meanings can be thwarted by isolating and separating meaning into the constituent parts that can be communicated – that can be said. As a result, “saying” the separate parts can “occlude” that larger potential to posit and sustain transcendent meaning, what can be termed “sayability.”
In a sense, Akiba’s attainment of the embrace of transcendent wholeness is an example of the Paradisal state Walter Benjamin identifies in the Edenic Adam’s naming of the contents of the world, a state of being in which the name and the named, the word and the thing, sustain an organic connection and embody a transcendent meaning, proclaiming an ideal world where the symbol conjures up the spirit, where to say is to be.
We live in a world in which that organic connection is broken, in which the edifice of power and of images is fractured in a wide range of ways. Allegory replaces symbol and is a symptom of the break, embodying a recognition of that breakdown of connection between language and reality or sign and signified, “leaving language in an arbitrary and ‘autonomous’ relationship to reference” (page 177 in Adam’s essay).
What sort of ethics can emerge in the face of the broken connections? Here’s a rough summary of the logic Adam Thurschwell presents (though all distortions in this representation of his pages 192-6 of his essay are mine alone):
There is the ethical challenge to identify the showing forth of transcendent possibilities as if through cracks in the edifice of speech and acts, of the here and now. Derrida’s exploration of Benjamin’s thinking explores this challenge to resurrect the broken, abandoned, discarded hopes of human beings – what Benjamin calls a second order of messianic possibilities.
Yet the search through the perpetually collapsing edifice can be misguided. Another possibility is to call for an end to it, a sort of death of law, the state, and history itself – to follow Agamben in comprehending death as an opening-up or unfolding of being, “an eschatological ontology.” But even for Agamben, a sort of messianic ethics can apply in “the time that remains” before the end of history.
Agamben finally builds on the ideas of Benjamin and Derrida (and finally also Levinas) by developing the notion of “responsibility” – almost in the sense of ‘responsability’ or the ability to respond, and the obligation. For responsibility is presupposed by the urgency even of posing a question, of speaking itself, of saying. Language itself emerges finally from the ability and necessity to respond. Such at least is the hope.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Aris Janigian's This Angelic Land

My review of Aris Janigian's new novel, This Angelic Land, appeared in The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) in Sunday's edition of the paper, August 12, 2012. Here's the link to the review: http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2012/08/in_aris_janigians_this_angelic.html.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Notes on Beethoven's early life

Here's an attempt at an opening for the book on Beethoven I'm writing:

As a seven-year-old boy, Beethoven loved to improvise. Such a freed imagination he already possessed that new themes, new combinations of tones and rhythms constantly entered his mind. And they begged to be expressed, to be played by the boy’s little fingers on the piano in his home in Bonn. Ludwig van Beethoven was at the time like your most gifted young pupil – full of ideas which move beyond conventional expectations and even beyond the norms and order essential to avoiding chaos in music and to expressing comprehensible feeling. Such a student can instill fear in an instructor or at the least stir frustration.

Beethoven’s teacher in these early years was his father, Johann van Beethoven. The father had the choice of either encouraging and guiding his brilliant young son, or censuring and forbidding his improvisations. Johann chose the latter course and even, it is said, beat little Beethoven into obedience. Yet it is possible with such gifted youngsters that, while they may display overt submission, they inwardly continue exploring their imagination and developing their ideas. Such was the case with Beethoven, who as soon as he began lessons with a compatible teacher, produced a stream of increasingly brilliant compositions. One early work readily available to pianists is “Nine Variations on a March by Dressler,” composed when Beethoven was nine in 1780. It is quite reined in by convention until a middle variation, the fifth, which erupts with suppressed energy in flurries of manic, very fast notes – like a toccata in thirty-second notes. Such energy and imagination always stirred beneath the conventional surface demanded by his father.

As he grew into adolescence, it must have been difficult for Beethoven to forgive his father. And yet he was his inheritor, not only of a taste for alcohol but of the mastery of technique demanded by this disciplinarian obsessed with making his son into a virtuoso. And a virtuoso he became, able to play the smoothest, most controlled legato as well as the fleetest repeated notes and most perfect scales. This technical virtuosity was early on coupled in him with a depth of expressiveness and imagination, convincing his first serious teacher in Bonn of his genius. His name was Christian Neefe, and he was hired in 1781 as the chief organist for the Bonn court of the Elector and Archbishop of Cologne (whose reign ended in 1784).
There is a thrill and wonder for any teacher in encountering a student of such extraordinary potential as Beethoven possessed. One’s realization is that one might be able to contribute to such a student’s growth – to model an openness to inquiry and a rigor of exploration and to provide as much stimulation as one is capable of (in Neefe’s case, he led young Beethoven through the preludes and fugues of Bach). Another source of the teacher’s wonder is the realization that the student may enlarge the essential understanding of one’s field, advance its core possibilities and even alter its language. Such is the highest reward of the teacher’s service, and this thrilling possibility is suggested even in Neefe’s first, anonymous published announcement about his pupil – “a boy of eleven years of most promising talent. He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, he reads at sight very well, and – to sum up – he plays chiefly The Well-Tempered Clavichord of Bach. Whoever knows this collection – the ne plus ultra of our art – well knows what this means.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Beethoven xviii: hearing recordings in the early fifties (1)

In the 1950s, my family played various classical recordings on the living room phonograph. One I remember was a work which influenced Beethoven in his early period: the pianist Robert Casadesus with George Szell conducting the C-minor piano concerto by Mozart, his 24th, K. 491, composed in 1786 (just a few years before Blake wrote his early “Songs of Innocence” and then of “Experience”).
Both Mozart’s concerto and Blake’s early poems project an open display of fairly fierce emotions and are more intense than more conventional contemporaneous works. The fact that Mozart’s dramatic concerto was in C-minor was also significant for Beethoven, for the most dramatic and intense works he published early were in minor keys, and particularly C-minor: the second of the three piano trios opus 1 and the first of the three early piano sonatas in opus 10 (his first published piano sonata, opus 2, no. 1, is in the related key of F-minor).

Even at the age of ten, I loved hearing the wonderful momentum of Casadesus’ rippling scales on this recording, charging ahead, and with the main theme and its repeated final punctuating phrase all beautifully phrased. Casadesus’ “sound” – the warmth, clarity, and restraint of his tone and approach – were, I remember, admired also by my mother, who was an amateur pianist and who loved playing Chopin’s first Nocturne, Schumann’s Arabesque, and Beethoven’s opus 7 piano sonata, no. 4 in F. (She had aspired to professional competence in the mid-1920s, studying during her University of Chicago years with a pianist who had in her turn studied with Cortot.)

This Mozart C-minor concerto recording, which my father would play on our living room console, was an early vinyl LP, the 1951 collaboration between Casadesus and Szell. Both pianist and orchestra perform the main theme with extraordinary clarity and force: it is a surging melody rising up the scale by thirds from the initial C and then descending the scale to a repeated, slightly jagged, drily voiced three-note phrase as it moves down the scale to final harmonic resolution.

That repeated jagged motif – da-Da Da, with the third note rising in pitch – is heard frequently throughout the first movement as a sort of unifying element and evolving punctuation. The pianist Casadesus and Szell were both famous for their clarity and cohesiveness, and these qualities are wonderfully present in their recording of the tragic force of the main melody and the subsequent unifying repetitions.

It is just that combination of qualities – cohesively evolving repetitions and the sense of tragic drama – which Beethoven’s early minor-key works value and develop. A good illustration is provided by one of his six early-period opus 18 quartets. My father and his friends often performed these works during their quartet evenings at our house during the Fifties, and the fourth quartet in C-minor reveals and transforms the influence of Mozart’s music and particularly the great 24th concerto.

Opus 18 no. 4 starts with a characteristic theme, a surging opening comprised again of an upward moving melody and a descent in pitch accompanied by a repeated punctuating motif (these features echo the features of Mozart’s concerto). Beethoven’s repeated “punctuation” is a frequently voiced octave leap upward, as the opening exposition of the main theme closes in through brusque chords and more of those punctuating octave leaps toward harmonic resolution.

Though this movement is more somber than Mozart’s opening C-minor concerto movement, it’s clear that many of the effects I tried to describe in the latter are the basis of further experimental development in Beethoven’s C-minor quartet movement. Of course, Beethoven adds his unique aesthetic characteristic of creating music which is continually “working out” its motifs, testing new combinations of them, and inviting the players to feel as if they were participating in his building of the musical edifice, in his constructing this creative flux in time.

In my next post, I’ll turn to a recording of Beethoven’s middle-period Violin Concerto, which the family owned and heard in the early Fifties.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beethoven xviii: more evidence of an obsession with the composer

A dream from the sixties: a drunken meal around a table, with plentiful wine and many plates of savory food. Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's daughter, sits next to me, whispering; in the 1930s the troubled girl had fallen in love, unbidden, with Joyce’s friend Samuel Beckett, who is somewhere there roving about the room of my dream. Friends sit across from me, and at the end of the table is my great late teacher Thomas Flanagan, telling a story – sharp-edged, wry and witty.

At the head of the table sits Joyce himself, pivoting in his chair towards a piano conveniently placed by him, and he is playing away right through all the talk and clatter, the vodka toasts, Flanagan’s story and the laughter of its reception. Joyce plays no opera or Irish song: he is playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata.

Suddenly Lucia turns to me, puts her hand on my knee, and whispers – almost mouthing the words: “Do you love me?” I soon awoke into my 1965 life, but not before I felt the full force of her searching glance, her yearning words, and her delusion.

The dream has continued to reverberate in my imagination for almost a half century. In 1970, I wrote a story about a piano virtuoso, and the story continued to grow until 1990 when it became my novel Hungry Generations. The painting on its cover (based on Matisse’s “The Music Lesson”) shows the virtuoso playing the piano with his family sitting about and his new friend, a young composer, standing and listening. Beethoven is everywhere present – his picture on the wall, a volume of the sonatas on the piano lid, and the filigreed opening notes of his Hammerklavier atop the picture.

There exists a wonderful photograph of Joyce playing the piano with his son Giorgio listening as he leans over the closed lid. There is a painting on the cover of my study of music and modern fiction, Fullness of Dissonance (which was written in the eighties and published in 1994), and it is based on the photograph. The painting shows Joyce at the piano with not Giorgio, but Mann, Proust, and Schoenberg standing by the closed lid, listening.

The obsession – with a life of its own – does not stop. This is my seventeenth post about Beethoven, and of course several concern the Hammerklavier.

[Both of these cover paintings – visible in the right column of this blog – are by Jeanette Arax Melnick, my wife.]

I’d thought of writing about Tia DeNora’s 1995 study of how Beethoven’s aristocratic Viennese patrons early on helped to support and, in important ways, to shape the growth of Beethoven’s genius – its title is “Beethoven and the Construction of Genius.” But somehow I’d like to use more of these posts to explore why I love Beethoven – and so: my dream from the 1960s.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Beethoven xvii - on "Beethoven Hero"

There’s a sort of collision that occurs between two ways of understanding the impact of Beethoven’s music. One way is based on his amazing exploration of form and his implicit invitation to the performer to participate in the moment-to-moment unfolding of what can be made out of often a single motif (say, the pervasive exfoliations of the opening phrase of the Fifth Symphony: da da da DUM). Another way of framing our understanding of Beethoven’s music is based on the Romantic period’s ideas of the quest, of a heroic journey, and of subjective, organic growth. Both of the two conflicting approaches – the formal and the Romantic – are attempts, of course, at explaining the impact of Beethoven’s music: the impression of exploratory energy, of immense creative potential, and of the composer’s empowered mind and will.

This dominant impression of unleashed power leads some listeners to feel that certain works contain a sort of insufferable “pounding,” what Adorno identifies in Beethoven’s weakest works as a “Germanic, brutal, triumphal” emptiness. However, for his greatest works, what we hope to find are insights to convey and explain their wonderful impression of empowered creativity in the face of the collapse of the aristocratic frame and rationale which supported the great classical works of Mozart and Haydn. Especially in his middle period, Beethoven explored and experimented with the most basic building blocks of classical form, disassembling, playing with, subverting, and reassembling them with new, unprecedented power.

For both player and listener, what is the source of the sense of empowerment in his music? Scott Burnham presents the two approaches noted above in answering this question in his 1995 book Beethoven Hero.; as he does so, he explores the “musical values,” “institutional values,” and “cultural values” which shape our reception of Beethoven’s music. His main focus is on how listeners have understood the impact of the Third Symphony, the Eroica, and particularly the first movement. [Incidentally, I hope this blog entry is not too technical (for some not technical enough) or too abstruse, but it’s worth a try to engage Burnham’s argument.]

Typically, twentieth-century readings of that movement have centered on a formal analysis of “those aspects of Beethoven’s style which are particularly characteristic of his middle period” – i.e., the period also of the Appassionata and the Fifth Symphony, etc. (7-8):

“Those aspects…include the alternation of active downbeat-oriented sections with reactive upbeat-oriented sections, the liberation of thematic development to the extent that it may even take place during the initial exposition of the theme, and the polysemic formal significance of the opening section, understood as combining features of introduction, exposition, and development….Beethoven’s [main] theme remains, in a sense unconsummated: its urge to slide immediately away from E flat through chromatic alternation…never allows it to behave as a truly melodic theme…- in fact, it will have to wait until the coda before it is granted that sort of themehood….The fact that this theme must so submit in order to become more like a theme is unprecedented in musical discourse. This process establishes a new way in which music can be about a theme.”

In view of this extraordinary new approach to thematic development (the moment-to-moment momentum of its unfolding), as well, “it was this dimension of Beethoven’s style that was felt to be revolutionary and deeply engaging by his first critics; programmatic interpretations allowed them to address this specific aspect” by employing the (for them) contemporary Romantic idea of a “singularly obsessed hero fighting against a recalcitrant external world” (5). Romantic nineteenth-century as well as formalist twentieth-century understandings of Beethoven’s breakthrough respond, then, from different points of view to the power of the Third.

And yet, “the conjunction of Beethoven’s music with the ethical and mythical implications of the hero and his journey holds the entire reception history of this symphony in its sway….Even readings of mainstream formalism…share some features with the readings from which they claim to have distanced themselves….The overmastering coherence heard in works like the Eroica Symphony has both inspired the use of heroic metaphor and encouraged the coronation of such coherence as the ruling musical value of the formalist agenda” (27).

This core insight, which Burnham richly develops, operates also as he explores various theories and features of the Third as well as the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata sonata, his commentary – say – on the role of the coda, or on Beethoven’s “radical revitalization of musical language, in which every peripheral detail becomes galvanized with significance, as part of a unitary and unmediated effusion” – in which “everything becomes melody” (quoting Wagner on Beethoven - 31); or, for another example, commentary on how “Beethoven treats harmonies like monoliths instead of playing cards, [so that] harmonic change assumes epic importance” (36). Finally, he writes, “Beethoven’s tonal form has become the destiny of music” (155).

Most delving among Burnham’s insights, though, is the response he develops to the idea of “presence and engagement in the Heroic style.” Early in his study, he is concerned with a sort of double consciousness we develop as we listen, a simultaneous experience of “enacting” the momentum of the creative, heroic journey and of self-consciously reflecting on it: being aware of it as an unfolding form.

First, remember that the Eroica Symphony’s main theme is continually curtailed (early on by the famous C sharp in bar 7) and is never fully realized until the coda of the first movement. “Hearing the coda as recapitulating the entire process of the movement brings into play a reflective dimension that goes beyond the enactment of narrative….[The music] can be said to effect the distancing narration of the genre of the epic, [so that] the acts of telling and enacting are merged” (23). [The tension between the epic form and the tragic drama is a concern of many twentieth century thinkers, including for example Raymond Williams and, as we saw in earlier posts, Adorno and Benjamin.] Burnham then links this idea of simultaneous narration and enactment to Hegel’s idea of self-consciousness: “this paradox of distance and identification is a secret of human consciousness” and “an expression of the conditions of selfhood.” By the end of his study, Burnham connects this idea to Goethe’s vision of the human, to “Goethezeit,” which integrate “ironic self-consciousness” and “the ethos of the self as hero” – together yielding both objectivity and subjectivity, simultaneously (146).

Many of the themes which these blog entries about Beethoven, Adorno, Hegel, the varieties of irony, etc., have tried to explore are, of course, at issue here, and they underlie Burnham’s delving account of Beethoven’s middle period music.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beethoven xvi - Playing Beethoven ii

I return in this post to the subject of "playing" Beethoven's music and the experience it offers of working through the music's wondrous unfolding structures and motifs, what I’m calling the experience of “making music.”

There is no picture of my father playing the violin with me at the piano as we made our way through Beethoven’s violin-piano sonatas. I was eighteen and nineteen years old, and at times he would stop to correct a rhythm or improve ensemble – so that we “heard” each other’s parts and matched each other’s phrasing. My brother David sometimes listened to us and would reprimand our father for momentarily criticizing my playing: “Danny is not playing too loudly,” etc. Yet I was pretty unfazed by my father’s corrections, for I wanted to learn from them and tried to heed them: I felt I was being offered the pleasure of making the music with him.

Several times each, we played the Spring sonata, the great “middle Beethoven” opus 30 sonatas (especially the 7th in C minor), and we even tried once to play the very challenging Kreutzer and also the last violin-piano sonata, the 10th, which is full of off-beat and askew phrasings and structures forecasting “late Beethoven.”

My favorites to play with him were the somewhat easier opus 12 series, and particularly the second in A-major. This was early Beethoven, quite playable for an amateur and exhibiting most clearly and beautifully the form and ethos of growth, of displaying and organically unfolding all the interrelated qualities of Beethoven’s musical structures.

The A-major sonata begins in a sort of waltz-time with a lovely set of seven trochees descending the scale – Da da, Da da…etc. This vibrant and fast “Allegro vivace” theme is set against the waltzing accompaniment with the two-note descending trochees occurring on the first two of each three waltz beats – Da da da, Da da da…etc. The theme is repeated with fine differences, and it’s then shared with the violin, so that there is the effect of wave upon wave of descending melody. These “waves” of music are interspersed with some ascending motifs which naturally then lead into new forms of descending melody. The joyful back-and-forth flux then incorporates additional, more decisive sounding motifs, but never so decisive as to diminish the beautiful sense of pulsing waves of melodies in descending and in ascending form. There’s a wonderful feeling of rhythmic release to these descents and ascents, which reminds me of the enjambed rhythm overflowing into the third line as well as the image of beneficent ascent in these lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.

This sonata’s second movement is a deeply moving Andante in A minor, a sort of welling tragic hymn “at heaven’s gate,” shared between violin and piano. Not quite two minutes into the movement, a poignant, joint aria of ascending notes exchanged between the instruments is particularly affecting. This “exchange” is more than a conversation between violinist and pianist, though it is that. It is also a joint exploration of a process, the mutual experience of testing out and feeling one’s way, of finding and making a language for tragic acceptance, the calm after the storm. It is, of course, Beethoven whose exploration this is: his music seems to formulate the very process of “finding and making” a feelingful language. As beautiful as his music is, it presents not so much a “perfection” of beautiful structure, as it enacts a dramatic search, an open-ended process. As such, its form implicitly asks its players to project and "play" the experience of the search unfolding in the moment. In their mutual music-making, the performers of this music seem to participate in the moment-to-moment exploration of the creative process. Half a century ago, when my father and I played this Andante, it was a privilege and pleasure as together we tried to bring to life the tragic utterance. (Here's a YouTube link to the sonata: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3P5Icu92c.)
In that way, the player of Beethoven’s music participates in a sort of quest for form, a journey which particularly in the composer’s thirties and forties, his “middle” period, seems to project the quest of a tragic hero. In my next post, I’ll try to explore a study of this subject by Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Beethoven xv - playing Beethoven

Hypnotic is a word to use about the experience of playing Beethoven for both the performer and the listener. We’re drawn into a world which is self-contained as it works through its expressive possibilities, its rich and nuanced thinking, its emotional tensions and equanimities.

Imagine a piano in a crowded setting, like the communal room of a boarding house. Mute, unplayed, the piano has sat there for the first month of a freshman student’s first semester. (First year students at Berkeley live in a regulated setting – such was the case in 1961 and probably continues to be – in boarding houses, dorms, or Greek houses.) Finally the seventeen-year-old - bewildered and desperate for a piano to play - sits down at the piano, amid the chattering crowd, and he begins playing Beethoven. Conversations do not stop; nothing much changes, except that inside the mind of the young man, there is a nearly hypnotic zeroing-in on the sense of working out the motifs and possibilities of a beautiful structure in sound.

Some people listen to the piano being played by the very young man with bushy red-brown hair, thick horned-rim glasses, and pale green eyes. There is some pleasure in hearing the Beethoven sonata being played amid the cooking smells, the chatter and laughter. The sense of “making music” (or the player's experience of "musica practica") – of an emotional  and intellectual structure being built in ephemeral sound - has its own fascination for the player/hearer.

I remember being that young freshman, though it is hard for me to claim him as myself – he is I and yet also somehow another self. Which says something about the distance in years: I and not I. But it says something as well about music – for it draws from us a sort of double-consciousness: in the moment of living and in the moments of the music at the same time, here and there at once.
I remember also the sonata I played (there were subsequent sonatas played on that piano, once humiliation or death had not descended on the player at the first try). That first work was Beethoven’s opus 22 in B-flat, which is the same key as the great Hammerklavier sonata, composed twenty years later.
Opus 22 is not great, yet by virtue of its greater ordinariness, it offers other pleasures. First, it is a sort of pause before Beethoven’s creation of first the experimental sonatas (some offering slow variations or fantasies like the “Moonlight” in their first movements) and then the immensely powerful works for piano of 1805 – the Waldstein and the tragic Appassionata sonatas.
In contrast, this eleventh sonata looks back on the form of the previous ten and offers a summary and even a teasingly long-winded parody of their basic form: exposition of themes, development, recapitulation, and coda. Long but humorous and clever, the sonata was fine and fun to play, for it superficially did not contain the emotional and intellectual demands of the subsequent works.
Yet opus 22 does contain a sort of bounding energy (this and its length offer slight links to the later B-flat sonata): it contains the essential quality that one senses in Beethoven’s music – that working out of an inner “organic” dynamism. Whether playing or listening, there is the feeling that one is witnessing and subliminally – in the mind – participating with the working out of the structure of an entire world, with all its parts growing finally to cohere in a vision of force and order.
In my next post, I’ll try exploring a few more, related issues about experiencing Beethoven.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beethoven xiv: Adorno on Beethoven iii (revised) - the late works

In approaching Beethoven’s late works, Theodor Adorno in his Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (pages 90-111) earlier explores “the renunciation of symphonic mastery" even in the Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral (1808-9) or in the Archduke Trio, opus 97 (begun in 1810) and in the last Violin-Piano Sonata, opus 96 (1812). This loosening of the grip of sonata structure – of conflict and resolution – occurs in works which are contemporaneous with the great sonata-form works Beethoven composed in his late thirties and early forties (for example, the Fifth Symphony, finished in 1807 and revised in 1809, and the Seventh Symphony from 1811-12). In contrast to the Appassionata’s first-movement struggle against the recapitulation, the Archduke Trio contains an “unobtrusive recapitulation.” Characteristic of this alternative version of the sonata form is a sort of “smiling play” which is “reticent and not triumphal” – in the Pastoral Symphony, for example, we hear a sort of “dillydallying as utopia,” “setting time free.” In such moments “of stand-still: here the memory of the human survives, that all reification is not quite serious, that the spell [of domination] can be suspended and we can be called back to the human.”

The spell of domination, as I tried to show in my previous post, is located by Adorno in the mechanistic “autocracy of the recapitulation” but also in the occasional moments of “ostentation…intended to present something magnificent [but] remaining simply empty” (75-79). Adorno is by no means referring to the cohesive intensity of the Appassionata, with its moments of violence as it drives sonata form into extremity. Rather he is identifying an opposed tendency when Beethoven’s music “takes on something brutal, Germanic, triumphalist” – not merely in Wellington’s Victory but even in the Piano Sonata, opus 31 #1, which is almost a parody illustrating “the entanglement of lucidity with pomp.”

Beethoven’s late works “show how it is possible for art to divest itself of the ‘self-deception’ of totality,” of such dominance (80). These great works were written in his late forties and his fifties – from 1817 to 1827, during the last ten years of his life. This achievement is the focus of the final seventy pages of Adorno’s book (pages 123-193). The first four pages reproduce “Beethoven’s Late Style” from Adorno’s Moments Musicaux, (pages 123-126), and the opening sentences are not infrequently quoted: “The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured…They lack all that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demand from the work of art.” The reprinted essay’s few pages offer a brilliantly compressed account of Beethoven’s own late aesthetic, accounting for the insertion of conventional formulas and phrases into the late sonatas and quartets – the decorative trills, cadences, the improvisatory embellishing fiorituras, abrupt breaks, sudden crescendos and diminuendos, the octave unisons of empty phrases, then passages of baroque polyphony, etc.  As we listen to these effects in the last sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, and the late quartets, the question Adorno poses is why these “conventions are made visible in their unconcealed, untransformed bareness.”

“Conventions are split off” in “fissures, rifts, and fragments,” in response to the fact that the purposeful subjectivity of unfolding Appassionata-like sonata structures “breaks away” or has broken down. All the often antique conventional effects – “as splinters, derelict and abandoned – finally themselves become expression…no longer of the isolated ego but of the mythical nature of the creative and its fall.” In this way, conventions and antique phrases become “expression in the naked depiction of themselves” – become emancipated: “To liberate these phrases from the illusion of subjective control, the emancipated phrase speaks for itself.”

Beethoven’s late works, Adorno writes, “still remain a process, but not as a development” like the middle-period sonata forms; the “process” of the late sonatas and quartets “is an ignition between extremes.” Extremes are forced together within the moment, where “the empty phrase is set in place as a monument to what has been – a monument in which subjectivity is petrified,” the now dying subjectivity of Beethoven’s past. The sudden “caesurae, however, the abrupt stops” are, however, moments of breaking free, for “the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outwards. Only then is the next fragment added, ordered to its place by escaping subjectivity,” the failing “light in which the fragmented landscape grows.” In his late creation of fragmented and juxtaposed phrases, Beethoven “as a dissociative force tears them apart in time, perhaps in order to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes” (126).

In the pages that follow the above essay, Adorno’s notes (for those are what much of his book is comprised of) offer many, often fragmentary insights into the five late piano sonatas (opuses 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111), the Bagatelles for piano opus 126, and the late quartets (particularly opus 132 in A minor receives more sustained treatment). The Ninth symphony, finished in 1825, is criticized as a reversion to the middle period – a late work not in his late style. There are some brilliant comments on the late style’s sudden “harsh contrasts” between fugal effects and chord-like “simplicity,” its “splitting itself into monody and polyphony,” and the purity and depth of its commitment to such fragmentation of effect – clear for example in the wondrous shifts of effect in the great last piano sonata, opus 111 – classical music’s last great piano sonata, marking, as Adorno explained to Thomas Mann, the death of sonata form itself. This is Adorno’s key focus, then: “To be purely the matter itself, to be ‘classical’ without adjuncts, classicity bursts into fragments. This is one of the decisive tenets of my interpretation.” Here is a link to Stephen Kovacevich’s brilliant performance of op. 111; the slow Arietta begins at 8:35: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E_amCDr77Q&feature=related.

Rather than detailing additional specific insights into the music (there will be another time and place for that part of my effort), I’ll conclude by mentioning two of Adorno’s more startling formulations. One is in response to Walter Benjamin’s conception of “the name,” of Adam’s task of naming in Genesis, as a form of prayer. Adorno sees Beethoven’s music as a similar process with a similar relationship to language (161-4). “Music saves the name as pure sound, but at the cost of separating it from things.” In enacting that separation, it conveys ultimately an awareness of death, of the self-awareness of the disappearance or “insignificance” of subjective individual experience. Music’s “gaze” may be on the human, but the art of music is “imageless:” like prayer, it is an “image of the imageless.” Later (on 176) Adorno likens imageless music’s “destruction of the particular,” of the relationship with the life of “things,” to the Talmudic prayer about the “grass angels:” “all perishes in the sacred fire.” And yet Adorno’s speculations paradoxically convey the power of prayer, aesthetic and secular as may be the hope embodied by Beethoven’s “demythologizing” late music (193). It is as if Adorno here seeks an art form that can withstand the terrible fire which consumed the period he survived of the Holocaust.

In the light of those speculations in extremis, the other extraordinary formulation I would mention speaks for itself (154): “In Beethoven, the spirit remains master of itself in experiences which are otherwise inevitably purchased with madness. These experiences, however, are not those of subjectivity but of language…Beethoven looks the bare language of music in the eye.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beethoven xiii - Adorno on Beethoven's Appassionata

A source of power in the Appassionata sonata’s first movement is that it keeps unfolding wave upon wave of creative transformation with relentless iterations and variations of its core motifs, so that the sections of the first movement begin to meld together. Each eruption of development becomes part of the creative flux: the differences between motifs are elided (the foreboding and ferocious first theme, for example, finds insistent echoes in the jaunty, striving third theme), and the differences between sections are all subsumed within the unfolding process: the initial statement of themes quickly and inexorably yields their massive development, and the restatement disintegrates into an enormous redevelopment in the coda. Here is a link to Barenboim’s great performance of the movement in 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPR3pkcNbKI.
In Adorno’s Hegel-inflected formulation in Beethoven: Philosophy of Music, the movement maintains a defiant “diversity [which] evens out into unity but keeps diverging from it while the form remains an abstract sheath over the diversity,” a “sheath” comprised of the unity of sonata form. The continually unfolding sequences and motifs become examples of a tragic, subversive “subjectivity veering into wretchedness” (51) with the “individual moments estranged” (13) from the enveloping and enabling bourgeois conventions of sonata form with its false promise of freed and empowered expressiveness. The tragic power of the first movement of the Appassionata is that it transforms what is false and perfunctory into “a terrible beauty” (to use Yeats’ term), so that the eruptive music of the Appassionata sonata unfolds “a total becoming” within the dominating form which it inhabits (46).

Adorno’s earlier statements bear repeating here: “If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43). And: “By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded and null in comparison to the power of the music (46).

These formulations locate a paradox in Beethoven’s sonata suggestively reminiscent of a paradox in Dostoyevsky’s novels: in them, a protracted act of confession is expected and exacted from the protagonists, and yet their subversive voicing of the convention of confession is performed in such a way as to cast into question the very nature and substance of the confession. It is an index of their modernity or proto-modernity that the society-sanctioned forms are simultaneously fulfilled and subversively transformed. After Beethoven (or for that matter, after Dostoyevsky), one next step in the history of the arts is modern and postmodern travesty and pastiche.

Adorno offers many specific insights particularly into the Appassionata’s middle, development section in the “dialectical” first movement of the sonata (60). In this section, the sonata hugely expands the development and finally synthesis of the sonata’s two major thematic motifs not only in this middle section but in the coda as well (51-2). These “improvisatory” sections pit the resources of “fantasy” against the rigidity and restraint of sonata form, and they seem “haplessly to desire the suffering” of the confrontation, with its “extra-human” harmonies, their sforzando “minor seconds,” and the hammered chords and demonically driven arpeggios. These effects all place the listener, as it were, in mid-stream, in the midst of extreme turbulence, and instill a continual awareness of the “incompleteness of what has just been formed” – i.e., the open-ended power and shattering freedom of the creative process unfolding before us.

A significant crux for Adorno is the sonata form’s requirement that the original main theme be brought back by the “recapitulation” section after the shattering development. This reprise of the main theme is exposed, he writes, as an act of “crushing repression,” as “a trait of esthetic untruth” implicating bourgeois society’s imposition of and insistence on “the conjuring of static sameness amid total becoming” (44, 46). In the Appassionata, Beethoven refuses that complacent sameness by infusing the recapitulation with instability, continually generating newly energized details and accompanying the reprise with a low-pitched pulse of repeated notes, a constant agitation, quickly leading to the newly massive development of the coda. The sonata in this way exposes “the reprise as a problem,” subverting and upending “the moment of untruth in bourgeois ideology” (16) – and so for “Beethoven, then, the traditional forms are reconstructed out of freedom” (61).

The symphonic equivalent of the Appassionata is the first movement of the Third Symphony, the Eroica, composed just a few years before. For Adorno, the orchestral work’s earlier genesis and its more public “writ-large” gestures of “symphonic mastery” rather streamline the effects of the work. Nevertheless, a tension is once again set up between the “closed symphonic” (sonata) form and the “open” improvisatory organic episodes of “epic” development. There are the harmonic collisions in the Eroica from the opening bars on and the many other intentional irregularities, particularly – once again – in the development and coda sections. The many developments Adorno notes all conspire to reveal the turbulent and even tragic “incompatibility” of those rival, “irreconcilable” conceptions – of the “open” and the “closed,” the improvisatory and the conventional, the “epic” and the “symphonic” (105-6). In Adorno’s Marxist-Hegelian view particularly of hearing such a work in isolation in media remote from the concert hall, the collision of forms in the Eroica confirms “the truth of the unreconciled condition of the individual in bourgeois society” (120) – in part because one exists self-consciously both within and outside the inhabited society [a version of this Hegelian formulation -  stressing the music's ironic Goethean wisdom of simultaneously enacting 'within' and narrating 'outside' - can be found, too, in Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero (146)].

In my next post, I’ll attempt to explore Adorno’s rather more detailed and remarkably responsive formulations about late Beethoven and his self-consciousness about convention and innovation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Beethoven xii - Adorno on Beethoven

I recently finished reading Beethoven: Philosophy of Music by Theodor Adorno, and I’m tempted to try to “reduce” – literally and figuratively – some of his main formulations to a posting or two of commentary here. Reading his extraordinarily insightful yet fragmented and abstract commentary is, of course, a challenge. However, the book provides at times such a revelation, particularly about Beethoven’s late works, even as Adorno’s prose is designed to repel easy assimilation (the Jephcott translation is not unapproachable - is probably more approachable for explicitly being a set of fragments [Stanford University Press, 1998]). So, for better or worse, I hope here to make a bit more accessible some of that commentary.

Here is an early example of Adorno’s stark formulations:
“It is conceivable that Beethoven actually wanted to go deaf – because he had already had a taste of the sensuous side of music as it is blared from loudspeakers today. ‘The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.’ Karl Kraus” (31). Then he quotes George Groddeck: “‘Beethoven went deaf so that he could hear nothing but the singing daemon within him.’” Later, Adorno comments on the composer’s solitude in the midst of “the plebian habitus of his humanity…which – suffering and protesting – feels the fissure of its loneliness. Loneliness is what the emancipated individual is condemned to in a society retaining the mores of the absolutist age” (45). As his music “goes beyond” the conventions of “bourgeois society,” Beethoven “exceeds the bounds of a reality whose suffering imperfections are what conjures up art” in the first place (47).
The first forty or so pages of Adorno’s book offer many such stark paradoxes (often seeming to mix Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) in what amounts to a sort of overture of fragments, a disassembly of motifs; these motifs are also presented in a more integrated fashion in a sequence titled “The Mediation between Music and Society” from Introduction to the Sociology of Music (43-49). From about page 50 to 123, the commentary focuses more fully on Beethoven’s middle period and particularly on the significance of sonata form with some attention to the powerful example of the Appassionata sonata (also, in the midst here, there is a chapter discussing the symphonies, the Eroica, etc.). The seventy pages following page 123 are focused more fully on Beethoven’s late works.
For Adorno, the significance of Beethoven’s music results, on the one hand, from its power as form, its autonomous structure of expression, and on the other hand, from its resistant engagement of his society’s “ideology,” its assumed values and power relations. This dual emphasis is clear at the very start of Adorno’s commentary when he declares that the “ideological significance” of Beethoven’s music is that it is “a voice lifted up, that it is music at all,” and this significance is heightened beyond the ordinary because, for Beethoven, the very possibility of having an uplifted voice is placed into question by bourgeois ideology – is falsified by its domination of thought and expression (6).
Beethoven’s music attempts to overcome that “crushing” domination and the seemingly patent “a priori untruth” and falsity of having a voice in the first place in such a society, and he does so by creating music which is continually in process, absorbing, moving, and dodging among conventions, and “unfolding truth” from “nothing,” from the barest motifs: “Beethoven’s work can be seen as an attempt to revoke the a priori untruth of music’s voice, of its being music at all, through its immanent movement as an unfolding truth. Hence, perhaps, the insignificance of its starting point: this is nothing…” (7). I’m reminded of the notion of “making music” I broached in my last post – that in performing Beethoven’s work, one seems to be not only witnessing but participating in the creation of the piece, the working out of motifs, the resolution of tensions, the upwellings of feeling: in short, we feel we are participating with Beethoven in ‘making’ the music.
What we witness and “realize” in sound, in Adorno’s view of Beethoven, is music in the very process of creation: music that “brings forth itself...as a tour de force, a paradox, a creatio ex nihilo…a ‘floating’” experiment, forming music out of the simplest details, even as – in this Marxist-Hegelian view – its form is “mediated” and “comprehensible only in terms of its function within the reproduction of society as a whole.” The “liberated details” of his music enact and resist – through a process of estranged open-endedness – the concept that in “bourgeois” society all is “interchangeable” or “fungible,” that no individual detail (no musical note, banknote, or person) exists in itself and everything exists in relation to the whole (34). Beethoven’s reimagining in music of the relation of parts to the whole confronts and intentionally disturbs the typical bourgeois listener, for whom the “amusement” of music is embraced as “a way to defeat boredom” (8), as a distraction from the ennui familiar to Baudelaire.
“If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43), and the music does so by “reconstructing out of freedom” the otherwise self-deluded bourgeois assumptions about the power of self-projection and the free will to impose a masterful unity.
“By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded nullity in comparison to the power of the music (46).
Though my account here may well misrepresent (or at least fail to clarify) Adorno’s difficult formulations, I’ll keep trying and turn to Adorno’s treatment of the Appassionata sonata in my next post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beethoven xi: "making music"

 There is a photograph of me when I was eight or so, sitting on one of the upper stairs in our house and looking down at the hall, through the vertical bars of the banister. My open and rather serious face suggests that I was interrupted in the midst of listening to the music from downstairs, for my unpredictable older brother had just snapped a picture of me with his frequent clicks and flashes. A moment before, I had been listening to my father playing second violin in his weekly Friday night string quartet in Los Angeles (this evening in our living room).

One of Haydn’s scores of quartets and then one of Mozart’s nearly a dozen quartets were usually played by the four musicians, and the evening would often conclude with one of Beethoven’s six opus 18 quartets or one of the three from opus 59 (though sometimes one by Schubert or, if they were feeling ambitious, one by Brahms). Particularly Beethoven’s early quartets, opus 18, published when the composer was thirty, were a source of great pleasure to the players, usually two or three skilled amateurs including my father, and one or two professionals. I loved to listen from my perch in the hall stairwell to the four men “making music” – it was as if I were privileged to witness the process of building or sculpting or painting a masterpiece.

“Making music” is the phrase my father used, and it’s particularly relevant to Beethoven and especially significant for the early period chamber works and piano sonatas. One of the ideas I hope to develop in my Beethoven project is the idea that the performers of his sonatas and quartets, etc., feel as if they are participating in the construction of the piece, the working out of motifs, the resolution of tensions, the upwellings of feeling: in short, we feel we are participating with Beethoven in making the music – the phrase which the philosopher Barthes employed for this experience is “musica practica.” This phenomenon is distinct from the sometimes virtuosic displays of professional musicians; it is rather to feel one is actively in touch with the unfolding form of the music. When I play through a Beethoven sonata or when my father and his musician friends played a Beethoven quartet, the experience seems like that of a sort of co-creator. Why this should be the case particularly with Beethoven is the question I will try to explore.
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Monday, February 27, 2012

Beethoven x - as a Shakespearean figure

I tried in my novel Hungry Generations to evoke Beethoven’s perspective on the creative process and on what his creativity might suggest about how we lead our lives (if you wish, click on the Amazon.com site at top of the right column). The novel’s protagonist, Jack Weinstein, is a young composer starting out in a Hollywood studio in 1972 yet devoted to writing serious classical music, and I have him visited by occasional fantasies in which his heroes appear – Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky (the “three bald geniuses”) and especially Beethoven. In writing the few sequences in which Beethoven appears, I liberally and distortedly quote from Beethoven’s own words, and I lace into his comments to Jack a fair number of (pertinent, expressive) echoes of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”  

Here is one sequence from the novel:

The three bald geniuses danced from the raw, gray daylight into the living room. Even the Viennese Jew, serious and aloof, smiled at what Jack played. The thin Russian said: “This is true drunkard's music, yes! Surpassing even the drinking songs of my Hungarian colleague there, sneering in the shadow. It's like the peasant dances I knew as a child; I will illustrate.” He danced and shouted to Jack's wavering beat, stomping his feet, jutting his legs like a Cossack straight out in air, stumbling, and brushing against Beethoven who roared into the room. He glared at the wispy, dancing Russian as short as himself. Karl Beethoven flickered at the door, looking like his uncle's son, the eyes blinking and shifting, even more possessed, a criminal's eyes. His uncle had seen enough and walked toward the piano.

Jack rose from the bench and edged to the table, where he sat before his new notebook, transfixed with alarm and pain and wonder.

Sitting at the piano before the inked sonata pages, Beethoven had an aura of tangled, electric hair sticking out from his head. He hunched before the keys and began to play loud and unhesitating. Obscenities flowed from his lips, snatches of Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and German. His eyes were fixed on Jack's score, and his hands pounded everything, playing wrong notes, extending and further distorting allusions to his own sonatas. The pale Hungarian sat again at the end of the table, the Russian on the couch, the Viennese Jew on the stuffed chair.

At Scherzo's end, Beethoven began to play a wavering snatch of his last sonata, opus 111, the opening of the Arietta. Suddenly he stopped and swung on the piano bench to face them.

“Our whole disassembly present?” he said, bitterly eyeing his nephew who sat on a straight-backed chair he had taken from the table to a corner, between the front door and the entry to the kitchen. Karl frowned there, hang-dog and accusative, looking at them all with punishing resentment.

“See my nephew Karl. I love him like a son, and he hates me. But I know I demand and impose. I am an ass. Write that down,” he said bitterly, and he pointed imperiously to the 1973 journal, its first page open on the table in front of Jack. “Write me down an ass! Write me down an ass-hole! It doesn't matter.” His voice was hoarse and loud with words he could not hear. “What matters is that we seek eternity, that we are condemned to everlasting redemption.”

Against the wind, Jack slowly shepherded himself across Speedway, across the Venice beach, to the shifting sand at the edge of the Pacific. His jacket flew open, and the wind buffeted him. Alone, he faced the dancing wind-driven waves and the wide current eddying far out in the frenzied ocean.

The eloquent irony of being “condemned to everlasting redemption” (this is Shakespeare’s good-willed fool Dogberry’s malaprop phrase) is central to the ambiguities of leading a difficult, even harmed life yet being devoted in music to “seeking eternity.” In my novel, then, I tried briefly to render the character of the disabled Beethoven as a self-aware creator, demanding of others and above all of himself. [The above excerpt is found on pages 88-89 of Hungry Generations; Beethoven makes another Shakespeare-aided appearance on pages 152-3 of the novel.] To get to the Amazon.com page for the novel, click on the cover image at the top of the right column.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beethoven ix: Deafness and the creative process i

Last fall, I taught a Beethoven biography to first-semester students in a CWRU general education seminar. Edmund Morris’ short book appreciates the music, but it’s out of temper about Beethoven’s personality and behavior, and when the draft versions of the students’ Beethoven paper were submitted, many of the essays presented the composer as brutal and deranged, even psychotic. Granted Beethoven could be impolite, could bristle, but he was (1) deaf and (2) terrifically focused on his work, on realizing his monumental musical ideas.

How to make what is at issue for him evident to the non-musician is a crucial question here. Of course, my students’ drafts were made subtler and less stigmatizing in their final versions, which reflected some added research and at least acknowledged other views. Perhaps they had been intrigued by the notion that a sort of 'monster' or ‘sacred monster’ should have composed the music, or perhaps they were merely offended by a person lacking the adjusted, communal temperament most of them favor. My hope is that in their future lives, further listening to Beethoven’s music will lead them to a more fully complex understanding of the composer.

What listeners hear is, of course, the crucial point about Beethoven’s achievement. They can hear a deep inwardness in his adagios and a triumph of the spirit in his allegros; in the Ninth Symphony’s opening, there is the sound of creation out of the void, and in moments of its finale, listeners hear the music of transcendence – it seems to some the voice of God. In certain movements, there is the deepest utterance of grief, and in others unleashed joy. And almost without exception, there is the sense of an unfolding order in the deaf composer’s works, not merely entertainment or empty occasion, but the presence of meaning. So the listener is confronted with the products of a deeply engaged, wide ranging, and immensely productive imagination, beyond the scope and ken of ordinary creativity.

Beethoven was severely disabled. He became deaf by the time he was in his early thirties, and this disability was a sort of tragic irony, for it is particularly harmful and isolating for a composer of music, and it is a stunning, meaningful paradox that his music should emerge from silence. Of course, in the face of any disability, isolation as well as peculiar compensating behavior frequently ensues. Deafness is an especially isolating disability, particularly in the era long before the development of effective hearing aids. One is cut off from hearing, from receiving communication, from participating in ordinary society. The result is, even in forbearing temperaments, the setting up of added barriers to save one from embarrassment and to compensate for one’s disability. One can seem distracted and absent minded, and so one can seem rude and “truculent” – such is Beethoven’s term in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 in which he explains the trauma of his fate to his brothers and asks for their help. In short, from 1800 to the end of his life in 1827, Beethoven was profoundly disabled by being deaf. This astounding fact intensifies one’s admiration for his achievement.

And so, despite his disability, it was Beethoven’s temperament to demand from himself the highest level of engagement, yielding in him a special forcefulness and intensity and producing music at the highest level of achievement. The demands he made exacted an extraordinary toll on him. The composer’s work differs, of course, from more routine employment, which in good circumstances can be left at the office or factory. Beethoven, however, was continually working out his demanding musical ideas – not merely on walks but continually.

In addition, at the level of basic humanity, this demand resulted partly from the responsibilities he felt toward his younger brothers, earlier toward his parents, and later toward his nephew. He needed to earn a fairly large sum for the purpose of maintaining them, and in the new role of self-employed composer (and an increasingly deaf and thus endangered one) he needed constantly to produce, perform, market, and publish his works. These pressures existed in addition to the creative pressures themselves.

There is much to say about the roles in Beethoven’s creative process of freedom and struggle, of will and fate (“it must be,” he writes in the initial measures of the last movement of his last work). I’ll turn in my next post to the ways in which some of these ideas relate to some of Beethoven’s early and middle period works.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Pathological States - a novel

In an earlier post, there's an excerpt from my unpublished novel "Pathological States" about a physician and his family living in Los Angeles in 1962. The novel is partly a fictionalized family memoir centered on a character a little like my late father, Dr. Perry Melnick, who was a pathologist and noted histochemist. Here's a brief summary:

"Pathological States - a novel"
It is 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Eichmann’s execution, and above-ground nuclear testing. Dr. Morris Weisberg is a sixty-year-old pathologist, amateur violinist, and classical music lover. He discovers a disastrous instance of malpractice and a cover-up reaching to the office of his Hospital Director. During this year, the troubled, quixotic doctor struggles to find a way to confront the crisis.
Morris and his wife, Sandra, were born in Europe near the start of the twentieth century, and each was brought to America at an early age. In 1962, the couple is living in suburbia, in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. They have two sons. Both are aspiring artists in their twenties, and one is straight, the other gay. As they test limits and act out their resentments, the household begins to fill with revelations of excess and abuse.
At work and at home, communication fails, brutal buried truths erupt, and Morris begins to descend into maddening depression. He seeks refuge in his love of classical music and in his California garden. His glassed-in lanai there offers him solace – a place like L.A. itself of pleasure and escape, which ends up being a haunted, alienated space. As Morris plummets, his struggle to keep affirming his faith in science and music wavers. Dr. Weisberg becomes a powerfully moving, larger-than-life character, noble and destructive and terrifying.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beethoven viii (on the late Beethoven sonata no. 30 in E)

The opus 109 piano sonata no. 30 in E major, a beautifully lyrical yet austerely “stripped down” late Beethoven work, withholding the loud conclusive and concussive sounds of earlier works; it was composed about six years before Beethoven died. This sonata is akin to the final piano sonata, opus 111, about which I commented in my Beethoven posts v and vi, and akin also to the penultimate sonata opus 110 which I tried to evoke in my previous post – vii.

The opus 109 sonata partakes of the features I tried to describe of “the sublime” in my last post. It was Egon Petri’s recording that first introduced me to the sonata; its clarity of phrasing and structure were the work of a master teacher, profoundly illuminating and prompting me to try exploring the music at the piano (someday I hope to discuss a great Roland Barthes essay examining the logic and value of the amateur sight-reading of Beethoven’s sonatas). Its first theme always reminded me of the Scherzo of the last quartet – such a fleet yet contemplative theme, so full of potential nuances. I more fully heard those subtleties of “breathing,” of phrasing and emphasis, when I listened to Rudolf Serkin’s wonderful recording from the early sixties; I admired the performance’s sense of being in process, of hewing the phrases and tones from the music’s edifice. His is the opposite of an unfinished performance; rather it is that Serkin abjures any impression of surface smoothness and focuses on the larger formal arc or shape of a sequence or movement. Every small, intentional strangeness of emphasis or slight fracturing of rhythm in the initial statement of the opus 109 theme calls attention to the wondrous promise of the larger form, of the highest level of coherence and meaning.

In short, the listener is grateful for the signs of struggle and even estrangement here; they indicate the presence of meanings and emotions below the beautiful ordered surfaces of the music. This effect achieved in Serkin’s performances of the late Beethoven sonatas is related to what I tried to say about the sublime – that there is in late Beethoven a level of aesthetic experience that moves beyond the perception of conventional beauty to the experience of an open-ended baring the building materials of the music, where the unexpected rifts become openings for unexpected, undreamt-of expression, akin to the sight of the Matterhorn and in its own way stirring awe and inciting the imagination, uncapturable, evanescent, and transcendent.

After less than twenty seconds of the initial lyric melody, the grand gesture of a loud and sweeping broken chord occurs in the treble, a sort of step up Matterhorn: a startling block of sound followed lower in pitch by another stamped chord, and yet the fullest, stamped loudness never occurs, for the grandness immediately evanesces into gentle, resolving chords; then within seconds, the pattern is repeated, except that the resolving chords are now made to stretch toward a new harmony and a swift rhythm in thirty-second note triplet arpeggios which sweep down the keyboard – but again the soft gentling occurs, even in these fleet triplets. This pattern keeps pulsing until it gives way once more to the beautiful lyric melody of the sonata’s opening. In Serkin’s wonderful performance, all these sequences, whether stamped or softened or stretched, partake of the special improvised angularity which is a sign of the uncanny presence of the sublime.

The middle movement of opus 109 is a stormy scherzo, a very fast march, but like Mahler’s marches, it undercuts itself with off-beat emphases and strange syncopations and, most of all, through the continual triplet tread, so that three note units seem not to spring forward but to turn back in a sort of contrapuntal conversation with itself – this is most evident about twenty seconds into the movement at bars 16 and following. Similarly, the harmony remains ambiguous; for all the stridency of the initial e minor theme, the movement keeps refusing to offer a conclusive assertion of e minor closure. Even the final bars, wavering between the conclusive and the exploratory, play with modulations to the G major complement to the movement’s key of e minor, then C major, and then some insistence on the unstable dominant seventh chord before the final e minor chord.

But it’s the final movement of opus 109 that is a most impressive instance of Beethoven’s late style. It is in variation form, like the final movement of opus 111 and the world-encompassing Diabelli set, opus 120, and I’ll later offer some thoughts about the form itself. But first, there are some wonderful YouTube videos of a Daniel Barenboim master class for Jonathan Biss playing the opus 109 sonata, particularly its last movement (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHgfuf-Nn-Q is the second in the relevant video sequence). Biss plays the theme with a beautiful sense of the structure of phrases, always alert to nuance and to the quieting approach to each cadence (there are some wonderful added details in Serkin’s similar performance of the theme, for example the B octaves struck to ring out the statement of the subsidiary theme after the double bar at bar 8). Then, with the first variation, Barenboim interrupts to call attention to the odd angularity and uniqueness of the sequence, so disconnected from the sixteen bars stating the theme. This oddity appears in the stretching of rhythm and phrase, in the ornamental double grace notes or thirty-second notes packed in before the emphatic initial beats of bars and in those beats themselves with their ringing tones, struck high above the previous range of pitches in the music. This variation’s taking apart of the theme, stretching it almost beyond recognition, is a first step in exposing and breaking apart the theme’s essential elements. (The fifth variation even recruits an antique fugue further to unfold the process.) This breaking down to essences and then reconstituting them in an improvisatory release of new music represents a process at the core of late Beethoven and is most evident in the final, sixth variation (beginning at bar 153).

Here in the sixth variation, the theme is reduced to its simplest common denominator, the most basic chords for two bars, and then the quarter notes are doubled, then multiplied by three, then by four, and then by eight. Finally, trills are introduced in the middle, then in the bass, and then in the high treble, as a sort of alert or alarm ringing out to accompany the continuing deconstruction of the original chords. And at the end all the trill and blur of thirty-second notes quiets down to give way to the moving simple restatement of the original theme, out of which an entire world of possibility had developed.

Variation form as Beethoven employed it in the last decade of his life differs from his use of it earlier. In the great c minor variations, opus 35, for example, there is an eloquent propulsiveness (and even a fugue there also) yielding breathtaking concluding cadences; even the tragic slow variations offer a tight dramatic structure. The purposeful momentum and focus on powerful drama give way to the new use of variations I’ve tried to describe in the previous paragraphs (and perhaps at a later point I’ll try to describe some of what the Diabelli set achieves). Of course, the fact that Beethoven continued to explore this form suggests the significance for him of the process of growth from an original germ of musical material; the organic germination process is at the core of his music, even as in the late period, it yields more and more open-ended deconstructions of exposed conventions, inspired explorations of abstract structures, and the improvisatory revivifying of dead or dying forms.