This is Orpheus bringing back Eurydice from Hell. You will know later in this little piece why I put it here…
(Orpheus was the music hero in Greek mythology. If you’re curious to know more go here)
I was reading Joe Horowitz‘ excellent book Conversations with Arrau the other day. A lot is about Beethoven, naturally, and Arrau says he doesn’t think there is anything funny in Beethoven’s music, or for that matter any music. This I don’t agree with at all. To be funny in music can be done by playing with people’s expectations of what should be done, and then do something very different.
This is an example that you will NOT see often in any writings about Beethoven, I promise you that…it’s from Family Guy, where Will Smith is rapping extremely nice phrases instead of bad ones, it’s hilarious:
Not that this is close to Beethoven’s music. But the lyrics here are incredibly funny because you have this knowledge: when you hear rap music, the lyrics are supposed to be…well, badazz. For someone who doesn’t know about rap, this has no comic effect at all. Same thing with classical music sometimes, you just have to know a little in advance and it will open all kind of doors.
The same principle, to create humor by doing something different than expected in extreme, Beethoven is using in his second sonata, A Major, Op. 2 No. 2.
A phrase, or a melody normally goes up and down in a way that it creates a certain balance. Mozart was a master of this:
First UP…then DOWN.
This is used in all kind of music, here is another firtsupthendown:
Try singing “Say me” going up. Impossible.
Sing the beginning of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. There you go.
I have to apologize for the recording here, I haven’t gotten to the studio yet. So this is actually recorded at home, in my practicing studio. And as you can hear, I have practiced some, the piano is very out of tune. Sometimes it sounds just as out of tune as those Hammerklavier I hear now and then…
However, this is MUCH better for me, I have to think of this BEFORE recording it. So, until the pro recording comes, this will have to do!
Remember the Mannheim rocket that started the first sonata? Well, when we come to the second sonata, Beethoven is right away telling us, NO Mannheim rockets here.
It begins like this:
Yep. That’s it. That’s a motive. Not much.
Now, normally when you have a downgoing movement as first motive, you would balance that with going up. Nope. Beethoven answers with this:
Four more steps down.
What’s next then?
One step down. Again.
Five more step downwards.
And now, when any other composer would have started SOMETHING that moves…what does Beethoven do?
Not exactly a melody that breaks your heart, is it? But this Sonata just started with seventeen downward steps…and that IS funny. Because people might have expected to hear something melodic, or something with a strong character, and what do they get? Not 39 steps, but they did get seventeen.
And now, get ready for Beethoven Beauty in full bloom…
Finally, we got our upward movement…
Emanuel Ax said in an interview that he thought Beethoven must have been a kind of “in your face” guy, at least when he was young. I think that might be true. His way of doing things in his music which are WAY beyond “normal procedure” makes a statement that he REALLY wants your attention, and that is part of being an artist, isn’t it?
Now, we had the downward movement, which was fairly slow:
Then comes the upward movement double as fast:
And then comes…the Rockets…and they are very hard to play, so fast and not at all convenient for the hand. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there has been any passages to this point in piano history which demanded this level of technique. And aren’t those really “in your face”? They create some kind of rolling feeling that almost makes you disorientedly dizzy.
Every composer I know thinks that the hardest part when writing a piece is to knot the different ideas together. In his younger years, Beethoven often just didn’t make any knotting…he plays his first thing, then stops…and just starts the next. It works JUST fine. But 32 sonatas later, we will see the master of transitions at work, nobody could go from war to peace or vice verca as natural as Beethoven could.
Here is the first example of this talent in his sonatas. First, this is the second theme. It is SO different. A little sneaky, again…
And now…what happens? Well, remember the little silly two motives from the beginning?
Those two now sounds like THIS:
It’s tempting to think of an episode that were very popular to invoke in music at the time: Orpheus has lost Eurydice and is standing at the gate of Hell, begging Furies to give Eurydice back.
Not, bad, going from one place to another in about two minutes of music, no?
And here is the absolutely seamless transition, where he goes from peace to mystery in a few seconds:
However, after the Orpheus and Eurydice moment…Beethoven just leaves it…no worries…and resumes his in-your-face roulades:
That has us through the exposition. And oh, by the way. You know what the short, bouncy notes remind me of six seconds into the last music example?
Thats right. Someone laughing!