Something happened on the train yesterday on the way back from Heidelberg. After knitting for a while, I thought I might like some music, so I took out my iRiver and put on the good-old Bach concerto for oboe and violin. But I found after a short while I was actually in the mood for something else, maybe a Mozart flute concerto? I put on the one in D, but that didn’t do it for me either. I hadn’t heard any Beethoven for a while, and was thinking of introducing Lisa to Sonata form soon during one of our sessions, and so I put on the string quartet Opus 18 no. 6 in B-flat, as it has a very clear-cut sonata form. Unfortunately it’s also quite dull, so I began browsing through the rest of the Beethoven folder, and came across a piece I hadn’t heard in a long time – the piano trio Op. 70 no. 2 in E-flat major.
It’s quite a mature piece: the first three movements are rather serious and generally quite mellow. The first movement’s hesitant, pensive contrapuntal introduction gives way to a strident but elegant first theme, and the two movements that follow maintain a steady pace, both versions of a restrained allegretto. The first of this pair alternates in mood between the slightly coquettish opening theme in the major and a rather bombastic, menacing episode in the minor, with which the movement ultimately ends. The third movement is like an invitation to the dance, where a rippling alberti bass on the piano guides interlocking ribbons of melody from the other instruments along their way. But the last movement…
After the restraint and elegance of the first three movements, the last one breaks free in a way that is difficult to describe. It’s confidence and rapture and joy and dignity and excitement and pride and ecstasy all at once. Not a single dull moment – here it speeds past on rushing semiquavers, now reposing briefly with undulating glimpses of the minor mode, only to barge foward again on insistent, repeating chords, gathering momentum like a snowball or a runaway minecart. Yesterday in the train I was totally absorbed, and then I saw it coming: the repeat of the second theme in the recapitulation. I knew what was going to happen. After a build up of power scales on the piano and double-stops on the strings, the violin would soar high up onto the E-string, screaming with delight and passion, performing wide leaps, scales and double stops, eventually landing with full force (and the rest of the ensemble) on a high B-flat, which would ring out for what seems like an eternity, a cry echoed by the piano and cello. The harmony would then remain unresolved for another 6 bars or so, being stretched out to the absolute limit. When I heard all of this happen, I did the only thing I could.
Usually I don’t have emotional responses to music. I’m always hesitant to use the word emotion in connection with it, as I believe that music (or functional harmony anyway) is just an abstract formal system with rules and conventions, and only has meaning in terms of itself. I find it extremely fascinating and, in the hands of a first-rate composer, spellbindingly beautiful, but in the same way that I find an elegant proof of a mathematical formula beautiful, or the proportions of a fine piece of architecture. So yesterday, when I found myself completely overwhelmed, with physical sobbing and tears running down my face, I wondered what was going on.
If I had to explain it myself, I wouldn’t say that my response was emotional, as I couldn’t identify any particular emotion connected to my reaction. There was no story in my head, no associations of any kind. I could only say that I felt overwhelmed, swept away by Beethoven’s genius in delaying the resolution, suspending the climax. As Sondheim would say, it was ‘unbearable bliss’.
Beethoven must have been having a good day that day.