“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” – Alphonse de Lamartine“
The wonders of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are not always apparent to the teenage learner. For one thing most of them are beyond the learners technical abilities, particularly is they were me! Like many before me I concentrated on the two “easier” Opus 49 sonatas. They were drummed into me so well that I can still give a passable performance of the first movement of Opus 49 Number 1 that I actually performed in my Associated Board Grade Five exam. Then there were those frustrating sonatas that lured me in with opening movements that looked to be within my abilities only to dash my hopes with later movements that I could not even begin to tackle. But I had a go anyway and these (mostly early) pieces were the extent of my knowledge.
I was in my mid 30s when I attended a recital in my local church, the programme for which included the Opus 110 in A Flat. The performer had written programme notes in which he commented that Beethoven’s later sonata open doors.
And they do. I think particularly of the final movement of the Opus 110 where Beethoven sets up a wonderful Arioso Dolente in opposition to a fugue with which it alternates before coming to a glorious resolution. And then I discovered the most wonderful sonata of them all, Opus 111 in C minor, 2 movements of deceptive simplicity, and the second one goes through a range of moods, a range of themes, even a section of syncopation that is quite startling when you first hear it (was this really written in 1822?) before ascending to a finale of ethereal semiquavers that I can never listen to without feeling a tingle in my spine. And then it fades away to a quiet, totally undramatic ending. We have moved beyond language, we have moved beyond music. Alfred Brendel described this movement as “the prelude to silence” and that is an apt description.
There is actually one other piece that I always think of as a prelude to silence and that is Neptune in Holst’s Planets Suite, particularly the ending as silence is introduced by an eerie choir of wordless female voices. Neptune is the final planet in the solar system (Pluto, discovered in 1930, several years after Holst has composed the suite, has in recent years been downgraded from planet status) and beyond it lies an unfathomable vastness, beyond language, beyond music too.
There are simply things for which words are not sufficient. Music can take us further in expression, in feeling, but even music must eventually yield to the great silence in which our existence is grounded. And often it is in silence that I feel most closely connected to those I love, to the things I cherish. It is in silence that I open my heart, in silence that I love.
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