Monday, June 9, 2008

Beethoven the Progressive

For all of Arnold Schoenberg's insights about "Brahms the Progressive," it is important not to overlook the progressive side of Ludwig van Beethoven. By this I do not mean all the anxieties of influence among nineteenth-century composers living in the shadows of such monuments as the late string quartets, the last three piano sonatas, and the ninth symphony. San Francisco Opera subscribers will have a hard time dismissing those anxieties this month, since it is hard to imagine how Richard Wagner could have come up with his Vorspiel for Das Rheingold without first having offered up a sacrifice before Beethoven's monument (figuratively, is not literally) out of respect to the opening measures of that ninth symphony. Rather, I am thinking of influences that extend beyond twentieth-century modernism into the "backlash" (if not "postmodern") efforts of composers such as John Cage (the Schoenberg student that the master would probably have preferred to forget) and Philip Glass. Whether or not Stephen Paulson, Music Director of Symphony Parnassus, had such influences in mind in preparing the all-Beethoven program that concluded the Parnassus season, we cannot escape listening to the past in the context of the present; and this gives us the pleasure of hearing even the pieces we have known longest and loved best in new contexts that we can never anticipate.

Paulson took an interesting approach in arranging his program. He coupled the first (Opus 15) piano concerto (presumably the 1800 revision of the original 1795 version) with that shadow-casting ninth symphony, first performed in 1824. Thus, on the one extreme we have a concerto that first emerged with the earliest piano sonatas and was probably revised within the same time-frame as the Opus 22 sonata; and, on the other hand, we have a symphony that includes vocal writing, which will soon be followed by the exploratory final string quartets. I single out Opus 22, because it was from hearing this sonata performed by András Schiff in Davies Symphony Hall that I first starting thinking about Beethoven in terms of an "extended influence." At the time Schiff performed this sonata, I wrote that "we also hear Beethoven resuming his experiments with the impact of silence, now on a somewhat subtler scale than previously (as in Opus 2);" any my writing about Opus 2 explicitly cited the irony of Cage-like silences, since Cage never spoke particularly well of Beethoven (possibly because master Schoenberg spoke all-too-well of him).

Beethoven's own relationship to the rhetorical impact of silence can be found in both the early piano concerto and the final symphony; and it runs a gamut from playful "freeze-frames" to suspensions of a natural flow that feel almost heart-stopping. To be fair, neither of these extremes really has much to do with Cage's own aesthetic of silence, which is more about obliging us to listen when we think there is nothing to hear (choosing my words according to Igor Stravinsky's terminological framework). Nevertheless, to a great extent Beethoven experiments with the duration of silence, from the brief pause to the suspended moment, in ways that would be extended to previously unimagined scales by Cage. Some of these experiments even emerged in the approach that piano soloist Elizabeth Dorman took to her cadenza material, which offered us at least possible clues into what the young Beethoven might do in his more spontaneous moments.

The second influence does not originate in the first piano concerto, but it is in full force in the ninth symphony. This is the influence of what Philip Glass calls "music with repetitive structures," the phrase, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in his New York Review piece on Satyagraha, which Glass prefers to "minimalism." Beethoven's symphonies provide fertile ground for such repetitive structures, whether they are single chords exerted again and again, as in the first movement of his third symphony, or a simple motif that repeats maddeningly through almost the entirety of the development section of the first movement of the sixth symphony. Again, out of respect to the irony of any connection to Cage, that sixth symphony experience is right up there with the repetitions in Cage's "Lecture on Nothing." Of course this particular Beethoven example is not a strict repetition: It is an ostinato that supports a more gradual harmonic unfolding (a technique that Glass will later develop on his own terms) gaining strength through a sustained crescendo (which would emerge in Franz Schubert's symphonic writing).

None of this should suggest that we listen to Beethoven as if he were the progenitor of either Cage or Glass. It only serves to demonstrate that those of us who have listened to these two latter-day composers cannot help but listen to all stages of Beethoven's compositional career in a context that differs radically from those of Donald Francis Tovey or perhaps even Charles Rosen. Beethoven's virtue is that his music not only sustains these contextual shifts but flourishes under them, which is why every performance of Beethoven presents us with yet another exciting listening opportunity.

Once again I find myself writing more about the music than about the performers. Nevertheless, from a purely personal point of view, I feel a need to single out, in the vocal portion of the ninth symphony, the performance by alto soloist Heather Carolo. This is not because I have been following her vocal career closely. Quite the contrary, a text search of this blog on her name will reveal that the staging of The Turn of the Screw by the San Francisco Lyric Opera was by Heather Carolo; and, on the basis of the biographical summary in the Symphony Parnassus program, I have every reason to believe that the stage director whose work I so admired is the same as the alto. This does not seem out of place at a Symphony Parnassus program, since Paulson is principal bassoon with the San Francisco Symphony. I suspect that neither of these cases is what Lennie Tristano had in mind when he opined that every serious musician needed a "day job;" but it may be a sign that even the best of musicians now see beyond honing their talents to be one-trick-ponies. There can only be advantages from approaching performance from more than one point of view; and, if more performers are exercising those advantages, then we shall all be the better for it.

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