Monday, March 13, 2017

Beethoven's Tempest Sonata (#17); why it mattered more to me as a boy than I realized

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, that is, Piano Sonata #17 in D Minor, Op. 31 #2, turns out to be more important to my own musical background than I had thought until recently.  I have to thank pianist Jonathan Biss for reminding me of this on his Facebook page on his Beethoven series.

The YouTube video below shows the music

Allan Schindler actually gave the work its nickname as he took the goings-on in the music (especially the slow movement) as evocative of the characters in Shakespeare’s play (“The Tempest”), which I saw put on by a college group in Dallas (on an arena-like stage somewhere around Greenville Ave. or SMU) in the mid 1980s.  I remember the eclectic plot, and the incipient mild homoeroticism of how the men (the male actors and dancers) had to be prepped to live in this comic paradise ruled by Prospero the Magician.

The music is remarkable for its elegance and simplicity. The first movement exposition starts on a dominant A major chord and sets up a question-answer paradigm in slow-fast alternation.  The music tends to hang on the dominant a lot, but intersperses harmonic adventures through the relative F major and its own dominant C.  But the second subject is (in Haydn fashion) a continuation of the first. Kempf doesn’t take the repeat, but he should

The slow movement, in a slow 3/4 with dotted rhythms, is indeed pensive enough and more harmonically adventurous (influenced by the counterpoint-generated harmonies in Bach).

The finale, a gentle Allegretto in the bare-bones time signature of 3/8, has always made me think of a winter sleigh ride (maybe Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on his visit to homophobic Russia, complete with birch forest).  I would say the same about the last movement of Sibelius’s Symphony #4 (in A Minor).  Here there is the same harmonic unpretentiousness, lots of use of dominant-dominated rhetoric, even in the twinkly grace.  The recapitulation (as with the first movement) gets more elaborate and is prepared by a cadenza-like passage, but in the end the music dies away pianissimo with a descending arpeggio.  This sounds like a work that is supposed to end softly and it does.

My second piano teacher wanted me to read this in my senior year of high school, as I best remember. At the time, I didn’t “like” the ending, although I do now.  But the harmonic gestures influenced my own Sonata #2 (spring of 1960), as had Brahms First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third.  But I did not have the full background in harmony that I needed to assimilate it all, so some of my own writing (in the cadenza like passages), still wound a but trite and hackneyed, and I am working on revisions of these.

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