Courtney Lewis of the Jacksonville Symphony says a Beethoven piano sonata may be the pick-me-up we all could use right about now.
I’m sure I speak for many of you when I say it’s been a long time since I had this much time on my hands. The effect of the coronavirus on the performing arts has been devastating. At the Jacksonville Symphony, we are terribly disappointed by the cancellation of the SHIFT Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at which we would have been performing this week. Like many orchestras around the world, we have canceled our concerts through the beginning of May.
It’s a strange thing being a conductor with no concerts. More than an instrumentalist or a singer, you feel far away from the normal life of making music:; practicing isn’t really something you can do like a cellist or a clarinetist. But conductors do a lot of our work away from the concert hall ⎯ most of it, in fact ⎯ and through the joint miracles of Spotify and IMSLP (a website that contains free PDFs of sheet music), I’ve been studying lots of music I don’t know well, thinking, and coming up with concert ideas for future seasons.
This December, Beethoven turns 250. Many orchestras based their seasons around him this year, and we were no different. I hope we can still perform his Ninth Symphony in June. If I had to listen to only one composer for the rest of my life, it would be Beethoven, due to the enormous variety and richness of his music. With that in mind, I’ve set the symphony scores aside, and instead have been playing through the piano sonatas. Beethoven wrote 32 of these across the entire span of his life. As a pianist, the piano sonata was the most comfortable genre for Beethoven, so he often used the sonatas to try out new ideas before using them in other works. The sonata became a compositional laboratory.
Of all 32, the penultimate piano sonata, opus 110 in A-flat major, is my favorite. Written in 1821, this is 20 minutes of the most profound music we have. The first movement is brimming with romantic expression (“Moderately, in a singing style with great expressivity.”). The scherzo is furious and angry, while the slow movement is Beethoven’s loneliest. It contains a recitative: a device stolen from opera. Recitative moves the operatic action along with dramatic words. But a piano can only pretend to sing words. Beethoven would later use this technique with orchestra to astonishing effect in the Ninth Symphony. In the piano sonata, the wordless recitative sounds desolate. What happens next is incredible. Beethoven answers this lonely wordless recitative with a fugue. The fugue is noble and life-affirming, lifting us out of despair. We feel like we’ve found hope. But the loneliness returns, even more intensely than at first. Another fugue appears, using the same little theme as the first one, but turned upside down. Despair is vanquished, for good. Faith and diligence ⎯ represented by the fugue ⎯ have lifted us out of despair. The sonata ends with a kind of spiritual ecstasy, rooted in faith in humanity.
Music is unique in its ability to lift our spirits, change our minds and restore our faith in the world. With so much time on our hands, let me recommend that you listen to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat major, op. 110. It’s 20 minutes that might change your day, your week, even your month.
By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony