Friday, March 28, 2014

Back to Beats and Beethoven

Musical training seems to involve proving that one can be as convincingly pedestrian as possible:  All the right beats in all the right places.

That leads to the current lack of interest in Beethoven sonatas.  After sitting through countless student recitals which resemble nothing so much as mechanical repetitions of reliable downbeats how can anyone maintain that there is the slightest bit of anything interesting in this repertoire?

I have to recall that after sitting through countless such mechanical repetitions of Haydn sonatas I threw into the trash every note of his that I possessed--literally every note.  How could anything be more demeaning than that music?

Haydn was required repertoire in the conservatory at which I taught for one semester--my only semester of teaching in such an environment.  Are the teachers who require such mindlessness ever held accountable for the damage they wreak upon us mortals and upon those immortals?

An unusually candid recent conservatory graduate will come back to hear one of my Beethoven performances though he has confided to me that he does not find Beethoven sonatas interesting as a genre.  But he is coming back for more... hmmm.... could that be you?

The Necessary Heft

What I call "offbeat" Beethoven is the focus of my current piano series, exploring his fascination with beats in unusual, unexpected places.  How can he get away with it?

The answer has to be that in anticipating a beat which does not materialize we are doubly engaged in the musical moment.  We want, we need, our wish is not granted, therefore we delight, or we reject.   All of that is packed into every single upbeat instant .

This implies an awareness of real commitment to the beat as a physical event, i.e., the dance.  We have to be careful, in our dance-deprived era, to recognize our lack of knowledge in this area.  Can you tell a minuet from a mazurka from a landler from a furiant?  I doubt that I can, particularly because I have to rely on versions of these 3/4 meters that may or not accurately reflect the essence of the dance step.

I think it best when a movement is marked "Minuet" to ask to what degree it really conforms to whatever it is we know about minuets.  Don't be surprised if it does not conform.  The designation "Tempo di Menuetto" indicates a departure from the formal minuet though with some of its characteristics.  Perhaps we should play more of these before tackling the "real" thing, as if we knew what that was.

When I was ten my sister took me to see the ballet in Chicago.  To this day I recall my dismay when they danced a Mazurka, clearly in 3/4 time but with no discernible downbeats!