Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tchaikovsky's One Minute Work-Out: Trepak!

One of the things any artist must do – a musician, a dancer, an ice-skater, a skate-boarder – is make it look easy. No one wants to see you look like, “wow, ya know, this is really hard work!”

Here’s a very short dance from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” as a case in point (or a “casse noissette en pointe”)… 

I know, it’s easy to overdose on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at this time of year but one of my all-time favorite dances is the Russian Dance, the “Trepak,” which is part of the entertainment (or divertissement) in the second act of the ballet.  (The Trepak is originally a Cossack dance from Ukraine, particularly the area around Kharkov. Here is an example of some standard Cossack dance 'moves' as performed by Russian dancers during an American basketball game (!!!) - see especially c.0:40 into the clip as the one guy demonstrates how they "dance on the seat of their pants.")

In most productions of the complete ballet, the dancers in each of the individual dances that make up the suite perform only their one dance. So, yes, they only dance for about a minute out of the whole evening, but I think you’ll realize how much work they’re doing in that one minute!

In this Royal Ballet production, talk about coordinating dance-steps to music! (The still photo – see above – is not from this video but it is from this production – you can see how high these guys actually leap and how well they’re positioned as if hanging in mid-air.)
I hadn’t seen the San Francisco Ballet production before and while it’s exciting, I’m not sure how it happens, but it looks like all three of them add an extra beat about halfway through – it looks like all their downbeats happen on the music’s up-beats and then they don’t end with the music! But they’re together! Maybe that’s what the choreographer wanted…   
This performance, one of many performed by local companies around the country, features three young boys combining dance with gymnastics. Talk about energy!

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One of the great traditions of ballet is the “love duet,” the pas de deux and one of the most beautiful is the one in “The Nutcracker.” This performance, from the American Ballet Theater’s production in 1977, turns the “dance for two” into a “dance for three,” adding the character Drosselmeyer who, in the first act, had presented Clara with her toy nutcracker – after the battle with the mice, he’s turned into a handsome prince (in her dream, that is). Usually, Drosselmeyer is an eccentric toy-maker with an eye-patch who seems at times mysterious and, other times, a bit evil. In this production, he’s more of a wizard (dressed in black like a regulation bad guy) controlling Clara.

Here’s Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker Prince with Gelsey Kirkland as young Clara (in some productions, she’s called Marie). Alexander Minz is Drosselmeyer. This clip begins with the end of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy followed by a fast dance for both the Clara and the Prince dancing sometimes separately and sometimes together, then finally becomes the great “duet.”
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While much of the famous suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet ended up in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, another favorite scene of mine from this 1940 animated classic is their version of another well-known ballet, “The Dance of the Hours.” This music sounds light-hearted and delightful – it’s part of an after-dinner entertainment in the midst of a very bloody opera called La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli.

It has survived countless parodies – including Alan Sherman turning it into a letter a boy sends home to his family from summer camp (“Hello, Mother; Hello, Father; here I am at… Camp Regata”) but none funnier than seeing it performed by dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants and crocodiles.

Naturally, ballet dancers are graceful and exquisite and delicate. And these animals are, well… not so much… There are many inside jokes but I think even if you’ve never seen a ballet before, you would still find it funny. I thought it was very funny when I was 6 years old and saw it for the first time. After I’d played piano in a ballet school in New York City when I was in my late-20s, rediscovering it for the first time in years, I thought it was hysterical. Even now, each time I see it, I continue laughing.

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With best wishes for this season of holidays,

- Dick Strawser

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beethoven and His Women

Since today is traditionally regarded as Beethoven's Birthday, I thought I would repost this – a long one, sorry – originally a transcript of a pre-concert talk I gave for the all-Beethoven program on April 15th in 2005 as part of Gretna Music’s Beethoven Quartet Cycle that season, where each pre-concert talk focused on some aspect of “Beethoven and...”

My topic was to be “Beethoven and Women.” Even though I tried trimming it down, there’s still a lot of information. My intent wasn’t to explain the specific pieces on the program but give some personal background that would allow one to hear these works, written at three different stages of Beethoven’s life, in a different context, a chance to think about Beethoven a little differently – maybe not as a hero with some clay on his feet (he was, after all, human, too) but at different stages in his relationships with the women in his life: the young sought-after piano teacher who'd just written the Early Quartets, always in love though never able to obtain the love-he-sought because of his social status... then, with the Middle Quartets, written when he seems to be on the verge of marrying SOMEone and eventually finding (and losing) the love-of-his-life, the Immortal Beloved... then, in the years following that, perhaps resigned to single-hood and dealing with his deafness, the sister-in-law and the nephew, finding a whole different plane of inward existence in the Late Quartets that can still inspire and amaze us today.

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Dr. Franz Wegeler, one of Beethoven’s oldest friends in Bonn, wrote that Beethoven “was always in love – sometimes so successfully that many handsome young men might have envied him!” Another doctor who treated him over a period of 10 years, around the time he composed his middle-quartets, wrote that Beethoven had a preference for graceful and fragile women (which incidentally reflected the physical type of his mother) but he usually kept their identities a secret from his friends and quite possibly from the women themselves.

That may not be the typical image we have of Beethoven the Composer – the titan with the unruly hair and a glower like he’d have lightening-bolts coming out of his eyes as if he were always under the power of inspiration, striding across the ages as one of the greatest creative artists known to man. Knowing what we know of Beethoven, can you imagine him being married: dealing with noisy children, changing diapers, taking out the trash...?

What affect would married life have had on his solitary existence that brought out such lofty or intensely personal statements in his music, like the 9th Symphony or the late quartets? Being deaf and socially isolated was one thing but being alone was another form of isolation: the two together must’ve had some impact on his creative soul. Would domestic bliss have softened the edges? Would there have been domestic bliss? Who knows... the games one can play with “what if” are endless, not to mention pointless.

The first known identity of a woman Beethoven was attracted to was Jeannette Honrath of Cologne - she was blonde, vivacious (what we might call bubbly today) but had a strong feeling for music. Keep in mind Beethoven was around 20 at the time – she was visiting her friends the von Breunings and Beethoven was a close friend of their son Stephan who, as it turned out, was more openly infatuated with Ms. Honrath. Certainly, if she had a choice in the matter, she would probably have chosen the aristocrat’s handsome son and not the headstrong son of a simple musician, however much she liked music. There was also a Fräulein Westerhold – an unrequited flirtation that was probably more a distraction from court business though one he would remember later fondly as “Fräulein von W.”

Perhaps the strongest affection from his days in Bonn was for the sister of his friend Stephan von Bruening, Eleonore. He was introduced to the family originally by the future Dr. Wegeler when the von Breunings were looking for a piano teacher for Eleonore. He would later dedicate a piano sonata to her, but one he left unfinished, around the time he was working on the Op. 10 Sonatas in Vienna, five years after he left Bonn. In writing to her, he would address her as “Adorable Eleonore.” He still possessed a miniature portrait of her 34 years later.

There was also Babette Koch whose mother, the Widow Koch, ran one of the best high-class restaurants in Bonn where many regulars signed a farewell-book for the young composer on the eve of his departure for Vienna. Except for Babette. We know she and Beethoven danced together at a party one time, according to a friend’s letter. She was a good friend of Eleonore von Breuning’s and it seems the future Dr. Wegeler was also much smitten by her, writing in one of his letters that she was the “ideal of the perfect lady.” A year later, Beethoven wrote to Eleonore, “if you see B [Babette] Koch, tell her please I am waiting for her to answer my two letters.”

And there was the singer Magdalena Willman, a soprano from Bonn who sang in Vienna a couple of years after Beethoven had moved there. Her nephew later told the family story how Beethoven had proposed to her but she refused him because he was – quote – “too ugly and half crazy.”

There was something else that would always haunt Beethoven throughout his life: he moved in aristocratic circles, but he was not “one of them” – and however he might feel about his own position in society, society was very quick to realize exactly what he was: from the lower class.

He was of a short, stocky build with a dark complexion marred by smallpox scars, with bushy eyebrows and thick black hair that defied the best intentions of comb or brush... The piercing nature of his eyes may have been the result of near-sightedness (for a while, he wore eye glasses until he was 47) and as he aged, the hair turned quickly gray before he was 50. While there are reports that a visitor would find Beethoven, then in his 50s, decked out in a blue waistcoat with yellow buttons and spotless white pants, Weber remarked when they met a year later the Master was wearing a well-worn jacket with torn sleeves. It was around this time, when he was working on the Missa Solemnis, he was once arrested as a vagrant: the police could not believe that Herr Beethoven would dress this way! He was not the best housekeeper, either. Because he was a perpetual renter, one of his brothers once tried to throw his own social status around by signing himself as “Johann van Beethoven, Landowner” to which the composer responded as “Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain-Owner.” It was another brother’s wife who would become a very significant woman in Beethoven’s life, but more of that in a little while...

Getting back to Beethoven’s early years in fun-loving Vienna: he was much sought after as a piano teacher, going to their homes to give regular lessons in an age when young women, in order to present themselves as marriageable ladies, were expected to be proficient pianists and/or singers, in the days when families were responsible for making their own entertainment, before there were TVs, stereos and even radios. It seems, in retrospect, it must’ve been a good way to meet girls, not that we would normally call Beethoven a Babe-Magnet, but it’s possible today we might also call him “The Defendant.”

Countess Barbara von Kegelwicz lived across the street from Beethoven – the story goes that he would arrive for her and her younger sister’s lessons dressed in his robe and slippers wearing a peaked night-cap, amusing perhaps if you’re thinking an eccentric old man, but Beethoven was 27 at the time. He dedicated his Op. 7 Piano Sonata to Barbara, a sonata he dubbed the “Lovelorn Maiden” (sometimes called the “Amorous” Sonata). Two years later, he dedicated a set of piano variations to her, on Salieri’s La stessa, la stessissima from “Falstaff.” Now, if you remember the story of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor, this is the scene in which Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page compare the love letters they have received from Falstaff and discover they are, word for word, identical. So... could it be an inside joke that Beethoven might have been accused of courting, seriously or otherwise, the Countess Barbara and her younger sister (or perhaps some other ‘lovelorn maiden’) at the same time? It seems too much of a coincidence he should choose that duet to write a set of variations for her! Then, two more years passed by when the Countess Barbara became the Princess Barbara Odescalchi – and a month after her marriage, Beethoven dedicated to her his C Major Piano Concerto, his first major orchestral work. Sounds like pretty serious stuff!

Beethoven in 1803
Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s students, described him as a hopeless flirt. When they would be out walking together, Ries would catch the Master looking longingly after or winking at some beautiful young woman. At one point, Ries was embarrassed when he showed up at Beethoven’s place for a lesson, where a beautiful young woman he did not know was sitting on the sofa. But Beethoven asked him to stay and play something for them while they sat on the couch behind his back. Then he asked him to play something “sentimental.” Then, “something melancholy.” Then, “something... passionate!” (It must’ve been like having a stereo system with remote control!) Ries later wrote to a friend that Beethoven never visited him more than when he lived in a building next to a tailor who had three “beautiful young daughters” and Beethoven often went over on errands to pick up, oh... some needles...

Giulietta Guicciardi
In 1800, now, around the time he had published his first set of six string quartets, he was giving piano lessons to another young countess, Giulietta Guicciardi. He was 30 and she was 16. It was around this time that Beethoven wrote to his Bonn friend Dr. Wegeler, mentioning the symptoms of his deafness that would lead shortly to the Heiligenstadt Testament, that otherwise “life has been a little brighter for me of late...” because “of a dear fascinating girl whom I love and who loves me.... For the first time, I feel what a truly happy state marriage might be. Unfortunately, she is not of my rank in life” – note he did not say “I am not of her rank.” The next year, he published a piano sonata which he dedicated to her, the one we know as “The Moonlight” Sonata. Many times, these dedications are afterthoughts, but did he write this romantic piece with its stormy conclusion with her – or his feelings for her – in mind? Shortly afterwards, she married a count and they moved to Italy. Many years later, when Beethoven was totally deaf, she came back to Vienna, visited him again and, as he wrote later, she “wept, but I scorned her.”

Teresa von Brunswick
Then there was another student and another dedication for a piano sonata, though not a very famous one: the little one in F-sharp Major which Beethoven always described as one of his favorites – perhaps for personal reasons rather than its musical value. Teresa von Brunswick, a cousin of Giulietta Guicciardi, may have been a little in love with her piano teacher, too. There was one story that Beethoven became so cross with her playing at one lesson, he stormed out into the stormy night without his hat or coat and Teresa went running after him with them like a valet. A servant caught up with her, seized the hat and coat and followed Beethoven himself: meanwhile, her mother gave her a good talking to and sent her to her room, (...acting like that in public over a man like that!). She wrote in her diary constantly about Beethoven as “mon maitre” and “mon maitre cheri.” After Giulietta married her count, Beethoven now turned his interest to Teresa.

Years later, Teresa told a friend who wrote this down long after Beethoven’s death that in 1806, she and Beethoven got secretly engaged, which only her brother, who idolized Beethoven, knew about. This apparently lasted for 4 years during which Beethoven composed his 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies, the 4th and 5th piano concertos, the Op. 70 Trios which I’ll mention in a minute... and the Op. 74 String Quartet, the "Harp." Like so many reminiscences about Beethoven, whether this might be factual or fantasy is open to debate, but the main reason I don’t believe it: I can’t imagine Beethoven, with his independence, putting up with a secret engagement for four years. And then, in the midst of this, he was living in an apartment at the palace of the Countess Anne-Marie Erdödy which was the closest thing to a scandalous affair as Beethoven probably came... he confided in her about Giulietta Guicciardi (but apparently not about Teresa von Brusnwick), visited her at her Hungarian country estate, dedicated the two Op. 70 piano trios to her (one of them, the Ghost Trio; but the other one has one of Beethoven’s most lovely slow movements, as friends of the Countess remarked after hearing them played at her musical parties). Finally, they broke up over same vague nastiness with a servant. For several years, they did not speak, but things smoothed out in 1815 and he dedicated to her the two Op. 102 Cello Sonatas. When money was becoming a sore point with Beethoven and he threatened to take up an offer from the King of Westphalia, she got three of her friends together, including the Archduke Rudolph, to contribute to a pension that would ease Beethoven’s financial worries and keep him in Vienna. Countess Erdödy, involved in some kinds of intrigue, was exiled from Vienna after a family fight that ended in the death of one of her sons – her arrest is described in one of Beethoven’s conversation books in 1820.

Now, all of this business with the secret engagement to Teresa von Brunswick and the possible affair with Countess Erdödy was going on around 1809 – the year the French occupied Vienna, the year Haydn died and the year Beethoven completed the Harp Quartet – and, incidentally, around the time he probably wrote a little bagatelle known as “Für Elise,” though we have no idea who Elise was. He wrote to a close friend in Freiburg to help him locate a wife. She should be “above all beautiful” and could “perhaps spare a sigh for my harmonies,” he writes, but not like Elise Bürger whose moral conduct he found scandalous, something that had brought about her recent divorce – probably not the Elise of “Für Elise” fame. Now, this friend in Freiburg was married to the sister of another of his piano students that he seemed to be infatuated with at this time, the niece of his current physician, Dr. Malfatti. It was also around this time that Beethoven wrote to his old friend Dr. Wegeler in Bonn to locate a copy of his birth certificate because he had plans on getting married. The question, naturally, was TO WHOM? We have him (maybe) secretly engaged to Teresa von Brunswick, involved with Countess Erdödy and now infatuated with Teresa Malfatti (though he did consider her flighty). Oh, and one more piano student: Teresa von Brunswick’s sister, Josephine, who’d been forced into marrying an older man who conveniently died the next year. Probably by 1809, this had pretty much played itself out. Or maybe not...

In 1810, he proposed to Teresa... Malfatti. How would this have seemed to her family: Beethoven was a 40-year-old curmudgeon; the bride-to-be was 18. The proposal, for whatever reason, was turned down. Next year, Dr. Malfatti suggested Beethoven should go to the Bohemian spa at Teplitz to “unwind.” There, among the many guests, Beethoven met the great Goethe – as well as a singer named Amalie Sebald and an actress named Rahel Levin who was with her lover, Count Karl Varnhagen von Ense. He returned the following summer and, apparently, wrote a letter on Monday, July 6th and the morning of the next day, but without adding the year which has left open the question exactly when it was written. We’re not sure he even mailed it – perhaps it was the rough draft they found in Beethoven’s desk after his death in 1827, this letter intended for someone he referred to as his “Immortal Beloved”... And now we come to one of the greatest mysteries of Beethoven’s life...

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(pretend you're reading this in a stentorian, radio-announcer voice) "The genius behind the music. The madness behind the man. The untold love story of Ludwig van Beethoven."

If you're ever seen the 1994 movie "Immortal Beloved" (the one without the Saint Bernard), please forget everything... well, almost everything you saw. It wasn't meant to be a documentary, but a little adherence to some truth might've been helpful.

Beethoven at Karlsbad in 1812
The problem is, while no one knows who the Immortal Beloved really was, this film proposed to examine three possible candidates. Beethoven's own friend, secretary and general fly-in-the-ointment, Anton Schindler, did a good deal of white-washing of Beethoven's life in the years following his death, but he thought the Immortal Beloved was probably Giulietta Guicciardi and even adjusted his ideas about when it was written by whether Giulietta was around at that particular time or not. Most scholars today think the letter (dated Monday, July 6th) was written in 1812 because it describes his arrival at the spa at Teplitz that July (when July 6th was a Monday). Since it was supposed to have been mailed to a woman staying in a town that started with a K -- possibly the spa Karlsbad, also in Bohemia - though would rule out Bettina von Arnim, whom several considered one of the candidates, because she was at Teplitz the same time Beethoven was (so there would’ve been no reason to write to her). I haven’t mentioned her yet... Beethoven wrote that he had met her and was fascinated by “the child” – she was 25 at the time – but she seemed to have an over-active imagination and later published a number of letters which were clearly forgeries, from both Goethe and Beethoven. If any of the women who’ve ever been mentioned as amorous interests of Beethoven’s, Bettina is not really one of them...

But who is the Immortal Beloved? It had to be somebody who was staying at the spa at Karlsbad... and curiously, that summer, Beethoven interrupted his stay at Teplitz and appeared, by the end of July, on the guest list at Karlsbad, though he did give a benefit concert there.

A few years later, he would admit to a new friend, Fanny del Rio, the daughter of the school-teacher (more of them, later), it would appear he had met someone he described as the love-of-his-life in 1811, the year before the letter to the Immortal Beloved. Every musicologist has a candidate for the Immortal Beloved. Some feel it was Josephine von Brunswick, Teresa’s sister, who had recently re-married – conveniently, she had a daughter born nine months after Beethoven’s stay at Teplitz: could this be Beethoven’s child?? But Josephine was in Vienna with her husband. Unless she went there under an assumed name, she wasn’t at Karlsbad that summer.

Another candidate was Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, who was at Karlsbad that summer and to whom Beethoven later dedicated the Op.101 Piano Sonata – but she had studied with him as early as 1804 and if the later clue that he’d met this love-of-his-life in 1811, then it can’t be her, either.

But he did meet Amalie Sebald at Teplitz in 1811 but she was at Teplitz (not Karlsbad) in 1812 too, not at the same time Beethoven was, however. When he first met her, he was much charmed by her: once, when he went to visit her one evening and she was out, he left a note he signed “Ludwig van Beethoven, whom you should not forget even if you’d like to.” But there are other letters to her from Teplitz in 1812, congenial and flirtatious – she had apparently called him a tyrant which he tried to joke his way out of – but in general, the possibility the Immortal Beloved letter was also intended for her doesn’t make a lot of sense, the styles are so different. She would marry a few years later.

Another woman he met at Teplitz in 1811 was the actress Rahel Levin who was there with her lover, Count Varnhagen, a diplomat who was delighted to meet Beethoven and often acted as a go-between with other noblemen regarding the composer’s need for money. In one letter that summer he wrote that they spent a great deal of time with Beethoven who was “ready to play for Rahel but this must be kept a secret” (why?). The next summer they met only briefly and by 1814, Varnhagen was reluctant to have Rahel meet Beethoven again: perhaps there was a reason Varnhagen thought it wise to keep them separated? The couple finally married that year and it was apparently the last time either was involved with the composer.

It was in 1815, then, the year after the exotic Rahel married her diplomat, that Beethoven composed the song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” – To the Distant Beloved. There are only a few theories about the DISTANT Beloved’s identity but most agree that the Immortal Beloved and the Distant Beloved are two separate women. I don’t know why that should be: in 1812, Beethoven was writing things to a woman he would not care for a married woman to consider (remember, his only opera Fidelio is even based on a story of the faithful loving wife) – so if the Immortal Beloved was unmarried in 1812 but was married by, say, 1814 and was therefore no longer in circulation, would she not have become the unobtainable Distant Beloved? Could Rahel have been both? Short of some other completely valid letter coming to light, we’ll never know.

Antonie von Brentano
There was also Antonie von Brentano, whose step-sister Bettina (herself a bit of a name-dropper) arranged the meeting between Beethoven and Goethe at Karlsbad in 1812 (see drawing, above). Antonie lived in Vienna between 1809 and 1812 and visited Karlsbad that summer with her husband. From there, they moved on to Frankfurt and Beethoven never saw her again. It is interesting to note that that summer she was pregnant with her last child who would be born the following March, a son named Karl.

Curiously, if the period of his infatuations – if not his “secret engagement” – from 1804-1810 was one of the most productive in his creative life, the period beginning late in 1812, after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies, was one of the driest. There were rumors, during this time, that Beethoven was “washed up” and there were reports he was actually insane: he was aging quickly, dealing with his by now total deafness, and experiencing violent mood swings – for instance, one day writing to a friend he was a vicious dog who should be hauled off to the glue factory and the next day writing to him that he really was a sweet guy and Beethoven’d been mistaken. During these years, he wrote very little – except for “Wellington’s Victory,” some songs (including the song cycle, “To the Distant Beloved”) and the first of the late Piano Sonatas... eventually the Hammerklavier in 1817 unleashed the flood of late works that include three more sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the 9th Symphony and the five Late Quartets. So what else was going on in his life?

Whoever the Immortal Beloved may have been, one woman it most likely was NOT was Johanna Reiss, his sister-in-law. The film “Immortal Beloved” would have us believe that they met that summer, he got her pregnant but she married Beethoven’s brother Karl instead and gave birth to a son four months after the wedding. This would imply that the Nephew was actually Beethoven’s own SON which would certainly explain his keen interest in the boy’s up-bringing. But if 1812 was the year the letter was written, Johanna Reiss married Beethoven’s brother in 1806 when her son was born, indeed four months after the wedding which caused an on-going scandal between Beethoven and his brother. However, the letter could not have been written that year because July 6th was not a Monday (as it was in 1812), so that is all mere Hollywood conjecture, regardless how theatrical. Salieri, at least, was already the traditional villain in Mozart’s death, having had to deal with rumors during his own lifetime that he’d poisoned Mozart, rumors which didn’t wait almost 200 years before Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus” made them famous. 

Beethoven had a habit of meddling in his younger brothers’ affairs – always fighting with Kaspar Karl about his wife Johanna and then shaming Johann into finally marrying his mistress rather than living openly with her. 1815 was also the year Kaspar Karl died, leaving a 9-year-old son named Karl, and immediately Beethoven went into action trying to gain full custody of the boy, taking the sister-in-law to court as an unfit mother, calling her The Queen of the Night, telling the court that even while her husband was alive, she would meet secretly with her lovers in their home and so on. Small wonder Johanna brought up the rumors about Beethoven’s supposed insanity as an unfit guardian for the boy and eventually debunked the claim Beethoven made about being “of the nobility” (the van/von thing)! Brother Johann, meanwhile, got into the court action by forcing the issue that Beethoven and Johanna should SHARE the guardianship of the boy! The courts’ decisions switched back and forth from one side to the other over a period of years. The composer, a deaf, irascible 50-year-old man who dealt poorly with interruptions, was probably not likely to become an instant good-father-figure to a 14-year-old boy. He put him in Giannatasio del Rio’s school – it was to del Rio’s daughter he confessed what little information we have about the Immortal Beloved’s background – but Karl ran away from there at least four times, going back to his mother each time. 

Beethoven in 1823
Over the years, as Beethoven wrote his late masterpieces, he dealt with the issue of living with Karl and fighting with Karl's mother. If any woman ever made an influence on Beethoven’s life, Johanna Reiss, the infamous sister-in-law, made the deepest impact. While we could play “what if” about Beethoven’s deafness, we could also play “what if” about how much more music he might have written if not distracted by these court cases and his nephew's up-bringing.

Fast-forwarding to 1826, Karl, who’d fallen in with a bad crowd and brought considerable grief to his uncle, tried to commit suicide and Beethoven, hoping to hush things up – especially since this was a crime in Vienna – tried getting his nephew into the army, thinking the discipline would do him good and no doubt get the boy, now 19 years old, out of his unruly hair. What was Beethoven writing at the time? His string quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131... and to whom did he dedicate this work? It seems there are no new women in his life, no one commissioned this work, so he dedicated it to Baron Josef von Stutterheim out of gratitude for his help in securing Nephew Karl a commission in his infantry regiment, though I wonder what Baron Stutterheim would make of this long, complex and deeply personal work which the audiences and even the musicians of the day had trouble comprehending.

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I began thinking about the "bad rap" Beethoven's sister-in-law got from all this and decided to do a little more digging. Given all the information that's available about his legal problems with Johanna regarding custody of the composer's nephew Karl, I’ve not come across any non-fictional source from Johanna’s view-point (or for that matter, any memoirs written by her or even a portrait of her). Just because she may have been morally lax in 1806 doesn’t mean she remained a woman of low morals 15-20 years later and would have automatically been an unfit mother for her son Karl. And of course, she also no doubt viewed the composer – whom everybody today would consider a genius – as her insane brother-in-law, so it’s no surprise her attacks may come across more shrewish than merely self-preservational: it was, after all, her son! However, it is Beethoven’s point-of-view that survives.

One thing that didn't help Johanna was having a child out-of-wedlock five years after her husband's death, courtesy of her financial councilor, Johann Hofbauer, badly timed in the midst of her court precedings against her brother-in-law, so perhaps his assessment is not all that inaccurate. The fact that Johanna, who lived into her 80s, never once wrote a word about Beethoven nor tried to defend her own reputation may also indicate there was no reputation to save.

Beethoven himself may have had a fairly "Victorian" moral attitude (pardon the time-bending) which did not always reflect the somewhat looser times he lived in. His other brother, Johann, with whom Beethoven fought constantly, decided he would marry his house-keeper, Therese, who had been his mistress. There are two stories about this: that Johann finally agreed to marry her after Ludwig kicked up a fuss; that Ludwig tried to stop the wedding because she was, after all, only his house-keeper and socially not a suitable woman to bear the Beethoven name. Regardless, Johann comes across unfavorably through the centuries as well, even though as a successful apothecary and land-owner (he had a sizeable estate in the country outside Vienna), he might easily have viewed himself as more successful (and possibly better) than his musician-brother simply on the grounds of financial worth and stability. Certainly, after his brother's death, he tried to cash in on the composer's fame and was generally regarded as all the more ridiculous for it.

Though the term "dysfunctional" may be of fairly recent vintage, the idea that one can pick one's friends but not one's relatives is certainly timeless.

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In March, 1827, months after completing his last string quartets, Beethoven died at the age of 56, and when Schindler went through his Master’s papers, he found nearly indecipherable sketches for a 10th symphony... a letter written in pencil to the Immortal Beloved... and near it, a miniature portrait of... Teresa von Brunswick...

-- Dr. Dick

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elliott Carter: Happy 103rd

Today is Elliott Carter’s birthday.

Yesterday, I was talking to some students of mine at the State Street Academy and mentioned that the compositions most people consider the first major works of the new 20th Century Style – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – were composed around 1911-1912. Pointing out that, here we are in 2011-2012, perhaps the first “great” works in what may become the new 21st Century Style have yet to be heard, when it occurred to me Elliott Carter is actually older than Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring.

He was born in 1908.

Last Thursday, several musicians played three world premieres of works by Elliott Carter plus three additional works that had received their premieres in Europe earlier in the year. They had all been composed in the past year.

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Correction: Reports I'd read in the new music press indicated three world premieres and three American premieres on the program. Since I was unable to attend, this was all I could go by. As it turned out, one of those works mentioned in the Sequenza21 post (see below) talked about the Double Trio which seemed to be a world premiere. When I've since found the 92nd Street Y's page about the concert, it indicated the Double Trio was one of the American premieres. Then, to add to the confusion, two short works composed in November were added to the program and announced from the stage! So in actuality, there were four world premieres! Thanks to Joe Barron for the correction: he was there and you can read his review here: love the bit about getting a chance to meet Carter afterwards.
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And Mr. Carter, looking frail but with a twinkle in his eyes, was in attendance and accepted the audience’s applause and birthday greetings, though his 103rd Birthday isn’t officially until today.

(You can read the New York Times review, here. The photograph of Carter (see above) taken at the performance is by Times photographer, Richard Termine. Carter is seated with Carol Archer who produced this program at the 92nd Street Y.)

There is, of course, the amazement that anybody is 103. More amazing is that he’s out and about, attending concerts in New York City. Still more amazing is that he’s sharp as a tack. Perhaps most amazing is he’s still composing.

Follow this post at Sequenza21 by cellist Fred Sherry, a musical collaborator with Carter and long-time champion of his music and, not coincidentally, a close friend.

Basically, Carter called Sherry at various times asking him about playing a certain combination of chords on the cello (“good, they’re in my new Double Trio”), if a viola could hold a high F-sharp for two slow measures (“good, that’s the ending of my new String Trio”) and telling him he’s thinking of setting the poetry of e. e. cummings for tenor and chamber orchestra.

That’s when Sherry decided these new works should be heard to celebrate his impending birthday, No. 103.

Two other new works were brief – a duet for cello and bass clarinet (for Mr. Sherry and Virgil Blackwell who has served as Carter’s secretary and assistant over the past several years) was composed on Nov. 5th, 2011; and “Mnemosyné,” composed on Nov. 17, written for solo violin. World premieres, these were added to the program and announced from the stage.

UPDATE: Elliott Carter (lower left corner) accepting the audience's applause at the end of the concert, following the world premiere of "A Sunbeam's Architecture," composed earlier this year (you can see what a substantial chamber ensemble this is). Photograph by Cory Weaver and posted at Sequenza21.
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In a separate interview reported (unexpectedly) in the New York Daily News, Carter mentioned how in the ‘70s he was writing this vast orchestral works with huge complex scores (and I mean physically huge) that might take him a whole year to compose. But now, due to physical limitations among other things, he prefers smaller combinations and shorter works, producing a series of miniatures, pointing to an even newer piece he'd been working on as a Christmas present for oboist Heinz Holliger which he says took him three days.

When I met Elliott Carter, standing in a box office line at the 92nd street Y in 1978 – he was celebrating his 70th birthday with a performance of all three of his string quartets there – most people then would’ve assumed he’d be ‘retiring’ soon, as old composers often do. So his newest works then – like the mind-blowingly complex vocal piece Syringa which I heard at its premiere – were considered music of his Late Period (you know how Beethoven is divided into three parts, Early – Middle – Late?) but Carter just kept composing and producing a whole range of new works headed in a less dense but rarely less complex direction which, for lack of a better term, people started referring to as his “Late Late Music” or “Post-Late Music.”

Since his 100th birthday, as one recent interview reported, he has completed 19 new compositions.

In 2008, on the verge of his Centennial Birthday, I heard the Pacifica Quartet play all five of his string quartets (see photo, left) and was cheered to see, after the Pacifica commissioned him for another quartet, a sixth, he said “well, in a few years I should be about ready to write another string quartet.”

And yet it’s still possible. 2012 will be a “few years” after his 100th birthday, after all…

(Incidentally, joking recently with the guys from the JACK Quartet when they were in town, their bio says the oldest original work in their repertoire is Charles Ives String Quartet No. 2 which was written between 1911-1913 which means Elliott Carter is also older than their "oldest" piece. Yet they haven't played any of Carter's quartets yet, though they've wanted to work with him. "I wouldn't wait too long, you know... but maybe by then, there'll be a sixth quartet to work on.")

There are two song cycles being premiered this week – the Cummings poems on the 8th and three new songs setting poems by T.S. Eliot for bass baritone and chamber ensemble. These are not miniatures but fairly substantial works given their scope, length and instrumentation.

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For this birthday post, I thought I’d check out a few piano pieces. I'd recently posted the early Cello Sonata (1948) with the Cello Concerto (2000) so this time I want to post the Piano Sonata, another mid-1940s piece, with three short, more recent pieces.

Here is Ursula Oppens, long associated with Carter’s music, playing a piano sonata in the “grand style” that could belong in the repertoire of any pianist who plays the huge B Minor Sonata of Franz Liszt or comparable sonatas by Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland. It may not be what Carter sounds like now but it is one of Carter’s great early works and an incredibly imaginative one that has a lot of Carter’s later fingerprints already evident.

One of these stylistic traits is the juxtaposition of time, something that is fluid as a psychological experience. Like counterpoint in which one independent melodic line is pitted against another independent melodic line, Carter does this with two strands that seem to move in different tempos. It might be easy to explain it as 16th notes moving against quarter notes in Bach except in Carter, the pulse of one strand might be dotted quarters and the pulse of the other strand could be dotted eighth notes. One could be metronomically strict (clock-time) and the other one more fluid, more varied, less “ticky.” That’s basically the distinction in the Cello Sonata where the clock-like piano part (very logical, clean and architecturally Left Brained) is pitted against the rhapsodic cello part (unexpectedly varied, by comparison, emotionally Right Brained and, in a way, “messy”). While not as overt as the later cello sonata, you can still hear this in the Piano Sonata, in addition to the strongly contrasting ideas that are differentiated by, for instance, the opening blocks of sound and the subsequent scurrying passages (one of Carter’s favorite descriptors is the Italian scorrevole).

#1 - First part of Piano Sonata, 1st Movement.

#2 - Second part of Piano Sonata, 1st Movement.

#3 - First part of Piano Sonata, 2nd Movement.

#4 - Second part of Piano Sonata, 2nd Movement.

There are many things that may sound “traditional,” particularly the development and restatement of material (themes, if you will) which is not much different than you’d hear in a Beethoven or the Liszt sonata. Compare the very opening of Clip #3 (on a D moving to a D/C) with the very opening of Clip #4 (where it’s now E-flat and D-flat) which, at 2:00, sounds like a recapitulation on D but instead of a C-natural, it’s now a C-sharp which means the tension is still not yet resolved until, at the end, it reaches a broad and beatific B-major chord, the tonality in which the sonata began.

There’s even something as “academically traditional” as a fugue (Clip #3, beginning at 3:49) which is primarily in B-flat Minor.

Now, fast forward through the next fifty-three years to 1999 and two short pieces written for Ursula Oppens, called “Two Diversions.”

In this first clip, the performer (Marc Hannaford) sets a metronome to the “pulse” of the one time-strand, a slow but steady ticking line of intervals, against which Carter juxtaposes another more varied and often wildly contradictory, rhapsodic line (not very different from what he was doing in the Cello Sonata of 1948) but here, just single notes usually against the clock-like intervals. Even though the metronome you hear has nothing to do with the rhythmic or metric notation of the piece (trust me!!!), it’s a way to help you focus on one aspect of the piece.

Here is the piece in performance (without metronome) by Thorsten Kuhn, recorded on Carter’s 100th Birthday.

Then, one last short, recent piece, a brilliant barrage of notes (mostly single notes one at a time but all over the keyboard), called Caténaires, about 3 1/2 minutes of constantly cascading 16th notes premiered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Carter’s 98th Birthday just a few days after he’d received the manuscript in the mail. Here, it’s performed by Sean Chen.

This has been described as “the unlikeliest piano piece” by Elliott Carter who, on the verge of his 98th Birthday, was still experimenting with the idea of how you create sounds and constantly discover something new to say.

We should also be so lucky, at that age.

At any age…

Happy 103rd Birthday, Mr. Carter – and many more!

- Dick Strawser

For additional posts about Elliott Carter and his music, please follow these links:
Hearing the Five String Quartets with the Pacifica Quartet in 2008.
Hearing the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet in 2008.
The Cello Sonata and the Cello Concerto.
New Works at 102.
Carter at 102.
Carter at 101.
Carter at 100.