Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of the symphonic ooze

There are different ways to approach the learning process, and ways to make pieces of classical music seem intelligible and familiar to audiences abound. Most of them involve demonstrations, and talking about the various themes and transitions. I've tried that.

In our first [Beethoven the Revolutionary] class, I played a sonata movement right at the start. Then later, after planting various ideas in the heads of the students by way of other sonata movements and symphonies, I brought those ideas into the domain of the first piece, talked about them, and played the piece again to end the class. Repetition.

Other times I simply point out salient features of the piece and then play it. Or play it first and then point out the salient features. Or just play the piece and let people make of it what they will. Or, once, take them on a talking tour but never actually play the entire piece--just the talking points.

Last week I tried a different method. After the intermission I sat at the piano and improvised on themes from the sonata movement I was about to play. The effect, I suppose, was somewhat like a solo cadenza from a piano concerto. I tried to use all the various bits of material Beethoven used, freely, letting them wander in different directions than had the composer. Also, some of the themes I imagined in a more primitive state. Beethoven of course was a gifted improviser, and he was also a composer who revised constantly. His initial ideas were not always that great, but eventually he fashioned them into something mighty. By letting some of the themes evolve during my improvisation, I hoped to approximate something like what might have happened when Beethoven was starting work on the sonata.

This may have gone a little bit into the specialist weeds, and perhaps it will not be something that many of my students will remember, despite the fact that virtually anyone else teaching the class would not have been able to do this. I found it interesting. If I weren't so busy at the moment I would have made recordings of the improvisation and the sonata movement so you could compare them. For now you'll just have to enjoy the concept. Maybe I'll get around to it this summer. I'm blogging about it now partially to remind myself that I did this, before the class is a distant memory and all I have are some incomplete teaching notes.

Improvisation is a good survival skill (such as when you have too much music to prepare in a given week or your lecture runs short) but it is also an insight into the creative process. Being able to take a given them and imagine other possibilities gives one a different relationship to the music, to be able to dialogue with it, and then to relish all the more the paths that Beethoven did take.

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