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Music Criticism Fall 2009 - Ludwig & Bertolt

It's December, which means I must be writing about music. Here's the final installment in this music criticism series. Come back in the next couple of days for lists about something more contemporary. The recording I've included here is different than the one for the essay, but it's worth a spin given no suitable substitute.

Bertolt Brecht, a playwright of the 20th century, pioneered the Verfremdungseffekt: the process of making of strange things familiar and familiar things strange. The primary theme of the third movement of the 21st piano sonata composed by Beethoven works in a similarly disorienting fashion. When the theme becomes familiar, it reoccurs as something far removed from its origins, only to return again to its familiar form. The musical parameters of the theme both assimilate to surrounding characteristics of the sonata and disassociate from their surroundings. The primary theme flows through Beethoven’s Rondo, taking listeners to a place that is both comfortable and unsettling.

The theme is introduced as a pianissimo polyphonic melody that transitions seamlessly from the previous movement. Its timbre is bright, the articulation relaxed over a moderate tempo. At (0:39), there is a slight crescendo, with the left hand’s bass melody being more accentuated. Paul Lewis establishes a soothing mood with these musical parameters. At (1:05) there is a very rapid rhythmic treble trill that swells into a great crescendo and the loudest instance of the main theme at (1:10). This playing of the primary theme highlights three separate melodies being blended together in polyphony. The high treble trill mixes with the left hand’s upward and downward moving melody and the original right-handed melody. Having reached such an alarming crescendo in just over a minute, the sonata feels like a symphony: the dynamics soar to asymptotic levels, with an army of pianos pounding away at multiple melodic lines.

The first variation from the main theme in this movement (1:43) uses pitch as the primary contrastive element – alternating in a call and response fashion between unharmonious low and high notes. As this variation drifts away, there is a callback to the primary theme at (2:06), in which the theme has been lowered in pitch, matching the properties of the dissonant melody preceding it. The dynamics are also altered – the first low note of the primary theme at (2:10) and the following two higher notes are played emphatically, not with the same grace and legato articulation from the beginning of the composition.

Following a quick decrescendo, the sonata returns to an unadulterated opening theme at (2:32). This next segment is a carbon copy of the opening, where (0:00 = 2:32), (3:13 = 0:39) and (3:40 = 1:10). Beethoven plays with his audience’s expectations – will this be a standard Rondo, returning to the same theme as he did at (2:32), or will it further change, as happened at (2:06)? Ludwig employs disorientation to keep his audience aware of how quickly familiar territory can change.

At (4:49), the primary theme returns, again exploiting the difference between high and low pitches, its dynamic curve quickly rising into crescendo before slowly fading into a diminuendo by (5:12). The timbre becomes somber and grim, as a funeral hymn. Yet at (5:17), the rhythm of the piece returns with a danceable beat: a Danse Macabre. The rising and falling melody that begins at (5:33) has a circular shape that invokes the life cycle. The melody falls into dissonance and a lower register from (6:16 – 6:45). The rhythm slows to a dead crawl, the dynamics are pianissimo, and the sonata is now almost painful to listen to. If the first instance of the theme were like an infant’s lullaby, then this is the child’s death rattle. The morbid quality of the varied primary theme passes on to influence the rhythmic section that follows it while maintaining the principle elements of the opening theme. Around (2:06), the theme was influenced by its surroundings, but a variation of the theme can also influence its surroundings.

The theme at (6:49) seems to represent another return to the beginning of the movement, until (7:44) expands the melody upwards, unhinging the theme from its polyphony. Playing homophonous cyclic melodies that progressively increase in pitch while the left hand plays soft, grounding bass notes creates a celestial atmosphere. Just as this extension from the end of the theme reaches a climactic finale at (8:10) signaled by emphatic pairs of homophonous chords, it begins slowly descending. The chords, which were once finalizing, lead the transition into in to a low register, dissonant, and extremely slow rhythm. The entire composition suddenly comes undone after reaching an apex.

Suddenly, just as all the energy is sucked out of the music, the primary theme returns at a breakneck pace at (8:49). The prestissimo primary theme revisits various elements of the initial theme. This is accompanied by a rising and falling tone to the melody – a flock of pigeons suddenly frightened and flying about. This final section also creates a motive from the main melody of the primary theme at (9:17), to further deviate from the primary theme itself. There is also a callback to the anxious treble trill of (1:05) at (9:57). This trill is juxtaposed with a sudden modification to the primary theme that now has darker timbre and minor key at (10:04). This briefest of diversions, before returning to a concluding, mostly unadulterated instance of the theme at (10:22) is a classic example of the role it plays in the entire movement. Just as soon as the audience is comfortable, they are unsettled again.

There is no clear pattern as to how or when the theme will change, so a sudden key change reminds listeners how the theme can unpredictably change the entire shape of the movement. Any anticipations or predictions for what changes may come are dashed as the theme goes from soothing, to macabre, to soaring, and to soothing again. But the site of all the change is a familiar home listeners return to several times through Beethoven’s “Waldstein.” Strange things sound familiar. Familiar things sound strange.