Perhaps I have mentioned this before, but among what I consider to be Universal Musical Experiences is the obsession. The obsession can be a single piece, often a short one, or perhaps a popular song, that simply takes over your very being. I remember several from my student and early professional years: Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Brahms’s songs “Sonntag” and “Von Ewiger Liebe,” the F Major Pastorale Sonata of Domenico Scarlatti (“Allegrissimo”). You listen to them so much that you don’t need to listen any more; they are in your head, and you can play them over and over. For a larger-scale work, it is life changing: once you are intimately familiar with something like Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of 1610, part of you will forever be in Wonderland; there is no way to walk back through the door to where everything is gray and sepia and people don’t really smile. You know better, now; you know the Vespers. Bliss!
My most recent book appeared in October, and it was devoted primarily to one work: Chopin’s Ballade No. 2. Of course, it has been an obsession of mine for a long time (and also of certain others in the Chopin community), but really any of the four Ballades will be that way; they are all that extraordinary. Bach’s Chaconne for violin is another such utterly transformative piece: to venture inside that one is to be, in key ways, mended. One of the things I really appreciated about Maria Thöne’s work (I’ve probably mentioned this, too) is that, right or wrong, she put forth a really extraordinary explanation for that extraordinary piece—that is was really a tombeau for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, that it quoted lots of chorales (clearer to some than to others), etc. Even if she’s wrong, I give her points for aiming long: the Chaconne is, if I’m not mistaken, longer than all the movements of the D Minor Partita combined. Surely that requires a better explanation than, well, the Chaconne was an optional dance of the time, and including one would not have been impossible, so…no more explanation needed, right?
This all is by way of preamble. At the recent AMS meeting in Philadelphia, I bought a book I’d been hoping for, then waiting for, for two decades: a sort of life’s-work book by Owen Jander titled Beethoven’s “Orpheus” Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context. I read it every evening, almost finishing it before the meeting was over. Now, Beethoven Four is out-of-this-world extraordinary, and not just because of the solo piano opening. Donald Francis Tovey simply said, to close his analysis of the work, “The music dies away in the upper ether, which it has never left,” and there is truth to it: this work is probably the biggest pianists’ obsession in the entire concerto repertoire. It feels ethereal, otherworldly, holy, wholly different from mere piano concertos. Why?
Jander’s idea, developed in a series of articles (I only read the first couple and wasn’t aware that more followed), is that the concerto is Beethoven’s fairly literal take on the Orpheus myth, especially alive in the culture of the time via opera and other vehicles. The Orpheus character, for obvious reasons, captivated readers and opera composers alike—a musician of gifts so supreme that nature herself looked on in wonder, a musician so in love that he journeyed to the Underworld to win back his beloved Eurydice from Death, and succeeded (until he disobeyed instructions and looked at her), and who subsequently denied his love to other womankind and was torn to shreds for it. There are a variety of historical indications that Beethoven saw himself (musically at least) as an Orpheus figure, and Jander goes into very deep context to demonstrate how the concerto can be heard to reflect the Orphic legend. He addresses various kinds of symbolism operative at the time (iconographic and musical), he goes into a variety of arcane aspects of Beethoven’s biography (such as the composer’s attachment to a particular biographical portrait, rife with personal symbolism, of his grandfather), and provides a very close reading of the concerto’s three movements which, triptych-fashion, he holds to depict three different episodes from Orpheus’s life: Orpheus charming nature with the beauty of this music, Orpheus taming the Furies and winning Eurydice back from Erebus, and the aloof Orpheus being torn apart by the resentful Bacchantes.
The book does not wholly convince me, I have to admit—Jander waited just slightly too long to put it together and is now, apparently, not in good health, which means that certain tasks were finished by others. For a start, the proof-reading is pretty shabby: a dropped line here, a random word or punctuation mark there. I always liked Jander’s work on the second movement, but some of the readings of the third movement seem forced to me, particularly given the homoerotic subtext Jander feels it necessary to posit and stress. I also tend to be unconvinced by “what could this be but a depiction of” kinds of arguments when the primary reason is that that is what should happen next in his program rather than a compelling musical reason. In at least one case, Jander draws a variety of conclusions from a cloak slipping off his grandfather’s shoulder in his portrait…but to my eye the cloak does not seem to be going anywhere. And so on.
For me, however, it is unquestionable that Beethoven’s Fourth is one of those works which require an extraordinary explanation. Unexceptional explanations—“Well, he wanted to write another concerto, OK? There are some formal anomalies but other aspects that are true to concerto form, so…what more do you want? Mozart K. 271 has a piano at the very opening of the first tutti, so now Beethoven is going him one better. Next week, Berlioz, and remember to study for the midterm!”—simply do not answer the call. So I am not convinced by every last point, but I am very sympathetic to Jander’s ideas (some very much so), and above all I appreciate that he wrote the book more or less honoring what was clearly a life-long obsession with a superb, utterly bewitching musical work. Nothing conventional about his discussion of the work; it’s all way out there, and if he overshoots sometimes I will gladly float him the difference. What to me is the bold step is that he ventured something risky and provocative to explain (to rise to the level of explaining, really) a unique musical work and virtually universally recognized sui generis masterpiece.
Hats off, even though I’m not with him on his whole journey! I would love to see more such studies of individual pieces. Musical works are written one at a time, after all, not as generic groups, ripe for generic oversimplifications. This is one of the most magical of musical works—I say that without an iota of exaggeration—and I’m grateful to see a treatment this risky.