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.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. 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 sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. 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. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a 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).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]