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.