Bonding with Beethoven (1)

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I’m not scheduled to teach this quarter or next, and I hope renewing an engagement with classical music will complement my service to grandchildren and to Jan’s mayoral campaign. Larry and I have agreed to lecture on The Kreutzer Sonata“both the violin-piano sonata by Beethoven and the novella by Tolstoy–next Spring in the course we’re collaborating on.* We arrange to meet with Jim C., mutual friend, colleague and musical savant to discuss the piece, since Larry and I are hardly literate in this area.

Tolstoy’s unreliable narrator says this about the first movement:

How can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in low-necked dresses? To hear that played, to clap a little, and then to eat ices and talk of the latest scandal? Such things should only be played on certain important significant occasions, and then only when certain actions answering to such music are wanted.

As I listen to the sonata in preparation for our meeting I think I hear what evokes that reaction: a sensuous and violent mating dance between violin and piano: courtship, chase, capture, resistance, yielding and consummation.

Spurred on by this encounter, I venture into more challenging musical territory. I  purchase the 3 CD set of the Emerson Quartet’s performances of Beethoven’s “late quartets.”  Since adolescence I’ve heard them referred to as one of humanity’s supreme artistic achievements, but I’ve been intimidated by their reputation for inaccessability. I copy the first of them, Opus 127, to my ipod nano, along with the Kreutzer and some more familiar pieces in my itunes collection: the Archduke Trio, Waldstein Sonata, and Piano Concerto #4 and listen to them during my daily hours of precinct walking. I’m intrigued by the billowing, elongated melody of the quartet’s slow second movement. I download the score and order books of music criticism through interlibrary loan.

When the three of us get together in our living room, Jim moves the furniture to place the speakers in optimum positions. We compare his different recordings of the Kreutzer and Opus 127. The music and talk are loud, and at 1:00 A.M. Jan asks us to end the party because she cant sleep.

*Materials for that class

Bonding with Beethoven (2)

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

I’m sick in bed with a recurrent sinus infection. I listen to the quartet, watch movies– “Eternal Beloved” and  “In Search of Beethoven””and study the criticism.  I’m frustrated by the incomprehensible music theory but the scholars’ descriptive language helps me grasp the elusive central theme of the Adagio.  Lewis Lockwood calls it a “long and winding melody,” Michael Steinberg “a rapt and expansive melody,” Joseph Kerman “a famous miracle of beauty.”  Awakened last night by a violent cough, I sat up on the couch and for the first time recognized bits of the core theme in the six subsequent variations. I thought of Beethoven’s struggle with disease, deafness, isolation, and self-loathing.  His creativity transformed his suffering into beauty. It saved him from suicide.

Bonding with Beethoven (3)

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Health is returning.

Piano Concerto #4 now playing”the last movement’s opening theme:

Bump ba da bump ba ba bump/bump bump bump/
bump bad a bump bump bump/
bump bad a bump bump bump/.

Audio [opens in new window]

I search for words that could correlate with the notes, lyrics to enable my weak memory to recall the tune.

While Ian was at Karate yesterday, I walked around the parking lot listening to the Waldstein sonata. As the wind swept through the tops of the eucalyptus trees by the creek, I imagined hearing it in the opening of the third movement.

Audio [opens in a new window]

Wikipedia calls it “a sweet and consoling tune.”

Today driving around putting up “Elect Jan Marx” signs, words for the first phrase pop into my head: “Sing sing the wind is blowing.” At home I play with rhymes.

Sing, sing, the wind is blowing
Dance dance the fluttering leaves
Ring ring the bells are tolling
Earth now new life conceives

I check the performance and the score:


My last line ignores the shift from a simple repeat to an extended variation in the third and fourth lines of the stanza.

I look in the top line of the score for the theme and cant locate it.  Then I notice that the treble and bass clef have been deviously reversed to indicate right and left hands being crossed.  I correct the lyrics:

Sing, sing, the wind is blowing
Dance dance the fluttering leaves
Ring ring the bells are tolling
With news that earth receives, conceives, believes
And having heard no longer sighs and grieves

I don’t care that they don’t make much verbal sense; they help me remember the strain that shapes the later wild variations.

Bonding with Beethoven (4)

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

In order to really understand the 127 Adagio, I’ve got to come up with some lyrics. But I cant do that in my head. The melodic curve is too long. It must be hammered out on an instrument. The four-flats key signature and the full two-octave pitch range rule out my playing it on the recorder.  I need a keyboard.  I search Craigslist and find one for sale by a student in Laguna for $35.  It takes a week to track down the missing power supply. Now I will enter the dark world of the black keys that scared me away from piano lessons in grade 5.

How to finger those notes scored for the first violin?  I google “four flat scale” and find it’s A Flat major and come up with several different recommendations for fingering it.  I try them all, writing and erasing numbers above the first few measures.  None tells me which finger to use when the melody skips successive notes or makes its breathtaking leaps.