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.]

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.