More Lessons from Beethoven

True to form, I am out of synch with the rest of the world. Musicians are gearing up for a major Beethoven celebration in 2020, the 250th anniversary of his birth, so plan on hearing a lot of Beethoven’s music next year. Meanwhile, here I am – a step ahead, or just out of step? I think Beethoven would approve.

Alongside the “Archduke” Trio, which I wrote about last week, I am also getting reacquainted with Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, the Piano Sonata Op. 53, a very popular work from the middle years of his creative output which I haven’t played in  40 years or so! Like the “Archduke” Trio, Beethoven has dedicated this music to a nobleman, Count von Waldstein. Beethoven so wanted to be a “von” – i.e. a member of the nobility, but a single letter doomed him to be a humble Dutch “van” without any hint of noble blood. We have that in common at least.

The “Waldstein” Sonata is part of a program that I am playing for my mother and the other residents of her retirement community. It’s a small gift I can give to the person who gave me a life of music by filling our home with the music she loved – everything from Harry Belafonte to the Mamas and Papas to Mozart. She got to choose anything she wanted for my program…and the Beethoven Sonata is joined by music of Philip Glass, and a piece by Albeniz that really should be on the guitar instead of the piano, and a sweet little piece that she loves more than anything, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” that is supposedly from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with a little Chopin and Liszt thrown in for good measure. My mother has dementia, and her world seems to be shrinking more each time I see her, but music keeps us connected, at least in the moment.

Beethoven performed as a pianist for the last time when he played the premiere of his “Archduke” Trio in 1814. I wonder if he knew then that it would be his final concert as a pianist.  How often do we do something with the knowledge that it is the last time? There are happy finalities – like making a last mortgage payment – but mostly I think we would be pretty sad to know we are having a final experience of something integral to our lives. When will it be the last time that my mom knows who I am?

As Beethoven’s deafness worsened, it may have appeared that his world got smaller and smaller, but in that isolated universe he went on to create great expanses of music which pushed the boundaries of tonality and form. It wasn’t a limited experience at all inside his head, it would seem.  Even as I am shut out of the life I shared with my mother, perhaps there is a richness of sounds and experiences inside her isolated world that are unknown by those on the outside. I hope so.

I learn a lot about myself when I play Beethoven. He wears his heart, and his frustration, on his sleeve – or so it seems when I hear his music. Expressing emotions in creatively productive ways is certainly one lesson to be gained. And too, his music seems to contain everything that the beautiful reading from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes teaches us about the span of a lifetime. That there is a time to be sad and a time to be joyful. A time to be serious and another to be silly. Times to be in control of our feelings and others when we should be unabashedly exuberant. Times to sing and times to be silent, times to dance and times to be still.

 

sonyafirst004

Lessons from Beethoven

There’s always a place – a few notes or measures – in any piece I’ve encountered by Beethoven that is just impossible.  Beethoven’s music is always difficult to play well, but hard work usually pays off and something musical emerges, with his abrupt mood swings propelling the music at every turn. Except for that one spot…sometimes the fingers find all the right keys, and sometimes they don’t, and no amount of practice guarantees success 100% of the time.  That’s just how it is, for me anyway.

Beethoven came raging – he never ambles – back into my life a few weeks ago with two works that I needed to learn for two different concerts. First up, his so-called “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Piano, violin, and cello open the first movement with quiet grace and charm, but there it is, just a little over one minute in – the spot. The one I practice and practice without guarantee that it will go well in performance. I’ll work hard, drill into the spot’s difficulties with slow practice and careful attention to fingering….and in the moment will just hope for the stars to align!

Perfection is all around us. Images and sounds are manipulated in the studio to create ideal versions of beauty and performances free of any mistakes. Maybe perfection is a worthy goal, I don’t know. But the drama of Beethoven’s music, with its interruptions and conflicts and surprises, requires a different approach in my opinion. One that is unhampered by perfection, accepting of messiness, that leans in to the surprises and embraces the interruptions, all the while wrestling with the conflicts.

Those are goals worth pursuing, musically and in every other part of our lives, don’t you think?

sonyafirst004Join me and my musical partners for our performance of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio on Tuesday, November 19 at 12:10 pm at Church of the Epiphany’s Tuesday Concert Series.  TCS concert flyer

Love is the Lesson

An Easter treat in the form of a beautiful work for choir by my friend Gary Davison. I asked him to write a piece in 2004 for an anniversary celebration and he set this text by Edmund Spenser, which ends with the simple petition – So let us love, dear love, like as we ought; Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught. As is so often the case, profundity lies in simplicity. And as human history has too often shown us, we aren’t very good at keeping things simple.

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F533165868&show_artwork=true&maxwidth=500&maxheight=750&dnt=1&=&%2338%3Butm_campaign=share&%2338%3Butm_medium=facebook&utm_source=soundcloudhttps://soundcloud.com/mark-dwyer-2/davison-most-glorious-lord-of-life-the-advent-choir?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=facebook

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English poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599) was a contemporary of this week’s birthday boy, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), usually celebrated on April 23 or 24. While Spenser seemed to work within Tudor political machinations, writing in praise of the Queen and to gain favor with the nobility, Shakespeare seems to be more of an outsider, quicker to cast a skeptical eye on the institutions of his time and the people who ran them. But that’s just my unscholarly summary of two of the English language’s greatest writers.

Spenser’s sonnet, and the whole liturgically-based cycle from which it comes, Amoretti, demonstrates his comfort with the Anglican church and its theology. Debates, on the other hand, about Shakespeare’s belief in God, his churchmanship or whatever else might be ascertained about his religious convictions, are less clear, especially considering his acknowledged role as one of the preeminent humanists of all time. Love was often the lesson, but for Shakespeare it was always an arduous one.

What I think has appealed to most of us during these past 400 years is Shakespeare’s ability to write about every aspect of human character – its many frailties, its potential for redemption and forgiveness, its capacity for love and sacrifice. Just as “there lives more faith in honest doubt” (Tennyson), I believe there lives more understanding of God in our evolving and ever-expanding awareness of God’s complicated creation known as humankind. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for giving us so many windows into that perplexing creature, and happy birthday.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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