Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tolerating, Even Cultivating Boredom

I will try to be more polite and call it tedium rather than boredom, though I always experience it as boredom.  Unlike doing the dishes, which is tedious (repetitive, always more or less the same, unavoidable), making music, which is also repetitive and which I do every day, simply cannot be boring--by definition.  Whose definition?  Mine for sure.

But isn't Beethoven sometimes boring?  One might think so in passages here and there if the words you use to describe his music do not include a sense of humor, a fascination with apparent contradictions.  A four-note broken chord figure, which he often uses, over and over again under a quite square right-hand theme will often turn out to be repeated five times.  Aha! a multiple not just of 4 but also of 5.  Played in sets of 5 the figure becomes hilarious.

Or maybe, as in the Presto agitato movement of the Moonlight, one of my favorite examples of his profound sense of number play, he fills 7  beats with sixteenth notes in what look like sets of four against left-hand eighth notes.  But wait!  that would make 28 sixteenths, whereas he begins the passage with a rest, leaving 27 sixteenths--not a multiple of 4 but of 3.  Played in 3s against the left hand produces agitation for sure.

When played in 4s it leads to boredom.  That's why it gets played faster and faster by pianists who can tolerate the notion that only fingers need to move fast.

When played in 3s it definitely leads to agitation on the part of both listener and player with the result that it feels faster than most conventional readings.  One notes, then, when the composer has distinctly differentiated figures in 4s from those organized otherwise.

So what does presto refer to if not speed?  In this as in other sonata movements it refers to the character of the movement being established in its smallest note value, in this case, the sixteenth.  These are not dictionary definitions, to be sure; they are common sense musical definitions.