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.