A Beethoven discovery, aided by my dog

I’m framing this analysis around Sam my dog. She’s a 13+ year old rescue, and in my opinion amazingly well-behaved.


Sometimes she’ll occupy the ottoman beside the piano, allowing her to read along with me if she so desires (no I don’t think she knows how to read music). Or I’ll be playing, and she’ll go to her den under the body of the piano especially with one of the big loud pieces, like the 8th of Dvorak’s Op 46 Slavonic Dances, or when I’m playing & singing something from a Wagner opera.

I take it as a compliment.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Beethoven.

Since encountering Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon back in 2012 I have been in the habit of going through multiple compositions, intrigued by what I think I see in the sequence. It started with multiple sonatas, but lately –since Goodyear’s recording of the concertos—I’ll play from a lovely book I have, collecting the concerti, with big readable pages that are easy to turn.

So there I was on a quiet afternoon with Sam under the piano in her den. I didn’t want to be too loud. And so I thought to play a series of softer pieces.

What if…? Yes it was a preposterous idea. Instead of playing sonata after sonata or concerto after concerto, what if I were to play each of the slow movements from the concertos in turn?And that’s how I stumbled on the pattern.

Now of course in the world of Beethoven scholarship I doubt this is news to anyone. You might think I chose to bring Sam along on my voyage of discovery to blunt the edge of possible criticism, either to soften the critics’ hearts (as people tend to be nicer when there’s a cute dog in the picture) OR perhaps when they’re afraid of the snarly beast.

She is both (that is, cute but sometimes snarly…).  I have a neighbour who nicknamed her “Cujo” for the way she barks at him.

Be that as it may, this is exactly as it happened.  As I’m playing super gently–the first concerto slow movement, then the second concerto slow movement, and then the third’s slow movement– I wonder. Has anyone every pointed out that they’re very similar? No it’s not an earth-shaking revelation. But they all begin with a very similar chord (at least that’s whats you hear when you reduce it for the piano),  with a melody beginning on the mediant, the third note of the scale. What was weird was how the 4th concerto –which is the one that’s exceptional in its shape—seemed to confirm the pattern. For the 4th concerto it’s the opening movement with its slow piano introduction: again starting with that chord. And when we get to the 5th concerto, that’s more conventional in shape (faster louder outer movements, with a slower softer movement in the middle: like the first three concerti), ….and there it is again! The same chord to begin.

You think maybe Beethoven likes that chord? Sam wasn’t complaining of course.

That chord turns up a whole lot of other places, so much so that one might be tempted to call it his favorite.

I don’t deny –indeed I confess it proudly and without hesitation—that this is a literal-minded approach to the anthology, playing through from beginning to end as though the composer sat down and wrote it like a story with episodes. With some composers their readiness to return again and again to the same idea is front & centre. Mahler’s symphonies are in some respects like drafts for one piece of music, revised and reshaped over and over. At times I see something of this in Beethoven too.

I suddenly remembered a melody in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. We hear it in the overtures to the earlier versions of the opera, signaling that yes this is an important theme. We will hear it in the 2nd act when we meet Florestan the imprisoned hero. In a soliloquy he tells us about his predicament. After a recitative introduction (crying out about the darkness of his prison cell), he begins to sing about his life.

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n; Wahrheit wagt’ ich kühn zu sagen, und die Ketten sind mein Lohn. Willig duld’ ich alle Schmerzen, ende schmählich meine Bahn; süßer Trost in meinem Herzen: meine Pflicht hab’ ich getan!
In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me; I dare to tell the truth boldly, and the chains are my reward. I willingly tolerate all pain, shamefully end my path; sweet consolation in my heart: I have done my duty!

What follows is faster & more intense as you might expect from the stage-directions:

(in einer an Wahnsinn grenzenden, jedoch ruhigen Begeisterung)
(In a fit of madness but peacefully… )

Und spür’ ich nicht linde, sanft säuselnde Luft? und ist nicht mein Grab mir erhellet? Ich seh’, wie ein Engel im rosigen Duft sich tröstend zur Seite mir stellet, – ein Engel, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich, der führt mich zur Freiheit in’s himmlische Reich.
And don’t I feel gentle, softly whispering air? and isn’t my grave lit up for me? I see how an angel in a perfumed cloud stands comfortably at my side – an angel, Leonore, the wife who leads me to freedom in the heavenly realm.
(Er sinkt erschöpft von der letzten Gemütsbewegung auf den Felsensitz nieder, seine Hände verhüllen sein Gesicht.)
(He sinks exhausted down on the rock, his hands cover his face.)

As Beethoven shows us Florestan despairing in prison how intriguing that he chose to begin with that same melodic pattern, as in the chord that I have been talking about.  I am tempted to think of Florestan’s predicament as Beethoven’s own (and wouldn’t it sound apt, for Beethoven to say “In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me“), alone & despairing.  Does he identify with his hero? I think he does.  The romantic artist is ultimately about empathy taken to its extreme, namely identification.  No wonder that the composer expresses it this way.

And he goes on to build to a great exultant climax, an ecstatic vision of rescue by his angel Leonore: his wife.  As it turns out in the story she will indeed be the agent of his rescue.

It’s very inspiring.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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