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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Summer Reading

No, I'm not planning to read "War and Peace."

I tend to like to read musical scores. I have found myself engulfed in playing through the complete 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven - a monumental collection of amazing music in two thick and densely notated volumes. It's daunting project. There are hundreds of pages of score to process, and more often than not they are blackened with notes.

Beethoven is the Ur-Klassischer Komponist, a "heavy" by all standards of artistic measurement, and his piano sonatas represent in microcosm the composers' expansive musical development dating from 1795 through to 1822. Taken together, the Piano Sonatas tell a story of personal transformation - from the early influence of Haydn and Mozart to works that are experimental, revolutionary, and which transport us to another world.

As a amateur pianist, I have long pecked away at the easier works. As a composer, I have studied a number of individual sonatas with the scrutiny of analytical eyes and ears, but I have never dedicated a few months to getting intoxicated on the totality of the Piano Sonatas. I'm actually much more familiar with Beethoven's complete String Quartets and Symphonies. His Piano Sonatas have always been a significant intellectual and technical challenge, even for those who have no inclination, pretence, or motivation to perform them publicly.

Reading through the collection (I'm now well into volume II), I find myself literally sucked in by the narrative of the music. Sitting for hours at the piano, I'm simply compelled to keep playing late into the night because I've got to see what happens after the the page turn. As I immerse myself in the music, patterns are beginning to emerge: such as his penchant for the sub-mediant. However, fundamentally each piece is vastly different, and the range of expression within a work can be anywhere for meditative to outright violent. The ingenious modulation schemes alone is enough to keep a listener engaged and on the edge of their seats.

The music is larger than any one individual, performer, or even the great composer himself. The works are iconic, yet very often private and self-reflective in nature. Reading sequentially through the 32 Sonatas is challenging technically (even in slow motion), but the music takes you on an emotional roller coaster, and stretches the brain in ways that you didn't realize it could be stretched.

I'm not sure that I could ever do Beethoven justice in my cursory summer survey of his seminal and groundbreaking piano works, but this is the summer to do it. It's Beethoven or bust, since I'm not getting any younger, and in my view one has not lived life fully unless they have experienced Beethoven's complete piano sonatas from the vantage point of the piano keyboard.


The notes not only sound great, but the lines and chords are perfectly spaced in register to resonate nicely on the forte-piano (or in my case, an out-of-tune spinet). It's often highly dense music, but very precisely composed and always very clear in intention. At times, as I struggle with the visual, physical, and mental mechanics of sight-reading the notes, my fingers will mysteriously find their way to the right keys - almost as if guided by the music itself. Beethoven's musical textures - while intricate and sometimes very challenging to perform by the best of professionals - fit ever so nicely into the hands. It simply "feels" good to play his chords as they are spaced. They are more often than not ergonomic and physical. Even the trills.

I've got my work cut out for me. At some point I think I'm going to cheat and listen to the entire collection as played by someone who actually knows how to play the piano. But for now, I'm in Beethoven-heaven, pretending to recreate the pathos, monumental sound, and formative musical statement that these works have come to represent. I'm either naïve or stupid, but it's great summer reading and I wouldn't trade it for an airport novel.


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