Guest post by Jack Kohl

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page. I might supplement my case by directing him or her to Ives’s own Essays Before A Sonata and to its recent bookend, Kyle Gann’s extraordinary new study: Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays After A Sonata. One is in consummate hands with both of these books, and with many commercial recordings. Hence I will endeavor here to offer only what guidance I can from my own earliest experiences of the piece, and from my years of preparation at the keyboard before taking the work to the platform.

American pianist Gilbert Kalish captures Ives’ many-layered moods and themes in this reading of the “Concord”.

But I would not write an analysis of the piece; I would only write praise. This work has served as a dorsal fin in my existence since I was in my mid-teens, serving midway between the pectoral influences of Ralph Waldo Emerson on one side (through his Journals and published essays), and Franz Liszt on the other (principally through his Sonata in B Minor). Emerson and Liszt have always seemed men ripe for a study in parallel lives: Emerson of Concord, a man who metamorphosed from minister to performance artist; Liszt of Weimar, retired performance artist bound for a near-priestly twilight.

The “Concord” has always appeared to me formed by a Liszt Sonata in B Minor that escaped from passage on a mystic Mayflower, hid then between the serrations of tribal arrowheads, next amidst the lines of Puritan sermons, at last reemerging through Ives as his Second Piano Sonata when the old Calvinist headstones in the churchyard turned like a piano’s pins from the torque of Transcendentalist tuning hammers. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the “Concord” Sonata of Ives starts on a B-natural, on the same pitch class as the Liszt Sonata’s conclusion. Everything that follows in the Ives work has always seemed to me as an atomic subdivision of that final note of the Liszt Sonata.

How did I first learn of the piece? The Easter Bunny thought I had outgrown candy and left me a hidden copy of Howard Boatwright’s edition of Essays Before A Sonata and Other Writings by Charles Ives on Easter Morning of 1985 or 1986. The Easter Bunny is wise. He knew me better than I knew myself. Ives wrote the essays “primarily as a preface or reason for” his Second Piano Sonata. Opposite the first page of each essay for the Sonata’s four movements (an essay for “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”), Ives gives the first page of the respective movement from the score itself. The moment that I first looked in silence upon the “Emerson” movement’s opening five systems is distinct in my memory.

Ives’s engraved note heads appeared to be independent of the staff lines underneath them. Somehow the score writing seemed to imply epigrammatic meaning without the context of staff lines. He appeared to record some kind of journal-like impressions without heed to his notebook’s ruled pages.

That first impression from thirty years ago was similar to one I had of late. While rehearsing recently on the afternoon before a hastily prepared musical theater concert with Broadway actors, I was handed a printout for the song “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the musical “She Loves Me.” Perhaps because the printer’s ink cartridge was running low, or perhaps because the original scan of the music was faulty, the copy showed note heads that were distinct, though of a jaundiced color. But the staff lines were nearly invisible. It was remarkable to me how much the absence of the staff lines made the note heads useless to me as a sight reader. There was a rush to find another copy of the music. But for the first page of Ives’s “Concord” one feels that there is a deep and artful implication from the seeming separation of the note heads from the sublimated staff lines. The stars at night are like such Ivesian note heads.

Is it by some kind of faith that we feel there must be spiritual staff lines between, around, the sidereal musical notation, inspiring our will to form constellations? And yet the actual lines are there if one looks twice with sober eyes at the first page of the “Emerson” movement. Ives’s wild notational utterance is a heterodoxy brought into control by a Puritan focus.

Transcendentalism only works in the shadow of the Meeting House; one cannot coast too far. But the harmonic verticality on that first page seems a sign that Ives will only enter as far as “the vestibule of the temple” on the grand staff.

His harmony almost seems a complement or foil to ubiquity: like soap bubbles that might conjoin yet not appear yoked (and not augment the size of the new sphere); like Siamese twins with one body and one identity; or as if an entire flock of gulls could alight on one flagpole, yet not one bird crowded to the equator of the topping sphere. In other words, what is the reverse of ubiquity for multiple objects? Rather than one thing everywhere at once (ubiquity); it is everything (or many things) at one place at one time.

Mit-like width of chord spans are called for in “Emerson” – as if wider and wider parts of the body might be required to realize the vertical sonorities – as if ultimately the width of contact would be so great one would need be prostrate on the keyboard; and then one would need get up and live for oneself instead of the music. It is music that makes one stand up from the bench in health. It is as an object or article the use of which is to compel one to repudiate it in favor of one’s own actions.

But the act of repudiation is not an act of rejection. This music makes a noble sacrifice of itself for the listener’s mind. It weans one like an aggressive mother bear weans her aging cub. The hands are so often splayed in very wide non-tonal contexts that the fingers assume the arrangement of one engaged in a handstand – as if one might look away from the score and the instrument and perceive the world upside down, as with the refreshed fascination as when one bends over to look through one’s legs.

The chords in “Emerson” compel one to look at systems above and below the one being played at the moment. Ives compels non-linear comparison of his own material in this way, and one is reminded of the unanticipated comparisons a reader can make when using any text, when, with fingers between the pages or just before a page turn or in the midst of a draft, intense sunlight reveals the text that is printed on the reverse side of an oncoming page or a preceding page.

All this points to Ives’s success in translating the miraculous effect of Emerson’s latent prose mechanics. Emerson credits the best books with triggering thought, and he does not mean thought in relation to a book’s subject or style – no, something in certain texts (something deep in their mechanics) triggers one’s completely independent thinking of a reading – completely independent of a book’s content, style, and even the latent mechanics that trigger the thought. Emerson’s own books have that latent mechanism – as if while making demands for themselves they also trigger some part of the mind that is as a cerebral appendix to the conscious act of reading the book of another.

The “Emerson” movement is programmatic insofar as it suggests the mental mechanical action of the man Matthew Arnold called the greatest prose writer of the nineteenth-century – a writer who, if one counts the spaces, the periods, between his dense and intentionally incongruous phrases – has asked his reader an equal number of times to think as much as, if not more than, the author.

Most people, when saying prose writing is musical, mean to suggest an ineffable quality of poetic ringing or rhythm to the language. But Ives in his “Emerson” movement captures a deeper musical suggestiveness from Emerson’s working habits as a writer of journal entries – mechanics that invoke an equal share of the horizontal and the vertical – and those mechanics somehow survive in latent evidence in the essays. To wit: Emerson’s filling notebooks from front to back and back to front, writing of pages up and down rather than from side to side; intentionally stacking incongruous subject matter atop one another. Emerson calls upon the implied strength hidden in a palimpsest. Ives mentions in his own essays Carlyle’s remark on Emerson’s lack of coherence paragraph to paragraph. But the lack of phrase coherence is intentional, and the tacit transitions are left to the reader – and the listener. Emerson’s lack of coherence is not incoherence, but a conscious effort to remove articulations of transition. The reader, the witness, is forced to live in that gap and to realize transitional surface himself.

If in lieder, word painting endeavors to express concrete meanings of a word by the direction – up or down – of musical notes, then Ives for Emerson transition paints. He endeavors to catch the metaphoric leaps that are left to the reader by Emerson when the reader is confronted by non-sequential sentences on a related topic. Ives recalls the moment of an erudite squirrel leaping, in mystic but somehow unbending portamento, from tree to tree in Mr. Emerson’s orchard. Ives renders the leaps of a “La Campenella” into a dance betwixt one’s own neurons.

I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse students of the misuse of the word song for non-song pieces. But in the “Emerson” movement of the “Concord”, perhaps the usage is correct in an unsuspected way. For Ives undertakes a prosody for the latent mechanics of Emerson’s prose. Emerson’s latent mechanics – the mystic text buried in the infinite density of his periods and semicolons – are not detected by “reading between the lines.” That phrase merely suggests the ulterior purpose of the visible text. Emerson’s and Ives’s latent mechanics ask that the reader, the player, the listener, synthesize mediating purposes that are aggressively omitted.

Granted, the foundations of profound abstract borrowings from spoken and sung language had long been laid in piano literature. The frenetic machinegun alternation of the hands in the first page of Ives’s “Emerson” may even announce a philosophical leap of purpose over the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century piano performance practice of left-hand-before-right-hand execution.

But Ives’s intentions are much more ambitious than those of the pianist-composers who borrowed from and steeped themselves in the bel canto tradition. Ives does not seem to imagine the rhythms of Emerson the lecturer, of Emerson the performer. Again, Ives’s aim appears to be the translation of Emerson’s latent mechanics into music.

Emerson himself, in his remarkable entry (from Journal Y, 1845-1846) under the heading of Croisements, writes: “The seashore, and the taste of two metals in contact, and our enlarged powers in the presence or rather at the approach & at the departure of a friend, and the mixture of lie in truth, and the experience of poetic creativeness which is not found in staying at home, nor yet in travelling, but in transitions from one to the other, which must therefore be adroitly managed to present as much transitional surface as possible. ‘A ride near the sea, a sail near the shore;’ said the ancient.”

Ives’s “Emerson” codifies and achieves this aim. By means of what might be styled a Total Chromaticism, Ives paints as if from a palette, fires as if from a quiver, of all leading tones. The listener must learn to exult in Ives’s painting in “as much transitional surface as possible.” I remember as a child that I was disappointed that one could not land on Jupiter, could not set foot on a gas giant – for from afar it looks like a glorious and inviting solid. But it cannot be mapped. Ives’s score, in imitation of the latent prose mechanics of Emerson, is a snapshot of an evolving surface of Jovial ether.

The “Emerson” movement, though the first movement in the Sonata, is in fact a development section in disguise yet in plain sight. Its repositioning is a mild and superficial disguise, yet as effective as Clark Kent’s horn-rimmed glasses. It is a development in which the founding elements are constantly resetting, as if it is a record of all beginnings, of all first bars. It is like a language of all prepositions – nay, pre­-positions.

Mass. is a common abbreviation for Massachusetts. But I suspect Mr. Ives, in his Sonata’s title, is rendering a civil religious pun. For he has given us not just a piece about Concord (kŏng’kərd), Mass., but a work to be regarded as the Mass of concord (kŏn’kôrd) – best heard from the vestibule of the temple.


mj_kohlJack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press

 

There are many series, suites and cycles of pieces which can be considered “up there” in the pianist’s standard repertoire: Bach’s ’48’, Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, Schuman’s Carnaval and Kreisleriana, Chopin’s Etudes and Preludes, Liszt’s Annèes or the Transcendental Studies, but none can quite come close to Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, usually referred to as the ‘New Testament’ of piano music (the WTC is the ‘Old Testament’!). Perhaps the primary appeal of these pieces, aside from the sheer Herculean effort of learning and absorbing them, is that they offer both a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style and a glimpse into the inner workings of his compositional life and personality. Urban legend has it that Beethoven was a rough, irascible, grumpy and unapproachable sod, but this does not tell us much about his music. Living with his music, spending time with it to understand what makes it special, allows a more honest, rounded view of him, and, perhaps of all his music, the piano sonatas offer a really candid autobiography.

 

As pianists, whether amateur or professional, advanced or intermediate, or even just beginning on the great journey of exploration, we have all come across Beethoven’s piano music, and many of us have played at least one of his sonatas during our years of study. As an early student, a taster of a proper sonata in the form of one of his Sonatinas (something my father is grappling with at the moment – and refusing any helpful advice from me!). Later on, we might encounter one of the “easier” piano sonatas, such as the pair of two-movement sonatas that form the Opus 49 (nos. 19 and 20), which are roughly Grade 5-6 standard (but don’t be fooled by the comparatively “easy” notes!). As part of my Grade 8 repertoire, I learnt the No. 5 (Opus 10, No. 1, in C minor), which prefigures the far more well-known and well-loved Pathétique in the flourish of its opening measures, the “beautiful melody” of its slow movement, and its febrile final movement. A quick glance through the Diploma repertoire lists for any of the exam boards (Trinity, ABRSM, RAM etc) and there is a generous handful of sonatas to choose from, from well-known to less popular, to suit each level of Diploma right up to Fellow.

It is generally accepted pianistic wisdom that Beethoven composed the piano sonatas during three distinct periods of his life, and as such, like the Duo Sonatas for Piano and ‘Cello (read my earlier post here), offer a fascinating overview of his compositional development. Setting aside the three “Electoral” sonatas, which are not usually included in the traditional cycle of 32 (though Beethoven authority, Professor Barry Cooper, who has edited new the ABRSM edition of the sonatas, argues that there is a case for including the three sonatas that Beethoven wrote when he was 12 in a complete edition), the early sonatas are, like the early duo sonatas (for violin and for ‘cello), virtuosic works, reminding us that Beethoven was a fine pianist. While the faster movements may nod back to his teacher, Haydn (though Beethoven would strenuously deny any influence!), it is the slow movements which demonstrate Beethoven’s deep understanding of the capabilities of the piano, and its ability, through textures and colours, moods and contrasts, to transform into any instrument he wishes it to be. Some of the writing could be for string quartet (Op. 2 No. 2). In the early sonatas, Beethoven’s mastery of the form is already clear, and many look forward to the greater, more complex, and more revolutionary sonatas of his ‘middle’ period. His distinctive musical personality is already stamped very firmly on these early works.

The sonatas from the middle period are some of the most famous:

The ‘Tempest’ and ‘La Chasse’ (Op. 31, Nos. 2 and 3). The first with its stormy, passionate opening movement, the second of the opus rollicking and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The ‘Moonlight’ (Op. 27, No. 2): the first of his piano sonatas to open with a slow movement. Too often the subject of clichéd, lugubriously romantic renderings, this twilight first movement shimmers and shifts. An amazing gesture, created by a composer poised on the threshold of change.

The ‘Waldstein’ (Op. 53). Throbbing quavers signal the opening of one of the greatest of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, while the final movement begins with a sweetly consoling melody which quickly transforms into daring octave scales in the left hand and a continuous trill in the right hand. This is Beethoven at his most heroic.

‘Les Adieux’ (Op. 81a). Suggested to be early ‘programme’ music in its telling of a story (Napoleon’s attack on the city of Vienna which forced Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, to leave the city, though this remains the subject of some discussion still). It is true that Beethoven himself named the three movements “Lebewohl,” “Abwesenheit,” and “Wiedersehen”. One of the most challenging sonatas because of its mature emotions and technical difficulties, it bridges the gap between Beethoven’s middle and late periods.

Late period:

The ‘Hammerklavier’ (Op. 106), with its infamous and perilously daring grand leap of an octave and a half at the opening (which, of course, should be played with one hand!); its slow movement of infinite sadness and great suffering; its finale, a finger-twisting fugue, the cumulative effect of which is overwhelming: an expression of huge power and logic.

The Last Sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, 111). I have written about these sonatas previously. They are considered to be some of the most profoundly philosophical music, music which “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis), which speaks of shared values, and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. From the memorable, lyrical opening of the Op. 109 to the final fugue, that most life-affirming and solid of musical devices, of the Op 110, that peaen of praise, to the “ethereal halo” that is contained in some of the writing of the Arietta of the Op 111, the message and intent of this music is clear. And this is Beethoven’s great skill throughout the entire cycle of his piano sonatas.

So, what is the perennial attraction of performing a Beethoven Sonata Cycle? Glance through concert programmes around the world and it is clear that these sonatas continue to fascinate performers and audiences alike, and no sooner has one series ended than another begins, or overlaps with another. Playing the Sonatas in a cycle is the pianistic equivalent of reading Shakespeare, Plato, or Dante, and for the performer, it offers the chance to get right to the heart of the music, peeling back the layers on a continuous journey of discovery, always finding something new behind the familiar. One does not have favourites; just as when one has children, one should never have favourites, though certain sonatas will have a special resonance. The sonatas are like a family, they all belong together – and they are needed, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation. You can play the sonatas for over a quarter of a century, half a century, and yet there are still many things in these wonderful works to be explored and understood, things which still have the power to surprise and fascinate.

Every pianist worth his or her salt knows that presenting a Beethoven sonata cycle represents a pinnacle in one’s artistic career (ditto the five Piano Concertos) and an important stepping stone to other great cycles (Schubert’s sonatas, for example, which are, perhaps, less satisfying to play than Beethoven’s because of problems such as incomplete or different versions of the same work), but once a cycle is complete, one cannot truly say one has conquered the highest Himalayan peak. And that is what is so special about this music: you can never truly say you have “arrived” with it, while its endless scope continues to reward, inspire and fulfil.

I have never heard a complete Beethoven cycle performed by a single performer, but I have heard plenty of concerts which form part of the whole: in the 1980s, it was John Lill, now one of the “elder statesmen” of British pianism; before him, my parents would have heard Brendel and Barenboim. Following in their footsteps, I heard some of Barenboim’s concerts when he played a complete cycle at the Festival Hall three year’s ago. At the same time, Paul Lewis was just finishing his own cycle at the Wigmore Hall (and beyond). I heard him play Nos. 15-18, some of the early sonatas, and the Last Sonatas. Then there was Till Fellner, a young Austrian with a clean, fresh approach, whose cycle began in 2008. On LP, I had Lill’s complete cycle, released the same year as I heard him at RFH. On CD I have Arrau, whose account is hard to match. But I also have recordings of favourites, such as the Opus 10’s, played by Angela Hewitt, or the Opus 110 (my absolute favourite), played by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida (whose Mozart playing I adore).

In concert, the sonatas are presented in halls large and small, famous and lesser known. The size of the hall can affect one’s appreciation and understanding of the works. For example, sometimes the earlier sonatas, which were written for the salon, can be lost in a venue as big as the Royal Festival Hall. One’s connection to the music is also affected, of course, by the performer. Lill, I remember, brought an extraordinary closeness and intimacy, something I have never forgotten, a sense that it was an entirely shared experience; while with Barenboim it felt as if an invisible barrier had been erected between us, the audience, and him the performer (I suspect he neither intended nor engineered this; rather, the over-awed audience brought it upon themselves!).

Further reading

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas – Robert Taub. “Offers the insights of a passionate musician who performs all 32 of Beethoven’s well-loved piano sonatas in concert worldwide. This book presents his intimate understanding of these works with listeners and players alike.” (Amazon)

The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience – Kenneth Drake. “Drake groups the Beethoven piano sonatas according to their musical qualities, rather than their chronology. He explores the interpretive implications of rhythm, dynamics, slurs, harmonic effects, and melodic development and identifies specific measures where Beethoven skillfully employs these compositional devices.” (Amazon)

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion – Charles Rosen. A very readable analysis of all 32 sonatas by respected pianist and writer.

New York Times article about Professor Barry Cooper’s study of all 35 sonatas