Can you believe it, I was just innocently surfing the net when I came across this:
It’s not often that Ives and Rossini share a clause. Now, I could splooge a bunch of ironic verbiage at you to explain how I felt, but I think this artist’s conception will suffice:
The night before I stumbled on this post, weird coincidence! I’d been stumbling down 9th avenue with friend M, in the warm aftermath of a perfect Manhattan. I remember the moment, my brain must have flagged it for some reason, the setting was not ideal, busy sidewalk, a clump of fratboys in front of a dive bar, one of them belched hideously, a hoarse sorority girl cackle escaped from the bar’s french doors, sailed into traffic. I fought screech and belch to let free something hours of humorless practicing had cooped up in me: how incredibly central humor is to Beethoven …
Around 1802 or so (I’m no biographer, look it up) Beethoven said to Czerny: “I am now going to take a new path.” I think this is a relatively important moment in Western Classical Music History, to be filed along with Bach saying to his wife one day “I’m just going to keep writing the same ridiculously incredible music I’ve been writing my whole life” and Stravinsky’s “I am now going to begin composing Neoclassical Music, which very few people will prefer to my early Russian Music, damn it, where’s my vodka.”
Beethoven says “I’m taking a new path.” The very next group of Sonatas he writes is Op. 31. Mr. Tom Service, just take a good listen to the first page of Op. 31 #1:
… the work of a jokester, first and foremost. Also, Beethoven like a child just cannot get enough of his joke, he’s obsessed with it, in fact the gag utterly depends on its insistence, i.e. it’s not just that the right and left hands can’t quite play together, but that they keep not being able to play together until, at last, after perverse amounts of anticipation, they decide to rush up and down the keyboard in an addled, maniacal unison. (How’s that for together?!?) Left and right hands are cast as characters in a slapstick routine. By the second theme, Beethoven’s left funny in the dust, he’s speeding on past silly …
… obviously, you don’t need words or images to be funny. Case closed? My point is not that Mr. Service is wrong, but that he’s SO wonderfully irritatingly wrong that there’s a shiver of pleasure and recognition when you turn his whole proposition inside out. As my key witness (there are millions of others!) I’d like to interrogate the opening movement of Op. 31 #3.
This sonata (the third “new way” sonata) begins with this unusual idea:
Much has been made of this beginning, for good reason. The harmony for instance! Beethoven starts off on a chord which would normally be considered too unsettled (strange to launch your vehicle from quicksand.) It is an audacious 7th-chord, but not an dramatic diminished-7th-chord, no, rather a lovely 7th-chord with a softer edge (“kinder, gentler”). The melody is lovely too: it begins with an impulse and releases to the weak beat (what we sexist-ly call a “feminine ending”), falling down a fifth in the process. These little attributes add up, they’ve been puzzled over pleasurably by generations of pianists, and without fail in masterclasses on this piece the teacher ends up begging the student to play more questioningly, more flirtatiously, more teasingly–it’s never enough, no matter how hard you try. By all accounts Beethoven was not a great real-life flirter but somehow such is life and art he wrote one of the great vexatious/flirtatious beginnings of all time.
What happens next?
Beethoven makes this chord denser, lower, deeper. He changes the soft-edged 7th into a menacing diminished-7th chord. Suddenly the music is transformed, nearly growling, we are in a radically different mood from the one the opening bars promised—ominous, dense, portentous. Beethoven instructs us to slow down, confirming that things are getting “more serious” (weightier) …
Maybe you also find it peculiar that Beethoven would start all flirty and then get immediately all ponderous and significant, before we even have a chance to settle in. [Possible theory for Beethoven’s lack of romantic success? ed.]
The delicious thing is it’s all a set-up. He’s promising, suggesting, preparing, and then finishes the phrase with …
… a throwaway cadence. Gravitas gone, like a popped balloon. Note that all the music up to this point has been unique, distinctive, stuff only Beethoven could write, but this cadence which wraps up the phrase is nothing, generic, anonymous, it’s stuff anybody could write. I get this image of someone crumpling up all the ideas of the phrase, throwing them over his shoulder with a smile, saying “that’s that.” The timing of musical events bears a suspicious resemblance to what we might call “comic timing,” the impulse of a great joke-teller to wind up expectation, to mislead, and then all at once, in a flash, release the punchline.
What you have is a phrase made of three different things
But it’s clear that C calls back to A, in that they both belong in the world of opera buffa—let’s say, the light and laughing. Whereas B’s clearly the stick in the mud. And so you see, structurally, the thing, the generative phrase of the work, depends upon and is built upon this wavering of serious and unserious, the heavy and the light: the serious encased, framed (mocked?) within the comic. This opposition is essential to its meaning, is actually its whole reason-for-being.
Enough of the first phrase, let’s move on. Beethoven repeats, reworks, adds cheeky grace notes etc. etc.
Presently it’s time for all this fun to end, to get down to business, to transition to the dominant key—that’s what all sonatas do don’t they? Beethoven seems to have this dutifulness in mind, a sense of the going-through-the-motions-always-modulating-to-the-dominant thing, because he rolls up his sleeves and commences his transition in a patently prosaic way:
If you take just this passage out of context, it surely doesn’t scream Beethoven. It’s more the work of some boring 1760-something composer, the kind of composer whose symphony #938 you tend to hear in the morning on public radio: niche-filling tonal twaddle. I love it when Beethoven “pretends” to be mediocre. There is actually a lot of roleplaying in Beethoven, in his variations, especially: he pretends to be an oaf or a peasant or professorial Bach or bewigged Mozart, graceful or gruff, any number of adopted voices which wittily weave in and out.
This Boring Traditional Transition is going according to plan, it’s headed for the usual harmonic suspects (dominant of the dominant) and could easily be wrapped up … when we hit a wrong turn:
… haha, brilliant Beethoven stops mediocre Beethoven in his tracks. No time to laugh though, it’s too breathtakingly beautiful, this vision of the opening motive in the minor key, which we could never have suspected. The next measures (plaintive, melancholy, searching) in which Beethoven develops the B idea from the opening are crucial; the narrative which had been so jokey suddenly broadens, deepens. We’re astoundingly far from the dopey transition we began: Beethoven loves to juxtapose incompatibles, the prosaic and profound.
The beauty of these bars functions: it creates a temporary spell, a bubble of seriousness. Now, for a joke to work, some part of it has to be “taken seriously.” That’s why many jokes are in 3s, with the premise set by two normal instances, which go as you expect (predictable, interchangeable, logical) and the third of course being the twist. Listening seriously and literally is an important phase in the process of being shocked, amused, disrupted. These bars, while seducing us, are manipulating us into being serious listeners. With this plaintive augmented 6th chord…
… Beethoven clearly implies an upcoming “feminine” cadence, a gentle entry to the new key and theme very much in the melancholic preceding mood. However:
Notice Beethoven keeps up the dastardly disingenuous illusion till the last possible moment—even the downbeat of the offending bar is still piano—till wham! he thwacks out all those Fs, forte, hacking his way down to the guttural lowest register of the piano. The Beethovenian fox is in the Classical henhouse.
A transition is supposed to lead to, to smooth over changing harmonies, to prepare the way … But here all these notions–the normal definitions of transition–are mocked, trampled on. At the very moment I type this, sitting outside a cafe in Teton Village, looking up at the blissful morning mountains, a large dog has escaped from its owner (whose voice is heard tiredly scolding in the distance), and the dog has decided to squat poetically on top of the most innocent clump of daisies in the nearby perfectly manicured flowerbed. He is letting loose a wonderful dump on those daisies let me tell you, ignoring all the grass, the acres of other possibilities, the whole Grand Teton park for God’s sake, just to dump on those particular daisies. And I’m not saying that’s exactly what Beethoven is doing here, but it does seem a bit of a fateful coincidence.
The wry look of the elderly man at the next table is priceless, inscrutable.
Even if you heard every moment of this sonata more seriously than I have described up to this point, even if you’re perched in reverential bliss at the foot of Great Beethoven, at this moment you surely MUST realize that he’s playing you. He’s a trickster, an unreliable narrator, willing to whip out the rug out from under you, scheming behind your back how to mislead you next. This fascinating willingness even to disrespect his own beautiful inspirations, to destroy moods he has carefully created: a neglected ingredient of Beethoven’s Greatness.
After these loud F’s, we get barely a moment, a blip, a mere eighth note rest, and into the breach quietly sails the jovial second theme.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same bewildered page, let’s have a quick recap of this “transition”:
quiet (sad) … thwack! thwack! thwack! … quiet (happy)
I’d propose, as analogy for this passage, another bit of slapstick: a man is walking along, he suddenly trips on a banana peel, falls, terrific crash as lamps and vases etc. are destroyed, there is a blip/moment of him behind the sofa or screen or whatever, but the next moment he is up again–pretending as if nothing has happened. The comedy is not so much the fall or the invisible clatter, but his rapid attempt at dignity immediately afterwards. Beethoven’s second theme appears instantly, with its Alberti bass, “as if” there had been a perfectly civilized transition, which there has not: this transition is comedy gold, pure irreverence. (Better than Tom Lehrer let me tell you.)
OK, one last thing I want to point out. This second theme is theming along, one phrase two phrase, in high spirits. It rounds off harmonically and then a bit of piano passagework begins:
Obviously, any piano sonata worth its salt must have some virtuoso passagework. Take a close look at that first bar … There are a delicious, irrational 17 notes in the second two beats of the bar … (“normally” there would be eight) … This often causes pianist mishaps, and provokes amusing student consternation. (How the hell do you fit them all in?) Theoretically, one job of the composer is to at least make sure the number of notes in the measure add up, particularly in passagework. Otherwise, anarchy: scales landing on the wrong harmony, flying every which way. But there is a sense here that Beethoven is making fun of this convention, flaunting it shamelessly … or could he be depicting the moment when the pianist “takes a wrong turn” in a passage and has to add an amazing number of notes to catch up? (Not that I’ve ever done that.)
This passage is the Energizer bunny, it goes on, and on, and on:
… it keeps curving up and down, swerving, naturally you begin to wonder: where could all this passage be leading, all this unprecedented scale-work be taking us? It must be something big. But when we get to the end of it, we have …
… the same old theme. The whole damned passage was unnecessary, a pointless curlicue, like an uneaten Cheez Puff. Don’t you feel Beethoven laughing at you, or laughing at his own joke, hoping you’ll laugh with him? (Visions of Joyce in his room alone, laughing hysterically while writing Finnegans Wake). Beethoven has visited upon us a pointless diversion, that is, pointless unless you find it amusing.
Have I made my point? Jokes are not accidental, occasional effects in this Sonata; this is not a serious piece with jokes in it, like those annoying “gag lines” that people scatter into their boring speeches. Humor is structural, form-defining, essential; the whole edifice is laughing, laughing at its core. The crucial junctures are often irreverent, the construction of the main idea is a masterpiece of comic timing, etc. etc. This is of course by no means to trivialize the piece, but to come to grips with it, with its gleeful transgressions, its badboy impulses, its joy set loose. And this is what I was trying to express after my Manhattan: the centrality of humor to this language of High Classical, to Mozart Haydn Beethoven, humor as an essential catalyst, a carrier of profundity.
The other day I was at a friend’s house recital and the first piece was the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata. There was a guy sitting in the front row with a particular sort of rapturous look on his face. The rapture was deserved, the performance was beautiful, but his slightly glazed, cultish look … it made me a bit queasy.
It got me thinking. Rachmaninoff will not generally whip the rug out from under you, he’s not an unreliable narrator. An emotion for him is something to “groove on,” something to obsess over, to let flourish. When he has a contrasting emotion, it is usually safely confined to a contrasting section: the form, the structure insulates us against emotional disruption (please note: the absolute opposite of above Beethoven example). He is trying to hold you, womb-like, in the spell of an emotion, to keep you embalmed. From the beginning of each section you can feel the gravitational pull of the climax, the place where that emotion will peak. He will build you up bit by bit, then wind down post-coitally, gradually, scattering embers of afterglow.
The first movement of Beethoven Op. 31#3 has no climax, doesn’t want one or need one. Many (if not most) High Classical works don’t have climaxes in that sense. In place of the single grooved-on emotion heading for its peak, they subsist on play, a wavering of emotions, of tone, from serious to light: they cherish less the emotion sustained than emotion fleeting. It’s a very intense difference of paradigm. In a way, it is ridiculous to think of Rachmaninoff and Beethoven as being both Classical Composers: they’re embarked on completely different projects.
Speaking generally—too generally—the Romantic Era gradually became more uncomfortable mixing the light and the heavy. Let’s take Liszt. He “laughs” through his Rhapsodies, Fantasies, etc. His serious works are serious! (“Faust” Symphony) But people deride the laughing works as fluff and the serious works as overdone—they feel too vapid or too earnest. By separating comedy from tragedy, the serious from the unserious, Liszt got two unsatisfying alternatives. Wagner purged laughter from his musical world (Ring, Tristan, Parsifal: pieces so laugh-free they are irresistible targets for satire). Chopin separated his lighter thoughts (waltzes, mazurkas) from the more serious (ballades, nocturnes, scherzos), except for a few special cases. Schumann … well he hits the light/serious sweet spot a few times (piano concerto slow movement!).
I would connect this light/heavy separation to something else: as the Romantic era wears on, you get a sense of this urge to prolong, to squeeze, to squeeze out emotion like toothpaste. You get Wagner’s love letter to continuity, his modest assertion that he has achieved the most perfect endless melody, mastered the art of the infinitely gradated transition (violently different from Beethoven transition, above). Don’t you feel a certain desperation in some Mahler, a need to spin out his emotions at extreme length, as if off to infinity (9th symphony)? To make those altered states last, abstract hedge against death? It is one good definition of music’s purpose: this idealized notion of emotion, music as preserver or sustainer of emotion, as timeless place where a feeling lasts seemingly forever. Music is so excellent at creating states and spells, places where things can sing themselves out to the last drop. The Romantic era is how we WISH emotions were: endlessly prolongable, leading to satisfying climaxes, etc. etc. But the Classical era is (perhaps) how emotions maybe actually are: subject to inconsistency, wavering, shifting, vanishing, elusive. There is a line between this desire for endlessness and this humorlessness.
In the Romantic Era you feel that gradual erection of a wall between the light and the serious. It is important to reflect (did they?): this wall would destroy The Marriage of Figaro, or Don Giovanni. These two great operatic masterpieces are both symbiotic hybrids, comedy-dramas, in which humor is the indispensable meaningful foil. And don’t give me this ridiculous notion, Mr. Service, that it’s because of the words. Jesus! It’s not that Figaro is the most brilliantly funny script of all time, certainly! It’s the way the music manages to capture, bring alive, make suddenly ring true for us, its comic clichés: the way it captures emotion’s simultaneous truth and folly. It’s that the music laughs, more wisely and profoundly than any verbal gag could. Humor is a jolt, a trick of timing, a flash of the unexpected, but it’s also a fluid that carries forgiveness, empathy, generosity …
It’s sad to contemplate Tom Service’s image: Wigmore audiences tittering at Haydn, to congratulate themselves at “getting the joke.” Humor in classical music should not be nerdy, uptight, insidery, or smug. And sometimes it feels confined to those preordained moments, perhaps because of tradition or fear or etiquette or some other crap we can’t go into. Just to depress myself further, I looked on a classical music forum, with the topic: what’s funny in classical music? And you get a ream of special examples (Haydn this, Malcolm Arnold that, moments here and there) and then eventually hilariously it gets lost in a very unfunny discussion of Nazism in Wagner. Sigh. No no NO, I want to say, stop it, humor is no special example, it’s not a side stream, it’s not vacuum cleaners and celebrity guests and props, it’s the beating heart, it’s one of the main currents, one of the most wonderful. These composers, through flashes of genius, tremendous insight in timing, nuance, all the tricks of comedians, acrobats, thinkers, clowns, poets … they taught us how to laugh in tones: the only challenge is not to forget their living lesson.