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.


Bonding with Beethoven (5)

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

At the Mayoral Candidates Forum, I run into Craig R. the composer. I ask him about the fingering of the Opus 127 Adagio.  He says everyone has to figure it out for themselves.  Depends on your hands.  One “rule of thumb”: keep thumbs off the black keys.  When Chad drops by to pick up a precinct, I ask him to look at the fingering I’m working on.  He’s a good pianist but he’s stumped.  After two more days of trial and error, I arrive at a sequence my fingers can follow. I see where the strains within the melody begin and end, where they repeat and vary, where they accelerate and retard, rise and fall, build up and trail off.  The words click into place.


Audio [new window]

If we could find¦
The key to unlock beauty’s hidden clue
Then¦we might learn to reach
The love of life we sometime knew.
Then we might escape
Our lonely shell
We might arise out of our hell
Grow wings to fly into the air
And float free from care

But there’s no chance
That such release will ever
Be felt while we are here
Unless we can recall
From whence we came

Yet I am hopeful
(And so are we)
I’m truly hopeful
(And we are too)
I hope our lives
Can be the way
We want
The way we want
The way they truly should have been
Once more
Once more
Once more

Bonding with Beethoven (6)

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

I˜m ready to move on to another late quartet.  On the drive to pick up Ian from school in A.G. I listen to Opus 132, quartet #15.  The third movement Adagio is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. The exaggeratedly slow opening tempo that slows even further, the notes’ uniformity of length, and the alien sequence of low pitches add up to what seems like several minutes of formless, unconnected sounds.  They’re followed by a wild flurry of ecstatic dance music, then a slightly more active modification of the slow section, then another exultant interlude, and a finally a complicated set of variations of the opening that combine both slow and fast sections. Beethoven called this “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesen an die Gottheit,” A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Gratitude to the Divine.

My reading reveals that though I’d never heard of it, this piece is one of Beethoven’s greatest hits. Produced while he was suffering from a combination of painful abdominal ailments from which he feared he wouldn’t recover, he wrote to his doctor afterwards that the notes helped to cure him.  I listen to an online lecture by musicologist and composer Jeffrey Kapilow to an audience at the Stanford Medical School that provides a lucid and enthusiastic explication of the piece’s unique structure and style.  I can follow the lecture the third time around with the score in front of me, except for the part about the last little section. Sitting in front of the shrine in my study that contains my parents’ cremated remains, I imagine the opening preludes and chorales as two alternating voices: one invoking the dead the other their replies.

audio [opens in new window]

You who came before us now speak
Here still at rest we stay and watch

Comforting, you offer witness
Life no longer can disturb us

Lying, sitting standing you gaze
And our repose remains complete

Held in effortless suspension
At last we know our final state

May you grant us understanding
All we can pass to you is love.

Bonding with Beethoven (7)

Monday, December 20th, 2010

I burn a CD with the two slow movements, scores, commentaries, and lyrics and send copies to family and friends for Christmas.


It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I began this blog six years ago at the start of a long, gradual splashdown toward full retirement which yesterday concluded.  Larry and I chose Bob Dylan as the topic of the final week in the Great Works course we co-taught, and hoping to make a small gesture of farewell for the last interpretive sally, I selected a song which has been my friend since I was the age of this year’s students.  I woke up at the usual time, gripped by the usual anxiety about facing the class eight hours later, and decided to write out some parting remarks.

Song lyrics

1965 Performance

This song is about departing and starting, about being through and beginning anew, about relinquishing the past and welcoming change, about what Virginia Woolf called “Time Passing” and what Mary Oliver called “The Journey,” and what Thoreau called “Spring.”

The song’s emotion is elegiac, the paradoxical bittersweetness of a eulogy–a mixture of strong feelings that modulate from harsh to insistent to comforting and encouraging.  That mixture is expressed in the repeated melodic line of every stanza, the regular meter of the lyrics, the amazing congruence of the rhymes, and the complexity of the singer’s tone.

The situation the song sets up is one of forced evacuation from one’s home”the rocky transition from resident to refugee. The speaker’s rough voice is that of the cherub holding the sword at the Gates of Eden, chasing Adam and Eve out of Paradise”proclaiming the end of Innocence.

This is a metaphor for other endings:

  • breaking up a love affair
  • striking the set after the performance of a play
  • concluding a dinner party
  • attending the last day of a class
  • graduating from college
  • retiring from a career
  • facing death

One strain in the voice is threatening, cruel, even sneering.

  • You must leave now— the place you occupied is no longer yours”you have to abandon whatever you’ve surrounded and protected yourself with.
  • Take what you need¦you better grab it fast”And make it quick, I mean it.
  • Otherwise you’ll be shot or trampled: Yonder stands your orphan with his gun¦ Look out the saints are comin’ through.
  • Your position has been given to someone else, who’s waiting to occupy what used to be your room and is already wearing what was in your closet: The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
  • Whatever you’ve committed to, accumulated and relied on in the past has lost its strength.  That means the forces with which you built your defenses”All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home/All your reindeer armies, are all going home–and also the desire that let you drop those defenses in bed: The lover who just walked out your door/Has taken all his blankets from the floor.
  • The reality on which you’ve based your life is shifting: The carpet now is moving under you— and even the heavens above are collapsing like a tent: This sky too is folding over you.

Another strain in the voice offers cold but prudent counsel:

  • take what you need, you think will last. Now you must distinguish your grain from your chaff, your goods from your stuff.
  • The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense: there’s no more security and predictability, so be wary and wise.
  • Take what you have gathered from coincidence. You cant rely on abstraction or principle, only the tentative knowledge gained from your own personal experience.

The chill in the voice is also bracing.

  • It urges courage: Leave your stepping stones behind
  • It promises freedom: Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

And finally the voice redirects nostalgic longing for the old flame that’s burned out to the opportunity for beginning: Strike another match, go start anew

And it alerts us to the sound of a future unseen, perilous, and yet beckoning, where something calls for you.

So on this last day of our class, where the works we’ve read have stimulated all of us into affirming new beginnings, this day before all of us “must leave,” lets listen to what this song of Innocence and Experience has to say.

from The Magic Flute

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Mann und Weib
Und Weib und Mann
Reichen an
die Gottheit an.

(Wife and husband
husband wife
together reach
for godly life.)





Leonard Cohen, Buddhist

Monday, March 31st, 2014

An address to the White Heron Sangha, San Luis Obispo CA March 30, 2014

[Note: Song titles link to current YouTube movies of performances]

Like Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac, two prominent North American writers who found in traditional Buddhist texts and practices a validation for their own renegade spiritual explorations, Leonard Cohen is another rebel hero whose life and work can profitably be examined from a Buddhist perspective.

Unlike those two great outdoorsmen who died young, Cohen has never expressed much appreciation for nature, and he’s still at the height of his game at age 80. But he’s often been compared to the irreverent Cold Mountain poets of Ancient China, who Kerouac and his friend Gary Snyder referred to as “dharma bums.”  Like Thoreau and Kerouac Cohen combines longing for transcendance with earthy iconoclasm, and always writes about himself. Also, like Thoreau at Walden Pond and Kerouac on Desolation Peak, Cohen spent an important period of his life in monastic isolation–6500 feet up in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles, where studying sutras and meditation practice offered refuge from a secular world of distractions and a source of creative inspiration. (more…)