I have had a strange experience with a piece of music.
Surfing YouTube a couple of evenings back, I stumbled onto Beethoven’s Op. 106, the so-called “Hammerklavier” sonata. The pianist was Wilhelm Kempff.
That brought back a lot of memories. When our family acquired its first record-player in 1957, an Opus 106 LP from Kempff’s 1954-7 set was one of my first purchases.
Well, it’s true that my first love was Bach; the Hammerklavier LP had been preceded by Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and Rosalyn Tureck’s WTC II, and a few other things.
But the slow movement of the Hammerklavier began to do things for me that no other music – not even from my beloved Bach – had ever approached. I was in high school, omnivorously literate, a piano student stoned on Bach, in agonies of ignorance and pain over emotional states and intellectual vistas that my reading had provided no names for.
The adagio spoke to that solitude. It spoke to my spiritual discomfort, my loneliness, to the diffidence and uncertainty that attended my every social undertaking, the endless failures in friendship. Of course, I had read the man’s life, and his own travails, the Heiligenstadt Testament, the deafness; I had read, and wept at, the story of his premier of the ninth symphony. And so I identified myself in that music.
That continued for many years through high school and college.
As time passed though, the angst and the pain of my adolescence subsided. I cooled, like slow Hawaiian lava.
And so did my connection to Beethoven and the Hammerklavier. There was folk music to discover, and the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Dylan, all the modalities of popular culture. I could always depend on friends to tell me about the new music I needed to hear: the guy who introduced me to acid in 1966 brought an LP of Ravi Shankar to accompany our trip; I got hooked on the music but not the acid.
And always my collection of Bach recordings, and scholarly books, grew larger and larger. In the 90’s I undertook to create synthesized performances of the Bach keyboard and organ works.
And that gets us to two nights ago, hearing the Beethoven slow movement for the first time in thirty, maybe forty years.
It was a devastating experience. A rare experience.
You know the bit where you reread a book, or see a movie that once affected you deeply, and find it disappointing? It’s uncommon, upon returning to a work of art you once loved, to find it even better, greater, deeper, richer, than you remembered; but that’s what happened to me with the Beethoven.
Yes, that’s uncommon; but it’s not, in and of itself, strange.
What’s strange with this adagio: since my re-encounter, it has suffused, ennobled, and dignified every kind of music – Joplin, Shankar, assorted Bach fugues, Creedence Clearwater, Billy Joel, childhood hymns – that has crossed my mind. I experience all of these, now, as though they were episodes in the continuing saga of the Hammerklavier.
I don’t quite know what to make of this. I hardly know how to describe it with any clarity. Stay tuned.
Helluva way to begin a new year, right?