Monday, January 7, 2008

Swimming in B flat major

Performing Beethoven's Piano Trio no. 7 in B flat major op. 97 at the Dame Myra Hess memorial concert series in Chicago with violinist Ilya Kaler and cellist Amit Peled, November 2007.

Coming out of a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio in B flat op. 97 nicknamed 'Archduke', one of the audience members approached me and said: "Oh, how beautiful the opening theme is". Although this was presumably a very innocent remark, it propelled me into contemplating - is beautiful the word that best describes this theme? Can I find somewhat more accurate words to characterize the opening of this gigantic work? What is it that makes this opening theme sound ethereal yet luminous, soft-spoken yet all-embracing?

There was this "need" to dig deep into the understanding of keys and their repercussions.

Thinking about B flat major, I decided to bring up into this fictional conversation other pieces written in the same key. The result suggested that all seemed to share a common trait - they are certainly among the most divine master-pieces written by these composers. I was looking at Mozart's Piano concerto K. 595; Schubert's Piano sonata D. 960; and Brahms' Piano concerto no. 2. Interestingly Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and also Beethoven, all visited the key of B flat major earlier in their life in other compositions, yet these four works mentioned are all central in these composers' output, and for one reason or another, all of them end a series or cycle - the 'Archduke' Trio is Beethoven's last in this genre; Mozart's K 595 is his last Piano concerto; Schubert's D. 960 is his last Piano sonata; and Brahms wrote two piano concerti, the B flat one being the second of the two, written quite late in his life.

I begin to sing the opening of these pieces and more questions arise - is B flat major the key that connects between the real and the unreal? Is it the key/color that unites heaven and earth, intimacy and luminosity, youthful joy and sober maturity?

Bringing another piece into the mix - Bach's delightful Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother in B flat major. The implication of the word "beloved" was best illustrated in the key of B flat. Let us add then "LOVE" to the list of words associated with our current discussion.

Playing through the first two movements of the Trio we have reached the slow, third movement written in that unrelated key of D major. In Bach's time "D major" represented the key of "Glory". If there are words to describe the hymn-like melody of the third movement then I would say "Religious beauty". This divine slow movement - a theme and four variations, full of seamless rhythmic complexity - culminates in a long sustained Coda, where time is "suspended". This dimension in which music exists comes to an almost stand-still as the piano provides solely an inner-pulse on top of which the strings hover / float, reaching the melodic pinnacle of the movement (perhaps of the entire piece?), which is also the melodic cell of the movement, its DNA from which the whole movement is constructed. The movement quiets down to its end. The prayer ends.

We finish the performance of the Trio. It is our first collaboration and thus our first performance of this great masterpiece together. On the flight back, I experience the need to share some after-thoughts feeling I have been swimming in an ocean created by the key of B flat major, with a brief visit to the island of D major.

Another audience member asked me: "why did I mention in my liner notes that in the course of the first movement Beethoven moves from B flat major to the remote key of G major? Why remote? What is remote?" This will have to wait for another blog - one about keys and their siblings... But for now - when great music stirs such a dialogue, a certain ideal is being fulfilled. Let's keep asking those questions, and maybe we will be able to find some answers.

Alon Goldstein