30 December 2021

It’s always the chromatic run in the 11th bar where the trouble begins, that evil string of notes that twist and tumble their way from the high Eb down to the A minor resolve to begin the theme of Beethoven’s Pathetique. Sure, the opening dramatic chords are a winner; they’re what drew me to the piece in the first place. The rush of the allegro in mid-movement is a wonderful bumping of thematic bits and pieces against each other. But the technical expertise of that run, complete with a sextuplet, septuplet, and 17-tuplet? Beyond me.

Failing it, I go back. Again. I position my fourth finger on the high Eb just as my 3rd grade self learned from Ms. Schnute, my piano teacher from the 1970s. The damp dusts of her cramped basement studio pass through me; I hear her voice calling down from the kitchen where she does dishes: “Septuple! Septuple! Four and three!”  Failing her even 40 years later, I try an alternative fingering that will help me measure out the right number of notes to each beat. It’s no use. Even when it occasionally tumbles into a semblance of music, it feels more like pure accident than style or success.

The opening is marked “Grave,” which means “serious.” I think this mirrors my attitude toward the passage. The work, straightforward enough in its opening section, is serious effort for me. I allow myself to take some small liberties with a metronomic pulse, but few. Beethoven ranted and wrestled with his music, but within a metered box. And inside, the dissonance of the chords, the tension they build, is difficult to anticipate, and a single wrong note spoils the direction of the piece–which all leads to that evil Bar 11. One Tuesday I spent two hours on the movement, most of it with the opening page.

The opening bars of the Pathetique.

I Go Back

​I go back. The dynamic contrasts from the pianissimo to the fortissimo through the passage are satisfying, as if two forces struggle in this call and answer: will the harsh bass-level chords dominate the gentle plaintive aspirations of the treble theme? The tension between the two finds its way into my fingers, curling them into balls of frustration. This past August, the piano tuner came and charged me $110 to adjust a piano that would never see a public performance. I paid it gladly.

There is a stain on the top of that second page where the evil Bar 11 lies. Coffee?  Maybe. What once was a crease in the lower right hand corner from frantic page turns has now become a Scotch tape mended crumple. How many years has this Pathetique lived on my piano?

I go back and attempt the run again. A history of cats’ lives sneak by, each sensing the trouble. Upon the floor and on a nearby chair are littered other works. .It’s possible, when I moved to this home in 1995, bringing my Kawai piano with me, that Beethoven has never left the music stand. Occasionally obscured by other more brief forays into jazz classics (Phil Woods, Theolonious Monk, Vince Guraldi), a few New Age ballads (Will Ackerman, Chip Davis, from the 80s and 90s), and some more recent hybrid works (Glass and Sakamoto), the Sonata Pathetique remained for me to work upon, its worn and soiled corners the mark of its endurance.

“Am I drawn to something I know cannot succeed? Or is it that there is personal value in the doing of any feat?”

Back Further

I first met it in early college when Jake (whose last name I cannot now recall but who was also a music performance major) struggled to master it. While I was bopping along with light jazz works 80% of which were variations of “MacArthur Park”), Jake pounded away at Ludwig like a coal miner with a pickaxe. His early-80s beard and moustache seemed to make him an artist. Jake was better than me, I knew then, but his performance of the Pathetique was wrong somehow. He hacked away at it, kicked at it, poured his post-pubescent anger atop it. He looked up from his piano frequently to see if anyone was hearing him. I thought–I think–I can do better.

I press on to the B section of the first movement, but not three minutes later, I go back. Jake WithNoLastName never knew that I quietly began working on the Pathetique behind his back. I worked in solitude with it, a kind of betrayal. This was his work, after all, and he had been at it for years when I met him. Even today, I suspect it possesses him. It must live on his piano as mine does, demanding our efforts, our futile and sad struggles to make it sing back to us.  I began our relationship with it in 1982.

Of the 2.6 million views, probably 145,200 are mine.

Art Beyond Mastery

My, how 35 years moves by! A long series of weekend afternoons with a Coke precariously balanced near my stand light; fall evenings annoying my neighbors with an endless repetition of false scales and runs; winter assaults of Beethoven; my piano moved with me from Northville to Ypsilanti to Sterling Heights, and from Warren to Waterford. Surely by now it had imagined a better life for itself than the amateur at its keys, wearing away its finish one sweaty pore at a time! If Jake was a coal pick, my own efforts felt like a faulty glue gun.

Again, back. I’ve wondered, from time to time, what purpose there may be in such exertions with accidentals, repetitions of rhythms. Since I no longer played for audiences, of what value were my efforts? I certainly did not ever feel relaxed after the Pathetique. Malcolm Gladwell has written of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any field, and I do believe I’ve hit that with the Beethoven alone. But no expert here. Never.

But I’ve never lost my love or dedication to the piece. Not the overwrought or cliched Moonlight, this. Not the nearly forgotten and to my mind forgettable Appassionata. This is Beethoven demanding the music be levered from the page, dragged from the piano. This is the cross-handed turns of the unexpected Eb minor section, the frantic and simultaneously tragic darkness beneath its beats. It is the somber pause and contradictory cantabile of the second movement, one Mozart would later steal for his own. Even Beethoven’s friends admitted that he could not himself master the finer moments of his own work. It is the Pathetique: it encompasses emotion; and that, perhaps, is its irony.

Idea and Ideal

The scale descends again beneath my less-and-less-agile fingers. In many ways, my success with the piece recedes with each year. There will be no legacy of this, my playing of the sonata. There will be no monetary or social rewards. No one in my lifetime will likely ever know if I succeeded or failed. Until this writing, it was a solitary endeavor. Having written this, my efforts will not relent.

Am I drawn to something I know cannot succeed? Or is it that there is personal value in the doing of any feat?

No, not just any. Ashrita Furman holds the most Guinness World Records for feats from balancing on a Swiss ball to walking a mile using shovels as stilts. And he does it for the dubious “acclaim.”  No, my work is not his–he seeks notoriety, and I am simultaneously convinced that my Beethoven (already mastered by many) is more valuable than his pogo-sticking nonsense.

If the value of my piano work is merely personal, what difference that I attack this sonata rather than a pogo stick or a poker chip? If I make music or license plate “art”? Or is it the articulation of this classical art which speaks to me (and us) in more powerful ways than riding a bicycle underwater or hitting Level 30 on Words With Friends? Is it measured, then, as an effort to match the articulation of an idea and ideal?

Likely no one will ever hear me play the Pathetique. But I go back. . . .


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