Haydn

Hammerklavier Sonata

Hammerklavier Sonata posted in Eleison Comments on September 12, 2009

Music, history and theology are closely intertwined, because there is only one God and all men were created by him to go to him. History relates their actions amongst one another according as they go to him or not, while music expresses the harmony or disharmony in their souls as they make their history towards him or not. The music of Beethoven (1770–1827), taken as dividing into three Periods, is a clear illustration.

His First Period containing the relatively tranquil works of his masterly apprenticeship to Mozart (1756–1791) and Haydn (1732–1809), corresponds to the last years of pre-Revolutionary Europe. The Second Period containing most of the glorious and heroic works for which Beethoven is best known and loved, corresponds to the French Revolution’s spreading of upheavals and wars throughout Europe and beyond. The Third Period containing profound but somehow puzzling masterpieces, corresponds to Europe’s attempting after the Congress of Vienna (1815) to re-construct the old pre-Revolutionary order on post-Revolutionary foundations – a puzzle indeed.

As Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (1805), by first giving full expression to his heroic humanism of a new world, was the pivotal work between the First and Second Periods, so his 28th Piano Sonata, the “Hammerklavier” (1817), was the pivotal work between the Second and Third Periods. It is a huge piece, lofty, aloof, admirable, yet strangely inhuman . . .The first movement opens with a resounding fanfare to be followed by a wealth of ideas in the Exposition, a climactic struggle in the Development, a varied Recapitulation and an again heroic Coda, features all typical of the Second Period, yet we are in a different world: the harmonies are cool, not to say cold, while the melodic line is rarely warm or lyrical. The brief second movement is hardly more friendly: a stabbing quasi-Scherzo, a rumbling quasi-Trio. The third movement, Beethoven’s longest slow movement of all, is a profound and almost unrelieved lament, in which moments of consolation merely highlight the prevailing mood as of a resigned hopelessness.

A pensive introduction is needed to make the transition to the Sonata’s last movement, normally swift and uplifting, but in this case swift and grim: a jagged main theme is worked over, slowed down, turned back to front and upside down in successively ungainly episodes of a three-part fugue. To the slow movement’s raw grief is responding raw energy in a musical struggle more brutal than musical, with the exception again of one brief melodic interlude. As in the “Grosse Fuge” string quartet movement, Beethoven is here foreshadowing modern music. “It is magnificent,” the French General might have said, “but it is not music.”

Beethoven himself climbed down from this Mount Everest of piano sonatas to compose in his last ten years some more glorious masterpieces, notably the Ninth Symphony, but they are all somehow overcast. The hero’s uninhibited exultation of the Second Period is a thing mostly of the past. It is as though Beethoven had firstly basked in the godly old order, secondly stridden forth to conquer his human independence, but thirdly been driven to ask: What has it all meant? What does it mean to make oneself independent of God? The horrors of modern “music”are the answer, foreshadowed in the “Hammerklavier.” Without God, both history and music die.

Kyrie eleison.

Heroic Harmonies

Heroic Harmonies posted in Eleison Comments on February 7, 2009

Just before the media uproar of the last two weeks a dear friend asked me to write about any piece of music that I especially liked. It would have to be a piece by Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Then I might single out the first movement of his Third Symphony, known as the “Eroica,” or Heroic Symphony.

Really the whole symphony is heroic. It is the musical portrait of a hero, originally Napoleon, until Beethoven learned that from First Consul of the French Republic he had made himself into an old-style Emperor of the French Empire, whereupon Beethoven ripped out the dedication page to Napoleon and dedicated the symphony instead to a hero. But the music remained unchanged: the revolutionary expression of Beethoven’s ardent hopes for a heroic new age of mankind to emerge from a tired old order of kings and cardinals.

It was however that old order, as expressed by Haydn (1732 – 1809) and Mozart (1756 – 1791) in particular, that gave to Beethoven the musical structures within which to shape and contain his dramatic new emotions. The first movement of the “Eroica” was unprecedentedly long in Beethoven’s own day – over 600 bars, lasting in performance anywhere around a quarter of an hour. Yet from first bar to last, the varied wealth and dynamic force of the musical ideas owe their tight unity and overarching control to the classical sonata form which Beethoven had inherited from the 18th century: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation (ABA), with a Coda mighty enough (innovation of Beethoven) to balance the Development (ABAC).

Leaping into action with two E flat major chords, the hero strides forth with his main theme, the first subject, built solidly out of that chord. The theme goes to war. A valiant re-statement precedes several new ideas of varying rhythms, keys and moods until moments of calm come with the classically more quiet second subject. But war soon returns, with off-beat rhythms and violent struggle, culminating in six hammering chords in two-time cutting right across the movement’s three-time. A few vigorous bars close the Exposition.

Upheavals and calm alternate for the rest of the movement. Notable in the Development is the most tremendous upheaval of all, culminating in a threefold shattering discord of F major with E natural in the brass, out of which mouth of the lion comes the honey of a brand-new lyrical melody, but still striding! Notable in the Coda is the fourfold repetition of the hero’s triumphant main theme, climaxing with inexorable logic in a blaze of glory. Lord, grant us heroes of the Faith, heroes both tender and valiant, heroes of the Church!

Kyrie eleison.