some thoughts on returning to beethoven after a long period of playing much more recent music

All of last semester, and up until today, I have been playing somewhat unusual rep for a piano performance major. It was almost exclusively chamber music, most of it written in the past hundred years (I hesitate to use the term “modern”), and anything common practice was an orchestral reduction: not written for piano (with only one exception). So in all cases, difficult because of either the notes, the awkward writing, or both.

This semester instead of Copland, Shostakovich, and some Big Romantic Reductions, I’ve got Beethoven and Brahms! And Scarlatti! And maybe some Mozart! Okay there’s still some Shosty, I can’t lie, but still. Tonality! And let’s jump right in because that Beethoven horn sonata performance is in a week!

And these are the things I noticed as I got reacquainted with Beethoven.

1. I learned the entire sonata tonight. In about two hours. I will hit up some of the less obvious spots tomorrow and then it will be rehearsal-ready. Granted it’s not that difficult, but the last 24-page piece I had to learn took me more than a week to get the notes under my hands and required hardcore woodshedding every day just to keep it at acceptable levels. And let’s not talk about how much work/time to get it sounding good. It feels unnatural to not spend eight- or ten-hour days slaving over it just to accomplish a few pages. It feels too easy. Like I’m missing something or I’m cheating.

2. It’s relatively easy to play. It’s written for piano, by a pianist. The scale passages, melodies, and chord patterns are logical and fit under the hands. There are no strange tricks, I don’t have to finagle fingerings or orchestrate major note redistribution, acrobatics, or weigh the importance of individual notes and play Sophie’s Choice. I just have to write in the occasional finger number or accidental.

3. It requires more smart thinking than elbow grease. In this piece, every rhythmic or technical issue I encountered could be solved by either re-barring, re-stemming, or shifting hand positions. Yes, solved. In every piece I played in the last six months, every rhythmic/technical issue had to be mitigated by lots of slow work and an infuriating amount of repetition. Also copious cursing.

4. Simple rhythms are suddenly challenging. An eighth-note melody over a sixteenth-note accompaniment? Impossible. Requires some fingering write-ins and a few slow readings to get it right. A triplet embellishment of that same melody over that sixteenth-note accompaniment? Nailed it on the first try. (This may be because the last time I had to play straight eighths, it entailed a jump of more than an octave per hand twice per measure on consecutive eighths. And wasn’t tonal.)

5. It’s tonal. There is a colossal difference between “It was written in 1948 but all the harmonies are triadically based so it’s easier to read! Too bad it’s a different triad every single eighth at Quarter Equals 152” and “It’s in F with a harmonic rhythm of one measure.”

6. I’m playing off a library copy. I never do this. I always buy and play from my own copy (if I don’t borrow one from the soloist). However given the short lead time on this performance, I borrowed one from the library (I haven’t even met the horn player yet). And after spending only about two hours with the score I’m feeling a special kinship with whoever used it before me. First off, they erased all their markings before they returned it (the first time I’ve ever seen that! Props to you!). But as usually happens, ghosts of their markings can be seen if you look closely enough. And every time I go to mark something for myself, I find a ghost – this person made the same marking I am. Every accidental, fingering, circled reminder, was made by the person before me. I feel a strange kinship with them. “You kept missing that Bb too, huh?” “Yeah, they give you the start of the turn but not how to get out of it. I agree, 4 as the pivot.”

7. I missed Beethoven. I have been having (and will continue having) a pretty steamy affair with Shostakovich, but one quick harmonic turn brought it all back to me. Only Beethoven could find such perfection in such a tiny detail. It’s nice to be welcomed back, and with a wink at that.

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