Nothing changes your perspective on a piece of music like repurposing it. The new context may strain the original to its breaking point. A happy tune works well at a party, perhaps not so well at a funeral. This is especially so when we think of instrumental music, abstract and with less specificity than songs with text.
I suppose I am really invoking that colossal topic, “meaning in music”. What if anything does a piece of music mean, what can it signify?
I’m thinking especially of one piece that I’ve been playing obsessively the past week or two. I didn’t know why, I didn’t understand what I was really experiencing, or why the short composition was haunting my thoughts. The title refers to a very specific sort of framework that I imposed. I think it’s helped me understand a new dimension in this piece and perhaps a few more besides.
The second movement of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto is one of the most original little pieces. In five minutes we’re experiencing a kind of debate or dialogue. We are in the presence of something fundamental about music and its power. One can’t help thinking about the composer, whose hearing had started to fade in the late 18th century. I read that he was 60% deaf by 1801, completely deaf by 1816. This piece was created in his decade of transformation, premiered in a public concert in 1808, after a private performance in 1807.
The strings of the orchestra come in with a loud unison statement. The solo piano seems to answer, as soft & gentle as the orchestra was rough and implacable. I find this piece a bit of a challenge to hear clearly, because of the contrast, the adjustment it requires of us. What are we hearing exactly? A loud orchestra and a soft piano? Or is this an encounter between Beethoven (the piano) and the unyielding world that he was having trouble hearing?
The allegorical explanation I first heard for this music was of an encounter between Orpheus (the piano) and the furies of hell (the orchestra). It might make sense, if we notice the way the anger of the orchestra seems to soften in the presence of the gentle sweetness from the piano. The voice or persona on each side is distinct, but as the piece goes on, the piano gets stronger, while the orchestra seems to back down.
Today I played this piece –that is, in a reduction for piano—at the conclusion of the church service (I was the organist). I couldn’t help noticing a new possible reading for this five minute composition, influenced by what I’ve been seeing on CNN, an ideal re-write of the headlines from Charlottesville, Boston or so many other places and confrontations. Yes the orchestra and piano in dialogue could be the world vs Beethoven, or the Furies vs Orpheus. Or maybe what we have here is a dignified response to angry extremists, with nobody killed or injured. Of course it’s a fantasy, a five minute drama entirely in music.
I call it a sermon because it seems to enact the appropriate response, showing us how to behave. The piano doesn’t rail against the stronger louder forces arrayed against it. Soft gentle sound works to soften the opposition, and the result is harmony.
This is not a triumphal ending to a church service. While I didn’t frame the piece for anyone –not offering my own allegorical reading– the stillness at the end was exactly what I’d hoped for.