Sunday, November 18, 2018

Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111) video with score--a sonata movement that shifted the development out of the development section and into the expository and recapitulatory transitions

yes, yes, the link will say No. 31 but I meant No. 32 and, in any case, Op. 111 but hit publish too fast.

Thousands of words have already been written about Beethoven's last piano sonata and I hardly feel like I need to write too many more, although I probably could.  Some composers are drawn to the giant variation-finale and it's a wonderful movement, too.  But I admit that as a guitarist who started by aspiring to play Pinkfloyd and Bob Dylan songs I'm a sucker for the mercurial first movement.

What makes the sonata movement so fascinating to me decades after I first heard it and read through the score listening to Brendel's recording back in college was how Beethoven seemed to have such a puny development section.  Supposedly sonata forms are supposed to have a development section that shows how much a composer can do with thematic materials.  Beethoven, so to speak, was the composer who began to "biggie size" developments and codas in sonata forms.

Yet for all that scholastic mythology what's fascinating about Op. 111 is that there's a ton of intense, really intense gestural development in the sonata movement but it all takes place primarily within the exposition.  Furthermore, what inspires me and amuses me as a composer going through Beethoven's last piano sonata is that the most intensive development processes for his thematic ideas are never in the themes but in the transitions!  Yeah, he's got a formal development section in the sonata form because that's what is supposed to be in there but at a gestural level the development seems to call back less to the themes of the exposition than to the introduction.  The rising scalar motion from G through A and B to C of some kind is part of Theme 1, of course, but it's also an anticipatory gesture that appears in the introduction.  So in a sense we could say that the development is drawing from elements of Theme 1 but in a way that calls back more to the introduction than to the exposition proper.

I hesitate to say that Op. 111 is necessarily revolutionary, though.  All of the themes show up syntactically where you might expect them to.  There's an introduction, a theme 1, a transition, and a theme 2. There wasn't exactly a rulebook to say what "had" to happen.  One of the things that has come up in formal analysis and historical work on what is now called "sonata form" is an observation that there wasn't really a thing called sonata form in the 18th century theory or practice.  There were references to grand binary form or a prescribed pattern for first movements but not necessarily in a way that amounted to what 19th century theorists and pedagogues called a sonata form or a "real" sonata form.

Which is why bromides about how this or that 19th century composer didn't observe the rules of sonata form seems dubious in historical terms.  Maybe someone like Schubert didn't compose sonatas based on the rules that might have been credited to Reicha or maybe a Cherubini or an A. B. Marx.  But if merely not composing textbook sonata forms was enough to make a composer a genius of first order then why don't we talk about the guitar sonatas of Wenzel Matiegka?  Schubert adapted one of Matiegka's chamber works into a quartet.  This is not to say Schubert hasn't written music I enjoy, it's saying that a mythology that Schubert broke the rules of sonata form seems like an anachronism at best and a misleading depiction of composerly approaches to large-scale forms.

I've written so much about Matiegka's approach to sonata forms that, even though I plan to do more of that, I don't want to digress too much into that just now--my point is that one of the shortcomings of a kind of Western religion of the highest of high art is that it ignores a lot of composers who would be considered second, third or fourth-rate in craft.  Matiegka is not going to be anybody's idea of a "first-rate" composer.  I like a good chunk of his guitar sonatas, however, and I can see from what has been written about Matiegka is just about anyone who knows who he is is aware that Schubert liked one of his chamber works enough to adapt it into a quartet that his name (Schubert's) is attached to.   Matiegka has a few sonatas where Theme 1 in an exposition doesn't come back or comes back in an attenuated or substantially modified form.  Haydn was known to recompose recapitulation spaces.

Which is to say, with respect to Beethoven, that it was not necessarily revolutionary to not observe a whole raft of rules that had not really been codified yet.  Beethoven may have subverted conventions and expectations about what was supposed to happen in what section, but I'm playing with the idea that if Beethoven's Op. 111 could be considered revolutionary it could be on the basis of shifting his most intense developmental activity into the transitions of his exposition and recapitulation and away from the formal development.  But this wouldn't even count as a subversion of conventions.  I might suggest, a bit impudently, that what made Beethoven's work so brilliant was that he was composing in a way that, if you will, manipulated the conventions themselves.

His work is valuable to study because you can see within a late sonata like this how a paradigm can be at work.  Let me put it this way, if you're a composer like Beethoven who strictly respects the order in which your themes appear (Hepokoski and Darcy call this "rotation" in Elements of Sonata Theory) then you can flamboyantly subvert expectations or conventions in some other way throughout the course of your work.  Being strict in the sequential presentation of introduction, Theme 1 and Theme 2 in the macro-level allowed Beethoven to substantially breach the expectation that the development section, however defined, would or should be where most of the gestural development and transformation took place.

Had Beethoven composed a conventionally super-sized development section of the sort that a "textbook" sonata form would "require", the surprise of shifting development into the transitions of the exposition and recapitulation would be completely lost.  You wouldn't be able to hear those passages for what they are in terms of the form.

I know people love to write about how sublime and powerful this piano sonata is and it's one of my favorite piano sonatas so I'm not really going to contest any of that.  But as a composer what I have wanted to do for a while is to share what I love about this sonata at a level that, perhaps, only fellow composers might really be able to appreciate.  I love that Beethoven shifted his development sections into his transitions in this sonata.  He wasn't breaking the rules that hadn't been codified or ossified yet; he was playing with conventions in a way that subverted some expectations violently but offsetting that subversion with a carefully and strictly observed presentation at another level that is exactly what would be expected for a sonata movement.

All of this is to say that this is a sonata that can give composers a lesson.  If you are strict in observing one organization rule, convention or paradigm at one level, that is what allows you to ostentatiously breach a rule, convention or expectation at another level while still giving a performer or a prospective audience a way to "get" the nature of the musical game you're playing.  Haydn was absolutely a master at that sort of musical game-playing.

Having recently finished a book by Elaine Sisman on Haydn and variation form (probably deserves a whole separate post for a review of that book), I remember one of Sisman's points about Beethoven and variation technique/variation form was to point out that what Beethoven did was not necessarily revolutionary in terms of "what" he did.  Lots o composers did virtuoso variation movements we don't know about, wouldn't care about, and probably shouldn't care about.  Beethoven didn't "break rules" at the level of techniques or large-scale forms in his variation movements so much as he breached a range of expectations about what sorts of variations were supposed to show up where.  18th century expectation and practice had it that you introduced progressively more complex or esoteric derivations or embellishments of a theme the farther along in a variation movement you got.  For Beethoven to introduce, for instance, a fugato variation on a theme early in a movement was a breach, but not of technique or rules in  some form-identifying or form-establishing kind of way.   He was not trying to build, as it were, a chair with three legs.  He was breaching expectations of propriety as to what conventions would be observed in variation forms in an earlier generation.  Beethoven could play with how far afield from the surface details of a theme he could get while still observing its underlying structure.

Which, I suppose, gets back to my earlier comment about how a skilled composer can seem to break a "rule" at a flamboyant level but we can see in a composer like Beethoven that however distant his variations from a theme might seem to get in style or tone from the originating theme, there's some element of that theme you can hear in the variations.

there are a lot of ways in which this can play out.  Let's take, oh, a piece by Schubert (I'm honestly not a huge fan of Schubert overall), the Wanderer Fantasy.  The first movement has the schematic indicators of a sonata form but the recapitulatory section comes back in what could be regarded as "wrong" keys.  Well, they're not necessarily wrong keys.  The closing fugue re-establishes the "right" key firmly enough but that's not quite what I'm getting at, I'm proposing that in the Schubert a stable procession of thematic ideas at a structural level was what gave the composer wiggle room to drastically alter another convention, the expectation as to which key regions should show up in the exposition and recapitulation of a more or less sonata movement.

Composers who set out to break all the rules are probably setting themselves up for irrelevance because the rules, whatever they are, seem informed by the cognitive constraints and strengths of the human brain as mediated and engaged by artists of all sorts over millenia.  History is full of great artists who did not so much break rules or invent rules but had attained a level of learning and craft to manipulate conventions themselves for artistic aims.  If that seems abstract, well, it is.  Manipulating the conventions through which art gets made is pretty abstract.  It can also seem a whole lot less revolutionary than the high-flung rhetoric of many a 19th century era Romantic.  I love 18th century music and I love 20th century music but a lot of 19th century music leaves me indifferent.  I admire work by Chopin, I "can" enjoy Lizst, I don't really care much for Schubert and even though I'm a guitarist myself it's hard for me to get into Berlioz.  I can respect these composers, however, even if I don't always find myself in awe of them.  But what I'm trying to get at is that for me the 18th century composers worked to formulate a set of conventions that were supposedly set as "rules" in 19th century pedagogy.  Leonard B Meyer wrote a book on the Romantic era where he pointed out something that was a lightning bolt for me--

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 201

... the Romantic repudiation of convention (and especially of neo-Aristotelian aesthetics, which had been associated with the ancien regime), coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic relationships, highlighted the presence of diversity. As a result, the basis of coherence and unity became an issue: How did disparate and individualized themes, diverse modes of organization, and contrasts of expression--all intensified by the valuing of originality--form an organic whole? How did the several parts of a set of piano pieces or the different movements of a symphony or chamber work constitute a cohesive composition?

The problem was especially acute in the aesthetics of music. In literature, significant weakening of syntactic constraints and hierarchic organization were never really viable options, and in the visual arts, at least until the twentieth century, coherence was significantly dependent upon iconicity. In both realms, the representation of human and physical nature--often with convention disguised by historical or ethnic exoticism--played an important role in creating artistic unity. But in instrumental music, "unity through representation" was not a possibility, except of course in program music. And it is not implausible to argue that program music flourished in the nineteenth century partly because the use of a program was a way of establishing coherence and, in particular, accounting for the juxtaposition and succession of palpably different moods, connotations, and the like. 

page 220
Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends

page 222
In music, one of the discoveries of Romanticism was how to hide convention, yet have it too. [emphasis added]

page 225
... Organicism, which posits the naturalness and virtues of gradual transformation, encourages the emergence of a syntactic gesture from earlier materials; such emergence, at the same time, tends to disguise the presence of the conventional. 

page 231
Of the many factors serving to disguise the presence of schemata in nineteenth century music, perhaps none is more obvious than magnitude.  ...

Magnitude tends to mask schemata, --especially those defined by syntactic relationships--because of the constraints of aural memory. [emphasis added]...

I'm going to put this in the most polemical way possible, the Romantics were total posers.  They pretended to break rules throughout a century in which both equal-tempered tuning was more or less taken as standard on the one hand, and in which major and minor key tonality was also taken as a given.  Theorizing about what a sonata form was and what did or didn't count as a solid rondo, this sort of thing emerged in 19th century music pedagogy and theory while the ideal of ignoring the rules was endorsed as a stance.  It can seem to a 21st century guitarist composer like an absurd double-bind.  

What happened in the 20th century was composers began to actually break all the rules that the Romantics pretended to break for a few generations. Equal temperament?  Why?  Fixed diatonic major and minor modes?  We can bend that a bit.  So there's a lot of 18th century music I love (particularly J. S. Bach and Haydn). There's a lot of 20th century music I love.  And, yes, I even love a lot of music from what's sometimes called "the long 19th century".  After all, no guitarist can ultimately ignore 19th century literature. It's when our six-stringed guitar as we know and love it was actually developed.  So I enjoy some of the works by the early guitarist-composers Sor, Giuliani, Diabelli, Matiegka, even some Carulli.  Less keen on Molitor but I hope you're getting my point--it's not that I can't appreciate 19th century concert music, it's that I ultimately am not willing to buy at any level that the Romantic era was as revolutionary as its devotees, particularly in academic contexts have tended to present it as being.  I'm not really one for making a religion of art.  I'm just fine with religion being religion, possibly something a person could expect of a Presbyterian ... . 

When I look at the debates and discussions that have been happening in musicology I get this strong sense that the people who are most dead set against any potential fusion of high and low musical idioms are the Romantics.  Advocates of Baroque or Classic or even early music can seem more open to the idea that high and low can mix and match more than advocates of Romantic repertoire.  Why?  If I had to guess it would be because Romantic art religion has its canon of divines and there's not really a whole lot you can add to it.  The canon of truly divine revelation is closed for the Romantics.  Being a Presbyterian I'm more set on the idea that the Bible as a canon of religious texts is closed and for art?  All bets are off until Christ returns which, if you've read this far, we can accept could be far enough in the future that though the scriptures tell us His coming is sooner than when we first believed (true), there is still time for religious artists to make art.  And thus in the 20th century we got Catholics like Messiaen composing some gloriously weird avant garde music.  

To put things in a more prosaic way, I heard somewhere it was said by Robert Fripp that to be daring and radical in his art he needed a quotidian and pedestrian home life.  

I haven't written as much as I used to and some of that has to do with "irl" things and some of it has to do with the kind of thinking I've been doing.  

I've wanted to write about music since the start of this blog but it's challenging to write about music if you're using a blog and there's only so much you can do by way of presenting scores or linking to audio.  How do you write about music in such a way that you can convey things about it to readers who may never have heard the music you're writing about or are unable to read scores?  We have access to potential solutions for some of that now by way of videos that have audio and read-along scores.  But you can spend years looking at a score and listening to a recording without  necessarily gaining much by way of understanding what you're hearing and seeing.  This would be, traditionally, when and where and why and how music teachers advocate for music lessons.  It's a fair concern but in the kind of educational-industrial complex the United States has become I'm very, very cautious about suggesting people blow tens of thousands of dollars of money that might have to be obtained via loans to get that sort of musical education, for instance.  And to go by many polemics by many scholars and music-lovers a certain kind of theory and pedagogy seems to be suffocating for musical appreciation and to go by the tales and legends ... it seems to be 19th century era pedagogy.  

It's hardly a master's thesis or anything but it's an interesting musing for a weekend night that the Romantic era music and art that seemed to seek such transcendence was accompanied with a range of theories and pedagogy that seemed to be regarded as soul-killing.  The rules were being handed down in the same era in which the maxim that you not care for the rules ... 

A more plausible and persuasive way to put what I think maybe the Romantics were trying to suggest is what I've outlined above in looking at Beethoven's last piano sonata.  If you carefully respect a range of conventions or expectations at one level you can drastically breach expectations at another level without completely confounding a would-be audience.  I'm not going to claim that's an original thought on my part.  The basic idea was articulated in a more general form by Kyle Gann over at his blog years ago.  All I've done is apply that general observation to a piano sonata I know that both Kyle Gann and I admire greatly, and found a way to show how what Gann was talking about could be demonstrated in a Beethoven piano sonata--you can really break one "rule" at a time in fantastic ways as long as you respect enough other conventions to let people know where you're going.    

Many of the failures of the 20th century avant garde came from an effort to either "break all the rules" at the same time without coming up with any compelling alternatives or, alternately, trying to impose a fleet of expectations on audiences that a series of invented conventions would be something an audience could understand because, well, I put all that in the score on pages, right?  They should get it!  No, they're supposed to be able to hear what you're doing.  You can see and hear that Beethoven shifted all of his developmental work into the transitions of Op. 111.  Even with something as grand as the Grosse Fugue Beethoven can bracket a lot of violent and surreal counterpoint into a macro-structural form that could be, depending on how you map it out, a fairly straightforward five-part rondo!  All of the surface complexity in even late Beethoven is often offset by a beautifully simple handling of the highest-level structural units in his larger movements.   And that's why people still listen to later string quartets by Beethoven and why, honestly, I doubt people will be doing that for the string quartets of Elliot Carter in the same way even now.  By contrast I enjoy works by Varese and pundits ranging from Theodore Adorno to George Rochberg have had an explanation for why that would be, he let his ear guide him.  My own conviction (and everyone is welcome to disagree) has been that when it comes to music you can gently break two or three conventions at a time so long as you're being gentle about it but if you're going to outright detonate a convention you can probably only manage to detonate one convention at a time.  And that, I submit, is a lesson that can be learned from studying the work of a composer like Beethoven, his actual works, not the gushing mythologizing that his work was subjected to.  

No comments: