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:
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.