Tuesday, March 1, 2011

3/1 Fantasia on a 1-Note Motif (Opus 77)

("Is this some kind of joke?")
I recently read an interesting article by musicologist Hugh Macdonald about Beethoven's Fantasia in Gm Op. 77. The first time I heard this piano piece I had to check the track name to make sure I hadn't put in some 20th Century piece by accident. It starts out with crazy untethered glissandos across the keyboard, changes key, then a couple minutes later goes into some kind of "jazzy" cadenza..and then it gets strange. A piece is usually called a "fantasia" because it doesn't fall under the category of anything else, such as Sonata, Minuet, Polonaise, Bagatelle, etc... I always think of fantasias as "slowly composed improvisations". However in Op.77 Beethoven really takes things to an extreme. The Bernstein quote I use at the top of the blog talks about how B.'s work is inevitable - every note is perfect in its place. But then how does one explain Op.77 which seems to challenge the listener with its abrupt changes in key, tempo and flow? Motifs appear once and then never again... What kind of theme-development is that? 

Macdonald in his article claims that the theme of Op.77 is that "there is no theme". In other words the underlying thread tying this work as a coherent unit is basically CHAOS. Hmmm...that sounds positively "Cagean". Macdonald goes on to say, "he had the rarer desire..to tease and deceive us, an impulse that betrays a seriously disturbing attitude that will make many of his admirers uncomfortable." Maybe Macdonald did not have many friends who were part of the avant-garde crowd...

Macdonald goes on to list a few works which have some extreme contrasts designed to create "disruption", such as the first 2 movements of the Moonlight Sonata, Sonata Op.111's two contrasting movements.  Later on, he also mentions and expounds upon the premature horn in the "Eroica" recap, the sudden mood change in the "Eroica" finale from violent fanfare to delicate ballet (in the wrong key), abrupt contrasts in the Waldstein sonata, Cello Sonata Op.69, String Quartet Op.95 (Serioso), etc...

However, back to the Fantasy in G: "it has the potential to derail the whole apparatus of criticism" (I find that claim to be both profound and kind of hilarious actually).  He does admit that the piece has two "formal" elements, the glissando motif and the set of variations in B Major from bar 157 - but these are just another example of being "inconsistently inconsistent by introducing the semblance of order in a totally disorderly piece."  Several approaches have been made to explain this crazy fantasia - Czerny: "an improvisation", Wilhelm de Lenz: "a medieval drama", Tovey: "hopelessness...questions and efforts", Paul Bekker: " a one-tone motif" (I love that one!).  Macdonald jettisons all of the above as unsatisfactory and states the only way to interpret it is "to regard the piece's dis-unity, diversity, illogicality, inconsistencies, and contradictions as themselves the principal idea of the piece...to mislead our dull brains and to leave us baffled and breathless...defiantly illogical.  The point is that it has no structural point."

Anyways at the end of the article he kind of supposes that all these surprises and disruptions are intended denigrate and "humiliate" the listener in some way - like some kind of puppet-master, or a cat playing with a mouse.  The article is well-written and has some interesting points but I pretty much disagree with many of his conclusions.  From a 21st Century viewpoint Opus 77 hardly seems inconsistent or incoherent (one supposes B wrote this piece for "a later age" as he used to say) and tho B. was pretty mischievous in his 30's at times, he was very fond of his admirers (especially the female ones) and Macdonald seems to place a bit too much of a misanthropic cast on Beethoven's personality.  Whenever I hear these bizarre turns and sudden mood-changes I have to hold in my laughter - from where I'm standing we're in on the joke.

Read the full article HERE (despite my criticism of it, it's still excellently presented...)

And here's this crazy "neo-classical" piece with score:
Beethoven - Fantasia op. 77 (Dino Ciani)

1 comment:

  1. I love the Fantasia- the first time I heard it, it made me laugh out loud- I agree it has some mischievousness to it and I can picture Beethoven laughing as he composed it. It's fun and interesting to listen to!