Theme and Variations

Every night before bed I read 'for fun'.

Recently I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. I bought this book several years ago in part on a recommendation from a friend, and also because John Leonard from The New York Times wrote; 

"The Book of Laughter and Forgetting calls itself a novel, although it is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography. It can call itself whatever it wants to, because the whole is genius."

Part Musicology? What? I know the younger me thought this must therefore be required reading, as I am in fact, a musician. 

The book is really beautiful. All of what Leonard writes is accurate. Kundera is a master of poetic prose even in translation. He is unabashedly in love (perhaps lust is more appropriate) with sexuality and the feminine as a theme. The political scenery is captivating and many of his characters elicit empathy from the reader in unexpected ways.

This isn't really intended to be a book review. I just really wanted to share my favorite passage and geek out about music.

It took a while to get to the 'musicology' of the novel but here is the passage I love the most...


~apologies for the blurry corners and unfocused, off center photos!~


This is so beautiful. So eloquent. So poetic.

...that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved...and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities. 

I'm positive that there will never be a time in my life where I can write a passage that spectacular or intimate. How true! Yet how tragic!

As a musician, I kind of roll my eyes at Theme and Variation movements. I don't know why - maybe because they often seem like a pedagogical exercise. (yeah yeah I get it....there's the theme again). 

I love Kundera's comment about concentration and how Beethoven goes down the sixteen measure theme as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth. What is Kundera implying here? Is the internal voyage within ourselves? to the core of the earth? Of life? Is it the same? 

The thought 'I have to listen on Op.111 again! It has clearly been too long!' occurred to me.

I definitely did the scholarly thing and looked up the piano sonata on Wikipedia AND Youtube. What follows is the Wikipedia entry on the second movement. I have highlighted the passages in bold that seem to accompany Kundera's writing eerily well. I also checked the citations on Wikipedia and they are mostly dependable, and not too suspicious.

 (p.s. this excerpt from the book is speaking specifically about the second movement).

II: Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

The final movement, in C major, is a set of 8 variations on a 16-bar theme, with a brief modulating interlude and final coda. The last two are famous for introducing small notes which constantly divide the bar in 27 beats (as heard, albeit not as written), which is very uncommon. Beethoven eventually introduces a trill which gives the impression of a further acceleration. The tempo marking may be translated "slowly, very simple and songlike."

Beethoven’s markings indicate that he wished variations 2-4 to be played to the same basic pulse as the theme, first variation and subsequent sections (that is, each of the three intra-bar groupings move at the same speed regardless of time signature; Beethoven uses the direction "L'istesso tempo" at each change of time signature). The incorrect time signatures (6/16 for 18/32 and 12/32 for 36/64) support this. However, in performance, the theme and first variation sound much slower, with wide spaces between the chords, and the second variation (and much more so, the third variation) faster, because of the shorter note values that create a doubling (and re-doubling) of the effective compound time groupings. The third variation has a powerful, stomping, dance-like character with falling 32-part notes, and with heavy syncopation. Mitsuko Uchida has remarked that this variation, to a modern ear, has a striking resemblance to cheerful boogie-woogie, and the closeness of it to jazz and ragtime, which were still eighty years into the future at the time, has often been pointed out. Jeremy Denk, for example, describes the second movement using terms like "proto-jazz" and "boogie-woogie".

The work is one of the most famous compositions of the composer's "late period" and is widely performed and recorded. The pianist Robert Taub has called it "a work of unmatched drama and transcendence ... the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish." John Lill sees Beethoven's struggle that permeates the first movement as physically challenging pianists performing this work; even in the opening of the sonata, for instance, there is a downward leap of a 7th in the left hand – Beethoven is making his pianists physically struggle to reach the notes. Alfred Brendel commented of the second movement that "what is to be expressed here is distilled experience" and "perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand".

Asked by Anton Schindler why the work has only two movements (this was unusual for a classical sonata but not unique among Beethoven's works for piano), the composer is said to have replied "I didn't have the time to write a third movement." However, according to Robert Greenberg, this may have just as easily been the composer's prickly personality shining through, since the balance between the two movements is such that it obviates the need for a third. Jeremy Denk points out that Beethoven "whittles away everything down to the absolute difference of the two movements", "an Allegro and an Adagio, two opposed poles", and suggests that "as with the greatest Beethoven pieces, the structure itself becomes a message".

I love Maria João Pires' interpretation of this movement. 

I have now listened to several versions and find that her performance of the second movement takes me on the most tremendous voyage. Her pacing is compelling. The way she plays the theme just breaks my heart with a sort of loaded simplicity.

You are on a voyage of the intimate and indescribable with her. That to me is performance.