Monday, May 19, 2008

Silence is Rhetorical

The last time I wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven's E-flat major Opus 7 piano sonata, it was in terms of what I called "the rhetorical impact of the rest." This was a reflection on the first concert that András Schiff had given in his performance of the complete cycle of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. I had written about the "great profundity" of the silences that pervade the second movement of this sonata to such an extent that I had ignored the ways in which the silences in the third movement are equally effective, although in significantly different ways. I found myself returning to this matter yesterday morning when I attended a Graduate Piano Recital in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which began with this sonata. As almost always seems to be the case with Beethoven, there is more to this music than first meets the ear (not to mention the eye reading the notes from the page).

On this occasion the first thing that struck me was how the movement was listed on the program: "Allegro - Minore." This is a ternary form movement whose structure is very much in the vein of the third movements of the Opus 2 sonatas that precede it; but, even in Opus 2, we see a shift in the "rhetorical stance" of this movement in the overall scheme of the sonata. In Opus 2, Number 1, the movement is listed as "Menuetto, allegretto;" and it serves as a nice acknowledgement of how Joseph Haydn, to whom the Opus 2 sonatas were dedicated, had advanced the Menuetto form. However, the other two Opus 2 sonatas label the third movement as "Scherzo," which I see as reinforcing a remark I had made at the time of Schiff's recital about the nature of his dedication:

Nevertheless, Haydn was using this own piano sonatas to explore those "compositional challenges;" so I think it makes sense to think about the Opus 2 sonatas as a response to Haydn's own activities. It is not that Beethoven is offering an homage but that he seems to be saying, "I see what you were getting at when you did it that way; but what do you think of this way?"

This shift from Menuetto to Scherzo was not unknown to Haydn. All of his Opus 33 string quartets, composed in 1781, substitute a Scherzo for a Menuetto; but, since, for example, we do not encounter this transformation in any of his symphonies, we should probably view those six quartets as an opportunity for experimentation. We can similarly assume that Beethoven was aware of the experiments and decided to try his had at them. However, when he got to Opus 7, he seemed more comfortable with dispensing altogether with a "form label," providing a tempo for the movement and distinguishing the middle section only by its shift to a minor key.

It is that middle section that particularly differentiates the movement from any expectations that "Menuetto" or "Scherzo" might induce; and I would not be surprised if it was because of that middle section that, in the concert in which he played this sonata, Schiff decided to play, as an encore, the first of Franz Schubert's D. 946 three piano compositions, which he did not call anything more than "Klavierstücke" (although the catalog by Otto Erich Deutsch also calls them "Impromptus"). This was one of Beethoven's first steps (if not the first of those steps) in going beyond the limiting constraints of traditional labels. We would experience the consequences of those steps in just about all the genres of his later compositions, and we would later experience Schubert taking those consequences to a new level.

From this point of view, Beethoven's use of pauses for an uneven segmentation of the outer sections of the third movement of Opus 7 provide a striking contrast to the sense of an ongoing drive in the middle section, whose "triplet dynamo" would later drive the first of the D. 946 Schubert compositions. Does the ear really hear this? Well, as I had observed in writing about Schiff's recital, the first real challenge is to achieve the right conditions under which the ear can "hear the silence," so to speak. I had written that this is not necessarily an easy matter in Davies Symphony Hall and reflected back on a similar problem I had experienced in the Herbst Theatre. The Conservatory Recital Hall, on the other hand, is more conducive to such listening. Not only is the space itself more intimate; but one can usually count on those who occupy the audience portion of the space to be more serious about their listening than those whose motivations may be more social than musical (putting things as politely as I can). Thus, yesterday morning's recital became my latest example of how it is that we learn to listen to music by listening to music under the best possible conditions.

No comments: