Wednesday, April 2, 2008

From Wit to Weight

In writing about Ludwig van Beethoven, I have had a tendency to dwell on the elements of wit in his compositions (particularly the early ones), simply because that wit is frequently overlooked due to the ways in which our culture turned him into a monument of seriousness not too long after his death. However, wit was not the issue in the chamber music Master Class that pianist Peter Frankl conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. Rather, the issue was the emotional depth that Beethoven discovered through experimenting with a form that had not previously been associated with such depth. The form is that of variations on a theme; and the specific experiment was the third movement of his Opus 97 ("Archduke") piano trio. This is a form that Beethoven pursued pretty much through the entirety of his career as a composer; and, while he had no trouble satisfying traditional expectations, he also always seemed to be thinking about how to push the envelope. Most importantly he became interested in the theme being more than a simple tune, a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives.

By way of historical context, Opus 97 was completed in 1811. However, the Opus 67 fifth symphony, completed in 1808, had experimented with variations on a "double theme," raising the challenge of starting with two complementary melodies and subjecting them to a single unified strategy of variation. That particular experiment would be pursued at much greater length (and in much greater depth) in the third movement of the Opus 125 ninth ("Choral") symphony, completed in 1824. Between these two "monuments" we have the theme of Opus 97, which is preparing us, as listeners, for a theme so extended in duration that, in earlier times, it might have been taken for a composition unto itself. Such prolonged variations on a prolonged theme would be subsequently explored in the Opus 109 (1820) and Opus 111 (competed in 1822) piano sonatas; and, in many respects, Opus 111 is a "natural" successor to Opus 97, not just for its extended duration but for the serenity that pervades both the theme and many of the variations, which transcends the sense of duration into one of timelessness.

Frankl was quite right in beginning his assessment of the student performance of this movement by dwelling on how challenging it was to execute. It is not just a question of endurance but of the modulation of energy. Making time stand still is hard work. However, both students and listeners were probably at a disadvantage, since this particular performance was the final one of the evening; and we had already been following Frankl and his insights into the domains of Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvořák. Since these master classes are conducted without an intermission, we never had the opportunity to catch our breaths and regroup the energies needed for this level of serious listening.

Mind you, I'm not sure that an intermission would have been that much help. On the way out I recalled to a friend the experience of hearing piano recitals consisting entirely of Opus 109, Opus 110, and Opus 111, each of which is a demanding piece of serious listening unto itself. Even with an intermission, I discovered that I rarely had the "cognitive energy" necessary for giving the variations movement of Opus 111 the attention it really deserved. In the realm of monuments, you can either "stand and gape" or seek out those qualities that sustain the composition's "reputation," the sorts of qualities that Georg Hegel would call "spirit" and Walter Benjamin would later call "aura;" and that latter approach is all the more demanding if one is already fatigued. Thus, we might all have benefited had the Master Class been held in reverse order, proceeding from Beethoven to Schumann to Dvořák, rather than in reverse chronological order.

Schumann, of course, also demands considerable "cognitive energy." Indeed, there is often so much cognition in his score that the challenge of performing often involves bringing to light the emotional energy that risks being concealed by all that cognition. This was certainly the case with his Opus 47 piano quartet, and Frankl definitely had the performer's instincts required to advise the Conservatory students on how to negotiate such a challenge. However, since Frankl explicitly talked about Beethoven's influence on Schumann, he may well have benefited from having the "Archduke" movement performed first. This was particularly the case for the points he was trying to make on approaching the opening Sostenuto assai measures, whose presence in Schumann's compositional language could well be attributed to such experimental efforts as Beethoven's theme for his "Archduke" variations. Furthermore, since this Sostenuto assai passage recurs in the movement, rather than playing the role of the more "classical" introduction, Frankl was also able to address the challenge of the overall architecture of the movement. For my own listening there is something particularly magical in the recapitulation, which, while it was probably intricately calculated out by Schumann, still rounds an emotional corner in a way that few recapitulations do; and Frankl knew just how to advice the students on properly rounding that corner.

This alternation of moods was also the basic formal architecture of the movements of Dvořák's Opus 90 ("Dumky") trio, whose first two movements began the Master Class. This performance returned us to the realm of Robert Mann's precept that a composer is best understood in terms of the folk music of his "roots." The very name of this piano trio is a celebration of those roots; and for Frankl those roots are best honored with an abundance of emotional energy. He thus took an excellent reading by the Conservatory students and took into over the top into a domain in which the emotions were far richer but still modulated enough that they never overwhelmed the underlying musical substance. Just to make my point one final time, this was the sort of exuberance that should have followed us out the door at the end of the evening, rather than welcomed us into the Recital Hall. Had we been welcomed by Beethoven, our journey would have proceeded forward in time; and Dvořák would have left us relishing the extent of that journey.

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