Time and Space from Beethoven to 1913

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(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)

In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time —  a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.

The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.

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The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.

It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:

What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?

Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?

Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime. 

Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor (op. 111). In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.

If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?

The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?

Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing. What does it mean?

And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.

Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?

Variations on a Theme

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(Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann.)

Robert Schumann, no. 4 of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), op. 99.

In 1853, his wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann, wrote a set of variations on this piece.

The following year, Schumann was confined to the insane asylum at Endenich. Clara, who gave birth to their seventh child that May, was forbidden to visit him, as his doctors believed it would worsen his condition. Brahms, who moved in with Clara and her children, wrote his own variations on the same theme from Bunte Blätter to console her, and as a tribute to the man they both loved.

Music professor Robert Greenberg muses:

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy . . . 

Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

How are the Clara Schumann and Brahms variations different? In what ways are they faithful to the original theme by Robert Schumann, and in what ways do they differ from it? Do you believe that the variations enlarge, expand, and (perhaps) even improve upon the original theme by Robert Schumann? How so?

 

Is Absolute Music Possible?

Or does music always have an invisible program?

Consider Johannes Brahms, the ostensible champion of absolute music.

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Brahms as an old man, the way he’s most often pictured.

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Brahms in 1853, the year he met the Schumanns. The night of their first meeting, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” Soon afterwards, he would write an essay in the journal he had founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, called “New Paths,” in which he predicted that the young Brahms would chart the path for German music.

I thought . . .  there should and must suddenly appear one that were called to give voice to the highest expression of the times in an ideal way, one who would bring us mastery not in gradual developments, but rather, like Minerva, should spring fully armored from the forehead of Zeus. And he is come, a young blood, over whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms, came from Hamburg, creating there in dark tranquility . . .  He bore, as well in his outward appearance, every sign that would announce to us: this is a chosen one. . . . His comrades greet him upon his first journey through the world, where wounds perhaps await him, but also laurels and palms; we welcome a strong champion in him.

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Brahms as a teenager.

When he was 13, he was sent by his cash-needy father to the bawdy houses by the waterfront, where he entertained the rough element with gypsy songs, quadrilles, and sailor’s ballads.[Biographer Jan] Swafford places great stress on this experience (which lasted less than a year), arguing that it accounted for “shadows” on Brahms’s consciousness and his complicated relations with women. He writes, in one of his typical psychoanalytic flights, “As with the poetry [books that the young Brahms propped up on the music desk of]  the whorehouse piano, [Brahms] needed to create refuges in his mind. So he withdrew into a hall of mirrors where he could refract his identity.”Swafford also dwells — obsessively, lasciviously — on Brahms’s looks, his “sheer attractiveness.” Over and over, he describes him as “a slight, girlish boy, . . . . fair and pretty as a girl,” with “maidenly features, . . . . forget-me-not eyes,” and “long blond hair” framing a face that was “girlishly pretty — virginal and innocent.” He suggests, with no basis whatever, that men in the taverns may have taken liberties with him.
Did Brahms “compose” his life experiences? He often used triple and compound meters, which could perhaps be interpreted as a reference to his boyhood on the North Sea.
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When the most comprehensive biography of Brahms to date, by Jan Swafford, was published in 1997, it raised some controversy. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen took the author to task for suggesting that during his time playing in waterfront brothels, the young Brahms was sexually abused both by the “St. Pauli girls” and the sailors who frequented them.
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In my book I take Brahms at his word: he played in sleazy waterfront bars [in Hamburg] as a teenager, was sexually abused by prostitutes there, and the experience traumatized him. It was because of the depth of trauma he spoke of that I added a speculation:  . . .  perhaps Brahms was abused by sailors as well. Mr. Rosen and another critic have tacitly accused me of adding that detail for sensational effect. . . . [But] I . . . left it there for two reasons. First, there is the trauma Brahms spoke of, the “deep shadow on his mind.” This heartfelt statement is hard to understand if he were abused only by prostitutes, because Brahms frequented brothels from his teens on. Why would the ordinary activities of the places remain so terrible in his memory? (Brahms was, in fact, tough as nails.) Second, the bars were frequented by sailors fresh off the sea. What was to stop the worst of them from abusing a beautiful boy who was entirely at their mercy?
Rosen wrote back:
I will be very interested if Professor Swafford’s forthcoming article presents real evidence that little Brahms was molested by prostitutes. Even if the challenged opinion that the cafés he played in as a child were brothels is accepted, the rest is speculation. The secondhand evidence is that he said he “saw things and received impressions.” Any port city like Hamburg may present scenes that might shock a child. Swafford leaps from this to an assertion that what Brahms saw was things being done to him, the impressions received were prostitutes’ hands on his young private parts. This is how he takes Brahms at his word. He makes a further leap and assumes that being the object of sweet dalliance by prostitutes as a pubescent child will cause a man to be incapable later of a relationship with a respectable woman. Of course, this could be the result of having found the attentions of prostitutes rather agreeable so that the elderly Brahms preferred frequenting brothels to marriage, but this is not horrid enough for a modern biographer. We need a further speculative leap: How about sexual abuse by sailors?
Whatever the case, perhaps all of Brahms’s music is biographical — is actually, in a sense, program music. He said of his solo piano Intermezzi op. 117 (1892) that they were the “cradle-songs of my sorrows.”
What do you think?