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VII Descriptive Music: Op. 81a, Op. 13

Kenneth O. Drake Indiana University Press ePub

If a music appreciation class were to listen to the Sonata Op. 81a, without being aware of the programmatic titles, and another class were to listen to the same sonata but after being told the titles of the three movements, the second group would almost certainly remember the piece in greater detail. The historical background alone is like a fabric of fantasy woven of threads of a variety of colors—the Archduke who later became an Archbishop, Beethoven’s gifted student and patron, the relationship of a Hapsburg royal to a composer who once felt the need to insist that the “van” in his name indicated nobility, the approach of the French armies, the flight of the Archduke—making a pattern we know as the Les Adieux Sonata. Descriptive or programmatic music will be taken seriously or not according to the associations established in the mind. If they are too literal, the piece will seem more entertaining than serious. However, imagining the sentiments that were exchanged between these two flesh-and-blood human beings coming from two widely separated levels of society and meeting in a kind of temple of the spirit, musician and nonmusician alike will hear the music as an “immortal sign” of a human experience. Life does lend significance to the act of making music.

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VI Sound as Color

Kenneth O. Drake Indiana University Press ePub

Those who knew Beethoven as a child remembered his being held spellbound by unusual sounds, such as the whirring of the shutters in the wind, recalling Czerny’s remark that, with Beethoven, “every sound and every movement became music and rhythm.” Color goes beyond pleasing sonority or bell-like “singing tone” to the unique timbre of a particular sound that is only one step removed from the whirring of the shutters. Imagination for color is finding character in harmony that is tonally nonfunctional, in chromaticism, in a particular interval, register, accompaniment figure, or detail of articulation, in a character piece, in the contrast of major and minor, and in the indication of long pedals.

“Tonally nonfunctional” describes a suspension of harmonic movement during which sound is heard for its intrinsic property to draw the listener’s attention to itself (Exx. 6.1 and 6.2). In Ex. 6.1, the extended dominant-seventh harmony and the chromatic play within it introduce a few moments of stillness and reflection following the intensity of the first half of the exposition. This passage also marks the first appearance of the triplet sixteenths, which provide a kind of rhythmic relief from the duple eighth and sixteenth subdivision that has gone before. One may suppose that, because of the adagio in m. 24, the tenute and longer note values in m. 25, and the fermata in m. 26, Haydn would have played the triplet sixteenths freely, perhaps with a rallentando, so that the tempo of the latter would have led naturally into the adagio cadenza. Treating the triplets freely establishes a basis for contrast with the triplets in the closing theme, which begins in m. 32.

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XVI Embracing the Dachstein: Op. 7, Op. 106

Kenneth O. Drake Indiana University Press ePub

Op. 7 and Op. 106 would not seem to have much in common, one sonata from the early years of Beethoven’s creative life and the other from his last decade. What the two share is a breadth of conception and, aside from the Op. 106 Adagio, a spirit of assertiveness that overflows their many bars. The earlier work is perhaps the less self-assured of the two, lacking the cerebral armor of Beethoven’s maturity. Nonetheless, each is colossal in its own way, peculiar to the time of life in which it was written.

With the exception of the Hammerklavier, the E Sonata is Beethoven’s longest piano sonata. However, length calculated in minutes has little meaning for the imagination, which tells time by a different clock, on whose face the hours are marked by sensations and impressions. Op. 2 No. 3 might seem to be longer because each movement is equally imposing, or Op. 111, because its philosophical answer sums up a lifetime of thought.

The first movement of Op. 7 is more unified than that of Op. 2 No. 3. It develops one character and was, as Czerny wrote, conceived in a passionate state of mind.1 Clues in the first four measures define its character: 1. an Allegro molto in 6/8, seemingly swifter than duple subdivision; 2. repeated eighth notes; 3. a dynamic marking of piano, interrupted only by the sforzando on the E chord in m. 3; and 4. unslurred tonic chords, making the passage harmonically stationary.

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II Technique as Touch

Kenneth O. Drake Indiana University Press ePub

Among the misguided reasons for playing an early instrument is the intent to do a demonstration, as though dressing in its clothes will bring the past to life. Music making is not historical reenactment. An early piano should be used only as a medium to conjure up the spirit within the music. The Spirit of St. Louis, like the Concorde, enabled a person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Lindbergh, however, flew without the aid of sophisticated instrument systems, depending upon his skill and endurance. He came to know, as we cannot, the awesomeness of transatlantic distance and the elements, as well as the possibility for disaster.

Playing an early piano, though not life-threatening, also requires an exercise of judgment and skill. Lacking the resources of the modern piano, the player is responsible for believable dynamic levels and sensuous tone quality. When listeners remark that the period piano enabled them to hear the music for the first time, what they heard was the stimulus of the instrument to the player’s imagination and ingenuity. In Beethoven, the player’s involvement extends to the expressiveness of physical effort as well. As the historic piano is forced beyond the limits of its sonority, the music itself sounds more imposing. Because of the lesser sonority and the change in character from one register to another (as opposed to the homogenizing of sound on the modern piano), expressive details become as personal as words whispered directly in the ear of a single listener.

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XVIII The Witness Tree

Kenneth O. Drake Indiana University Press ePub

Wem meine Musik sich verständlich macht, der muss frei werden von all dem Elend, womit sich die andern schleppen.

BEETHOVEN

In a field requiring sustained dedication with no guarantee of reward, the serious interpreter becomes obsessed with finding reassurance of valid accomplishment and self-worth. Within the vastness of musical creativity that has preceded us, the phenomenon of Beethoven, like the witness tree (a marker from which nineteenth-century surveyors made their measurements), becomes a living point of orientation for establishing aesthetic boundaries and clarifying one’s professional values. One would like to believe in the accuracy of the quotation above (“The one to whom my music makes itself understandable will, as a matter of course, become free of all the misery that others drag around with them”), which was included in a letter from Bettina Brentano to Goethe.

What scholarly research cannot prove or disprove, personal experience can. The comment attributed to Beethoven is remarkable, first of all, in personifying the music as an active agent: it “makes itself understandable.” The German modal muss is problematic, not to be understood “that the listener must (first) become free of all the misery,” but that it will happen unavoidably as a result of the experience. Above all, the statement is remarkable for linking the music inseparably to the human condition, although following this concept to its logical conclusion presents unsettling implications for our profession.

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