I am writing after the fact, a little shocked by something I lived through, and want to testify to the healing power of music. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Conductors & musicians live remarkably long lives, likely rejuvenated by the music swirling around them like the waters of a fountain of youth.
I feel sanest at the piano. It’s a place where irrational and rational coexist side by side. Apollo and Dionysius have to make peace with one another, for better or worse, if they’re to co-exist inside the same skull.
This past week was very draining for me, disorienting because my usual schedule was turned upside down. I made a family trip to NYC, including Die Walküre on Friday the 13th (lucky for me as it turned out) , coming home to a busy week partway through Monday. Each of Tuesday & Wednesday entailed a day of work, a show at night and a review afterwards. While this regular pattern of a full day of work, a show at night plus writing a review after midnight doesn’t leave much time for sleep, it was complicated by my excitement, which had me awake at odd hours like a kid waiting for Santa the next morning.
Thursday night –exhausted and mentally drained– i sat down at the piano at about 8:30 pm. I had my old Beethoven sonata book out. While I own another set (beaten up from years of play, particularly when one turns the page a bit too enthusiastically) I found this marvellous old set in a used book store: all 32 sonatas in one book. The Schirmer or Schnabel sets are in two big volumes, whereas this one is the same size as a single volume from either of those. How? I suppose the text is smaller, the pages are thinner. It’s an asset because it means fewer page-turns.
I pulled out this beloved book (and as I think of healing, the presence of such a book generating warm thoughts is probably a good thing) when I heard of Stewart Goodyear’s plan to play all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in a single day. I blogged a bit about it, playing through the first few sonatas, (except I skipped the first one) ). Karen Lin led me to these questions, on her blog, reminding me of Julie & Julia, the film showing two parallel quests. Just as Julie is the average person re-tracing the epic steps of Julia Child, Karen seems to be taking the small steps as a listener that would parallel the giant steps of Goodyear. In the same (copycat) vein, I as an amateur piano-player am also making my own parallel journey on a much smaller scale.
I wondered at 8:30, as I started playing opus 101 whether I could play to the end of the book. I was tired and dazed, but would let the music lead me. These are pieces I’ve played a lot, with the exception of one movement that I don’t pretend to really understand. (more on that in a moment). Fortunately I was alone and wouldn’t likely be disturbed. If the phone were to ring I wouldn’t pick it up.
Op 101? A first movement that’s Wagnerian passion, all appoggiaturas and sighing incomplete phrases that anticipate Tristan und Isolde, but on a delicate and intimate scale. It’s sexy music, and an enormous privilege to play. Second movement? Masculine crisp energy, a piece I only really “got” after hearing Anton Kuerti play it on his landmark recording. The piece has the qualities of a small-scale blitzkrieg, of armies marching across the keyboard in perfect formation, tortured energies repressed to keep the goose-stepping perfectly in line, the delicate ornaments like the gleam of helmets and bayonets. There’s a sweet little interlude in the middle, as if the soldier took off his clothes to swim in the pond of the farm he’s invading, perhaps with the farmer’s daughter. But moments later, his uniform is back on and POW the army is on the march again. Tired as I was, I surrendered to the demands of the piece, like a conscript marching in time with his comrades, unaware of how tired I was supposed to be. Third movement? Languid thoughtful, profound, one of the movements when Beethoven throws you a curve, surprising you with the last thing you would have expected. It’s so tranquil and respectful, one can simply breathe and let one’s arms sink into the wonderful chords.
Finally, there’s a transition towards the end. We get a lovely recap of the opening, perhaps a bit like what we have at the beginning of the last movement of the 9th Symphony, when snippets from previous movements take us back to earlier sentiments. And then the last movement… I wish I could say this was my insight but I am pretty sure I read somewhere that the last movement is like the gates of heaven opening.
Was it Kuerti again?… he is responsible for one quote that is especially memorable, when he said –in this paraphrase—“to play Beethoven one must become Beethoven,” an elegant way of understanding romantic identification, and indeed a handy justification for interpretative excess (not that Kuerti was guilty… his was a very polite Beethoven when I think back, with no fists shaken heavenwards that I can recall; but I will happily wear Kuerti’s dictum on my sleeve, to justify the mistakes I make, when Dionysius momentarily gets the better of Apollo).
At one time I was not sure whether that image –heaven opening– would work for me, but I’ve tried to play the piece that way. At one time I used to play it way too fast and loud, consumed by the counterpoint and the voices surging against one another. I say this, by the way, mindful of the one movement among these last 5 sonatas that doesn’t hang together for me, that’s simply too big, too complex for me to grasp at an organic level and waiting around the next curve in the maze like the Minotaur: the vast concluding movement of op 106. The heaven metaphor? It is helpful for one big reason: that I try to come to the the piece without the need to make drama full of conflict over several minutes seeking resolution & perhaps a catharsis (gasp…); instead it can be more of a piece that begins from a point of arrival, as a proclamation of release & liberation. Think of the way the “Hallejah” chorus proclaims something, and takes its space precisely because it’s already confidently arrived at a place of grace: and you’d have an idea of how I think one should play that last movement. And that means, too, that it doesn’t have to be as loud, just as recent versions of the Hallelujah chorus (thinking especially of Kevin Mallon’s reading at the Dublin Messiah last December) start happily but grow gradually throughout. With every successive attempt I find i am more capable of making the opening of this movement a calm affirmation.
Okay, so I pump out the A major chords to end op 101, and think, yes I shall go on to play the beginning of Op 106 and see how far I get. How amazing to hear the similarities between these. We’ve slid a semitone up the keyboard, and here we are leaping upwards yet again. For anyone doubting the validity or purpose of Stewart Goodyear’s ambitious project (and I heard of at least one simplistic damnation) the insights one feels going from one to the next, seeing the similarities & parallels –for instance between the two colossal contrapuntal movements in adjacent sonatas as well as the similarities between these upward leaping figures—are impossible to valuate. I like the way this project is pushing me to think of the sonatas as an ongoing essay, the way sketches or compositions will inevitably return again and again to similar material.
I confess that I do cheat: for unlike Mr Goodyear I will not do the Op 106 repeats because it’s late and I wonder if I will make it through tonight. I gotta hurry..! if I am going to get this through tonight, tired as I am, I play the second movement quieter than ever, perhaps again mindful of the time but also letting the large project and my limited reserves of energy steer me towards a more delicate reading of this big scherzo. Hm, this is giving me new insights again. I come to the big long slow movement thinking –as I did playing the early sonatas over a week ago—and remember the historically informed interpreters and their lessons on Beethoven. I play it faster, thinking of the way Norrington does the slow movement of the 9th. The way I’d seen it notated made it almost painfully slow, dripping gravitas and drama. Maybe that’s another of those modern mistakes. (how do you say “look what they’ve done to my song ma” in German?)
I feel like a fraud playing the last movement of op 106. While I was blown away by the way Goodyear plays it, I don’t really like this piece, or more truthfully, I just don’t get it. The themes swirl around, but mostly leave me cold. I am playing notes, trying to play it right (ha… without conviction or insight). The recent memory of how Goodyear plays this is in my head, as I play it slower, ham-handed and really just going through the motions, to get to the next one. But I am surprised when I get to a part I forgot that I liked. After a cadence of sorts on A, and a pause we get very quiet in D; and we get very easy to play for a change…! Thanks Ludwig, for throwing me a bone. We’re turning for home, now, with the return to B flat, including some ponderous heavy ascending notes in the bass. But at least it’s intelligible, especially as we get to the easy –and very loud –conclusion. I get a big rush on that cadence, almost tears. But it’s truthfully relief as much as joy.
On the facing page is the opening of a sonata Debussy must have liked, for its arabesques, arching sequences of notes on the page that seem to make a graphic design, gently lyrical with very little struggle. From time to time we have eruptions of passion in this movement, but they’re mostly under the hand and eminently rational, sounding like improvisations. Oh this is so easy after the struggles of the previous movement. I am smiling like a Cheshire cat playing this, realizing that so long as I relax I can play to the end of the book. No, I haven’t accomplished anything Olympian, but I am realizing I feel less tired than I did when I began. My arms are loose, my eyes aren’t hurting. Indeed I know these notes (unlike the previous movement) well enough that I barely need to read. The arching phrases are like a roadmap, with a subtle series of reminders of where I am supposed to let this composition take me. And let’s be clear, it takes me rather than the other way around. That’s probably why I feel so good, so relaxed. Yes, I think it’s the sense that Beethoven’s compositions are so brilliantly shaped that their flow is inevitable as my own involuntary processes. I can just trust their elegant organic shapes to nurture and heal me.
I have to stop briefly at the end of the first movement for the telephone, which is just as well. The second movement is a gallop –which is what I believe Ted Hughes called it in Gaudete –and the metaphor is apt. Playing this passage I need to be mindful for a bit, and for these bars at least I can’t pretend to be the passive rider, but must beware lest I hit a tree-branch or indeed lead my steed wildly off a cliff. But it’s playable, under the hand if one just remembers where one is going. This one, thankfully, I’ve practised before, but it’s so well written—again—that it comes back to me like the rhythms of riding a bicycle.
Now we come to one of my two favourite movements in this latter series of sonatas, the sets of variations that conclude sonatas 30 & 32. Variations on a theme, and a beautiful theme at that, afford the pianist lots of space to relax, enjoy the view, sink into the passionate moments, float on the waves of quiet tinkly notes that flow without any struggle. I am surrendering to the piece, which is keeping me safe somehow. The last variation of this sonata leads to another passionate explosion, and I find I have more energy and clarity than I have felt in days. We get to a final soft statement of the theme. Beethoven offers such moments of dignified elegance whereby one can feel as eloquent as if one were a Shakespearean hero.
Op 110 is even calmer than 109, without as many rough patches nor –in my opinion—as much passion either. We get to the fugal parts –often where my wheels come off because I simply prefer passages that sing and have a single melody to ride, rather then the enforced logic of counterpoint—and I’m feeling home-free.
A moment later I am hitting those big intervals that open op 111, sonata 32, and playing it –again—softer than usual. Once more, the long arc of playing multiple sonatas pushes me in a new direction. I have to thank Goodyear for this lesson (among several). This time it’s not so much the desire to conserve energy as the awareness that it’s 10:00 or so, and there are kids who might be sleeping next door. But to my surprise I get compliments from inside the house, the first feedback I’ve had throughout. Perhaps it sounds better than I thought…?
This two movement sonata is among my favourites, surely a fitting conclusion to the cycle. Fatigue is actually helpful, as I feel loose, playing the fast passages in the first movement without tension or conflict. I am surprised that the relatively uncomplicated call-and-answer phrases in this movement flow so nicely, after the complexities of the other contrapuntal movements in the previous hour. My mind is clearer than it has been all day, resonating with the pleasure of playing through the sequence thus far, and eager to take it to its conclusion. The theme and variations bring it home, swelling to that fast passage that anticipates boogie woogie piano. I remember the first time I found this being blown away that Beethoven seemed to anticipate what our pop music might sound like. In context it never fails to excite me, but in this five sonata mini-cycle, I find it especially ecstatic. What a rush, especially when i negotiate it without a mistake (and if that sounds like faint achievement listen to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli or Rudolf Serkin play it –the first two i checked just now on youtube…. Michelangeli makes at least two mistakes, while Serkin plays it like a European who can’t dance, rounding off the dotted rhythms). Do people know this music? I never hear people talk about it, but this has to be my favourite thing he wrote (hm… well I guess there are several other things of Beethoven that I also love. Fortunately we’re allowed to be promiscuous in our musical love life). And then it quiets down, and builds to another sort of climax on trills, wanders away from C major before that last wonderful gilt-edged reading of the theme, walking about in the garden after having come back from the dead.
So I don’t pretend that I am playing the whole cycle. But I am so moved by the healing experience, the catharsis of coming home to the piano, finding my equilibrium playing Beethoven. It leads me to believe that, first and foremost, the negative remarks by that fellow I quoted above, are short-sighted. Maybe this is a good way to approach Beethoven, maybe we should be playing multiple sonatas on a regular basis, given that playing one barely gets us warmed up. The virtuoso issue of whether Goodyear can achieve the 32? i think that’s perhaps a moot point by now. If I can play through five sonatas after a hard day of work with no sleep and feel better afterwards, chances are that an accomplished pianist can ride those good vibes, the unexpected healing power of Beethoven. I have no doubt Goodyear can accomplish the feat.
I am more curious about his interpretive choices, what his playing will sound like. And I wonder what discoveries we will make hearing him play the cycle. That’s why I want to be there.