Conversations in Music

Beth Levin

[October 2005.]

The lights come up as the music, Bach’s Coffee Cantata, fades.

Host: I’m sitting here today with two of the 19th century’s musical giants, Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann. Welcome, Gentlemen.

Beethoven: I’m pleased to be here.

Schumann: My pleasure is unbounded!

Host: Gentlemen, we like to mix things up on our show, get the juices flowing, perhaps ignite a controversy or two. It is in that vein that I ask you in all bluntness what each of you thinks of the other’s music, specifically your Op. 109 Sonata, Herr Beethoven, and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13.

A long death-like pause.

Schumann: I was a mere teenager mourning the death of my father when the Op. 109 was published. To be honest, I didn’t notice your music at first. I was more influenced by Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Brahms, about all of whom I wrote prolifically in my Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Beethoven: Gesundheit!

Schumann: I’m sorry, my attention was wandering. If you meant to say “Hindsight,” I must admit that the Opus 109 and your last three sonatas leapt into the Romantic idiom, opening pathways for the music of my generation.

Beethoven: Why thank you, Robert. Frankly I don’t care much about popular opinion or what my peers think. I was in a world of my own creation by 1820. As you know, my deafness set me apart from things, from people, leaving me to the purity of my inner ear. The Opus 109 emerged as a synthesis of all I had done before.

Schumann: That’s just it. I searched for sonata form and was frustrated. “What’s he up to,” I thought. “Has he left classical form and all reason behind?”

Beethoven: Do be fair. I’ve been given — posthumously of course — a copy of your Symphonic Etudes and find similarities in our compositional technique. Look how you suddenly jump from mood to mood, without preparation! Look at the physical nature of your rhythmic writing — one minute a horse’s gallop, the next, a moonlit lake. And I’m as indebted to Bach as you’ll ever be! The third movement of the Opus 109 practically steals its spiritual nature from the Goldberg Variations. I don’t think you can honestly say that you approached that realm with your Symphonic Etudes.

Schumann (a sour look): Well, yes, I admired Chopin’s etudes and strove to imbue my variations with that kind of virtuosity. Also, I am intensely interested in the character piece. You know that my love of poetry has inspired all that I have written for the piano.

Beethoven: Ah, the etude! If you had been carted around Europe as a child prodigy, I daresay the etude would have long ago lost its appeal. It’s true. Your characters come through on the page like sprites from the Commedia dell’Arte. I, too, have been influenced by literature, Schindler, for one, but have been more abstract in the way I portrayed emotion. I shy away from story-telling despite the fact that others can’t seem to resist applying fanciful descriptions and titles to their work.

Schumann: I was warned about your waspish nature!

Beethoven: And I was warned that you might have one foot in the loony bin!

Host: Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Please!

Schumann: I will say that Herr Beethoven does exhibit endless ingenuity in the variation movement of his 109 and an “otherworldly” feel that leaves the audience in a haunted state. My own Opus 13 invokes the here-and-now. I choose to end the work in a triumphant way, sending the audience off with a positive world-view.

Beethoven: Remember, Robert, I was a master when you were still learning your key signatures. I was also a child of the French Revolution. It affected everything I created. My legacy extended and reshaped classical form, broke old rules, excited and incited. You, Robert, mon cher, were more the reactionary, always harking back to Mozart’s sparest lines, even as your harmonic language was opening new, Romantic visions. By the way, whatever prompted you to stretch out your fingers and ruin a perfectly respectable career as a pianist?

Schumann: Must we review old wounds? Have I mentioned one word about your “Dearly Beloved” scandal?

Beethoven: My publisher warned me against appearing in such a plebeian forum….

Schumann: Clara told me I’d be sorry I agreed to this….

Host: Gentlemen, I’m sorry to say we’re out of time. Let us close our discussion in a harmony befitting your exalted place in music’s pantheon. Tune in next week when Debussy and Ravel discuss their recent visit to Giverny.

The music, Bach’s Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring, rises.


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