Another Lesson from Beethoven

Has anyone ever asked you to do something that is just simply impossible? Let’s fly to the moon kind of impossible? Do you greet that request with a wondering attitude – how could I help make this happen?  Or an immediate reality check – are you crazy?  

Beethoven asks the impossible of pianists with some frequency.  The piano is a percussion instrument – a hammer inside the piano strikes a group of strings which vibrate as long as the dampers are held off the strings by the pedal. Without benefit of a violinist’s bow or an oboist’s breath, once a note is played on the piano, it’s done. Decay is the only option. Or is it?

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Beethoven regularly puts a crescendo sign on a held note or chord – and that is simply impossible to do on the piano. Hmm, how can we make this happen?  One of my teachers years ago suggested that I should hear the note getting louder in my head and by some form of alchemy the crescendo would be communicated to the listener. That works for me. Perhaps there is an element of body language or a long drawn breath that keeps the player involved with the note in a way that at least suggests it is growing in sound and connecting to whatever follows. Sometimes Beethoven even marks a crescendo and a decrescendo on the same note or chord. Okay, that really is just crazy. Or is it?

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I find it best to do as Beethoven commands, or to at least attempt the impossible. Paying attention to the little markings in his music is the way in to his genius. Think of all the things we believe in, but can’t see – love, the mind, friendship, atoms, intuition. Beethoven helps me believe in a crescendo that can’t really exist, and that’s a beautiful first step into a world where all things are possible.

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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.

 

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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

Listen Up

This probably never happens to you, but sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. And to be really honest, there are certainly times when I’m not always the best listener either. I am reminded this week, as St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated in liturgical churches on October 4, of a charming legend in which Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening?

While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing  with the windows open at home.  I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that the birds are listening to the music, and responding in kind.

The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds.  It obviously captures birdsong in pianistic figures, and seems to also capture the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds. I made a note in my score some years ago that observed how joyfully the birds sang whenever I practiced this piece.

A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s best-known gifts to us. In the exuberant words of his Canticle of Brother Sun, with its almost child-like praise of creation, Francis inspires us to appreciate the wonders of our environment, emphasizing our kinship with the world around us.

For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.

Francis went to Egypt in 1219 as part of a Crusade with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead in dialogue with the Islamic ruler, who himself was surrounded by Coptic Christians as advisors. Seems like more listening than “talking” occurred during that particular Crusade.

It strikes me that an important part of listening includes listening to ourselves – noticing what we say (or do) and its effect on others (or our planet). At the heart of listening there has to be a moment when we are willing to be changed by what we hear. Thanks, Brother Francis, for the reminder.

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Ecologue

As we move into Holy Week, an achingly beautiful, elegiac piece, written by British composer Gerald Finzi — his Eclogue for piano and strings:

This will be one part of a program I am doing on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:10 at Church of the Epiphany — more details are found here: TCS-April 16, 2019. Please come if you’re able – sometimes the message we need to hear is said without words.

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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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Armistice

A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.

But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen.  Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.

So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility.  And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.

Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.

Peace,
Sonya

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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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Dead Leaves

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) – Claude Debussy

The short work linked above, from Debussy’s second volume of preludes, has a decidedly straightforward title. For the composer, at the height of his career, but having learned recently that he had cancer, perhaps the desolation he expressed in this music required such a stark title. Though the music can seem blurry, Debussy was a master of clarity in capturing the essence of a feeling or a moment in sound, in this case the leaves of autumn, fallen and desiccated. Harmonically and rhythmically vague, as his music often is, it is music that seems filled with mournful sighs.

Why do we sigh? Whether we do so from frustration or from sadness, there’s one theory that suggests that our sighs serve as a re-set button. In all the ways that breath is life, our sighs overcome the shallow breathing we sometimes fall into and re-energizes our lungs. Maybe it’s a pointed “snap out of it” message from our brain. We can’t really know what was going on in Debussy’s own brain as he composed, but I’m grateful for the “snap out of it” messages that keep me from settling too comfortably into melancholy.

Feuilles mortes had another incarnation that many of you will recognize –

Fueilles mortes-Yves Montand

The translation of “Dead Leaves” sounds somewhat more alluring in French – Feuilles mortes. But then, as I learned this past summer while traveling in France, even the voice of the GPS sounds more alluring when he (there was no way this GPS voice was an “it”, nor a “she”) gave directions.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.                   Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful, so can memories and regrets.

The American version softens death into merely falling, and changes the title from Dead Leaves to Autumn Leaves, but we often retreat into the prettier words of euphemism in order to save ourselves from confronting the hardest truths.

Of course, as with the lefts and rights of my friend’s French navigation system, allure is part of anything sung by Yves Montand.  He sings here a tender song of nostalgic longing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this was a song written in France in 1945. There is no euphemism for all that is lost in wartime.

Nor for the loss of talent taken too soon:  Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves

Debussy’s dead leaves are disorienting and bleak. Cassidy’s autumn leaves are heartbreaking. I gave myself permission to cry and to live in melancholy for just a bit as I listened, and so should you before you sigh and reset for whatever comes next.

Peace,
Sonya

if you’ve read down this far, you might be interested in a concert I’ll be doing on October 21 – Debussy’s Feuilles mortes is included – let me know if you’d like to attend.  Four Seasons of Caring – a house concert

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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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

 

A Rose By Any Other Name

In the past couple of years I have taken on a few adult piano students, and found that I enjoy teaching piano now so much more than my younger self ever did. One of my students has been working on the Debussy prelude Voiles. It’s a beautiful piece, perfectly capturing Debussy’s ethereal language of whole-tone scales and glissando-like figures.  I had always known this piece to have an English title of “Sails,” and was surprised to learn that is only one of many meanings of the French “voiles.” It can also mean “veils,” or “shroud” or “fog.” Debussy was purposely vague about the title, but it changes the music completely.  Are we playing music that evokes a sun-filled day on the lake or a foggy world seen from behind a veil? You decide:

Voiles – take one                Voiles – take two

Or maybe it’s a foggy day on the lake!  Words matter. How we interpret something changes everything, as we well know from the proverb of the glass half-empty or half-full. Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but I respectfully disagree.  A rose that’s called a latrine-blossom probably won’t smell as sweet.

This Sunday at Church of the Epiphany we’ll hear one of the newer additions to the lectionary in the Episcopal Church, the canticle A Song of Wisdom. Christians have inherited a patriarchal theology, but the church does try sometimes to widen the scope of our understanding, and we find that even small words, like pronouns, matter.

Wisdom freed from a nation of oppressors a holy people and a blameless race.  She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord, withstood dread rulers and wonders and signs…She was their shelter by day and a blaze of stars by night…

Wisdom

It was over a year ago now that I finished writing about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, tying each of the 30 variations to a personal quality that I found worthy of cultivating. In the final movement, the opening Aria returns, now seemingly imbued with the wisdom gained by a lifetime of experiences. Wisdom is so very different from being smart or academically gifted. It’s slow, thoughtful, and simple. Wisdom is learning to not respond immediately, temporarily walking away from a difficult moment, knowing that the answer will come. It’s being quiet and listening.

My own name is a variation of Sophia, Greek for wisdom. I don’t claim to have an abundance of it, but I so admire it in others. For me, wisdom has been gained when I’ve tried harder to see both sides of an issue, or even when I choose to take a walk instead of answering emails. When I let wisdom come to me instead of trying too hard to find it.

An interesting side-note about Voiles – in French, the masculine “le voile” means “veil” and the feminine “la voile” means “sail.” Debussy left out the defining article in his title – a tiny, but clarifying word. Creatures are largely divided into male and female, but recently society has been allowed to admit that there are some people in between that clear division. Time and the urban dictionary will find the right words for us to express this in-betweeness in our everyday language. Meanwhile, we can push gently (or not) against cultural taboos and boxed-in thoughts. Remembering that words really do matter feels to me like a step towards wisdom.

Peace,
Sonya

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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.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

More Resilience

As for most of you, it’s been a remarkably busy time for me too, so I updated a post from last summer in part as a time-saving measure, but also because the word “resilience” keeps coming up for me in various ways.  As a reminder? An aspiration? What’s clear is that resiliency is a place where failure means something.

Did you know that the word “resilience” has the same roots as “sally,” as in “sally forth?”  To leap forward, to burst out, or to simply set forth, one foot at a time.

These are stormy days and the quality of resilience is one that I find more desirable than ever. And I do mean literally stormy – hard rains and harsh winds that cause trees to bend and plants to bow down under the weight of the rain. But, of course, I also speak metaphorically.

Carya

I am again collaborating with friends to put together a Carya Ensemble event – this time a tour in France for 8 voices and harp –  and I think resiliency is an idea that will always be attached, for me anyway, to my Carya projects. To remind some of you, or illuminate for others: Carya is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and resiliency is a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life. To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” provided a vehicle for me to think about the many personal qualities, including resilience, which contribute to building a happy life.  

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, shutting down conversations, grudges, toxic “friends,” or dulling places in our lives all seem like good first steps on the path towards resilience.

Throughout your life there were times when you knew you couldn’t go on. And yet you did, one step at a time.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For 32 weeks in 2017 I posted one of the variations and wrote about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection was obvious, but more often was unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings were made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Joy

Where do you find joy, when so much right now seems joyless? The news, and the traffic, and stresses of modern life, together with all of our fears about global warming and warring factions and humanity’s willful cruelties conspire to rob us of joy. We could turn off the news and stick our heads in the sand, but ignorance doesn’t bring joy. We could shut down conversations and proclaim that the other side is wrong, but disconnecting from relationships doesn’t bring joy. We could sweep unpleasantness under the rug and hope no one notices the lumps, but evading truth doesn’t bring joy. So where do we find joy?

A few years ago I came across a story about a 110 year old Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died in 2014, just a few days before a short film about her, The Lady in No. 6, won an Academy Award.  In accepting the Oscar, the film’s director, Malcolm Clarke, said that he was struck by Herz-Sommer’s “extraordinary capacity for joy” and “amazing capacity for forgiveness.”

In the midst of an insanity that would cause most of us to lose hope – a family torn apart, a husband sent to Dachau, she and her son to Theresienstadt – she found joy in music.  “Beethoven is my religion” she said.  “He gives me faith to live and to say to me: Life is wonderful and worthwhile, even when it is difficult.”  She credited Chopin with keeping her alive in the camp, as she pulled upon the reserve of strength which Chopin’s etudes had built within her.

Alice had every reason to lose hope, and instead found every reason to hold onto it.  If her choice to find beauty and joy in a harsh world seems naïve, does feeling damaged, angry or vengeful seem like a better choice?

“It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” Simple words from a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so very reminiscent of another Jew, as recorded in the Gospel according to Mark.

“Music is God,” Alice tells us in the film. What is beautiful is of God. She believed in the power of music, and believed that being joyful is a choice which any of us can make. At her darkest hour, she chose to look for beauty, and in finding it where she could, hope was possible.

Where there is hope there can be joy. Leonard Cohen reminded us that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I doubt that Alice was blind to the horror around her, and if we are living in times which seem to encourage ignorance, disconnectedness, and evasion of responsibility and truth, look for those cracks where the light gets in and just maybe that is where your joy can be found.

Peace,
Sonya

2014 Oscar winning short documentary

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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 new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.