Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Summermusic 2016: Beethoven's Hostile Entanglements

Beethoven, around 1801
The first concert of Summermusic 2016 with “Curtis on Tour” starts with Beethoven, a very good place to start. Curtis faculty members Bella Hristova, violinist, and pianist Natalie Zhu will begin with the third of Beethoven's violin sonatas – the one in E-flat, Op.12 No. 3 – and then continue with more recent works: four rags by John Novacek and “Swan Song” (inspired by Schubert's last songs) composed by David Ludwig. Joined the cellist Soo Bae, they will conclude the program with Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Trio.

(You can read more about this opening program in the introductory post to the entire three-concert series, here.)

In another post, I wrote about the “Salieri Connection” which is easy enough to have when you've got Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in any proximity. But in this case, Beethoven dedicated these three violin sonatas to one of his teachers, Antonio Salieri; and Schubert was 20 when he wrote the String Trio that's on the second program not long after having a last lesson with Salieri whom he'd started studying with when he was 15. Five years of intense study can have quite an impact on a young composer – and Salieri's stamp is evident in this delightful work which sounds more like it was written in the 1780s than in 1817.

So what was going on in Beethoven's life before he wrote the violin sonata you can hear Friday night at Market Square Church?

Here is Taiwanese-born American violinist Richard Lin playing Beethoven's Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op.12 No. 3, with pianist Natsumi Ohno from the 2015 Joseph Joachim Competition in Hannover, Germany:
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Here's another connection.

Keep in mind, Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn, a city on the great Rhine which, between 1597 and 1794, was the capital of the “Electorate of Cologne,” one of those smallish states along the Rhine that was part of a loose German-speaking region before Germany existed as a nation-state. I used to tell my students that Bonn was kind of like, say, Harrisburg (state capital on a wide river) and Vienna was the magnet to any young aspiring musician like, say, New York City.

Bonn's Market Square c.1900
Anyway, the analogy isn't all that apt – yes, there's even a Market Square with City Hall at one end, typical of most cities, then: one could never really describe Harrisburg as the intellectual hot-bed Bonn was during the Enlightenment in the late-18th Century when Beethoven was growing up.

This philosophical grounding and sense of independent thinking shaped Beethoven, giving him a different view of what life, art and the role of the individual was in society compared to those who grew up in pleasure-loving Imperial Vienna. Influenced and inspired by the ideals that brought about the French Revolution with its storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14th, 1789.

These were heady days for fans of Republican liberalism (now, there's something that gives one pause, today...) in the days when monarchs felt they were kings by God's Will – at least until the French Republic (remember, Napoleon didn't crown himself Emperor until 1803) decided to expand its territory and brings more than its political message to the good people along the Rhine.

It was at this time young Beethoven, with the blessing of Bonn's Elector, decided to go off to Vienna to study. The plan was, he would then, after finishing his studies, return home to resume his position as a court musician in Bonn.

Initially, he had wanted to study with Mozart and had first traveled to Vienna in 1787 with the intent of networking the music scene there, hoping to arrange some lessons with Mozart. He left Bonn on March 20th and arrived in Vienna on April 7th and it's possible he was introduced to Mozart shortly afterward by a mutual acquaintance and fellow-Mason. While the story of the boy playing the piano for Mozart and Mozart saying “Keep an eye on him – someday he'll give the world something to talk about” sounds like another one of those Great Myths of Classical Music: not provable as not true, either, but if it were, you'd think Beethoven would've been bragging about it later in life, yet he never mentioned meeting Mozart and was contradictory about hearing Mozart play.

Unfortunately, Beethoven only got to stay a little while (some sources say two weeks) before word arrived his mother, who'd been ill when he left, was now dying (she died in mid-July).

Mozart composed his G Minor Piano Quartet in 1785, entering the newly completed work into his thematic catalogue on October 16th. But if Beethoven had anything worth showing Mozart in the way of an introduction or part of an "application" to study with him during his all-to-brief visit in 1787, it would have been three of his own piano quartets which the 14-year-old composer wrote the same year - like this one, in E-flat Major. They had been modeled on violin sonatas by Mozart, copying their structure, harmonic language, and thematic development as a kind of scaffolding so he could learn how "real" composers do it and even they're far from mature works, Mozart would've seen something in these works that went beyond mere imitation.

Did Mozart comment on them? Did Beethoven actually get to take some lessons from him? It's odd he never mentioned it later, so it would seem unlikely that it happened, don't you think?

At one point late in his life, Beethoven said he had heard Mozart play once (another time he said he'd heard him play several times) and that "he had a fine but choppy way of playing, no legato" (more like a harpsichord player than what even to the next generation was piano playing).

But his mother was dying and so, dutiful son that he was, Beethoven returned home.

By the time he met Haydn traveling through Bonn on his way to England in 1791, Beethoven was trying to organize another chance to study with Mozart in Vienna. In December of that year, Beethoven was playing in the pit orchestra for a production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio only to find out Mozart had died about two weeks earlier. The Bonn court theater had also presented Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni in the past year (but the popular hit of that season was Dittersdorf's Little Red Riding Hood).

What could Beethoven do, now? Make plans to go to Vienna to study with Haydn, then.

On November 2nd, 1792, Beethoven finally left for Vienna, 550 miles away – as Count Waldstein wrote in Beethoven's album, “Through uninterrupted diligence you shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.” He reached the suburbs of Vienna around sunrise on December 10th. There had been a sense that Revolution was inevitable - political revolution, social revolution and with it an artistic revolution to match - but the roads through these small German states en route to Vienna were dangerous with French troops marching through the region. That was the revolution most on Beethoven's mind as he neared his 22nd birthday.

Only two weeks after Beethoven left Bonn, the Elector Maximilian Franz (a brother of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette) fled the city in the wake of the occupying French army, though they returned again in the spring of '93 when the French were driven back. But it didn't last long: in October, Cologne falls to the French army, the first time the city has been occupied by foreign troops in 900 years; on October 8th, Bonn surrendered without a fight. The French did not leave until 1814.

Originally intending to stay for a couple of years to study in Vienna, Beethoven now had nothing to return to and so he decided to stay. He was studying with Haydn (not very successfully, alas) and took counterpoint lessons from Albrechtsberger, another leading composer (who found Haydn missed several errors in Beethoven's earlier exercises), and also studied "dramatic composition," setting Italian to music, with Vienna's most famous opera composer and the most powerful musician in the Imperial capital, Antonio Salieri. Young Beethoven was recognized as an amazing pianist and an improviser who knew no equal. He had wealthy music-loving aristocrats lining up to support him and to have their daughters study piano with him. Not only had Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he had arrived.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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When Beethoven published his first three violin sonatas in 1799 as his Op.12, Mozart had been dead for almost eight years. And certainly to our ears – used, as we are, to the heroic Beethoven of the 5th Symphony, of the 9th and the Late Quartets, and to everything that happened since, whether it's Brahms or Wagner or Schoenberg or John Cage – these works seem fairly slight and Mozart-like, graceful, elegant, devoid of the romantic, revolutionary emotions we associate with his later music.

Keep in mind one of the great “romantic” piano sonatas – emotional, dramatic, and above all personal, the one he himself called the Pathétique – was also published in 1799 and given the number Op.13. In fact, sketches for these very different works – the violin sonatas and the Pathétique – can be found in the same notebook. Beethoven had a habit of working on several pieces simultaneously and often very contrasting works. This would be a perfect example!

Yet in June, 1799, here is what one of Beethoven's first critics thought of these “graceful, elegant, Mozart-like” violin sonatas, especially the 3rd, the one in E-flat, examining the freshly published score, not hearing a performance:

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After having arduously worked his way through these quite peculiar sonatas, overladen with strange difficulties, he must admit that... he felt like a man who had thought he was going to promenade with an ingenious friend through an inviting forest, was detained ever moment by hostile entanglements, and finally emerged, weary, exhausted, and without enjoyment. It is undeniable that Herr van Beethoven goes his own way. But what a bizarre, laborious way! Studied, studied, studied and perpetually studied, and no nature, no song. Indeed... there is is only a mass of learning here. There is obstinacy for which we feel very little interest, a striving for rare modulations ...a piling on of difficulty upon difficulty, so that one loses all patience and enjoyment. (quoted in Swafford's Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph, p.233-234)
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Certainly, the modulations were not the usual tonalities listeners even on the verge of a new century would have expected, unusual keys like E-flat Minor (a favorite of Beethoven's but one rarely encountered in music of the day) and even one passage in C-flat Major – true, one could argue that Mozart's great G Minor Symphony moved so swiftly through some likewise unexpected tonalities in the development section of its finale, some 20th Century scholars consider it “the birthplace of atonal music” (!) but just because it existed did not make it “typical of the age” – but considering what “hostile entanglements” our critic encountered in this violin sonata, what would he have thought of the piano sonata that immediately followed it?

Five years later, a 10-year-old piano student, Ignaz Moscheles (later to become one of the most acclaimed pianists and composers of his generation), hand-copied Beethoven's Pathétique from a library copy (because he couldn't afford to purchase it, himself – even then, one could make claims for “illegal downloading”) when he said his teacher “warned me against playing or studying eccentric productions before I had developed a style based on more respectable models.” Like many students listening to their teachers, he ignored him.

Yet we might find Schubert's reaction to Beethoven – quoted in the “Salieri Connection” post – surprising because it's so much later (June, 1816) when you think people would've "gotten used" to Beethoven by then, but Schubert, still 19, was listening to what his teacher was telling him. Keep in mind that even in 1798, when Beethoven had been studying with Salieri himself, Salieri was already composing music that was old-fashioned even then.

Style Wars, the bitter in-fighting of musical politics – it hasn't changed much over two hundred years.

- Dick Strawser

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