On A Musical Note
There’s a scene in Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety where two couples who are best friends have a dinner together and then afterwards (this is in the mid-20th century, I think the late 1930s), they all go to the living room, put on a phonographic record and just listen to a piece of music.
When was the last time you did this?
Other than live concerts, we never actually sit and listen to music anymore. Music is our soundtrack, the background, the thing that hovers behind our conversations and cocktails, accompanies our workouts, but isn’t really heard. Music is so widespread now, we barely notice it. But a century or two ago, it took a great deal of effort to make music happen, and when it did, it demanded our attention.
So, the backstory. As I was doing chores around the house and some piano solo was playing in the background, I began to hear something extraordinary as I did the laundry. It was our neighbour during his daily practice session. I recognized the sounds of the piano solo as Beethoven’s, but the work was unfamiliar to me. It was dissonant, jarring –and clearly something extraordinary.
The piece is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #29. It has no instantly recognizable melodies as the Moonlight or Appasionata sonatas. The work is rarely played or recorded because it is difficult to play. Stravinsky described it as “inexhaustible and exhausting.” The work is incredibly modern and complex. The slow, patient adagio is absolutely heartbreaking and tender (and if you must skip, start the video at 15:57). The piece builds gradually to the finale, which is an absolutely insane, manic fugue that is nothing short of astonishing. It’s something like J.S. Bach on both Adderall and LSD.
This performance by Daniel Barenboim is mesmerizing. He does a magnificent job with such a demanding piece, and I find it extraordinary that he’s not only an accomplished conductor, but also celebrated as one of the great soloists of our modern times.
I hope you have the time to enjoy it. Either way, have a great week ahead!