Sunday, August 3, 2014

Beethoven, Schubert, and Consolation

I'm too busy to post. I have a deadline looming for the first draft of my book and a lot of research still to do for it, and I have a copyediting job to start and finish over the next month, and then I start teaching at community college again, as well as doing what I swore I'd never do, viz., homeschooling. All that is for another post. I simply wanted to drop in to share this lapidary paragraph by Jeremy Denk in his review of a new Beethoven biography by Jan Swafford.

Denk writes:

I found myself aching to replace the “Triumph” in Swafford’s subtitle with “Consolation” [the book is titled Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph]. Of course we love Beethoven’s movements of triumph: the C major fanfares that conclude the Fifth Symphony, the lust for life in the dances of the Seventh Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” They are a crucial part of his persona, but not the center. . .  The pianist Leon Fleisher observed that Schubert’s consolations always come too late; his beautiful moments have the sense of happening in the past. Generally, Romantic consolations tend to be poisoned by nostalgia and regret. By the modern era, consolation is mostly off the table. But Beethoven’s consolations seem to be in the now. They are always on time — maybe not for him, but for us.

What a brilliant exegesis of Romantic music -- the ethos of consolation come too late, leaving the musical protagonist in the sorrow of his regret. The idea of Schubert (who worked very much under the long shadow of Beethoven) composing beautiful moments which seem to have already gone by is breathtakingly apt. One hears, for example, the straining, yearning nostalgia in the opening theme of the Sonata in B flat, D 960, played here by Fleisher himself. In many of Schubert's pieces, there's a tentative quality in the opening notes, the sense that the theme has begun already, somewhere to the left of the first measure, which I think is related to this notion of consolation that has happened in the past, a gentler version of Dante's famous aphorism: "There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time when one is in misery."

(Incidentally, former Vox Nova contributor Mark DeFrancisis, a classical-music connoisseur, sent me a recording of Mitsuko Uchida playing the same piece, and I listened to it while driving, and had to pull over because I was crying too much to see the road.)

Read Jeremy Denk's entire marvelous book review here. He is one of those rare musicians who writes as well as he plays.