Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In the middle of the night...I go writing about Beethoven in my sleep

I am writing this blog at 4 a.m. I've been awakened by our cat, not by the usual method of jumping on our bed (which mainly disturbs my wife and is why Rosamunda is only permitted to sleep with us on weekends*), but because the overnight low is not as low anymore and her furry warmth was a little too pronounced. Did I mention she likes to sleep on top of my legs? I know how Snoopy's doghouse must feel.

Being awake, my mind decided to go to work, thinking about Beethoven. It's been doing that a lot these days. Tomorrow we'll wrap up a series of five lectures about the Bard of Bonn. I called them all "Beethoven the Revolutionary" and the class focused on four different aspects of Beethoven's musical personality, with the Ninth Symphony thrown in for good measure, and a chance to share our own Beethoven stories (that's tomorrow).

As I've been immersed in Beethoven for several months now, I can't help incorporating some of his methodology. Beethoven likes to connect ideas like few mortals ever have, particularly over a large area. A thematic idea from the beginning will show up at the end. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony begins and ends with the same interval. 75 minutes later he is still thinking of that downward fifth.

So it is appropriate to begin and end the journey the same way, in the middle of the night, when I can't sleep, writing about Beethoven.

It was sometime around 2 a.m. on an early fall night that I awoke, hot, and, not being able to sleep, at first lay in bed vainly trying. But in my mind I began to hear myself giving a lecture on Beethoven. This turned out to be useful.

It was useful because I was about to teach a class on the movie "Amadeus," which I had wanted to do for quite some time, and which seemed like a great idea for a class. The problem with having a great idea is not the idea itself but having a sequel. I had already gotten a course on the organ out of my system. Whither next? Not to mention that there was a deadline approaching for proposing a course (the deadline for the spring semester comes even before you've begun to teach in the fall) and I hate not knowing where I'm going to go next.

Then the tenor jumped up and said "friends, away with this uncertainty..."

As Mental Me began to go on and on about the music of a composer I could talk about for hours, I realized I'd kick myself if I fell back asleep and forgot what I was creating. So I got up and wrote on a sheet of paper an outline for a five week course, what topics I would cover each week, what music I would play, major ideas to be incorporated into a series of forays into the music and the ways Beethoven's compositional obsessions could be approached. Then, two hours later, I fell asleep. And months later, when it was time to put it into practice, I did what Beethoven did. I changed my mind about a lot of it.

Through January and February I mainlined a lot of Beethoven. Sonatas I hadn't played in years. About seven sonatas in all. Some of them didn't make the cut. Some of the more overplayed did, but I hope I used them in creative ways so they didn't seem stale. I tried to approach each one differently, to get at a different aspect of Beethoven's musical mind, as well as to shed light on the compositional process itself. Then there were recordings of the symphonies. We listened to sections large and small. we talked about recurring themes, Beethoven's love of jerking his audience around and making them wait for things, sometimes the whole thing revolved around a single note. I improvised, and played in two keys at once, talked about musical punctuation, and made jokes about chickens. Beethoven's bust never smiled (it was Mozart anyway).

Tomorrow it ends, at least for this incarnation. Before I go I want to thank my class. I'm grateful to them for sharing the experience. Besides sharing wonderful Beethoven stories and asking good questions, they've been a really attentive, listening audience. When I start to play a sonata you can hear a pin drop. This includes the space between movements, but is particularly noticeable during all of the dramatic silences that Beethoven loves to write. The other day one of my colleagues complained about audience behavior. I have no complaints. It is infinitely rewarding to let Beethoven paint his tonal mysteries on a bed of complete silence. Nobody even hacked up a lung during one of the slow movements (take that, Heinz Hall!) All this was evident within the first thirty seconds of the first class when I made the choice-- in a class whose focus was the music itself-- to begin with the music itself. For the first time I opened a class without introducing myself. I simply walked onto the proscenium, sat down at the piano, and started with the rolled chord from the opening of the Tempest sonata. I didn't say as much as hello until I'd played the entire first movement. There had been the usual pre-class chatting, of course, but within five seconds of the first note from the piano, all competing noise had ceased. They hadn't particularly noticed when I ascended the stairs to the piano and sat down quietly, but the instant they heard musical sound they took it as if someone was speaking to them and they wanted to hear what he had to say. I wish more people understood this to be true, rather than assuming that anybody who isn't singing is just there to perfume the air while they continue to be impressed by their own observations about the weather.

The Beethoven stories I'll share with you on Friday. I expected there to be a certain amount of remembered unhappiness with a man who set really high standards and made it hard to follow, wrapped up in fraught issues like childhood piano lessons and trips to hear men in tuxedos demanding quiet and doing weird things like stabbing the air with batons and blowing and plucking things that never really got explained but they sure seemed unfriendly. There was that, of course, and a healthy amount of overcoming, just like our hero.

I was reminded by a colleague that 2020 is going to be a big year for Beethoven. It will be his 250th birth year. I trust we'll all be ready for the Beethovenian onslaught. I'll be teaching about something else by then, but I hope these talks and the performances of the music will help us go into the year with a real passion for and understanding of the music. I called these lectures 'interactive program notes' and I hope they plant seeds that grow with each listening to all of the great music that has been left us by our gifted fellow humans.

Soon it will be time to get on with other things. But will we soon forget our sojourn with brother Beethoven?

Not I.

*this was written Saturday "morning."
**I have no idea why the title is a reference to a Billy Joel song. My mind thought it up.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.