A couple of weeks ago I was asked to play keyboard (organ + piano) at a wedding. I said yes enthusiastically, even though I haven’t done this in quite awhile. While I play the organ at my church from time to time, I last played a wedding in the 20th century. On top of that I haven’t played much of late. Although I found a nice groove in the winter through hours spent at the keyboard, I was aware that I’d not played so much of late.
For awhile all I did was think, and it was a question of repertoire. The bride would settle what I’d play at the wedding (a pleasant question that I enjoyed answering with her), but meanwhile, what was I to play to wake up my fingers, and calm my brain? I went AWOL from Blogville, pondering that deep life question “what shall I play”. It may not be obvious, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking. Lately I was wasting away in Blogville precisely because thinking is in some respects the opposite of blogging. This is not a place where I think a great deal. When I am in a writing groove, the paragraphs come out of me without much thought. Clearly that is not where I am now, although I’m trying to get back there.
But I did play a lot the past couple of weeks. Just as the blogging is often instinctive, following natural paths of association, so too with the rep choices. A friend posted a snapshot of the front page of the Diabelli Variations. Good. I pulled them out and played them.
I’d been reading Stewart Goodyear’s fascinating commentaries on Facebook, on the Beethoven Sonatas, as he prepared to play the Sonatathon: the sequel to last year’s Marathon. Yes, that was the obvious choice. I went logically from the Diabelli, in C and written after sonata 32, op 111 (finishing in C), knowing that I’d be riding a big arc through the 32 sonatas, right back to C major, via three of my favourite sonatas, each an assault on C:
- Op 2 #3
- Op 53, aka “The Waldstein”
- Op 111
I asked Goodyear to name his favourite sonata –a tough question considering the Shakespearean depths of the 32 sonatas–and he gave a forthright answer, identifying the sonata Op 28. Am I a sneak in answering my own question with a trick answer? But i’d say my favourite sonata is the sonata in C. THE sonata in C? That is, Op 2 #3, the Waldstein, and Op 111, because i see them as one long elaborated exploration of the key of C. I’d even strain credibility further by tossing the Diabelli variations into the mix, because of the parallels & similarities between the last pages of the four works.
I feel that Beethoven revisited keys with the earlier works still in his head. It was already something I’d thought, but it’s much clearer thanks to Mr Goodyear, who encourages me to see the sonatas as parts of organic groups by making me feel okay about playing hours of Beethoven in a sitting. All three of these sonatas end with tinkly trilling effects you don’t hear in any other sonata, sounds that also turn up in the last of the Diabelli variations. These are among Beethoven’s most utopian pieces. I know we think of the 5th Symphony in this context –HELLO I just remember what key that one ends in… so perhaps we can admit the symphony to this discussion—but I am not thinking of political revolution, as we find in Fidelio (again redolent with passages in C) or Egmont. I mean a kind of psychological utopia of peace and tranquility. Both the Waldstein & Op 111 seem to divide in the most radical way of any of the sonatas.
- Waldstein: tense opening, tiny transitional movement (one page long) followed by serene tinkling finale
- Op 111: tense opening in C minor, followed by a magisterial set of variations, almost like a valedictory
It’s now the night before the wedding. I happily navigated through the 32 sonatas, including days when I played for more than an hour straight. I am thinking a lot about the therapeutic power of music, especially when we’re playing rather than listening. In the Bible we read how Saul called upon David to play for him when he was depressed; too bad the Israelite king never learned how to play or sing for himself. When i think of the longevity of conductors, i have to say that’s the best medicine. I’m thinking about music & spirit, the ministry of music. It’s a truism that conductors live a long time, sustained by the joy that’s all around them, the joy that the music generates. Music is an essential part of a wedding, not because of tradition, but because music is part of celebration. I found my way back to the church (went regularly as a child, stopped in my teens), led by music.
It’s a wonderful privilege to be at the centre of a celebration, whether it’s a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, a party or just a concert. I’m thinking not so much about the brain on music—Levitin’s book prominent in my thoughts—as the spirit on music.
Performance is redemptive in its employment of our brains, drawn in without leaving us stranded high and dry inside our heads, because our bodies are needed too. I found that when I sat down, the first sonata I’d undertake would be the most indifferent, the weakest no matter where I started. I’d get fresher, clearer, bolder, the more sonatas I played in a sitting. Last Friday night I went from a bleary-eyed Op 28 –Goodyear’s favourite—through the three Op 31 sonatas, the two delicate little Op 49 sonatas (used by Goodyear to begin his marathon), finishing with total clarity on the Waldstein. Somebody should wire a brain while playing to see what’s happening. Levitin studies how we receive music, but maybe the experience of playing needs to be examined further. I felt way better at the end than at the beginning. The exultation one feels in any of these C major pieces is clearer than an orgasm, but at times every bit as intense as sex. Here for example, is a page that I’d call the most satisfying page of Beethoven i can think of, and forgive me if we’re cheating, because we don’t listen to the hour of variations that has to come first.
I’m ready to play, at the wedding… Why do I drift away, why don’t i play every day? It’s as important as breathing.