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

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

Thursday, 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.