Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven Piano Sonatas’

Begin the Ohio Period

Monday, September 10th, 2012

I’m not a huge fan of the music of Arnold Schoenberg, unlike a certain friend of mine who claims to listen to Pierrot Lunaire to relax.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s great music, just not for every day.

What I love about Schoenberg is that his music kept changing throughout his career, with the biggest change of all being the one that happened with his move to America in 1933.  At this moment, Schoenberg backed away from the “pure” 12-tone works of the ’20s and early ’30s and started to compose in a more eclectic, less dogmatic way.  These late works aren’t his best-known, but some of them are wonderful–the Theme and Variations, Op. 43, for example.  It was as though after moving away from Vienna, ending up in Los Angeles, Schoenberg could no longer be everything he had been and had to be what he would be next.

This summer, I finished the last piece of my “Oklahoma” period–my Suite for String Orchestra, which will have multiple performances over the next nine months.  Reflecting, I’ve written some good music over the last five years–several pieces that I am really proud of and that have gotten some favorable attention: Starry Wanderers, South Africa, Ode, and Moriarty’s Necktie have all had performances in multiple states and get me to thinking that I just might be a good composer when I think about them.  My Piano Sonata is also slated for second and third performances this fall, and my concerto for clarinet and band Daytime Drama is slated for a premiere in November.  It’s been a good five years.

The Oklahoma pieces are, by-and-large, practically conceived–shortly after arriving in Oklahoma, I decided that I wouldn’t write anything without a commission or at least a promise of a performance.  I’m starting to feel able to make more out of less–creating a piece using developmental techniques rather than stringing together sections of music based on different material–Moriarty’s Necktie feels like a leap forward in that respect.  My study of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Mahler’s symphonies a few years ago helped me see this–as a theory teacher, I am often inspired by my teaching, but we don’t always spend a great deal of time on large-scale works.  I’ve become less of a vocal composer than I used to think I was–and I’m coming to terms with that, in a way.  I don’t think I’ll ever be a songsmith of the likes of Ned Rorem or Roger Quilter, but again, if the right levels of interest come along, that’s fine.  Except for a little bit of fiddling with Pure Data, I haven’t done any electronic music since leaving Ohio State in 2007, and I have to say that I don’t miss it.

In Oklahoma, my music became more focused, more diatonic, more image-driven.  I saw things and places that were inspiring, and I became a father.  There was longing, and there was hardship–as though, like Schoenberg, I was an exile, but like Schoenberg, who played tennis with Gershwin and ran into Stravinsky at the market, there were times of living, as well.

So, what will the Ohio period bring?  I hope to have time now to focus on the post-compositional phases of each piece–publication, promotion, building the brand, as it were.  For me, this is not the fun part.  I spent last weekend composing a new work for clarinet and percussion for Jenny Laubenthal in a white heat, and it was a great time.  I had been thinking about the piece for a month, and it was pure joy to see it come together.  I want to make a sincere effort to get behind my works and send it out to the world more often.  Moriarty’s Necktie is headed to a conference and two awards juries–big awards, the Ostwald and Beeler Prizes, that would put me on the map in a very significant way.  There need to be more subsequent performances, more publications.  I want to be less distracted by other projects.  It was great to write a book in 2010-2011, but it was enormously consuming.  I’m glad to be able to say that I did it, but if I do it again, I need a better reason than “It will look good on my CV.”

I’ve been exploring quintuplous meter, and I’m not sure where it’s going to go, or what the potential for it really is.  But, just as a composer can’t write everything in 6/8, not every piece will be in quintuplous meter.  So far it has been sections of pieces, or short pieces within larger groupings.  What would it mean to have an entire symphonic movement in quintuplous meter?

I’ve taken on the orchestra position here at Lakeland, and I one day hope to write for orchestra again.  Mahler became a great orchestral composer by being a great orchestral conductor.  I have the benefit of being able to learn from Mahler’s scores and recordings, of course, but it’s good to be back in an environment where I will see those instruments on a regular basis!  Will there be orchestra music?  This has always been a question for me.  I have a love-hate relationship with the wind ensemble–bands commission and play my music, but they aren’t orchestras.  There is possibly a piano concerto in my future… would it be too much to hope for a symphony?

It will be interesting to read this post again in five years, to see what has actually happened in this part of my life–until then, Keep Fighting Mediocrity!

From Beethoven to Mahler

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

It’s the new fiscal year in many states, as I was reminded on NPR this morning.  It’s a big day for me in my intellectual life, too.  I have completed my survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and have moved on to the nine Mahler Symphonies.  Hopefully, at least a few people will be taking this journey with me, one symphony every two months, from now until the end of 2010.  I’m writing these entries on my blog,, but I’ve also fed the blog to Facebook, where it will appear as a “Note.”  Feel free to comment on either location, although since I’m in charge of the blog, and Facebook is in charge of Facebook…

I dropped my wife off at the airport today, which meant a two-hour drive home from Amarillo by myself.  As I pulled out of town, I dropped my reference recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (Bernstein with Amsterdam) into the CD player, and I got to thinking about some of the differences between Beethoven and Mahler.

Of course, there is more than half a century between Beethoven’s last sonata (Op. 111 from 1822) and Mahler’s first complete symphony (finished in 1888).  In that period are Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn (and his Bach revival), Smetana and the first round of nationalists, Liszt, most of Brahms and (the big one, at least in my received wisdom) Wagner.  I think it might be safe to say that for Mahler, the two most influential figures are Beethoven, the first composer for whom a symphony was always a major artistic statement, and Wagner.

Charles Rosen suggests that the Classical style was informed, at its root, by the dramatic and comic developments in operatic music.  It seems quite possible to me that for Mahler, who earned his daily bread conducting opera, not symphonic music, that we must look in many ways to the developments in opera by Weber (whose final opera Die Feen (or is it Der Drei Pintos?  help!) Mahler attemped to complete) and Wagner (whose operas Mahler helped to introduce in Vienna and which he guarded jealously from his assistant conductors throughout his career).

I’m particularly interested in how Mahler creates the scale of these works.  As a composer, I don’t feel confident about writing long movements, and I want to develop this ability.  Some observations based on my re-hearing of the “Titan:”

  • Mahler sometimes employs sectional forms, which allows (nay, demands) the repetition of vast swathes of music.  The second and third movements of the present piece are indicative of this.
  • Where Beethoven is more prone to repetition (and sequential writing) on the motivic level, Mahler seems more likely to repeat thematically.  Again, repeating long(er) passages is the result.  By comparison, my music repeats much less frequently than either of these two composers, although much more often than, say, Schoenberg in his Erwartung period.  The trick isn’t repetition–it is meaningful repetition.
  • In general, Mahler’s music is much more melody-driven than Beethoven’s (and mine).  This will be an excellent study for me, as it will give me a chance to see whether in the face of additional evidence I still truly believe that rhythm is of greater importance than melody or harmony.
  • It would be apples and oranges to compare the orchestration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to Mahler’s symphonies.  That said, even over the noise from the “loud” pavement on US 287, I have begun to make notes of effects I want to look at more closely.  We are so fortunate to have recordings right at our fingertips… I heard a string passage this afternoon that I can’t wait to dig into, and the beginning of the fourth movement is a perfect illustration of when and why to use unmeasured tremolo in the strings.
  • Again… loud pavement makes for bad listening, but are Mahler’s harmonies in this piece a great deal simpler than Beethoven’s?  This is why I’m doing this project.  As many times as I’ve listened to this piece, I haven’t even begun to hear it.

I want to throw a question out there that was inspired by a liner note I once read about this piece:  Is Mahler, in writing this symphony, actually using collage (or even pastiche) techniques?  Many of the melodies (especially in the first movement) are derived from Mahler’s earlier works (particularly, Des Knabben Wunderhorn).  Other melodies are folk tunes, and still others bear resemblances to canonical works.  Is Mahler’s intent to somehow document a sonic realm of the imagination?  Is this a viable way to understand this piece?

Opus 111

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Here it is… the last one. 

Two big, beefy substantial movements.  Lutoslawski justified writing one-movement symphonies by saying that Brahms’ and Beethovens’ symphonies tended toward two big-idea statements per piece, presumably the first and last movements, although it is often possible that Beethoven is trying for three or four (perhaps in the Eroica).  It would be impossible to accuse Beethoven of overreaching his grasp in this case.  The two movements are well-balanced–a muscular, decisive sonata-allegro paired with an expansive set of variations. 

First things first–the proportions of the first movement are not especially large or striking–in my (G.Schirmer) edition, the development section scarcely lasts a page.  Once again, Beethoven is not the composer of long, overwhelming development sections the way we were all taught.  A glance at the score suggests that the proportional model for sonata-allegro is largely intact.   Why do we teach undergraduates that Beethoven’s development sections are overgrown?  My experience with the piano sonatas suggests that they are not.  On the other hand, motivic development technique often appears in unexpected places–codas, transitional sections, and within themes–places that in Haydn or Mozart would be simple or sequential repetition in Beethoven are more fully ornamented.  An example is the second theme of this movement.

I have to admire Beethoven’s approach to the start of the Allegro con brio.  It is almost as though it takes three (or more) attempts to get the theme going, and the full theme doesn’t appear until after a fairly extended attempt.   There is wonderful invertible counterpoint in the transitional thematic area, and the ubiquitous fugato in the development.  Beethoven struggled in his counterpoint lessons with Albrechtsberger, but they seem to have paid off in the end, as his command of these devices is perfect.  I taught 16th-century counterpoint last semester, and we didn’t make it to invertible counterpoint.  I think that the next time around, I will take the option in our textbook (Peter Schubert’s Modal Counterpoint, Renaissance Style) to introduce it from the beginning, because of its power as a developmental tool in any style.

Stylistically, I’m a bit at odds with this movement–it doesn’t reek of Beethoven’s “late” style in the way that other pieces do.  Admittedly, I haven’t read up on current musicological ideas about this piece, but it seems as though it would fit fairly well with the Waldstein, and lacks the scope of Hammerklavier.  Note–this in no way detracts from my astonishment with this piece and my awe at its compositional greatness.

The theme and variations is masterful as well, despite some very interesting notational choices.  The tone called for by the first few notes is wonderfully dark and rich.  Finally, Beethoven has stopped writing full triads in the bass staff, an activity I am constantly telling my students to avoid.  The more open chord positions he chooses in the theme are dark but not muddy.  Has this composer finally come to terms with the more resonant instruments that were starting to become available to him?  What does it mean that, despite his deafness, he was able to figure this out?  More importantly, what does it tell the contemporary composer who must assimilate much greater and more frequent changes in technology that Beethoven could have imagined?

There is a wonderful sort of rhythmic accelerando amongst these variations.  The theme gives a basic compound-triple approach with homophonic chords.   Variation 1 now has an event on every division of the beat, and events are happening (roughly) two to three times as often.  Variation 2 is simply not in the correct meter.  6/16 implies two beats to the measure, and there are clearly three.  3/8 would make sense, if it weren’t for the marked metric modulation (eighth=dotted eighth) and/or the alternating 16th-32nd-note pattern that makes up the highest rhythmic level (highest in the Schenkerian sense of “most-complex”).  What appear as accompanying 16ths or eighths should be dotted notes… or the alternating 16th-32nd patterns should be under sextuplets… or the patterns should be dotted-32nd-64th!  What a mess!  I can only assume that in later editions to which I don’t have access, some wise editor has made a decision that clears this up.  On my reference recording, Ashkenazy plays the first and second options, at least to my ear.  The editors of my edition, Hans von Bulow and Sigmund Lebert chose to only comment on the situation rather than rectify it.

In variation 3 is another meter signature that would make my students cringe–12/32, again, not reflective of the triple-meter feel of the music.  What a mess, but the musical intent is clear enough.  The final four measures of this variation are wonderful.

In my own work, I need to accomplish what Beethoven does in the fourth and fifth variations–that is, build larger sections of single textures.  I feel like I accomplished this in several recent pieces, notably in South Africa.  It is, again, the old adage I’ve often told myself of letting the music breathe.  I have great admiration for my friend David Morneau and his cultivation of the miniature, especially in his project 60×365, but I feel that I need to cultivate a different approach.  Yes, brevity is the soul of wit, but our world is deprived of the long view, the long term and patience to understand them.  Film may be our best hope–I know so few people who really listen to music, but nearly all Americans shell out for multi-hour long movies.  All the same, music that is longer than three minutes and that doesn’t make its meaning purely through language is, I am discovering now more than ever, my big project for the time being.  As a composer, I need to be able to write a single movement that lasts 20 minutes while still saying something.  I don’t know where the commission, or even the performers will come from for this, because for the time being I’m not in the class of composers who get that type of work.  When I entered graduate school in 2004, I was writing movements of one-to-two minutes’ length on a regular basis, and a five-minute one-movement instrumental piece was a stretch.  I discovered the tactic of creating larger pieces by writing transitions–my Martian Dances is a fantastic example of this, and my Homo sapiens trombonensis has a fantastia-like form that is exciting, but lacks rigor and cohesiveness.  Nothing ever comes back.  I learned how to let a piece breathe and expand to its true length rather than simply become a rush of ideas.  Beethoven’s sonatas–indeed, the sonata principle–require that I build on this even more.  I need, simply, the right commission now, because a twenty-minute unaccompanied trombone piece just doesn’t seem like a good idea.  A string quartet, or a piano sonata.  My latest completed piece, my Piano Trio that I just shipped off to its commissioner, runs almost ten minutes in a single movement.  I’m getting there… I’m getting there.

I began my journey through Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in November 2006 as a way to start a project that looked beyong the end of my graduate work, and I feel that I have done myself a great service–so much so that July 2009 marks the beginning of a new project on the Mahler symphonies.  I kicked around some different possibilities–Bach, Chopin, a single large work like the St. Matthew Passion or a Mozart opera, but it seems that Mahler is calling to me the most, so it will be half of a Mahler symphony each month until the end of 2010 (yes, I may decide to include other Mahler such as the 10th symphony or Das Lied von der Erde, but I’ll think about that later).   Please feel free to join me on that trip.

Opus 110

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Here’s the May 2009 installment of my series of posts on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas.  This month is Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110–next month will be the last month in the cycle, which means I will need a new analysis project–let me know if you want to start one with me and dialog on the compositional aspects of pieces from the standard repertoire.  I could, of course, spend another few years going back over the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, but there is so much great music out there that I’ve never even touched, that I feel like it would be better for me to move on.  So… I haven’t decided on my next project yet, but I do have some ideas… if one or more people were interested in working through some pieces with me, I would let them have some input in the decision.  I’ve considered the Mahler symphonies, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s string quartets, Chopin’s Preludes… let me know what you think!

On to the piece:  A study in contrast this one, and highly indicative of the “official” traits of Beethoven’s late style as it has been taught to me.  I’ll dive right in.

The first movement, if not in textbook sonata form, at least seems to reference it.  I’m not Donald Tovey, who looked for sonata form in every piece he ever analyzed (the last movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet is a Rondo with sonata aspects, not a straight sonata-allegro), but it seems reasonable to assert that Beethoven is working with thematic groups and a strong sense of motivic unity.  His use of core technique is somewhat fascinating, as it is built on a descending thirds sequence instead of the usual stepwise sequence.  I’m puzzled by the modulation to E major in what corresponds to the recapitulation.  This isn’t Beethoven opening up a window to another tonal world but rather knocking out a wall–a very unexpected place, although it makes sense that something different needs to happen where the exposition modulated to E-flat (the modulatory technique to E is an enharmonic respelling of a borrowed chord… IV becomes iv, which is vi in the new key; Beethoven gets out of that key by a fascinating use of common-tone technique and sequence).

To understand Beethoven’s use of sequence is often to gain understanding of his medium-scale structure (and in some cases, large scale, as in the “Spring” Sonata).  In Las Cruces last week, I spoke with Fred Bugbee about NMSU’s music theory track, and eventually the conversation came around to sequences.  One reason I’ve decided to part company with my current theory textbook, Kotska & Payne’s Tonal Harmony is that their treatment of sequences simply lacks body.  The new generation of theory textbooks is much more realistic about the use of sequence in tonal music, and, truthfully, it was teaching from Clendinning & Marvin’s The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis that really got across how important sequence is.  My study of Beethoven has only reinforced that.

The second movement, Allegro molto is diminutive in proportion, but as will all Beethoven’s scherzi, I am amazed at the sheer craft involved.  Every time I make the mistake of listening to a Classical or Romantic scherzo as merely a light, intermezzo sort of movement, I tend to realize that I’m not doing it justice.  With some composers, it’s an easier mistake to make than with others.  Much of Mendelssohn’s genius seems to lie in his scherzi, for example, while Dvorak has a tendency to revert to folk dances.  Nearly every time I look closely at a scherzo, however, I see a level of compositional craft that equals the outer movements.  It is as though composers were freed from the strictures of sonata-allegro or rondo (although most rondos have wonderfully original moments) and could pull out the tricks they worked on as students–canon, invertible counterpoint, rhythmic surprises, and the works.  What fun!  Beethoven doesn’t use contrapuntal tricks, but in this tiny scherzo, he gives us the most rhythmically ingenious and formally cogent plan of the piece.  Why should this tiny movement have a coda when the first movement has none?  I suspect it is more necessary here because we have heard the A-section twice, and the listener needs to have a fuller sense of closure than a simple cadence.

I could puzzle over the last movement for quite some time.  Here is Beethoven’s late-style interest in counterpoint (the fugue, complete with a second exposition in inversion), side-by-side with harmonic innovation (a common-tone diminished-seventh chord with a modulating function), and a confusion about rhythm and key signatures that simply doesn’t make sense at this point.  To wit:  for much of the piece, the key is A-flat minor, at least until the start of the fugue, but the expected seven-flat key signature never appears.  Instead, the movement begins in B-flat minor, shifts to E major and then is written in E-flat minor.  Are these key signatures simply flags of convenience?  At the same time, Beethoven indicates “Recitative,” and breaks out of the signified meter (common time).  How free is this meter?  And how, precisely, is the performer to understand the subsequent barlines?  The “Klagender Gesang” in 12/16 meter is another puzzling aspect–it is almost as though Beethoven is writing a fantasia, a written-out improvisation, at the end of which he launches into the fantastic three-voice fugue. 

Then this full-bodied G minor and G major review of earlier material–the “Klagender Gesang” in G-minor paralleling the A-flat minor section and the fugue (in inversion) in G-major (although we get only an exposition and a long episode).  At last, the retuirn (recapitulation?) of the fugue subject in the original key–part recapitulation, part coda, really. 

One more Beethoven sonata–I look forward to Ludwig’s valedictory effort in the genre.

Opus 106

Monday, April 13th, 2009

I am way behind on this, I know, but it is time to say something about “Hammerklavier” and move on.

But where to begin?  As a piano operator, I can’t even begin to touch this piece, and as a musician, I’m not sure where I land, to be frank.

It is simply bigger, fuller, greater, and deeper than any music I have ever tried to bring to life.  As a trombonist, I play an instrument with a distinct lack of serious music by great composers, and with the possible exception of the concert by Christopher Rouse, I would say that there isn’t anything that even comes close to this piece.  As an ensemble musician, my experience of a piece is very different from that of a soloist, or even of a clarinetist or violinist.  Yes, I’ve played a Brahms symphony, but I had to sit and listen to the first three movements before playing a single note.  And the conductor was in charge.  And of course, I conduct, but it has never been my privelege to lead any of the band music that begins to approach the level of this sonata–I’m thinking of Colgrass’ Winds of Nagaul or Husa’s Music for Prague.

So my encounter with Opus 106 has been somewhat stunning.  Of course I have listened to and studied epic music before, but to imagine the range of expression and technique required here of a single musician brings to the fore to an even greater degree the scope of this piece.

Beethoven has been percussive before.  He has been formally extensive before.  He has been contrapuntal before.  He has waxed philosophically before in slow movements.  But here, every measure seems endowed with a depth, a seriousness–this is truly what people mean by “late Beethoven.”  There is no orchestration to distract from the absoluteness of the music in piano writing–there is only music, on this very imperfect instrument where notes decay too quickly and half a composer’s energy is given to making them last longer.

If I tried to name specifics, this post would be pages long.  I could spend the next year working out this piece, but it is time to move on–to three more titanic pieces!

I’m still looking for suggestions for what to study next… lately I’ve thought about Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, as well as continuing to ponder the Mahler symphonies.

SCI Region VI Conference: Oklahoma City

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

This post is from on the road–I’m now in Warrensburg, Missouri, getting set to attend the University of Central Missouri New Music Festival.  I drove up this morning from Oklahoma City, where I spent three fantastic days at Oklahoma City University.  Parents and high school teachers–if your kids are interested in majoring in music in college, have them look at OCU!  Fantastic facilities, great ensembles and just a wonderful atmosphere that includes an emphasis on new music.  It can be difficult to go to a new music conference and hear two-and-a-half days of contemporary music (12 concerts in 50 hours), but the folks at OCU made it easy.  Aside from one or two performances, the quality was extremely high across the board in nearly every studio.  Not only that, there were presentations of two operas.   I plan on recommending John Billota’s wonderful Quantum Mechanic to our vocal director at OPSU for next year’s opera scenes.  Get to this school.

Highlights included Jason Bahr’s orchestra piece Golgatha, Daniel Perttu’s Rhapsody for clarinet, violin and piano and Robert Fleisher’s Ma Mere for solo cello.  A good brass quintet piece can be elusive, but Harry Bulow’s Spectrum is a piece I will be trying to get my hands on if I ever find myself playing in that ensemble.  On Friday night, the OCU Wind Philharmonic gave stunning performances, of which my favorite was Robert Hutchinson’s As Blue Night Descends Upon the World.  My fellow Ohio State alum, Igor Karaca, now at Oklahoma State University presented a wonderfully meditative piece entitled Scallop Shell of Quiet for violin, double bass and piano.  The conference ended with featured composer Cindy McTee’s riveting Einstein’s Dream for strings, percussion and electronic playback.  My father suggested that I write a piece based on Einstein’s life and work, but after hearing Dr. McTee’s piece, it seems unecessary.  Here’s a link to the website for the conference.

The quality of performances throughout the conference was high enough that it showed the way any piece benefits from a really strong group of players.  It was a clear demonstration that new music is alive and well.

I’m now anticipating the fourth performance of my Sevens for four trumpets on Tuesday.  I’ve been in contact with the trumpet professor who is coaching the group, and he seems very positive about the piece.  Hopefully, there will be good news on Tuesday.

I also tried to cram on the Hammerklavier during the last few days of February, but it didn’t work out, so yesterday, I made a decision to spend March on Opus 106.  I did the two short Opus 49 sonatas in one month, so I’m technically ahead of the game, and the piece deserves it, so, on the off chance that you actually want to know what I have to say about Beethoven, you’ll just have to wait.