Monday, January 20, 2014

a Beethoven day

On Saturday I had a Beethoven day. First I meandered down to the Beethoven Center in the San Jose State library for a little concert of Beethoven violin sonatas which I was to review. It sounds abstract but it was quite enjoyable, partly because I'd prepared by listening to recordings of the same sonatas over the previous couple days, but mostly because the performers really knew what they were doing.

The pianist, whose name is disconcertingly similar to my own but who looks more like Joseph Haydn than I do, told a story of how an emergency tuning problem had once forced him to play a concert, which he'd prepared and rehearsed on a period fortepiano, at a last-minute substitution of a modern grand. But because he'd been prepared to use the playing style of the fortepiano, the sound of the instrument came out quite different from what it normally would. From which he concludes that learning early instruments can genuinely affect your playing even at other times. Which is why the instrument he played this concert on is a sturdy replica of its 1795 original, owned by the Beethoven Center and open to any decent ivory-tickler to come in and try out.

Afterwards, up to Stanford, where the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, prior to playing the same at a student orchestra festival, tried out an orchestral version of the Grosse Fuge. Twice, with not this but something similar to it projected on a screen as they played, and with an interval talk by conductor Ben Simon about the piece. He didn't say much worth preserving or of much help in understanding the piece, although he did introduce Beethoven's history in Vienna by declaiming "1890!1 Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire!"2 And then telling us about the Emperor Joseph II.3

Oh well. On my way out of the San Jose library, I'd stopped at the new book shelf and picked up a book on the Mormon influence on general American culture. Looked promising, but I happened to open it up to a page that said Joseph Smith was born in 1805,4 the year that Thomas Jefferson became President5 and sent off the Lewis and Clark Expedition.6 I put the book back down.

1. He meant 1790.
2. In 1790, what Vienna would have been the capital of was the Holy Roman Empire. By 1825, when Beethoven wrote the Grosse Fuge, it was the Austrian Empire, a quite different entity. It didn't become the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a name change marking another significant political shift, until a considerably later date. None of this may make much difference, but if you're going to use the terms, get them right.
3. Who died in 1790, so he wouldn't have had much to do with Beethoven's arrival two years later.
4. True.
5. False.
6. Also false.

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