On three pieces of music

Lately I have been introduced to different ways of thinking about specific pieces of music. Three examples of prominence come to mind. Firstly is the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (BMV 1004), or perhaps just infamously known as the Chaconne. The second example is the final movement from the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ Beethoven Sonata (No. 14, Op. 7 no. 2) ‘Presto Agitato’ movement. Finally an interesting Channel 4 Documentary ‘Chopin Saved my Life’ covered the subject of the impact of Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23).

I was introduced to the Chaconne and the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ in particular detail through a couple of MOOCs on music history recently, I discovered that these pieces had been received particularly well by composer peers. Brahms wrote of the piece to Clara Schumann:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Likewise, there is a certain universality spoken of Beethoven’s final movement in Quasi Una Fantasia attributed to Chopin, in his praise of the movement. The idea of having a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Classical’ period suggests conformity or some sense of homogeneity, which oversimplifies the greater moments of which the period is supposed to represent.

In a likewise comment, Vladimir Ashkenazy claims in the Channel 4 documentary that anyone who attests that the Ballade is Sentimental is ignorant of what this piece is about. Any simplistic overview of 19th Century work would use such terms as sentimental, or Romantic, or perhaps terms such as ‘world-weary’, supernatural or such.

There seems to be a tension. How autonomous was Bach’s greatest work from that of his peers? How Baroque was Bach? We can speak of a Baroque in terms of having certain features: figured bass, textured harmony and melody lines and so-called terraced dynamics of loud bits contrasting with quiet bits, but does that really distinguish whether Telemann is worth listening to compared to JS Bach?

The problem with historicising is oversimplifying and contextualising without emphasising the individuals. On the other hand, sometimes emphasising the ‘greats’ through history ignores us from everyone else who does not count as one of the pantheon. Will Durant’s ‘100 Greatest Books’ is an list of intellectual works that shows breadth and a critical sort of dialectical line progressing through the historical dates of the books. However, often the connections between those dates are interesting in themselves and overly canonising works diminishes the value of other works.

Examples of this would be the Renaissance philosopher Campanella who had a very interesting empiricism that resoundingly looked like that of Hume or Hobbes. Many of these ‘canons’ ignore women systematically, although recent scholarship is working to redefine these lines. When we think of great works of music, I wonder if it is our subjective response to it that grants it our sense of meaning, or our attempt to grasp something universally powerful. It was the Kantian project of aesthetics to say that one was the other. But lets leave that as an open question: is it? Is my appreciation of the Chaconne the same as yours? Is the Chaconne on the violin (original instrumentation) as powerful as Brahms’ Left Hand scoring? In my own head I leave these as untied knots, unresolved thoughts, as each of these open questions brings up more factors.

Sinistre

“Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” – A MOOC from Jonathan Biss

This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.

Accessibility

One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.

Music appreciation is lifelong

One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.

The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.

Socio-historical reflections

There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:

Bach

Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician

Haydn

Highly creative

Patronaged, then independent musician

Mixed ability during independent period

Mozart

Highly creative during Patronage

Poor ability during independent period

Beethoven

Poor creativity during Patronage

Highly creative during independent period

The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.

The cult of Beethoven worship

Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).

A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.

Changing my own attitude to music appreciation

I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.

Michael