Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fahrenheit 111: Why we should hate Beethoven's last sonata

To a musician, over-analyzing a piece of music is like burning a book. Yes, understanding the subject of one's devotion is required, but hemming and hawing about arbitrary details entirely coats the stark, shining beauty and simplicity of the music with the kerosene of human perception. It's only a matter of time, then, until the whole thing spontaneously combusts, violently spitting embers of once-unadulterated artistry into the vicinity. The work's innovative glory is then reduced to mere ashes by familiarity - which inevitably breeds contempt.

It's midnight here in Toronto. I lie awake in bed, my eyes as wide as a bushbaby's. Life has become an endless blur: wake up, eat, practice, insomnia...

I finally decide to go stand near the window and look at the buildings outside. My frozen feet protest the (still!) cold air outside my blanket, but I ignore them. As I get a glass of water, I realize that the main reason I can't sleep is that I can't get over my run-ins with Beethoven's op.111 earlier today. This piece (like all of late Beethoven) has long suffered the fate I described above. Bottles and bottles of ink have been spilled over it, to the point that the mere mention of it is enough to make the entire music world go down on one knee in indoctrinated reverence, as if one had uttered the name of a putrefying saint in a church graveyard.

Thus, the true greatness of Beethoven's last sonata are hardly allowed to shine through. The modern approach to intelligent understanding, which relies heavily on dissection, is largely to blame. In order to learn and appreciate something, we often resort to objectively cutting it up and breaking down all of its parts. While we do absorb a lot of information about the entity from this process, we don't ever fully experience the entity. Can you still smell, touch, or even taste a rose if you spent all your time hacking away at it with a knife? Similarly, scholars have spent all their time hacking away mercilessly at op.111, forgetting that in music, to hear is to understand. All of this has led to a mass classical circle-jerk, in which everyone uncritically accepts the fact that op.111 is the best thing since sliced bread, but no one asks how or why.

Alright, enough is enough. I'm done ruminating, and I will now start eviscerating. You may have heard that op.111 is the best thing since sliced bread, but in order to explore why it is, we must first examine why it isn't. Let's just say for now that op.111 is not good music. If sliced bread is the best thing on the list, op.111 ranks somewhere between having the flu and cutting your wrists with a rusty knife. Hell, let's say it's so bad, it can actually make you want to cut your wrists with a rusty knife. Let's assume the position that it's a cult forming fraud of a composition. It's cumbersome, tedious, vague, and so emotionally draining that it sucks the very life out of me everyday like a Dementor straight out of J.K. Rowling's worst nightmare. I'm pretty sure there's now a giant, cosmic black hole in the cold, dead husk that once housed my emotions, and that I've practically become autistic. Gone are the days when I used to be able to give hugs without screeching like a banshee. Good times...

Everyone tells you that we should love this sonata. I ask, why should we hate it? The easiest reason is likely the fact that everyone worships it - mostly out of sanctimonious, exaggerated pity. Poor old, deaf Beethoven, everyone cries, suffering at the end of his life while he wrote this music. Obviously, because he was suffering when he wrote it, we must perceive this sonata with the solemnity of a nun. Humor and objectivity are chased away like trespassers, and replaced with a slimy, writhing mass of obsequious verbiage. But fear not - you won't find any of that slime here. If you're expecting a walk on an analytical path to the kingdom of His Majesty King Beethoven the First, paved with the noble bricks of nuance and subtlety, please note that I don't give two shits and a biscuit about such things and neither should you.

So how on earth should one go about explaining this beauty--er, I mean, monstrosity? As always, beginning at the beginning is a virtue...

The "sonata" (if one could even call it that) is a wacky little clusterfuck. 

Time and time again, I can't help but break into a smile upon realizing what a beautiful disaster this piece really is. It is made up of just two movements - each like matter and antimatter. The first is nothing short of a musical cataclysm, and the second seems to mock the angsty, hot mess that came before it with a hauntingly simple theme and anachronistic jazz-like rhythms. They somewhat resemble two siblings with an Apollo and Dionysus complex - one of which is a morose, mercurial member of a heavy-metal band who showers one a month and sleeps in till noon, the other a goody-two-shoes with permanently organized drawers and crisply ironed shirts, who later spirals into debilitating insanity.

Take a look at the introduction. Mysterious, elusive, moody, and preposterously deceiving. There are a million ways to play this, and more ineffective ways of playing it than effective ways. What's even more of an enigma is the fact that such little is musically going on. Three reiterations of a "descending diminished 7th + resolution" element are followed by a series of disjunct (but beautiful) chords, somehow meandering their way to C minor, where there is the iconic three-note motif, resembling a recurring decimal, pervading throughout the music...

As of late, I've been perusing Quintilian's terms of rhetoric and their relationship with music - especially sonata form. Rhetorical oration/explanation has six different parts, which are the basis for all those blasé six-paragraph essays everyone has to learn to write in high school for standardized tests: state your thesis (exordium), explain the nature of the subject (narratio), point out the main issues of the case (partitio), back up your thesis with logical arguments (confirmatio), answer counterarguments (refutatio), and finally, restate your thesis to sum up the essay (peroratio). Sonata form through the Classical era, before the whole Stürm und Drang movement, is loosely based on this format. The first movement of op.111 also strictly follows this plan, even though it was written quite a while later in the Classical period. But what makes op.111 unique is that the parts which need to sound the most audibly chaotic are in fact the most formulaic in structure. The first movement, however Dionysian in texture, harmony, and character, is Apollonian in terms of layout. Every single phrase is, in fact, as innocently predictable as that of an early Mozart sonata. Most of the material is sourced from an earlier place in the music, if not outright repeated in a different key. Come on, Ludwig, did you really think we were too dumb to notice this?

The second movement is the opposite. Even though it is theme and variations, in which repetition and order is expected (and heartily delivered, too), there's a sense of dwindling mental capacity imbued within the music. The theme is a simplistic, almost childish tune, which starts off in a hyper-organized, straightforward manner. It appears calm, cool, and confident, but in the dark recesses of your mind, you can somehow tell that this feigned display of security is but a house of cards, about to come crashing down at the slightest breeze. And it does - each subsequent variation emits a different light from the last, with the initial theme growing more and more distant as the piece progresses. By the last variation, it has eroded into a scattered, moth-eaten collection of notes, decayed beyond recognition.

This is highly unusual for Beethoven's variation sets. In the final movement of op.109, for instance, Beethoven restates the entire theme in its original form at the end of the last variation, and makes sure at every turn that our memory of it remains intact throughout the movement. It's a kind of condensation - close-knit, sane, and cozy. The op.111 arietta, on the other hand, is a dispersion - resembling the life of an Alzheimer's patient. What people often don't realize is that Alzheimer's is not heartbreaking for the sufferers so much as for the onlookers. While the sufferers are rolling like pigs in the mud of their age-old memories and reveling in the splendor of their heyday, their loved ones are forced to helplessly watch as they are slowly cast into the abyss. Similarly, the arietta may seem depressing to listeners, but I would say it's more lost than depressed. The music is unaware of how hopeless its condition actually is. It dances the boogie-woogie, cracks ironic jokes, and creates a lackadaisical world inside the cubicle of its own perception, without realizing it's slowly wasting away.

I guess there's a greater life lesson to learn from all this: things are not always what they seem on the outside. Those of us who seem the most well-settled might be terribly insane and broken on the inside, while those of us who seem the most scatterbrained, erratic, and rebellious are the ones who are actually organized and have their shit together. 

One can't deny that such dichotomies inevitably lead to hang-ups in the music. And speaking of hang-ups...

The entire piece suffers from ADD.

From the get-go, it's clearly evident that the whole piece needs a little Adderall. Almost every sliver of consistency is immediately suppressed or ruined by distraction. Just as comedians have to determine the right timing for their jokes, musicians have to figure out just how much (or how little) time is necessary to keep an audience engaged. Ludwig really hasn't been sympathetic in this regard, randomly lengthening notes at the most awkward places. But hey, if I wanted sympathy, I would've stuck to playing Chopin.

Almost every phrase begins promisingly before coming to a screeching halt, usually by way of an anticlimactic ritard. This predilection of pausing continues throughout the piece and immediately kills any culminating drama, which is enough to induce an apoplectic rage from perpetual frustration. Moreover, I'm inclined to believe this predilection is wholly intentional. I can almost imagine a moment in history: a senile, (possibly) shitfaced, completely deaf Mr. Beethoven hunched over the piano with an evil smirk on his face, making it his final mission to leave both pianists and audiences as dissatisfied as possible. Some people argue that the ritards are what makes the piece "immortal", "transcendent", or any other pretentious adjective they manage to pull out of their asses, but all they seem to prove is that there are more ritards in the world than in the piece.

The art of late Beethoven, apparently, is to struggle as much as possible. If opportunities to struggle don't naturally present themselves, it is up to the performer to act like you're struggling. Scholars might harp on about how oh-so-difficult the late Beethoven sonatas are to play - and they are, with all the awkward leaps, finger-work, and whatnot - but take it from me: there is far more physically taxing music in the world than Beethoven's last sonatas. In my life so far, I have stared down at pages and pages of octaves, exhausting series of chords, and copious notes so small and tightly grouped together that they may as well be vast amounts of fly shit. As for these sonatas? They're mind-warping, sure, but physically impossible? Hell to the no.

This doesn't make the pieces any easier, though. For instance, incessant practicing can make the initial diminished 7th octaves somewhat easy and comfortable, but it's so significant in character that its true effect is anything but easy and comfortable. In spots like these, there have been several moments in my lessons that I've been prescribed intentionally less convenient fingering, just to make it sounds harder for me to play the passage in question. I may or may not be humblebragging right now.

Indecision is a nightmare - both in life and music. Beethoven knew this all too well, and created this giant conundrum revolving around struggle, hesitation, and the perpetual state of being lost. It embraces the spirit of nomadism that Schubert wished to achieve in his Wanderer Fantasy and other works. My immediate reaction when confronted with all this is to resort to cheekiness - a decision which I can't yet pin down as innovative or horribly mistaken. While the music may be playing hard-to-get, it still remains deathly serious, without a hint of flirtatiousness or frivolity. At the same time, downplaying Beethoven's sense of irony in the name of face-value impressions would be a shame. This entire sonata fully embraces the silliness/seriousness spectrum - when the form is serious, the notes are silly, and vice-versa.

The fate of the entire sonata ultimately rests on select individual notes.

I believe it was Debussy who said it was not the notes, but the silence between the notes that makes the music. John Cage exemplified the meaning of this in 4'33'' - a controversial "piece" met with such explosive reactions that it might as well have been lengthened and called 9'11'' instead. By eliminating all the notes, Cage fully demonstrated the truth behind Debussy's words: the framed silence itself is the music, and the sounds that happen to occur during the silence are transient, variable, and only there by chance. Aleatoric (chance) music largely relies on this principle. Op.111, however, is a unique case in which silence is actually preferable to the notes.

Alright, alright, I don't really mean that. Mockery aside, the truth is that in op.111, the unharmonized notes are just as important as the silences. They all are a different color, and have been given the sheer strength to stand alone. The subtle differences in the projection of these notes changes the meaning of what is to follow, and makes or breaks the piece. A good way to describe their effect is contrasting the sentence, "Someone got Naked at Whole Foods" with "Someone got naked at Whole Foods", you would realize that it's only the capitalization of the letter 'N' that determines whether you saw someone innocently buying Naked brand juice at Whole Foods, or had the misfortune of seeing a crazy person moon everyone at the grocery store and subsequently get arrested for indecent exposure. In the same way, how the stand-alone notes are set up determines the character of the entire part. Screw this up, and everything that follows is ruined.

How do you think Beethoven manages to brazenly repeat himself and somehow get away with it? I'd like to think I've sussed out the secret. It's all in the unharmonized notes. When the music simply repeats in another key, it still manages to show a different character each time. Take for instance, these passages from the first movement, coming once in the exposition and then in the recap...

The first time is as familiar and grounded as apple pie. It seems like the first fraction of humanity and love in a sea of otherworldliness - especially considering all the craziness going on beforehand. There's no way anyone could've predicted that A flat major would arrive, except for the E flat that begins the passage. That E flat, though, determines exactly how the following phrase unfolds.

The second time sets a completely different atmosphere - even though it's thematically identical to the A flat major section. It's completely devoid of familiarity and human emotion, and seems to evoke a higher sense of mental clarity. Every time I play this, it feels as if my thoughts are instantly kicked out of my head, leaving me breathless and entirely omniscient of my surroundings. As with before, the only thing that determines the projected effectiveness of this part is the preceding G.

Remember - all this emotional difference, and the music is exactly identical.

This phenomenon is seen even more frequently in the second movement. Every phrase changes in thickness of texture and character, and it's always a lone note that governs all these changes. The theme, for instance, starts as vertical as ever, with every note harmonized clearly and predictably in neat 4-bar phrases. But before the A minor phrase, there's a single, open 'E'...

It is positively untouched, and doesn't actually belong in the picture at all. What could possibly follow such a clean, pure note, which has no real business being there? The 'E' seems to set off a chain reaction in which the texture gets thicker and thornier at each phrase, demanding a lot of decisions regarding voicing.

The 'E', like all the other unharmonized notes, is therefore a critical gateway: a wormhole leading into diverse worlds of sound. In this case, the 'E' connects the vertical to the horizontal that follows - the harmony to the counterpoint. The piece is entirely like a patchwork quilt - made up of different materials with different textures, all held together by thin, golden threads.

I've observed that color changes became increasingly crowded over the musical eras. Baroque music changes color within just a few elements, as seen in Bach and Scarlatti, whereas Romantic music changes color gradually, by way of long, ornate phrases with a million notes. Op.111, on the other hand, changes color through free-standing, single notes - entirely irrespective of the textural quality of the music. Thus, moodiness and spontaneity is encouraged, as sudden changes over little musical material require a quick reaction time - again proving the ADD diagnosis. But all this is a bunch of impractical mumbo-jumbo. How exactly does one go about making these subtle changes in a way that they are heard by listeners?

When confronted with a student who was struggling with technical skills, Liszt had curtly remarked, "Wash your dirty linen at home." He believed that a part of the wonder of being a performer was never letting people know your difficulties and personal methods, and I largely abide by his advice. However, I'm going to let you all in on a musician's secret: assigning importance to notes and determining which notes to specifically voice in a piece is kind of like playing the game "Fuck, Marry, Kill". These decisions are equally based on both musical truths and personal preference. Some notes are sexy and catchy, drawing attention to themselves and practically begging to be brought out. They're very beautiful, but are mostly brought out at whim and largely fluctuate in quality depending on one's mood during a particular performance. As a result, they can be rather replaceable and somewhat forgettable from performance to performance. Other notes are material for permanence - not only beautiful on the outside, but on the inside as well. These notes are the bedrocks of what makes a lifelong signature interpretation, and usually remain the same during every performance - much like a long-term relationship. Lastly are the notes that serve to enhance the atmosphere, but entirely ruin the music if they are brought to the forefront - kind of like your frenemy who never fails to make your life worse when you're together, but sometimes has access to something you need, like cheap concert tickets or free food. These notes are useful at a distance, but should be killed immediately if they come any closer. And just like the game, these decisions can be much harder than you think. 

Personally, the deliberation is simplified greatly by synesthesia. If you can "hear" the color of the music exactly when it changes, you can cultivate a pianistic touch that suits the color change. In the example I gave earlier from the first movement, the fact that A flat major registers as soft orange in my mind and C major registers as pure white greatly hastens the process. Of course, the individual effect of the colors are different (based on context), but the feeling remains the same for me. But as compositionally genius it is to transition so dramatically through just one note, the links can become rather boring and anticlimactic. Which brings me to my next point...

The transitions transition nowhere!

There's simply no other way to describe this. With all the pauses and the single-note transitions, the gist of the piece is heavily compromised. All of this is especially evident in the arietta, which already comes with the most basic yet frustrating challenge of performing variation sets - deciding how long to wait between the variations. Throughout my life, I've always observed that each variation set calls for a different approach. The Brahms-Paganini variations sound like piano studies if too much time is taken between them in performance, whereas the Brahms-Handel variations need a slightly longer time to surprise listeners with the material that comes next. Ludwig's batshit arietta, however, is flaky and inconsistent. Each variation requires a different approach at the end. It's mostly due to the fact that the piece rides the line between simplicity and complexity. Beethoven begins each variation innocently, with not a care in the world, before cramming in notes towards the last few measures like a college student before finals week. How should I keep listeners engaged? Should I wait? Should I rush? Should I do neither and instead wallow in self-pity and the existential dread of being?

As if this is not enough, don't even get me started on the first movement - especially the fugue section. Oh, for crying out loud. Ludwig, let's be honest - I love you with all my heart, but if you think I'm going to sit here and blow smoke up your ass about this scrawny excuse of a development section, you'd be dead wrong. Actually, that was redundant - you'd just be wrong because you're already dead.

The failures of this passage are especially disheartening, considering the stellar, impossibly intricate weaving of voices in op.110 and Hammerklavier. But while the Hammerklavier fugue is a transcendent stroke of genius, the "fugue" of op.111 (I even hesitate to call it that) is so tiny and dissatisfying that it could've made Mr. Beethoven's Immortal Beloved storm out in a huff and swear never to let him hammer her klavier again.

Of course, the most egregious error of this section is how pathetically the theme of the fugue is dealt with. Of course, it's led in with a single, unharmonized 'G', followed by another hackneyed meting-out of the three-note motif...

The fugal passages of other sonatas (op.101, 106, 109, and 110), are often developed mathematically, applying the golden ratio and other formulaic patterns. Referring back to Quintilian, Beethoven's fugal sections are usually the refutatio parts, which consists of abandoning the previous ideas and starting afresh. In this one, however, we're still stuck with the damn three-note motif. No effort is put into any innovation at all, and before we know it, the music gets assailed by repeated diminished 7th chord sounding out the melody of - you guessed it - that goddamn three-note motif. Jesus Christ on a cracker, Ludwig, I bet every theory teacher in the world would instantly kick the bucket at the sound of such a beautifully devastating act of rebellion! (Not saying they won't entirely deserve that)...

These chords revel like noisy neighbors, relentless in their pursuit to ruin as many hours of your sleep as possible. This piece is so chemically dependent on them, it's practically begging me to stop practicing and start a drinking game. Hey guys - take a shot every time a diminished 7th appears! On second thoughts, never mind - just writing the last sentence made me die of alcohol poisoning.

On a serious note, it is true that diminished chords were still considered novel, shocking, and scandalous in Beethoven's time period. What now sounds cumbersome and banal to modern ears was actually quite radical in the early 19th century. I often marvel at how composers slowly became infected with the bug of non-traditional tonality, beginning with op.111, then Wagner, then Liszt, with his late works such as Nuages Gris and Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, before Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School nuked the entire system. The evolution of music, from op.111 onwards, could be described in terms of the effect of materialism on the human race. In caveman days, we ate organic food, wore a minimal amount of clothes made from natural materials, and owned no possessions except for a trusty hand axe or spear - somewhat like the restricted counterpoint of Palestrina and Renaissance music. As we acquired more knowledge about our world and created new inventions (like in the Classical and Romantic eras in music), we made our lives more comfortable and pleasurable, but also evolved social norms that promoted mass consumerism and a culture that considered the hoarding of possessions a sign of affluence (somewhat like the lengthening of pieces and constant vying for more and more notes in the Lisztian days). Nowadays, we're trying desperately to return to our roots, praising minimalism in design and organization and trying ever so hard to declutter our homes and generally shut out the constant noise of our nonstop lives. We even try to eat like cavemen again, with the paleo diet and such. That being said, we also want to balance the need for pleasure and ease. This will for decluttering is seen in music too, with Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and to a degree, twelve-tone music, which limits its perceptive analysis to tone rows. 

Herein is where op.111 is so unique. Despite all of its shortcomings, hair-pulling frustrations, and overall weirdness, it is the harbinger of innovation. It shows the spectrum of music history itself - containing the polar opposites of human perception - aimlessness and purposefulness, cluttered excess and delusional, ascetic deprivation. Even though completely deaf, Beethoven managed to hear the past and future, and hand it to us in such a calm and casual manner that it's frightening. And that is truly genius.

Oh god, I'm starting to sound like those wide-eyed groupies I hate. Fuck. 

Fine, I give up.

Okay, I'm done running over this amazing piece with a Schadenfreudian bandwagon of superiority in order to discover more about it. Yeah, go ahead and twist the knife - I probably deserve it for writing this horrible blog post. The truth is that, far from hating it, I've been entranced by the piece from the very first time I heard it. The protagonist that op.111 describes, with all its stretch marks, instability, and "imperfections",  is the very essence of humanity itself, and has the potential to be relatable to all - whether it's a tone-deaf banker who's never heard a note of classical music in his life, or a disgruntled pianist staying up late at night trashing pieces on the internetz that she truly, madly, deeply loves. Yes, it has ADD, but don't we all? Yes, its transitions change rapidly and awfully - just like the changes and upheavals in our lives, and like the law of entropy, which manages to burn entire ecosystems to the ground. Yes, it repeats itself often, but like lightning and sunsets, never repeats in the same way. Yes, this piece may lack a definite purpose, just like existence - but we shape it into something beautiful through our wisdom and personalities. The fact is that op.111 is just too good to hate.

The clock strikes 2 a.m. I am suddenly filled with pride and wonder for our universe, and it's all because of this mushy, crazy lump of a sonata. You go, Ludwig, you go...

No comments:

Post a Comment