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Post details: The ABC of Music

The ABC of Music

When you say "Beethoven", most people will recall the heroic oeuvres that he wrote mostly in his 30s and early 40s (1800-1812): Appassionata, Fidelio, Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Egmont Overture. This is the Beethoven people know and admire. Beethoven the Rebel. The feisty smith slamming his hammer mercilessly against the red-hot spears and swords of his army. The disheveled genius stubbornly banging his fist on the gates of fate. The unruly God casting globes of fire from the rough-hewn seat of his Olympus.

But hidden from a view of most concert-goers lies another Beethoven. The prophet strapped to the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel and vigorously arguing with himself. The explorer hashing his way through jungles of counterpoint to the Spring of Humanity. The wizard waving his magic wand with a forgiving smile. The Late Beethoven - devoting the last decade of his life (1818-1827) to towering monuments that Romain Rolland dubbed the Cathedral of Music: the last five Piano Sonatas, Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last five String Quartets.

While Beethoven the Rebel absorbed Mozart and Hayden and paved the way for Schubert and Brahms, Late Beethoven skipped the century and pointed directly to Mahler and Stravinsky. While the Rebel compositions resemble crowd pleasing Blockbuster movies, the works of Late Beethoven shoot for different audiences - they are the artsy movies lining up for Oscar nominations in independent theaters.

Late Beethoven is like Moses of Charlton Heston descending from Mount Sinai completely transformed. Such fundamental sea change of mindset didn't come easy, of course. The two periods are separated by a punishing desert and crossing it entailed more than a fair share of suffering. In 1812-1817, Beethoven's creative stream had nearly dried out. He was plagued by illnesses, fatigue, writer's block, romantic fiascos and to top it off he became involved in a drawn out custody battle for his nephew Carl. But - much like Moses - he did reach the other side of the desert. An oasis with a potent well, where, almost imperceptibly, his Muses came back. Not roaring like hungry lions. Silently, like flowers opening to full bloom on dried out branches. You can hear them in the second movement of Piano Sonata #28, op. 101.

Many of these compositions could be considered pinnacles of the Western art. Supreme achievements of Man. All, except for three pieces that seem so unfathomable and otherworldly that they could easily have been written in heaven and then merely channeled down to us through Beethoven's Genius. When arranged alphabetically, they constitute the ABC of Music, its creme de la creme.

A for Arietta from Piano Sonata #32 in C minor, op. 111
B for Benedictus from Missa Solemnis in D major, op. 123
C for Canzona di Ringraziamento from String Quartett #15 in A minor, op. 132

Ad A: Arietta is the slow movement of his last sonata; a carefully thought out farewell to the musical form that he dearly loved and that he graced with 32 Masterpieces. Beethoven the Rebel would certainly cast his good bye in an ivory shattering grandiose Finale, but Late Beethoven has much more delicate instruments in his toolbox and he is going to use the finest of them to chisel out a timeless reflection of piano's future. Arietta starts with an introduction of a slow and surprisingly dull theme. But if you can stand its presentation, you will be richly rewarded by watching it grow into a resplendent and uniquely shaped orchid. One phrase after another, the musical ugly duckling winds through more and more complex and melodically intricate variations, its rhythm capers into playful syncopation, its harmony takes on daring hues and iridescent colors until it bursts in a scintillating apotheosis of creativity. After such Tour de Force any third movement would be anticlimactic. His 32 pieces long journey through the world of piano sonatas had to end here. Its Swan Song may have had only two movements, but it put forth a powerful message: Artist's ultimate mission is finding beauty where there seems to be none. Taking a chunk of common clay and breathing life into it.

Ad B: If we ever send a space probe into the distant reaches of our Galaxy and include a recordable medium with samples representing the endeavors of the human race, Missa Solemnis should be featured as one of its crowning achievements. The Parthenon of Beethoven's Solemn Mass consists of five monumental pillars, each supporting a Universe of its own. After the warm opening of Kyrie, the cathedral reverberates with the massive sheets of sound arching both over majestic Gloria and monumental Credo, the latter meticulously detailed over the complex story of the New Testament. A man who thought about God long and hard, presents his final testimony. But there is no place for liturgical pomp in it, the musical score says it unambiguously: "It came from the heart, may it return to the heart". With the afterglow of the double fugue of "Et vitam venturi saeculi" still lingering, Beethoven retreats into a private chapel for the communion with his Creator: Sanctus and Benedictus. We descend a spiral staircase into a simple carved wood confessional. You can barely hear the subdued chorus of monks in brown capes, more whispering than singing. With the lights dimmed and volume turned down, he greets the spirit descending from above, like a stray ray of light filtering through a skylight. The opening violin solo glittering against the hushed contours of the choir must be one of the most mystical episodes in the musical literature. Truly religious. Not in the way Megachurches in Ohio are. Much more subtly. Beethoven's Benedictus is appealing to the instinctual belief hard wired into our souls that something out there watches over us; that there is more to this Universe than the Laws of Physics.

Ad C: If Missa Solemnis is an exploration of God, the last five String Quartets are explorations of Man. Long locked in a solitary castle of his deafness, Beethoven embarks on an aesthetic expedition to hidden folds and recesses of human mind. You will find the aging Master roaming seclusively the Gardens of Imagination and climbing the Peaks of Existential Vertigo with the Plains of Futility lying deep below. You get to smell their rarefied air if you ever make it through the unrelenting fortissimo of the first 122 measures of the Great Fugue. Naturally, this perplexing odyssey was long utterly misunderstood and neglected, and it took some 80 years before it was resumed by Gustav Mahler, whose nine symphonies ventured into landscapes so similar that one is tempted to think of them as richly orchestrated sequels to Beethoven's last quartets. The Quartet in A minor is last but one in this series, written shortly after the Great Fugue, whose thin mountain air lingers throughout its five movements. Here, far away from the bustling cities of the secular world, there is little need for posturing. Canzona di Ringraziamento is a slow movement and one can infer from its subtitle that it was written as an expression of gratitude to unspecified deities for surviving a near fatal illness. And it is just that - a thanksgiving. If you listen to it in the depth of night, the long notes of its uninterrupted flow will reveal that there are many layers to a human soul. There is a layer of words, then there is a layer of tones, and beneath it, miles below the surface, there rests a layer where even the tones are too concrete. The layer of sincerity and pure emotion. That is the kind of silk Canzona is sewn of. A little postcard from the postmelodic land.


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