Friday, October 19, 2007

More on the Beethoven-Bach Connection

I attended the Menachem Pressler Master Class and recital with a friend who has been a piano teacher for many years and whose opinion I greatly respect. Since, like myself, she attended the first two concerts in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas, I decided to raise that question of the extent to which that Bach C Minor keyboard partita could be viewed as a predecessor of Beethoven's Opus 13 "Pathétique" sonata. (She has read some of my blog posts; but, since she does not use a computer, she does not read them regularly. So she had not seen my position on this matter, which is that I did not really buy into the connection Schiff was trying to demonstrate.) Her position was that it was clear as day that the connection was there, delivered in that dismissing tone that would wither away anyone presumptuous enough to think otherwise. Naturally, this set me to thinking (defensively?) more about my own position; and I have decided to reframe my opinion in terms of the typical rabbinical it-is-and-it-isn't strategy. Now let me try to make a case that I am neither caving nor waffling.

First of all, I still hold to my position that the entire Bach partita does not serve as a model for the entire Beethoven sonata; and I think my friend agrees with me on that count. So that is the it-isn't part of the argument. Where, then, lies the it-is part? I would argue that it lies in the fact that the opening "Sinfonia" of the Bach partita is an "overture in the French style," characterized particularly by the dotted rhythms of the opening slow section (marked both "Grave" and "Adagio" in the Alte Ausgabe). Bach had a great love of this style, and it even found its way into the sixteenth of his "Goldberg" variations.

This brings us to the "Pathétique" sonata. This sonata also opens with a "Grave" section in dotted rhythms, dotted sixteenths, in fact, just as in the Bach partita; but the analogy quickly breaks down after that. The Bach "Sinfonia" is a multi-section overture: The "Grave" introduction is followed by an "Andante" two-part invention with a cadenza that leads into a concluding two-voice fugue. The Beethoven sonata, on the other hand, takes, as its point of departure, the model of an Allegro first movement having a slow introduction, except that, in this particular sonata, the introductory material recurs throughout the movement, even in the coda. This is, in no sense of the concept, a "French style overture." Rather, it is an exploration into new ways to structure a piano sonata, just as the Opus 2 sonatas explored taking new approaches to models that Haydn had previously developed. Indeed, the very idea of the slow introduction, which is probably invoked most classically in the first movement of the first symphony (Opus 26), does not reappear in the piano sonata cycle until the second sonata of the Opus 31 set (the one that supposedly has a connection to Shakespeare's Tempest), where it is almost a fragment and recurs in a matter similar to that established in the "Pathétique." To the best of my knowledge, Beethoven never drew upon this French overture model, even in his own monumental collection of variations on Diabelli's theme. In other words even the it-is part of the argument is fraught with so many qualifications that the association may be too weak to signify.

So should I have been firmer in holding my ground? What really came out of my disagreement with my friend was an urge to do some homework that I probably should have done before challenging the point that Schiff was trying to make. Besides, this was not an exercise in winning arguments but just another take on that question of how we can be good listeners; and, as I have tried to demonstrate with the Beethoven-Schubert connection, good listening is context-based listening. Thus, the real question we should be considering is where Bach was situated in Beethoven's context. One way to address this question is to consult Thayer's Life of Beethoven, where we find a citation of notices by Ferdinand Ries, which acknowledges that Beethoven had a high opinion of Bach; but that same notice also states that he had a higher value of Mozart and Handel! Schiff, on the other hand as a performer, clearly has a very high opinion of Bach; so I have to wonder if the connection he tried to demonstrate was ultimately a matter of Schiff translating his own love of Bach into his worldview of Beethoven!

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