Tag Archives: Beethoven

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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kick-awesome project

Frederic Rzewski actually once said to me, “You should play the Hammerklavier. You’d be good at it.” So, that’s what I’m going to do.

He said this to me at the Music09 festival in Switzerland, and I have been pondering it ever since, weighing whether it was feasible and whether it would be worth it. It’s one of those notorious pieces where everyone claims it’s ridiculously difficult on multiple fronts – and part of me believes them (because why would they lie?) and part of me doesn’t (because how many have played it over the last 200 years?).

So, I have “permission” from my professor – that as long as I understand what I’m getting into and how big a project this will be, then do it. He also said he would be learning it with me – he’s never actually made a real study of it, but has taught it and read it many times. So that will also be very cool.

Okay then, next question: what to program with it? My first reaction is something French, like one book of Debussy’s Images. So that’s out – I’m definitely looking for something less obvious and more intriguing. This stumped me for a good year – what the heck do you program with it?! So then switched trains of thought: What do people think of when they hear “Hammerklavier”? First, that it’s enormous; second, that it’s real difficult; and third, partially because of the fugue. Fugue – what to pair with a fugue? A PRELUDE.

This was definitely more what I had in mind. Pull together a smattering of preludes by pretty much everyone – Debussy, Chopin, Shostakovich, Scriabin, maybe some late Baroque ones, etc., and end the set with Rachmaninoff’s Bb prelude – both a good set end and a good setup for the Beethoven. Solid.

So I approached my prof about it. He also thought it was a cool idea, but suggested possibly doing a complete set of preludes by one composer. I have to admit, I had considered it, but for some reason dismissed it as being too much (as if the Hammerklavier weren’t already). So he started suggesting complete sets. And I think we both lit up when he got to Shostakovich. I have always wanted to perform them as a set, and I think they’re a great counterbalance to this program.

So, as it stands, that’s my next solo recital program:
Shostakovich: Preludes, Op. 34
Beethoven: Sonata in Bb, Op. 106
It will take me at very minimum a year to learn. And it’s probably the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. No, not probably – it is. This may work, or it may prove too much. But what better opportunity will I ever have than now?

Seriously though, I’m so excited.

Also, if you’re wondering where “kick-awesome” comes from, it’s (of course) in a sbemail:

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an open letter to shostakovich

Dear Shostakovich,

I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’m just gonna come out with it: I love you.

I used to consider you one of my favorite composers when I was reminded of you. No longer: I shall never forget you again. I mean it. I want to play your music. No – I want to practice your music when I feel like hell, when the only realistic thing for me to do is call it a day and go to bed.

Like today, when your sonata’s cellist bribed me with beer to come in for a 9pm rehearsal. He didn’t have to – I was going to come in anyway. (I felt he wouldn’t take no for an answer on the beer. You understand that, I’m sure.) I was going to come even though I have a headache, even though I’m exhausted, even though we lost an hour of sleep last night, even though my left wrist hurts, even though my eyes are tired, even though I spent the entire day being frustrated at church, even though I already practiced the sonata for 3 hours. Even though I should have just gone to bed, I would have come in anyway. And after we rehearsed for an hour, I stayed an extra hour and kept working. Really, I love you and I want to thank you for that.

Many people much smarter than I will say that you are a phenomenal composer for lots of important sounding concepts and socio-political things and all that. Not that those aren’t important, but to me the only one that counts is that I want to play your music unequivocally. Only one other composer inspires me to do that.

Also, please forgive me for dropping the last LH 16th note in m210 of the fourth movement. I’m not particularly proud of it, but if I don’t, my hand will flop around like a suffocating fish for the next measure. And I think we can both agree that dropping the note is preferable.

With all the possible affection,

Liz (your little Ukrainian girl)

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My guide then led me to the lowest level. Though by sight it appeared much less torturous than the previous levels, the air was thick with extreme unrelenting anguish. We were in a brightly lit hall housing rows of tables as far as the eye could see. Every few meters along each table sat a man or woman, hunched over what seemed to be stacks of paper and pencils. Along each row walked a man in a powdered wig. It was eerily quiet – indeed, the proctors’ footfalls were the only thing to be heard – but occasionally the silence was broken by a wail or a moan. Among the seated could be seen a man gnashing his teeth and rending his hair.

Instinctively inching closer to my guide, I said, “Herr Bach, what is this awful place?”

“Ah, my child, you have now reached the lowest level of Musicians’ Hell. This is Suspension, reserved for only the greatest crimes against music.”

I turned away from the hall and looked up at him as he nodded to one of the proctors. “But sir,” I said, “I don’t understand. What did they do?”

Looking into the hall, he sighed. “They are guilty of writing bad liturgical music.” The proctor gave him a sideways glance, but said nothing. He looked back at me and said, “They are writers of what you call ‘Worship Songs’.”

A shudder went through my body and I slid even closer.

“These composers, for lack of a better term, are guilty of the most blatant disregard for good music. They have cast aside artistic integrity and solid craft in the name of ‘accessibility,’ of producing great quantities of music at great speed, and caring nothing for the quality of what they produce. Their individual crimes are numerous, but the sum of these crimes is nothing compared to the whole.”

“Sir?” I asked, not daring to finish the question as a wail split the silence.

“These writers are perhaps best known for their abuse of the modulation. For lack of ability to write anything musically captivating, or even interesting, they modulate, and almost always upward. It is not unheard of that a piece should end a perfect fifth higher than it began, simply from modulating toward the heavens. Contrary to their beliefs, these modulations did not actually get them to heaven,” he said with a grin. “Furthermore, they believe it interesting to begin a new unrelated key in the middle of the previous one, with no preparation whatsoever. It is not interesting, it is jarring and painful. There are pieces documented having upwards of twenty-one modulations.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“But that is not all!” he continued. “Far from it. The sin that pains me most is their ludicrous syncopations. One rhythmic side-step to make things interesting is all well and good, even desired! But these people write insanity. Not a single note on a beat. The music falls over its own feet! It cannot stand up, much less dance. And they expect people to play and sing this nonsense – particularly untrained musicians! An abomination.”

He drew several breaths, looking at the floor, and gathered his composure. “Voice leading,” he said quietly. “They have no regard for voice leading.”

“But sir, aren’t the rules not rules, but conventions?” I asked.

“Yes, conventions that make it better for the singer! Hence the name: voice-leading. These parts are anything but easy to sing. Why should anyone be required to jump from a B-flat to an E at a final cadence? That is, quite simply, a crime. But besides that, their reliance on parallel fifths alone could earn them a place here. Parallel fifths, in and of themselves, are not necessarily terrible. But when a string of seven of them, being the bass of seven parallel major chords, comprises the entire phrase…” he trailed off. He needn’t say more.

I interjected. “Sir, B-flat to E? A tri-tone? At a cadence? Surely…”

“I assure you my child. It has happened. One time is too many, but it has happened far more than once. Why? Because these ‘composers’ have a complete disregard for harmony. Their love of unresolved suspensions is despicable beyond language.” He passed his hand over his brow. “They believe that so long as a section (never a whole piece!) begins and ends in the same key, they have the freedom to wander whither they will without consequence. It does not sound interesting – it sounds what it is! Aimless wandering! My child, the tri-tone at the cadence results from the favoring of the lowered seventh in major modes. Some unnameable cluster of notes including the B-flat comes just before the final blaze of C major, and the poor tenor must negotiate this leap because the ridiculous composer didn’t think.”

“Sir, that’s awful!” I said as I looked out over the masses. Still hunched over, still scribbling, gnawing on pencils, erasing furiously.

“Yes. It is. But so are the accompaniments they write for their vocal music.” He looked aside in disgust. “Many of them have a pre-recorded CD, so no instrumentalists are needed. These CDs, I assure you, are some of the most awful things produced. The CDs with live accompaniment are of some poor garage band or pick-up orchestra playing along to a click track. Every single one has a drum set, and rules of orchestration never enter the equation. Let us not mention the MIDI CDs. In the event that a piece comes with an actual instrumental part, it will be banal, awkward, or both. None of these composers understood that there was else a pianist could do besides arpeggios, octaves, and full chords.

“And the annoying tempi! There is no difference between a dotted quarter at sixty ‘steadily,’ or an eighty-four quarter ‘worshipfully,’ or a one-oh-six quarter ‘joyfully.’ They should all be obliterated and marked ‘Moderato: droll’ so as to not delude anyone into thinking they warrant energy or excitement.”

A proctor stopped at a man in the third row from us, bent over his work. The proctor pointed to a place on his paper; the man wept. He reached for a new piece of paper; the proctor moved on.

“And the thing you will perhaps find most disturbing, my child, is their bastardization of existing pieces. All that I have said before, all these terrible things, are applied to pieces already in the canon. I hope you never have to hear the worst that was done to the Star-Spangled Banner, or any number of hymns, or – I am sorry – the beloved theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called ‘Ode to Joy.’ These people change keys, rhythms, meters, harmonies and texts absolutely recklessly, without any regard for the original composers’ intentions, completely changing the meaning of the piece.”

Bach looked out over bowed heads with a mixture of loathing and pity. I swallowed the lump rising in my throat. “Sir, what could possibly be fitting punishment for so great a crime?”

He turned back to me with a glint in his eye.

“Species counterpoint.”

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