December 23, 2020

Beethoven at 250

By Stuart Mitchner

The country music station plays soft, but there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off.

—Bob Dylan, from “Visions of Johanna”

The volume is down as low as it can go, softer than soft, the station is Radio Beethoven, 250 on the dial of the ages, and the visions are of Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa communing with the adagio sostenato of Sonata number 29 in B flat major (Opus 106), known as the Hammerklavier.

The sound’s turned low because the house is asleep, it’s between 2 and 3 a.m., and I’m listening to the movement Wilhelm Kempff called “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,” an adagio “unequalled in the entire piano literature.” Writing about Kempff’s performance in 2013, I described “a series of ascending, probing, striving, needful, joy-seeking variations” leading to a “heaven of feeling so rich and strange that all you can think is how thankful you are that you heard it before you died.”

Watching Lisitsa play the same set of variations on YouTube in the year of the virus, I feel still closer to the music and even more at a loss to put my feelings into words; admitted, there’s a big difference between listening to Kempff on a car stereo and seeing Lisitsa lean so close to the keys that she’s nearly kissing them. She’s a Rapunzel at the keyboard with those long blond tresses, offset by a dark jacket, white cuffs protruding from the sleeves. Viewed almost entirely from the side, she presents a handsome profile, nothing self-consciously performative, no soulful swooning ah-sweet-mystery-of-life sublimity; she appears both down to earth and exalted, and wholly dedicated to her mission, everything else ruled out.

Personal History

Looking for possible insights into the personal history behind the adagio sostenato that pianist Andreas Schiff called the “greatest slow movement” ever composed, I consulted Barry Cooper’s The Beethoven Compendium (Thames & Hudson 1991) and found The Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, which Cooper says is “by far the most famous literary document in the composer’s hand.” 

Written in the form of a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, the Testament may not be the skeleton key to the adagio, but it’s hard to discount the emotional significance of a document that begins, “O you men who think or say that I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem so. From childhood on, my heart and soul were full of the tender feeling of good will, and I was always inclined to accomplish great deeds,” but “for six years I have had an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent doctors, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting infirmity … the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to people ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense [Beethoven’s emphasis] which should be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection.”

The crisis took place during the half year the 28-year-old composer spent in the country, at his doctor’s insistence. As Beethoven puts it, with his emphasis: “But what humiliation for me when someone standing near me heard a flute in the distance and a shepherd singing and  I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me almost to despair; a little more and I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”

Finding Words

Although the existential trauma Beethoven describes offers intimations of the prayerful power of the adagio’s concluding set of variations, I’m still preoccupied with the challenge of finding words for the impact of great music. The task of describing a musical experience is one that even composers and musicians themselves sometimes have to deal with. For instance, Wilhelm Kempff’s attempt to describe “the wonders of this movement” in the liner notes to his recording of The Late Piano Sonatas on Deutsche Grammophone, where he refers to “the immense area in which the imagination is free to roam untrammeled” following a “principal subject, whose nocturnal sigh extends over 26 bars.” Spreading his rhetorical wings, Kempff pictures the theme shining through “like a distant star piercing luminous clouds.”

More amusingly (and literally) earthbound is Claude Debussy’s review of a February 1903 performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, which “was conducted with the care of a meticulous gardener. Every weed, every caterpillar was painstakingly removed! It was all done with such refinement that it seemed like one of those glossy, finely detailed paintings where the gentle undulation of the hills is made of twopenny velvet and the trees are formed with curling irons.” Debussy concludes that the popularity of  the Pastoral “rests upon the common and mutual misunderstanding that exists between man and nature. Look at that scene by the brook! … A brook where, apparently, the oxen come to drink. At least, that’s what the sound of the bassoons suggests to me.”

“Non-Musical” Inspirations

Although Beethoven was reticent when it came to discussing his compositional methods, he admitted that “even in purely instrumental music the initial idea was sometimes sparked by something non-musical.” Some examples given in the Compendium include the influence of the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet on the slow movement of a string quartet (Op. 18), a galloping horse on the finale of a piano sonata (Op. 31), and the call of the yellowhammer on the opening of the Fifth Symphony.

Non-Musical Interventions

In the course of researching Valentina’s Lisitsa’s biography, I found that she was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, lived for a time in North Carolina, and made her New York debut in 1995 at the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center. I hadn’t intended to look into her story. What took me there was the focused intensity of her performance of the Hammerklavier, which reminded me of Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as a chess master in The Queen’s Gambit. It was interesting to find that despite an “early disposition to music,” Valentina’s dream had been “to become a professional chess player.”

What I hadn’t expected to find was the Wikipedia entry on Lisitsa’s political views: her vocal opposition to the Ukrainian government, her support of pro-Russian separatists, and the fact that in April 2015, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra canceled her concerts, citing “provocative” online remarks on her Twitter account, although without initially specifying which tweets or other commentary “crossed a line.” The Toronto Star responded with an editorial pointing out that Lisitsa was not invited to Toronto to discuss her provocative political views. She was scheduled to play the piano. And second, that banning a musician for expressing “opinions that some believe to be offensive shows an utter failure to grasp the concept of free speech.”

I found that this information didn’t affect my admiration for Valentina’s strong, sensitive, sympathetic performance of the Hammerklavier. It did, however, remind me of the strong, sensitive, sympathetic impression made by another Ukrainian woman, Marie Yovanovitch, around this time last year, the woman The New York Times said had been “Plunged Into the War Zone of U.S. Politics.”