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This blog is about both scientific, societal/political, and yoga-related issues - individually and considered as different aspects of the same problem/solution. A longer description is found in the first blog entry, and all old posts are found in a structured way here. The blog is an extension of my main home pages and Twitter: @gunnarcedersund

The reason why Beethoven's op 111 is on my top 5 list of best piano music ever written

music, dancing, creativityPosted by Feb 23, 2013 11:51

Earlier last year I used this picture as my profile picture on facebook. The reason is that it summarized two really central aspects of me: i) My basker, without which people don't really recognize me anymore ;), and ii) Beethoven's last sonata, op 111, which I have been practicing more or less regularly since January last(!) year. Now, Feb 25 - i.e. in two days! - I am at last ready to perform this piece in front of an audience. Since this piece of music is on my top 5 list of music ever written, this will be a day to celebrate!


As some of you know already, I am in the middle of a 16-year project: to learn all the Beethoven sonatas. My approximate schedule for this is to play a new sonata each semester, in my lunch concert series, at the university hospital in Linköping, which is where I work, and where many of my colleagues, students, and also some patients and doctors, come to listen to me. I started this in Nov of 2010, and it has grown quite popular, with a core crowd that comes more or less every time, and where it has been between 50-130 people attending every time. I am very happy about this lunch concert serie, since it fulfills one of the three factors I wanted to have fulfilled in my musical life: an attentive audience that listens to me, almost independently of what I choose to play. The other two factors are to be able to play at the level I want (i.e. the kind of pieces I want, and with the people I want), and to be able to make a comfortable living, where money is not an issue. All of these three factors are now fulfilled, and I am therefore thoroughly enjoying the musical aspect of my life at the moment, moving through one exciting musical project after the other.

And, the biggest such project as of yet is to play all these sonatas. Beethoven wrote these sonatas throughout his entire life. Interestingly, even though even his first sonatas are master pieces, he has a rapid evoluation in his music, re-inventing the sonata form, and - you can almost say - music and sound itself. Therefore, when he almost 30 years after his first sonata, has come to op 111 - his last sonata - he is in a place where nobody had been before him - and almost none have been able to follow him afterwards. This particularly concerns the second and last movement, which is the movement I will play on Monday, and which in itself is almost 20 minutes long. In this movement alone, all the features and facets of human emotions are expressed. Furthermore, these expressions are moved through in a continuous ever-changing process, where it feels like the whole movement is just one long sublime yoga-breath.

The sonata starts in almost perfect serenity and stillness, with the theme in (C major) played in chords that are almost standing still. This beautiful theme goes on for quite a long time, exploring also the counter-part (in a minor, starting at 1:22 in the above recording) with the same stillness. Then you could say that the next third of the movement is a constant filling out of these cords. In the first "variation", a perpetum mobile (constant movement, starting at 2:30) starts that places three notes in each old chord, and this is then replaced by four (at 4:25), etc, in a process that eventually also becomes more intertwined and with an almost fugue-like complexity...until it errupts in the fastest movement - which is like a jazz-piece, written 100 years before the invention of jazz (at 6:00).

Once this "jazz piece" is complete (at 7:55) the music fades down into the second phase of the sonata, which is perhaps the most remarkable phase of them all, and the one that is most characteristic and unique with this sonata. In this phase, the music is no longer about melodies, but about colouring the sound of the music. This is the phase which is depicted in the picture above, and it is the phase which has implied the majority of my practice time. I have spent endless hours at cafés just learning a few bars in this second phase of the sonata. The reason for this is that here the music in each bar is similar to the previous bar, but it is not identical. In fact, the whole piece is a long sequence of non-repetitive notes that follow each other in a way that is almost impossible to learn by heart - but that is absolute serene and beautiful in a way that almost no other music is. It sounds like it comes from another world.

This second phase eventually grows into a crescendo, that erupts in a long trill (11:30) that lies for a long time - a whole minute actually. On top of this trill, Beethoven then places various octaves, notes, and eventually - in the climax of the piece - two other trills, and a note that repeat itself in a growing and then diminishing fashion (12:00-12:10). To play three trills, and an additional repeating note, is also a thing that have had to spend quite a long time learning how to do technically.

Once the tripple-trill is over, the single trill grows into a sforzando, which then dies out into the low-point of the piece, where the stillness of the introduction re-emerges (12:30). This low-point is then built upon in a new gradual growth that lasts almost all the way to the end. However, in this second half, which could be thought of as a sort of re-capitulation, the accompaniement has completely transformed itself, and embraced this sound-exploring feature of the second phase. Therefore, even though the main theme returns again (13:36), they are now less important - they are more like a decoration that floats on top of the exploration of ever-changing sounds and chord-colouring. Towards the end, this coloring again erupts in a long trill (15:30), which after the a-minor theme has been revisited a last time (15:45-16.20), dies out and just floats away into the original serenity and simplicity that started the piece. Or to use the wonderful Beethoven analytic Arthur Schnabel's words: "the tiplets [16:35] should be played perfectly even, floating away in a region remote from earth. "

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