Music in the Second Person

Listening to Opus 110

Mark Mazullo
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

If truth is not in the face, then where is it? In the hands! In the hands.
Ann Michaels, "Fugitive Visions"

HOW IS IT THAT THE WORK OF ART, when I arrive at a new understanding of it, having chased down yet another horizon of meaning, is already there waiting for me, meaning what it has always meant, knowing what it has always known? When I first put Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, op. 110, into my hands, I was a young man in the process of assembling the pieces of a life, taking on weight, preparing to carry it uphill. I was newly married; we were expecting our first child and had recently moved into our first home. I was completing a doctoral dissertation and embarking upon an academic career. The sonata, with its arias and fugues (its sad songs and their well-reasoned overcoming), represented the realization of all of my potential, my struggle, my will, my control. I found the sonata heroic, for I myself was a hero. For its part, the sonata must have found me amusing, quaint in my simple-minded faith that I could one day possess it, along with everything else. But these were my years of mastery, of undisputed, emergent selfhood. I did not know at the time what I have since learned from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that “the collectivity in which I say ‘you’ or ‘we’ is not a plural of the ‘I.’”

In tackling the thorny middle section of the sonata’s second movement, where the hands cross repeatedly and the key changes on a dime, I resorted to extremes, employing the “coffee bean trick” that I had once heard was Beethoven’s method of mastering a difficult passage. Line up ten coffee beans to your left on the piano’s rim, move one bean over to the right each time you play the passage cleanly, but move them all back to the left if you play a single error anywhere along the way. The goal: ten perfect executions in a row. I labored feverishly, beans on the rim of my family piano, newly bequeathed to me (the emerging professional) by my parents, baby shower gifts strewn about a freshly painted living room. I was as assured of this work as of everything else that surrounded me. The movement would be mine; the sonata, secure and essential, another shelter.

I took in opus 110 quickly, in one massive gulp, a passion-filled first date. Above all, I aimed to form a conception of its overall narrative arc, which recounts the paradigmatic Beethovenian story of triumph over adversity, suffering overcome. The first notes of the opening movement, whose micro-shape (down a third, up a fourth, repeat) suffuses the entire sonata, become the subject of a fugue in the hybrid-form finale. Part reflected in whole: such is the hallmark of Beethoven’s musical worldview. But the fugue encounters trouble along the way, some sad songs are sung, the fugue gets turned upside down (inverted, in fugue terminology) and shifted to a distant, alien key. In the final pages, some of Beethoven’s most resounding, the inversion is undone, the key restored, the sad songs forgotten, the yearned-for heavens reached.

Opus 101, Beethoven's ode to mimicry, appeals to the inner child as well as to the loving parent.

The baby, when she arrived (only two short weeks after my first public performance of the sonata), was a tricky second movement herself, requiring the same extreme effort. The joy I experienced was immense, the love unprecedented. But I also mourned the self that was being lost. The first night home from the hospital found my exhausted wife in bed with the infant in her arms and me on the couch with the dog in mine, weepy, desperate, terrified. The existentialist in me came out. Facing this strange new figure, I thought of Sartre’s Other: “thus suddenly appears an Object that has stolen the world from me.” To a colleague, I even compared the feeling (bizarrely, I think now–histrionically) to the inhumane process of “intercision” in Philip Pullman’s young-adult novel The Golden Compass, in which a guillotine separates a child from his daemon, his soul, and renders him catatonic. But like the sonata, the baby soon found her way into my scheme of things. Within a year, I would be teaching at a liberal arts college, which has since become another home. Within a few more years, we would have a second, and then a third child, move into a larger house. I would get tenure, be promoted. A string of perfect executions.

If we are lucky, and I have been, life provides such joys before it teaches us the hard lessons. But they always come–pain and illness, separations, deaths. With these breakings down can also come wisdom, peace, grace, if you have cultivated your ability to listen. During a period of personal difficulty twenty years down the road, when I was learning new things about listening, and therefore about love, a wise friend said to me, “There is more complexity and humanity in the lowliest person on the street than in the greatest work of art. That is why we have art, to remind ourselves of that.” I think I had until then believed the reverse. It was always me and my music against the world. People were weak, uninteresting, rarely worth the time and effort. Works of art were transcendent, beyond human understanding, superior. In representation lay truth; in reality, disappointment. Undoing this knowledge, shifting my stance, meant resisting the impulse to totalize, letting go of my fear of the particular, my need for parts to form wholes. It required that I learn how to shed my accumulated weight, yield my place. No easy tasks for a hero.

Opus 110 beat me there. It was never a mere sequence of triumphant forms, a jumble of technical complexities to unravel, a single story to be told. It was never collapsible into any of the other categories I devised for it along our journey together–the Kantian sublime, the Christian Passion, the human body (in pain, in love)–although I discovered all of this in it once I knew how to look. I’ve now lived with opus 110 for decades, taught and lectured about it, performed it on stages in Berlin and Bogotá, shared it with friends and colleagues in my own living room, offered it as solace to the sick and dying. As my ground has shifted, so has the work’s. In saying it is always there before me, I mean that it precedes my intention to know it. It remains (must remain) elusive. It must be nothing, if it is to be a place where I can continue to become undone and differently rebuilt. The exuberant final page of opus 110, its gut-wrenching arias, its agitated second movement, its rapturously ornamented first–these are the attributes not of humanity striving toward synthesis, unity, oneness, but rather of an eternal field of difference, a fragile alterity that crumbles the moment I claim to grasp it.

Anyone familiar with Beethoven’s late works
will have heard that he “invented jazz” in the second movement of his final piano sonata, opus 111. To this I would add that he also, in this same theme-and-variations movement, invented space travel. The “invention of jazz” occurs in the third variation, which is made up entirely of rapid-fire dotted figures and relentless syncopations. The pianist András Schiff, in a video recording of a lecture-recital at London’s Royal Academy of Music, complains fussily, “I resist the analogy of thinking of jazz and the pre-echo of a boogie-woogie… I really protest, because I don’t like the boogie-woogie and I love this music.” The fact remains: this music, some of Beethoven’s most outrageous and strange, must swing as maniacally as the hottest bebop.

The “space travel” occurs as the third variation gives way to the fourth. In the blink of an eye, the meter relaxes from the highly unorthodox 12/32 of variation 3 back to 9/16, the simpler meter of the movement’s opening theme. Jazzy syncopations remain, but the spasms and thunderbolts of the third variation are replaced in the fourth with hushed, gently pulsing chords on the broad offbeats, scored quietly in the piano’s lower register. Accompanying these offset chords, even deeper in the bass, is a shadowy tremolo, a constant, unchanging subdivision of the beat. This distant murmur replaces the fiery, gravity-defying texture of the previous variation. It is as if rocket boosters, firing at their most intense in variation 3, blow their last flame and separate from the craft, launching variation 4 smoothly into orbit. What seems slower is in fact faster: nine notes per beat in the left-hand subdivision in variation 4 versus eight notes in variation 3. But the changed atmosphere radically alters our experience of movement in space and time.

Such metaphors aside, this music (the final movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata) does intend, demonstrably, to make a point. A mere glance at the page, with its bizarre figures, shows even the most unmusical observer that Beethoven has blown the roof off the classical style, turned its familiar structures inside out. But the variations do, in fact, form a strict sequence, which is most easily discernible by counting the number of notes that appear before the downbeat, as a “pickup” at the beginning of each variation, and whose rhythmic profile carries through for the remainder of that variation. The arietta’s pickup includes two notes, the first variation’s has three, the second variation’s four, the third’s eight, the fourth’s nine. The subdivision of the movement’s broad beat, in other words, continues to increase, reaching its point of maximum density in the many trills that dominate the later stages of the movement.

One suspects, with this painstaking drawing out of a potentially infinite progression, this endless measuring, that Beethoven was thinking of Immanuel Kant, specifically his discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. Kant writes:

We get examples of the mathematically sublime … in all those instances where our imagination is afforded, not so much a greater numerical concept as a large unit of measure (for shortening the numerical series). A tree judged by the height of man gives, at all events, a standard for the mountain; and, supposing this is, say, a mile high, it can serve as a unit for the number expressing the earth’s diameter… Now in the aesthetic estimate of such an immeasurable whole, the sublime does not lie so much in the greatness of the number, as in the fact that in our onward advance we always arrive at proportionately greater units. The systematic division of the cosmos conduces to this result.

Beethoven knew of Kant and admired his thought. Among other references, we find these words recorded in the composer’s conversation book of February 1820: “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. Kant!!!” In opus 111, Beethoven argued in musical rhetoric Kant’s point: in the application of reason, we apprehend the totality of the cosmos. We ourselves create the idea of god.

Beyond his systematic divisions of the beat, Beethoven also references such ideas in the movement’s tonal plan, its movement away from and back to a home key. Once the C-major variations are in orbit, past the first several variations and into the mystical surplus space beyond, the music suddenly verges toward the key of E-flat major. Long associated in Beethoven’s music with the heroic (for instance, in the Third Symphony, the Eroica), E-flat major had even longer been linked to the divine, the three flats in its key signature standing for the Christian trinity. (J. S. Bach’s 1731 cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, or Sleepers Awake, remains the quintessential demonstration of the association.) For Beethoven, the key functions as the ultimate secular-humanist symbol. The C-major second movement of opus 111 approaches this distant key dramatically, but never quite reaches it. Instead, the journey peaks on an astonishing triple-trill sequence, a cosmic buzzing on three levels, with a fourth voice (the bottom of the left hand) resounding below in longer notes–knocking, as it were, on heaven’s door. The chord spelled by these four voices is the dominant harmony in E-flat major, the chord closest to home, a single step away, but forever on the threshold.

Kant describes the sublime as a feeling of pleasure experienced through displeasure: we are frustrated by our lack of access to the unknowable, but this frustration is replaced by a sense of pleasure, which arises from the realization that it is our reason itself that produces the idea of the infinite. The transcendent lies within us. The variations of opus 111 chart this same course. After the frustrated attempt to reach the divine key of E-flat major, the music first expresses its displeasure in a winding, chromatic passage where the theme appears to have trouble finding its true home. Then, as C major is restored and the theme returns fully intact, the movement proceeds toward acceptance–of the here and now, of the self as origin and future bearer of all that can be imagined.

Kant’s idea of pleasure through displeasure
is equally pronounced in opus 110, the penultimate of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas. This sonata, too, imagines a world where human reason reigns supreme. The same tendency toward acceleration, so conspicuous in opus 111, is already apparent in the opening rhythms of opus 110: two dotted figures, the second sounding at twice the speed of the first. Such quickenings occur regularly throughout the first movement, most notably in the frequent eruptions of a nimble, keyboard-spanning figure of thirty-second notes. But while opus 111, its gaze turned ever upward, strives to grasp the burning fire of the stars, opus 110, vocal and corporeal, keeps its feet firmly planted on the ground.

All its rhythmic energy is mere background to the sonata’s most characteristic quality, the predominance of melody, of a singing voice, which springs from the treble notes in the opening gesture’s sequence of chords. After a rather incongruous trill (a typical, late-style dissociation), the melody is set free from the chords and sings alone in the right hand, supported by an operatic boom-chuck accompaniment in the left. This overt appeal to opera in the sonata’s first minute presages the arias that appear in its later stages. The prominence of this initial tune, its centrality as subject, becomes clear in the first movement’s development section, where its obsessive restatement in a winding sequence of keys takes on a brooding, monotonous quality. When the melody becomes a fugue subject later in the sonata, there can be no mistaking a dramatic presence, a protagonist seeking redemption. On the work’s final page, the texture explodes in a frenzy of the first movement’s thirty-second notes (unmistakable marker of the stars) as the melody (unmistakable marker of individual human subjectivity) peals on high. I long took it as my responsibility, reaching this summit in performance, reveling in the exquisite view from the top, to inspire others to regard themselves as transcendental, latter-day gods.

Many a work by Beethoven explicitly conjures the starry heavens. The sublime is without question a useful framework for approaching them. As Scott Burnham explains in his Beethoven Hero, these ideas–the cycle of suffering and overcoming, the self-creation of the world, the centrality of the individual subject–are the preoccupations of that age, the Goethezeit, to whose tenets Beethoven enthusiastically subscribed. The composer was, after all, a highly impressionable and ambitious nineteen-year-old when the Bastille was stormed. Burnham stresses the remarkable physicality of Beethoven’s music, its “ability to generate and sustain a feeling of presence” and encourage “a high level of almost visceral engagement on the part of the listener,” a bearing to match the dynamic spirit of the age of revolution. Moreover, the form itself emerges from the musical surface’s forward propulsion through space: “All is in motion, and convention itself seems newly generated.” Such is the wizardry of Beethoven: creating musical bodies so energetic, so powerful that they can reach, grasp, own the heavens.

While the heroic Beethoven continues to inspire, it can also repel. Adrienne Rich, anticipating the first wave of feminist musicology in the 1970s, memorably described the Ninth Symphony as “music without the ghost of another person in it.” How can there be space for another in music so thoroughly invested in the achievements of the self? In Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas describes a place of complete self-absorption, a chez-soi in which I assimilate everything I encounter and freely exercise my power and pleasure. This space, which arises historically from the Cartesian self, is the “I” of traditional phenomenology, which precedes everything that is experienced and from which all intention, thought, and meaning proceed. For Levinas, a post-phenomenological thinker, infinity is manifest not in the cosmos that we contemplate but rather in the absolute other that precedes our recognition and therefore cannot be totalized. In the chez-soi, blind to that infinite alterity, I see only that which I can, and in fact feel morally obliged to, control: “Everything is at my disposal, even the stars, if I but reckon them.” Levinas challenges me to view Beethoven’s reckoning of the stars and his expression of my relation to them in a different light.

In this light, the sublime radiates cruelty. Heroes are born to kill. The inhuman is never far from humanity’s side. Writing fervently against the Beethoven-reception grain, Daniel K. L. Chua, whose thinking has illuminated Beethoven’s music for me like no other’s, characterizes the sublime as an aesthetics of fear and nonreciprocity. Cold and inhuman, sublime works of art admit no unknowns, tolerate no threatening outsiders, leave no messy residue unexplained by the power of reason. Such masterworks as the Fifth Symphony are “windowless monads” whose glory reflects “merely the solipsism of the hero’s own reflection.” The sublime, from this perspective, is the ultimate exercise of power and pleasure, a denial of the presence of the other, and indeed, as Rich would caution us, an agent of violence: “gagged and bound and flogged with chords of Joy… the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.” Chua worries about the persistence of the heroic image, and he poses a challenge: “Is it worth keeping faith with this Beethoven? Would it be possible to uncover another humanism beneath the Promethean mantle–an ethics without heroes?”

Chua’s affirmative answer,
inspired by contemporary radical theology, is most powerfully stated in his analysis of the penultimate movement of the String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 130, a tender song without words, and one of the most remarked upon of Beethoven’s works. Beethoven calls the movement a Cavatina, borrowing a term from opera. This string music sings, breathes, is conspicuously embodied. Beethoven reported in his conversation books that he cried while composing the Cavatina, and his tears returned whenever he thought about it. His own body could not help but react to such body-conjuring sound.

The Cavatina is cast in ternary form (ABA), in which the central, contrasting section–marked with the uncommon indication beklemmt (oppressed, anguished, strained, constricted)–consists entirely of a brief solo on the first violin over a steady pulsing of chords in the other three instruments. Space interrupts the violin’s line after every one or two notes, at most three, producing a stuttering, spasming effect akin to those found in the arias of opus 110. After a mere six measures, this stilted song comes to an end, and the movement’s opening melody, which sings easily in the first violin over a more active and engaged accompaniment in the other strings, returns. But in this reprise, the opening section is significantly altered. The form is broken. In encountering the beklemmt figure, something has changed. Who was that dispossessed figure we just passed by? Why was he or she crying? Should we have stopped to help? How do we continue?

Noting a striking lack of connection between this central episode and the outer sections of the movement, Chua interprets the beklemmt passage not as a fissure, an unrepairable crack in the form’s heroic foundation, but rather as “an opening in which the asthmatic material is given space to breathe,” a donation, a space that “gives time for an other to give itself to be seen.” It is a moment of welcoming, of coming undone; an including of the exclusion, a renunciation of the need for formal cohesion. From this perspective the movement is not at all in ternary form, the cold and uncaring symbol of Enlightenment’s centered subjectivity. Instead, it forms a “structure of love,” a totality whose parts do not add up to a whole. Not a home for a hero but a “shelter for alterity.”

The piano sonata opus 111, once its variations have run their course, closes with a bare statement of the second movement’s opening motive, a simple dotted rhythm, sounded one finger at a time. It is Beethoven’s last piano sonata breath. Like Thomas Mann’s music teacher Wendell Kretschmar (whose enthusiastic lectures about Beethoven in Doktor Faustus are derived from Theodor Adorno’s analysis of Beethoven’s late style), I cannot help but think of words here. Kretschmar described the conclusion of opus 111 as valedictory, a leave-taking: “fare-thee-well.” I have long heard it as an arrival, in the first person: “Here I am.” The sonata secures one’s place. But what about ethics without heroes? Might Beethoven’s late work signal instead the opening of a heart, an invitation to commune with the outcast? Is it possible to replace “Here I am” with an other-directed question: “What are you?”

Marked with the opera-tinged indication “recitative,”
the final movement of opus 110 begins with an emptying out. The driving and proliferating forms of the first two movements are replaced by a series of stark chords suggesting an introduction to a melody yet to come. After a few phrases, the progression pauses, yielding to a string of urgent repeated notes in the highest voice, marked with a dramatic crescendo and decrescendo. The moment, one of Beethoven’s strangest pianistic figures, is conspicuously embodied. As speech, it stutters, frustrated; it stops making sense. In stature, it trembles, frail and vulnerable, crippled by waves of pain, nauseous. As voice, it reverberates, echoes, grows in intensity then retreats, a syncopated cry of abjection, a cosmic plea. What we have in this figure, as with the Cavatina’s beklemmt passage, is a formal obstruction, a musical body in pain, humbly offering itself for recognition.

Beethoven writes, strangely, twenty-eight A’s in a row, an unchanging note held aloft, dangled over a sustained chord in the left hand. Most of the notes are grouped into pairs, as indicated by the curved tie marks above them. Above the first such pair, and intended to apply to all that follow, Beethoven writes the numbers 4 and 3, indicating the two fingers of the right hand to be used in striking these notes. But these combined instructions result in a paradox: one does not restrike the second note of a tied figure, so why indicate two different fingers? Do we ignore the tie and play the two notes, or do we ignore the fingering? Do we somehow play the second note without actually playing it? The pianist is faced with the unusual decision of whether to sound as many as twenty-eight A’s or as few as fourteen. Imagine the difference between hearing all or only half the notes of your favorite song! Beethoven was after something extreme here, something visceral, radically emotional.

The composer and pianist Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven, reported that Beethoven intended with this marking to reproduce the Bebung effect–a rhetorical-expressive effect that had been possible on the baroque-era clavichord, in which the keyboardist only partially strikes the second note with a change of finger. It is a conspicuously emotional device, derived from the expressive vocabularies of early baroque opera and sacred music. Beethoven employed it infrequently but to significant effect elsewhere in his piano music. What should emerge at such moments is the strained feeling of someone trying desperately to communicate something but not quite succeeding.

In the opus 110, the Bebung figure appears near the beginning of the finale, with its dramatic sequence of eighteenth-century-style arias and fugues. Before these micro-forms begin to accumulate, before the gears of reason begin to turn, the repeated A’s immobilize the musical subject. Sobbing, spasming, the Bebung passage fails to manage a coherent utterance. As in the Cavatina, these throbbing tied notes project emptiness, absence, chronic pain.

Later in the movement, after a rousing fugue promises release from the pain of an arioso dolente (the first sad song), the Bebung instruction returns in the aria’s reprise. This shortness of breath makes this second aria profoundly sadder than the first. The second aria concludes weakly, thinned out and spent from its exertions. Out of its expressive depths, another strangely stalled figure, another roadblock, appears. From the void rings out a string of ten unchanging, syncopated chords. The mysterious gesture relates back to the earlier Bebung figure not only in its syncopated quality but also in the muted character resulting from the una corda marking, which calls for the soft pedal to be depressed, causing the piano’s hammers to strike only one of the three strings given to each note. These chords, too, are meant to grow in intensity, and indeed in volume, but, crucially, only within the constrained atmosphere of the una corda sound.

After ten iterations, the solid chord breaks up into an arpeggio, the single notes eventually introducing a new fugue, an upside-down version of the first. This second fugue, once it finds its way right side up, brings us to the sonata’s grand conclusion. Such an overall scheme cannot help but suggest the triumph of reason–upside-down fugues set upright, distant key areas finding their way back to the home key, somber melodies giving way to determined counterpoint. By the movement’s end, amid such waves, the suffering figure is long forgotten, our view of it obscured by the blinding light of hard-won achievement.

But the trembling figures haunt me. Their presence lingers. If Hume was right and reason is the slave of the passions, I need to preserve them emotionally in the moment of, and beyond, the work’s final triumphant chord. These unified, closed-off forms of the eighteenth century, however–these mock totalities–beget violence. Adorno, in his Aesthetic Theory, is characteristically extreme on this subject: “without rejection there is no form,” and “the purer the form… the more cruel.” Susan Sontag, writing about war photography in Regarding the Pain of Others, expresses it neatly from another angle: “To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” How can I keep my performances from conveying such self-absorption and exclusion? Does the value of Beethoven’s deformed figures lie only in their overcoming?

The Piano Sonata in A Major, op. 101,
was my first late-Beethoven crush. Perhaps it was the influence of another attraction, to an older graduate student (I was an undergraduate), who, not quite understanding the depths of my inadequacies, encouraged me, “You can totally play that piece,” when I totally knew that I could not. I was flattered, and smitten: with that other person for a short time, with the sonata for life. Indeed, there is something extraordinarily personal in this work, something unmistakably loving, some ardent expression at its core. Underneath its gorgeous surface–its weird, radiant beauty, its humor and pain–is a depth of human affection that captured me from the start. Like no other work, opus 101 looks at me and invites me to look back. It is, I believe, Beethoven’s most other-directed piece.

One essential aspect of the sonata that does not get proper attention from scholars and other commentators is its preponderance of imitation. The sonata is stuffed to its edges with musical statements that copy one another verbatim. The middle section (the trio) of the second movement takes the form of a strict, two-part canon. The outer sections that surround the trio are thickly scored, with multi-voiced chords and jerky rhythms; the stripping down of the texture to two identical, hummable lines turns our attention with razor focus to their relationship, which renders them, magically, the same and different at the same time. Even more demonstrably, the middle section (the development) of the last movement takes the form of a full-blown four-part fugue, the summit of contrapuntal writing. Entire thematic sections in each movement are created by the back-and-forth volleying of short motives. Once we are sensitized to it, the encyclopedic display begins to feel almost like an inside joke, Beethoven once again taking special pains to make a point. Who is copying whom so intently, and why?

Many works by Beethoven bear the mark of their dedicatee, but none as profoundly and as viscerally as opus 101. Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, a pupil of Beethoven’s and a close friend, was by all accounts an unusual pianist with a flair for the dramatic and an idiosyncratic approach toward phrasing. Her personality comes through immediately in the opening page of the sonata in a figure that becomes one of the first movement’s primary motives. Three melodic eighth notes in the right hand are slurred together, indicating a connection, a short legato line. But underneath that slur is another that connects only the first two notes, followed by a staccato marking above the third. Together, these markings pose a conundrum: Do we connect the three notes or the two? They also, therefore, offer an opportunity for a special kind of expression. This is the kind of musical gesture that a performer can really get lost in, spend time experimenting with, honing, cultivating a touch. The performer’s investigation of this rarified articulation is what makes the interpretation his or her own. Ertmann herself must have relished this score, found such happiness in the process of putting her mark on it. Imagine being so thoughtfully, indeed tenderly, composed into a work of art.

Near the end of the dreamy first movement, which possesses the quality of a lullaby, the busy texture is stripped down to the bare essentials–alternating tonic and dominant chords (home and away, awake and asleep) on the offbeats, silence on the strong beats. Syncopation in music is an absence where there should be a presence. The music encourages a nap. The first time we encounter this soothing cadential figure, at the end of the sonata’s exposition, the music comes to a comfortable rest. The next time, at the end of the recapitulation, it goes horribly awry. The harmony slips off course, risks falling out of the key. The syncopation remains, no longer a gentle rocking but a frightening jostling. A rise in volume accompanies the increasing harmonic intensity. These painful chords last for only a moment. That they are temporary is crucial–they constitute, in this movement’s river of good feeling, an isolated, jagged stab of pain, a body in distress. Why such a violent non sequitur in this field of joy?

A decade before Beethoven composed this sonata for Ertmann, when she was his pupil, she had experienced the death of her two-year-old son. Nearly catatonic and unable to weep, she anxiously awaited a visit from her mentor and friend, with whom she had formed a strong emotional bond. Having waited days without relief, Ertmann finally sent her husband to find the composer, whose poor social skills often kept him at a distance from others. Arriving after considerable delay, Beethoven went straight to the piano, without uttering a word, and played for her for over an hour. By the time he finished, she had been released from her agony and had cried her first tears, which “brought her comfort.” Ertmann herself recounted this story, years later, to the young Felix Mendelssohn, who paid her a visit while he was traveling in Italy and wrote home to his family in detail about their conversation. In their past together, Dorothea von Ertmann and Beethoven had managed trauma with music. Ertmann never forgot that gift. In opus 101, we bear witness to it.

The stab of pain in the first movement’s coda is overcome; the tonic of A major is restored and the music resumes its tender quality. But when the second movement begins, we cannot help but sense that its emotional affect has lingered. This movement is cast as a march, but with its relentless dotted rhythm it possesses an unusually frenzied energy and a bit of a limp. There is something not quite right with it. This sharp rhythmic profile is matched by a pointed sourness in the harmony, the result of a descending chromatic line that undergirds the sequence of chords. This line (created by walking down every note, white and black, on the keyboard) has since the Renaissance been a marker of musical laments. What might have been child’s play is tinged with a sense of danger, foreboding. The descending figure also undergirds the tender opening melody of the lullaby-inspired first movement. We understand its deeper significance when it reappears in the opening of the second.

Of all its idiosyncratic features, opus 101 is perhaps best known for a passage that occurs at the end of the despairing third movement, which is not really a complete movement at all, but a fragment, as if a full-blown slow movement would be too much to bear. As the music reaches a point of agonizing tension, created again by a descending chromatic line, it retreats from the pain, taking solace in a simple arpeggio, a rolled chord. Out of this gesture–an air-clearing, musical magic wand–emerges the first phrase of the sonata’s opening movement, stated as we heard it there, in its original key and register. It is a musical memory: yet another form of imitation. The second and third phrases of the first movement follow, but only after palpable pauses. The only thing new about this remembered music is the addition of silence, a sense of absence that radically changes its emotional profile. What rolled confidently off the tongue at the sonata’s beginning is now stalled, stilted, tenuous. The silence in between phrases casts a mysterious spotlight on the music. It registers as a moment of lingering trauma, a time for the body to breathe, to process past experience. As in so many of Beethoven’s works, the dramatic climax takes the form of something remembered.

What follows, the sonata’s exuberant finale, is a festival of imitation, a tapestry of weaving and overlapping lines. Barely a note in the entire movement, from its initial dropping third, remains unechoed. It is a musical game of “peek-a-boo,” or “Marco Polo.” At its center, taking up the whole development section, lies a massive fugue, quintessential emblem of Beethoven’s late style and most prized form of contrapuntal writing. One characteristic figure, heard many times throughout the movement in slightly different guises, features a scalar pattern of running sixteenth notes that, beginning in a single voice, quickly proliferates and piles up on itself. The running figures, once they have had their fun, scatter into a sweetly differentiated passage in which the sixteenth notes serve as background accompaniment to a soaring melodic line in the treble. On my score, inspired by thoughts of parent and child, I have written above this passage, “chase, catch, embrace.”

Children learn by imitating. Smiles, like yawns and waves of the hand, are contagious. Opus 101, Beethoven’s ode to mimicry, appeals to the inner child as well as to the loving parent. Whatever the composer may have intended with this exaggerated proliferation of imitative textures, the sonata exudes a special energy unlike any other, a youthful verve, a life force to combat death. Roland Barthes, in an essential essay on the piano music of Robert Schumann, writes that “in music, the referent is the body.” Unlike the language system of words, there is no specific concept or idea, no ideal type to which any given musical sound ultimately refers. Instead, Barthes suggests, the language of music speaks only of nerves and muscles, flesh and bones, propulsion and stillness. Opus 101, Beethoven’s most Schumannesque work, inspires this same insight. Sprinting, marching, cradling, slouching in despair, leaping up in newfound strength, the sonata is a catalogue of life’s movements as reflected in another body. Crucially, it promises that no body is ever alone.

Beethoven’s writing of Dorothea von Ertmann
into opus 101 is an extreme case. But in general he seems to have taken great pleasure in conjuring others in sound, giving shape to their rapport. Dedications offer insight into the character of the works and the nature of his relationships. I hear a child lovingly depicted in the opening of the Piano Sonata in E Major, op. 109, with its sweet, music-box textures and bright, kaleidoscopic colors. One of the third-movement variations returns to this refracted texture, bringing the themes of the two outer movements together, revealing their kinship. The sonata is dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, daughter of Antonie, most likely the recipient of Beethoven’s famed “immortal beloved” letter. Maximiliane, fourteen years old when the sonata was composed, had once as a younger girl thrown a pitcher of water onto Beethoven’s head while he was playing. The notorious curmudgeon nonetheless referred to her affectionately as his “little friend.”

The lofty but no less heartfelt opus 111 is dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s noble patron, student, and adored friend. In another of the many works dedicated to Rudolf, the piano sonata opus 81a (Les Adieux), the excessively ebullient figures of the finale are intended to convey Beethoven’s future happiness–his pounding, bursting heart–at the absent archduke’s return to Vienna after the city’s bombardment by Napoleon’s army. These gestures are physical signs of the deep satisfaction the composer drew from friendship. Opus 110 bears, remarkably, no dedication. Apparently, Beethoven had intended it to be for Antonie Brentano. A miscommunication in the publishing process, however, led to the dedication being left off the printed score, and Beethoven never remedied the mistake. Instead, tantalizingly, what remains on the score in his handwriting is a date: 25 December 1821. Christmas Day.

Wilfrid Mellers, in his 1983 study Beethoven and the Voice of God, is unequivocal on the matter: the finale of opus 110 is a wordless Passion. Its unacknowledged dedicatee is Jesus Christ. Mellers discerns the presence of a Christ-Hero in every musical detail: the hyper-physical, double-dotted rhythm of the opening gesture; the tension-filled voice leading; the mere indication “recitativo,” which “alchemizes the accents of the human voice into pianistic terms.” He notes the similarity between the opening melody of opus 110’s aria and the alto aria Es is vollbrach (It is finished) from Bach’s St. John Passion. (A Passion-expert colleague of mine pointed out a relation between the recitative in general and the Evangelist’s account, in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, of darkness falling over the land upon Christ’s death. Both of these moments are associated with Christ’s final words.) The abject human form is in full view. In the recitative’s bleak, unaccompanied cadence, with its falling line, Mellers hears the “drooping of head, arms and hands.” Pushing his interpretation even farther, he suggests that “perhaps God becomes humanly incarnate” in the shift from “una corda” to “tre corde” during the repeated A’s of the Bebung figure.

Opus 110 is not the only work in which Beethoven may have alluded, through the mysterious veil of instrumental music, to Christ’s Passion. David Levy hears the narrative evoked in Beethoven’s opus 130 string quartet, particularly the Cavatina and the Grosse Fuge, the quartet’s original finale. Significantly, both movements prominently feature the tied-note Bebung figure. Citing antecedents from both opera seria and the sacred music of Bach and Handel, Levy associates these trembling tied notes with fear, suffering, and death. “In the Cavatina,” he writes, “Beethoven has taken us, metaphorically, from the glory on the Mount of Olives to the weeping and agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. The Grosse Fuge takes the listener further along an extraordinary spiritual journey–a journey that begins, like Christ’s arrest, crucifixion, death, and burial, in fear, sorrow, struggle, pain, and anguish.”

Beethoven worked on his last piano sonatas concurrently with the Missa Solemnis, an extraordinarily difficult work whose creation vexed him enormously. As with his opera Fidelio, another challenging assignment, the requirement of text in the Mass (as opposed to the unuttered words that inspired his motivic imagination) forced him to abandon the standard instrumental forms and create musico-dramatic coherence through other means. Working on the sonatas, experimental as they are, must have felt like a blessed relief. Both the Passion account and the Missa Solemnis influenced the construction of opus 110. The tied-note Bebung figure is heard in the Mass in the Crucifixus section of the Credo movement, in the double basses while the chorus intones the word passus (suffered), bringing Passion, Mass, and sonata all into alignment. The relation becomes most evident in the final fugue of the Mass, in the Agnus Dei movement, on the words “dona nobis pacem,” whose subject bears a striking resemblance to that of the sonata’s fugue. Significantly, this motive can be traced also to Handel, who used it for the words “and he shall reign for ever and ever” in the Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus. (It appears again, a century and a half later, as the motivic foundation of Mahler’s First Symphony, where the presence of Christ, and of the composer-hero, is again unmistakable.) With all these markings of the sacred, opus 110 might easily be interpreted as a musical series of stained-glass windows, Beethoven’s pianistic Stations of the Cross.

Whose body do we witness suffering in the recitative of opus 110? Need it be Christ’s, the Christ-Hero’s? Is it Beethoven’s, my own, a friend’s? While I was swayed for a time by the Passion interpretation, today I am more inclined, inspired by Daniel Chua, to think of it as no one’s body, no one’s pain. The absolute other whom we are invited to glimpse in Beethoven’s late works is not Christ, but Christ “incognito.” The suffering figures of late Beethoven are emblems of absence, of the negative limit of selfhood, of the refusal of value, power, ego. Inspired by the theologian and phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion, Chua explains that “anonymity is the prerequisite for the non-identical to survive”; “nothing is the minimal condition for humanity.” After establishing in his early work a revolutionary new understanding of musical something-ness, Beethoven turned later to the question of nothingness, not nihilistically or even pessimistically, as Adorno’s analysis of the late style would have it, but tenderly and with profound openness. This music, if we listen, reveals to us the path to love.

Hands move in many directions,
seeking truth in the space that surrounds. Children learning to translate printed musical notes into physical gestures at the piano move their fingers up and down, pressing and releasing keys one at a time, the mechanical motion of typing keyboards and telephones, simpler forms of communication. Later the aspiring pianist is shown that the hands are best guided in their movement at the piano by the arms, that the big muscles are responsible for much of the work; a closed hand position, never stretched out, is always the most relaxed. The tone produced with a supple hand is the most resonant and beautiful. Natural and confident, it speaks a higher truth.

There is one movement of the hand whose proper execution has eluded me as a pianist longer than any other, to my frustration and sometimes my shame. It is the movement in which the downward-moving hand, encountering the bottom of the keyboard, first through the fingertips and then through the wrist, relieves itself of the burden of holding up the arm. It is the release, the instant of letting go, of trusting the support of another body. It is the moment when I am no longer playing the piano but listening. No longer working, pressing, pressuring, but receiving support, then lifting off, upward, unencumbered, free.

My college piano teacher, noticing the deficiency, sent me out of my lessons with an assignment to be completed away from the piano. At the table in the dining hall, at the desk in the library, on the top of my leg while sitting on the subway, I was to practice allowing these surfaces to bear the weight of my arm through a firm but relaxed finger and supportive hand. Let the arm drop, let the finger hit the surface and, reaching the bottom, yield to this foundation, maintaining a firm hand position. Then lift and fall again into a new place. Learn to let something else–the table, the earth, the piano, your own or another body–hold you up. A hero in the making, I had no idea what he was talking about. The exercise did not yield the intended result. For many years, I continued to play with tension. Bearing weight was to be my forte; my method, powering through. With so much to be done, I had no concept for coming undone.

I laughed during these same years at self-help, quickly pounced on the mere mention of self-care. “Support groups!” I would scoff, to the delight of some friends and the horror of others. I realize now that my piano playing, adequate as it has been, has reflected this attitude. I’ve always moved a good deal at the piano, danced, contorted my body, believing that these movements, this effort, would somehow force the sounds I wanted out of the piano. To an extent they have. But there is more to be gotten out of the instrument through the application of less force, through the seeking, receiving, and trusting of support from something external from myself. I recently witnessed an astonishing live performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana that revealed to me how far I still have to go in recognizing and acting upon such trust. Sitting completely still at the keyboard, all external motion channeled into the most refined motion of only the wrists and elbows, she produced miraculous levels of nuance in her tone. I will never play like that, but I know it is the right way. It serves as a reference point for my own striving toward those aspects of music making that elude me, those infinite unknowns of sound-truth.

This correspondence between my pianistic and emotional selves reminds me that music is an ethical pursuit. It involves responsibility. Beethoven’s music–meticulously plotted, exceptionally visceral, extraordinarily embodied–speaks of human relations. For a time, in assessing my responsibilities as a professional and seeking higher ethical ground, I was tempted by the appeal of empathy. The physical quality of Beethoven’s music directed me toward other bodies. At the piano, I regarded myself the source of a river of feeling. But in laying claim to the emotional space of another, empathy extends the dominion of the self. Edith Stein, a student of Edmund Husserl and an important phenomenologist in her own right, best described this slipperiness of Einfühlung, the German “feeling into” from which the English word empathy was derived: add a single letter, and it becomes Einsfühlung, “feeling as one.” Such claims to overarching unity are problematic, potentially dangerous. Empathy might function as a sinister means of control: I create the other in my own image. The importance of my music making, if it is to remain meaningful, lies not in empathy but in love. Not in fusion with something I can grasp but in trust of the unknown.

Nicole Krauss, in her novel Forest Dark, writes, “In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still-yet unfinishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation.” As I change, and as currents in contemporary social and political life shift, so must Beethoven’s stars. I am the teacher now, the one responsible for constructing narratives about this music that young people will bring with them into their lives–musical, social, ethical. I must be careful not to limit opus 111 to the Kantian sublime, opus 110 to the Christian Passion, as popular as such ideas may be with students and audiences (for they give us something concrete to grasp). I need to stress the possibility of other stories, other values, other orientations. In the classroom and the piano studio, I watch, sometimes with difficulty, my own students struggle to balance their own striving and their letting go, their heroism and their vulnerability. I aim to show them that this music relates to their struggle in ways that go beyond heroic, Enlightenment narratives.

Recently in a seminar on late Beethoven, my students and I hosted a guest, a high school senior who was visiting the college as a prospective student. We were discussing that day Chua’s long and difficult article “Beethoven’s Other Humanism,” a piece of writing that has been immensely important to me not only as a musician but as a human being in general. (And an article that poses big challenges even to professional music scholars.) My impressive students, experts at catching the wind of my enthusiasm, were really meeting me there, engaging, probing, struggling to make sense of it all. I wondered what our guest must have been thinking. He was silent for most of the hour, but near the end of the class, he raised his hand. When, surprised, I acknowledged him, he asked, “So, do you think Beethoven wrote his music in the second person?” Well, I thought, you have been paying attention! I found his idea a lovely way to capture what was at stake in this reading, in which Chua reframes Beethoven’s heroic image, his (liberal-)humanism, as other-directed. I use the phrase as the title of this essay in honor of that stranger who left us with a gift.

Learning the downward-upward motion at the piano has been for me the pursuit of a lifetime, so that I might make more beautiful sounds, might execute the Bebung figure in opus 110 with proper emotional depth. Learning how to yield control in my life away from the piano has been a more recent project, so that I might treat others with less force. The two go hand in hand: music provides me with a way into the world, as long as I don’t allow it to show me the way out. A friend of mine, an inspiring pianist and teacher and a lovely human who always has a knowing twinkle in his eye, once described this motion to me, this release of weight, as the touch of love. You have to trust that the piano will hold you up, he told me. You have to be open to love if you are to make music that is true to yourself and to others. Music, which grants me the right to exercise my pleasure and wield my power, also tells me that I am loved and am capable of love. I would like to open myself to the possibility of this touch, this trust, this release. I would like to be ready, finally, to get it right. Imagine the music we could make.

Mark Mazullo is a pianist, musicologist, and professor of music at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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