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Observing Beethoven’s Democracy and Femininity
in Opus 18, no 6 and Grosse Fuge, Opus 133
AIC/Avalon String Quartet: Radical Form
In her lecture presented at AIC on September 22, 2011, art historian Anne Higonnet notes that following the French Revolution, women in France enjoyed unprecedented freedom, no longer constrained by societal norms that bound them as the tightly as the bodice of the aristocratic gowns once had. For a time, a little more than a decade, they were free to practice the arts as their male counterparts and free to roam the streets of Paris in thin gowns as the one depicted in the fashionable paintings of the time, including LeBrun’s 1789 Self Portrait with Daughter and Marie-Denise Villers’ 1801 Young Woman Drawing. In an imitation of the Greek wet drapery look, a style revived from classical Greek art to celebrate of the newly adopted Democratic ideals developed by ancient Greek law-giver Salon, French women, Higonnet reports, free even of any constraining undergarments, enjoyed the liberty of romping through Paris wearing gauze-like gowns that hid little, revealing much.
It is within this period of renewed Democracy that Beethoven wrote a number of his compositions. In 1793, for example, he first began penning his familiar Ode to Joy, which sets Schiller’s poem to music, celebrating “Hope on the deathbeds” as well as “Mercy from the final judge” echoing the optimism of France’s fight for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Through the lyrics, Schiller and Beethoven both look toward figurative resurrection from oppression, imbuing the dream of renewed life, “Also the dead shall live” following the fight against aristocratic rule. In 1801, as Beethoven was working on his 18th Opus and the women of France were still leading the steps toward increased freedom under the Napoleonic Regime, Beethoven had already began noting his hearing loss. Yet the tone of his Opus remains optimistic, and you can hear the echoes of playful dance of Parisian women in the balance between the high-pitched, joyous feminine voice of the first violin as it builds the motif against the backdrop of the lower, masculine undertones of the chamber orchestra’s 2nd violin, viola and cello.
In her introduction to the March 18, 2012 performance by the Avalon String Quartet at AIC Fullerton Hall, Beethoven’s Opus is described as “dissonant, revolutionary…yet joyous, celebratory” in its “defiance,” music that foreshadows the work of Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Throughout the introduction to the piece, the speaker’s shadow mirrors her movements. She is illuminated from above and to the right, and the images or Picasso, Matisse and Braque that she briefly discusses take center stage on the large screen that seems out of place in Fullerton’s Beaux-Arts décor. The balance between modern and historical is poorly managed, and her “P’s” pop loudly, indicating her sound technician is either negligent or inept. A simple adjustment on the technician’s part would correct the popping “p’s.”
My neck is sore, and I flex my muscles as she continues her short lecture delineating how the abstract painters borrowed the echoes of Beethoven’s dissonant, revolutionary style. A few years ago, I had been given stronger glasses prescription. Now, because I have recently discovered my older prescription used for my contacts allows me to finally focus clearly as I shoot, I have been wearing those instead. With my contacts in, reading is impossible, and note-taking has become difficult since I cannot clearly see what I write on the page in my less than neat scrawl. My stiff neck is a result of holding my head at a different angle to try to replicate the clearer vision I have with my more powerful lenses, the ones that don’t allow me to clearly calibrate my camera’s focus. One of my arts, photography, has benefitted from the shift, but my other passions, reading and writing, are compromised.
The screen rises with only the musicians as the primary focus, a shift in style from the last concert series I enjoyed in 2009. Then, they broadcasted shifting images of the artist’s work the scholars were comparing as the musicians performed. I prefer this style of presentation better because it allows me to focus more thoroughly on the performance.
The 2nd violin, played by Mathias Tacke, the viola and the cello set the tone of the first piece initially: solemn, somber, masculine and dictatorial: the tone echoes the masculine voice of the patriarchal aristocratic rule against which the French citizens had recently fought. The 1st violin’s airy, playful notes intermittently deviate from those of the lower-toned instruments, reminiscent of the playful, frivolous steps Higonnet had described in her analysis of Villers’ painting. The part is executed by Jasmine Lin, and the notes of her violin as they dance joyously independent through the Allegro con brio, are freed from the deeper voices of the masculine viola and cello. The feminine voice speaks unresolved harmonies, a contraposto aria that leads to yet another excursion into the secret realms of the wily, allusive feminine violin. She dips about, sometimes echoing the lead of the cello, enticing him to join her. In the movement, following a pregnant pause, the cello follows; she now controls the motif, the one she had earlier established in contradiction to the original predominate, masculine voice of the 2nd violin, viola and cello. The 2nd violin, representing the figurative conservative female bound by the aristocratic ideals of male dominance and exploitation, now imitates the motif transmitted by the light, dancing steps of the first violin, harmonizing, contrasting, complimenting her free movement of light steps across Beethoven’s musical composition.
The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, begins dark and savage, reminiscent of the unsettling sounds associated with the gypsies, exoticized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on canvas, in literature and in music. The cello, now having fallen under the spell of the enticing 1st violin in the former movement is reminiscent of wild nights of unrestrained passion. As she steps, they follow, but the piece is fraught with dissonance, and throughout this dissonance, she often allows them to lead, yet quickly brightens their pace again, sprinkling their somber dissonance with playful and joyful steps that she had once taken alone at the outset of the first movement. The somber tones reflect the constant threat of return to aristocratic rule, a fear that is later fulfilled historically when Napoleon crowns himself Emperor.
Beethoven’s biography melds with history in this movement as well; perhaps the darker tones mirror an acknowledgement of fear as he faces the impending threat of his own hearing loss.
Toward the end of the Adagio, the voice of the 1st violin drags, allowing the masculine tones to crescendo, her steps hesitant, tenuous, yet still sprinkled with buoyancy.
The third movement of Beethoven’s Opus, the Scherzo Allegro, begins with contraposing strokes of the bows; while the 1st violinist plays a series of notes with the down stroke of the bow, the second violinist plays with an upward stroke, creating a syncopated yet harmonious rhythm, a motif echoed by the cello and viola. Determined lightness carries the movement now; she dances, but her steps are less playful, and their now unified dance comes to an abrupt, shocking ending.
I pause from these, my later reflections of the concert I attended earlier in the day to watch the setting sun on the lake. The colors always remind me of a Monet canvas, the painter who Renoir called the Rembrandt of water. I reflect on the vigorous, defiant strokes that flicker across his later canvases as he began losing his eyesight. Pink, yellow, orange, purple and teal ripples spread across the harbor. My fingers fly over the keyboard as I watch my surroundings, longing to take in as much beauty as possible, fearing the eventual fading of colors and light. Curious gawkers walk past at the strange figure sitting on the furthermost ledge of the lakeshore concrete, the one who types yet only looks out at the water rather than at the screen. I glance at my screen only to watch for the reflections of their shadows as they pass by, slowing, sometimes taking pictures, sometimes pointing. The screen reflects the full, budding trees of spring, the blue of they sky, the orange ball of the setting sun, the one I no longer can watch the moment it slips beyond the horizon because of the imposing towers of glass, steel and concrete that block the moment day ends. My iTunes play the piece I heard this afternoon over and over again so I can record the observations I may have missed at the concert. Over my shoulder, the sun dips beyond the lowest tower, and only the lighthouse on the harbor echoes the final light of the setting sun, far outside the reach of the shadows created by the cityscape. Gulls dart, dash, fly, tinted by the light, illuminated by the setting sun as the waves darken across the harbor. Time to pack up the computer and return to my warm apartment… One passing thought, not much different than the sun’s last embrace of the lighthouse. Less “literary?” Poetry, beauty, and an art school that discourages me from using my voice, the one that allows me to capture the last few fleeting spots of light on a darkening horizon. Irony at its best.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”
I place my computer in my bag and watch the setting sun paint the water, listening still to my iTunes which have moved from Beethoven to Dvorak, music written during the next period of Revolution in France as the Louis-Philippe regime is overthrown, a time of artistic revolution as well which will bring the world yet another style, Impressionism. Dvorak. Music from the first lectures I attended at AIC in 2009, echoes of a different story, a different time.
Revolution: from the root, “to revolve.” It is an ongoing process, much like Democracy, which also must constantly evolve to remain “of the people.”
“Critical, Meaningful, Transformative.” A program built upon revolution with social justice and Democracy as its ideals. What happens, though, in the midst and mist of their activism, if a voice longs to speak of beauty, a concept which modern activists are taught to shun? “Whose beauty,” they demand, too busy protesting and acting to find value in the beauty of a setting sun. Is it any individual’s right to dictate what is “correct” style for anyone else? Isn’t that the idea of Democracy, that every voice may be heard? Too often activists are caught up in their anger to enjoy the dance of a gull, or often overlook the feminine figures strolling scantily clad through the streets of Paris.
The title speaks much: La Malinconia: Adagio—Allegretto quasi Allegro. The forth movement opens slowly, with the feminine voice of the 1st violin following the motif she had established during the opening movement. Now, the cello and viola dance across the composition, and her voice trails sadly along behind, struggling to keep apace. The strength of their lower, resonant tones give the piece momentum, yet is constrained only occasionally, breaking from the somber tone she now carries into the piece. The cello slows, waiting as she momentarily breaks free, intermittently attempting to resume the lively notes she once introduced to the Opus. In her weakest moments, the cello picks up the former motif, echoing the dance steps that she had once carried alone. All voices are less playful, and the joy she once expressed gives way to melancholia as the work draws to a close.
Beethoven described his Grosse Fuge, or Great Fugue, Opus 133, as “sometimes free, sometimes strict.” It is constrained by conventions, breaking free of them upon occasion, resulting in what one critic has described as a piece in which the individual notes from the page should not be able to combine, but do so beautifully when heard altogether.
By the time the Opus was composed in 1825, all of Europe had lost hope in the vision that had once been a fight for freedom: the call for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” had grown faint when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and its echoes were silenced entirely when he was defeated following his rebellion from exile. Democracy was dead, and the aristocracy had been restored, some argued, because democratic ideals were ineffectual. Power, as Plato observed, does, indeed, corrupt. A revolutionary movement soon becomes dictatorial, telling one style that it hasn’t the right voice, the right rhythm, the right cadence, the right symbolism, the right causes, to exist. The revolutionary force always, like Napoleon, longs to crown itself emperor of all, making a mockery of the Democracy that once led the battle cry or danced the joyous dance of freedom.
Beethoven had moved forward with what was to be called his Ninth Symphony, at last featuring “Ode” as the culminating piece. The symphony was performed in 1824, and the familiar strains of the “Ode,” those optimistic higher, or feminine notes that most everyone recognizes, are really only the petite motif, the secondary theme of the overall composition. By this point, even his signature piece was darkly unpredictable, yet echoes still of hope, but merely as a secondary theme. Yet this optimistic petite motif is the one the audience best remembers.
AIC Fullerton Hall
Photo by RJ Molyneux-Davis, February 2012
The lights raise, and the gentleman next to me hastily exits the auditorium, while the couple next to me engage in conversation. “You can get interesting details with that,” he says, pointing to the camera. I had been shooting before the concert, making the people around me uncomfortable, a typical response when people see my long lens.
“Yes, but I prefer not to shoot people unless they are in a truly public sphere, out on the streets,” I respond. “Instead, I am shooting the architectural elements.” I explained that while I would have normally attended the concert anyway, I was here to fulfill an assignment as a student at the Institute and would use the photos for an essay. They note what I often do with deepest sadness; “There aren’t many students in attendance.” No, there rarely are any more than a handful. Although Fullerton Auditorium is nearly full to capacity, the majority of the attendees are retired.
“Will we see your piece in the Tribune,” he asks? I laugh ironically as he adds, “They need a new art critic.” I know breaking into the media here would be a difficult task, and I prefer shooting art rather than news.
I pick up my bag to follow the lead of the gentleman beside me, and the lights grow dim. Someone in the row behind explains, “The brochure notes there will be no intermission.”
“Damn,” I cringe to myself. Normally I would have noted that in the brochure, but because I was wearing my contacts in order to shoot, I couldn’t read a damn thing. The constant struggle I have as my eyesight fades — the balance between seeing some things but not others.
Those who had rushed out to use the facilities slip hastily into their seats while the musicians take theirs. As a confirmation, perhaps, to my analysis of the first violin playing the part of the female voice, for the Gross Fuge, the first and second violinists have switched roles. Mathias Tacke now assumes the position of 1st violin, and Jasmine Lin fills the 2nd chair.
The first violin or the 133rd Opus written in 1825 takes the initial hesitant steps with forceful angles and purposeful determination. Though the notes retain the upper register typically carried by that role (hence remaining by default “feminine”), the strokes are bold, heavy, ponderous. Gone are the light, airy, playful interludes. They have disappeared from Beethoven’s Opus entirely, in the same way that the scantily clad Parisian women have disappeared from the streets of Paris. The streets, once filled with even wealthy housewives clad in the free-flowing garments, would within less than three decades following the fall of the Napoleonic Regime be lined with 13 percent of the cities population making a living as prostitutes, a problem so pivotal in Paris that Alexandere Parent-Duchâtelet began an extensive study of prostitution in 1829. The regulations controlling their behavior resulted in Parent’s proposal that the prostitute be required to wear distinct clothing to aid in the Restoration’s policing of their bodies, thereby allowing women and children to be protected from exposure to their corrupting influence. Freedom and liberty for the females in Paris had indeed died, and the ponderous, heavy strokes of Beethoven’s first violin reflect the loss of joy expressed in its lilting voice in the Opus composed during the heady height of the Revolution.
When a musician wishes to play quick, light notes on a stringed instrument, the tip of the bow is used, while the more urgent, full sound is achieved with the lower part of the bow near the grip. If the notes are to be distinctly separate, light, airy, and quick, the bow flies up and down with a quick progression of strokes. The upward stroke produces a lilting sound, and the down stroke, because of the increased leverage, is the heavier, more emphasized note, not much different, if you will, than accented and unaccented syllables of human speech. The upper stroke is the equivalent to the unaccented syllable; the downward stroke produces the accent or emphasized sound. It is perhaps for this reason that the violin is most often believed to imitate the sound of a human female voice. This particular up-down stroke of the violin most closely imitates human speech patterns, something no other instrument is able to achieve. The tip produces playful tones, while the lower part of the bow yields more passionate, full-bodied tones. Notes which are indistinct, sometimes written as slurred, occur in quick succession as the bow moves from tip to grip in a single motion, resulting in what may be compared to an emphatic statement that rolls quickly in a single breath during human conversation with the long downward strokes imitating a statement and the long upward strokes ending with a slight lilt as though a question has been posed or the speaker is hesitant of the verity of which it speaks.
The light dance steps of the 1st violin throughout Beethoven’s earlier Opus 18 are, of course, played with the tip of the bow with quick, successive up and down strokes. A quarter of a century later, Beethoven’s composition calls for more full strokes. The dance of the feminine 1st violin has become a dialogue, an argument that echoes the plight of the Parisian women. What had once been the light, airy strains spoken with quick light strokes at the tip of the bow are now played with full down strokes that end near the grip; dark, ponderous, mature strains demanding to be heard. The cello, once hesitantly echoing the lilting steps of the violin as she danced through the composition, now serves to remind her that she once had joyful freedom of artistic expression, playing the light, quick strokes she had introduced twenty-five years earlier. The lower masculine tones of the cello seemingly call out to her, encouraging her to remember her youthful vitality. She pauses now, hesitant, abandoning the masculine voices to produce her own melancholic, sorrowful lament. The viola, like the cello, calls to her with quick, insistent strokes, but she lingers, and her full downward bow strokes are heavy with vibrato, reflecting at times a shaking hesitancy or passionate, trembling strain. The strokes are purposeful, reflecting her rage and sorrow.
By the time Beethoven composed this Opus he was quite deaf. Do the ponderous, heavy strokes of the violin reflect his sense of loss? Did he write these strokes to express his deep longing to be able to hear her plaintive wails? Following Roland Barthes’ theories introducing the notion of the death of the artist, critics often no longer bother to speculate, though Beethoven’s notebooks and journals may yet reveal answers to these types of questions. As biographical readings, close readings, historical readings fall out of style, so do these unanswered questions.
Like most of the members the audience who have joined me for a Sunday afternoon concert in a poorly equipped yet eternally beautiful hall, the music itself is nearly dead, though it still plainly speaks of the roles of femininity, its potential power to alter discourse, and its struggle for freedom from oppression. The challenges of Democracy are there, contained within an older, less popular musical genre, but the younger generation, trained by post-modernists to reject anything older than what was produced five minutes ago, quick to ignore beauty in their constant struggle for Social Justice, refuse to listen though the feminine voice, once playfully light and teasingly tempting, now issuing its warning against corruptive forces of inequality that always threaten her existence, goes unheeded.
At what point do the Revolutionaries become like Napoleon, crown themselves Emperor, and claim the spoils of the war as their own, donning the robes once worn by fallen empires? And how quickly will it take for the single voice, the brave one who is willing to express what only true philosophers of Democracy dare say, “But the Emperor wears no clothes!” to cry out, an anonymous voice in the crowd?