Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Into the Weeds

Being a classical musician can be a pretty lonely business. Hardly anybody wants to know what you were thinking about all day. My spouse, who is a doctor, gets questions and opinions about medicine all the time. Everybody has something to say about the subject, and everyone has had some experience dealing with it. Or they just want free advice. Nobody has ever asked me about that A-flat that's bothering them.

But starting this week, 80-plus people will be listening to what I think about Beethoven. For two hours, every Thursday. For five weeks. Go figure.

On Saturday, though, I got a head start. A violinist I was playing a gig with had some questions about a piece I played (solo). It was a movement from a Beethoven Sonata, which I dare to think of as humorous. It will be part of next week's class, "Beethoven the humorist." I expect it to be a bit of tough sell, because the image that most people have of Beethoven is that he was by no means a funny guy. My violinist friend was curious because my interpretation had been pretty wild and he wondered just what was in the score. Where those loud chords fortissimo or just fortes? Did Beethoven put a big accent there? How much of a slow down did he want in that one place?

I admitted that it was possible that I was exaggerating some of the effects. Beethoven liked to dispense "sf" pretty regularly and consistently, even sometimes to indicate bringing out an inner voice line. He didn't use the contemporary "sfz." Two f's was as loud as he got (unlike a 20th century composer he didn't use three or four), so any chord marked with ff was probably intended to be pretty loud, since it was the top of his spectrum.

In the end I felt reasonably confident about the loud chords, less sure I hadn't overdone the sf's a bit, even if they were on weak beats, and not sure how much ritardando Beethoven himself would have employed. I don't recall that he used the additive "molto" when he wanted to distinguish a lot from a little.

But here's the case for the defense. In the first place, his contemporaries found him pretty shocking. At least at the time, his accents and tempo fluctuations must have seemed out-sized. You could make an argument that, adjusting for inflation, the same needs to be done for a modern audience or we will miss the point.

And here's the argument from image. Beethoven has become a fixture of the concert hall. He is adored by ritzy concert going upper class people. His music is interpreted and re-interpreted by pianists with publicity photos in suits and ties, staring profoundly off into space while seated at their instrument. Given his propensity for hanging out with people who could support his art, Beethoven always was an outlier associate with the rich and cultured supporters of the status quo, but it is likely now that he has been overcome by them. It is normal for the radical founders of movements and art forms to become domesticated by disciples and succeeding generations so that more people will find them more palatable. I myself have participated in this trend. Having been taught to make beautiful sounds at a Steinway, I just now found myself choosing a passage on a recording in which I did not lay into the accented note with as much vigor as the other times I played it. The note is out of tune on the piano and the results seemed to me more desirable when my finesse obscured this fact. Recording in general tends to make the rough places plain as sonic beauty wins over distorted, pounded notes.

On Friday on this blog we talked about how Beethoven is seen as the stormy musical arsonist. But the industry that has perpetuated him has other ideas. Today Beethoven is played faster and louder then ever, of course. Performers still have to establish their credentials, so that is a trend that will only accelerate. But the silky sounds of a piano that Beethoven never knew, and the refined unfolding of the form move in the opposite direction. Pianists with little or no imagination tend to play phrases more metronomically and give no space to the surprises the composer plants for us. Pieces we've all heard hundreds of times sound completely predictable, each modulation totally normal. It would never occur to many of us to take any particular notice of a turn of phrase that is actually quite astounding if you let it be that way. If you just run on to the next measure you can lose any arresting qualities it might have the way a bad comedian can tell a joke that nobody has time to realize was even funny because the pacing was all wrong.

These are all things that will be going on beneath the surface as we explore "Beethoven: The Revolutionary" over the next month. They are thoughts that will keep playing in my head and will never completely resolve. It was my great grand-teacher, Arthur Schnabel, who suggested that great music is music that can never be completely captured by any single performance because it is better than any performance of it can be.

Of course, during a live performance I may feel able to take liberties I might not in a recording. Too bad for my blog audience. But then, a lot of that reception is going to depend on your ears anyway. What comes across as shocking to you? Or funny? Or beautiful? Or strangely out-there?

Let's take a month to explore it together.

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