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Missing the forest for the trees: interpreting the composer’s message

Several years ago, I decided to make the switch to drinking tea in place of other beverages. I treated myself to “top shelf” teas and stored them where the previously small collection had been housed—literally on the top shelf. Not being very tall, every time I wanted a cup of tea I had to climb on the kitchen counter to reach my new-found friends. I did this for a couple of years until I finally stepped back, looked at the overall situation instead of each tin of tea, and decided to simply move them down a shelf! It can be this way with music scores too. We can get so bogged down with mysterious notation that we miss the point of the score: the composer’s message. Obsession over details—why did the composer use newly available extra keys in one piece but not another? Why did the composer use particular articulation in this spot but fail to maintain consistency later? What does this notation mean?—can become the ends rather than the means to the ends.

For instance, in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, I, ms. 43, Beethoven clearly omits f-sharpᶟ, creating a different contour of line in the exposition compared to the recapitulation at ms. 170. This was a common practice when dealing with the five-octave fortepiano of the time. Yet, he had already used f-sharpᶟ in Op. 14, No. 1, and Czerny tells us that Beethoven’s piano at that time contained the notes. So why not use it in Op. 14, No. 2?

There are plausible “forest” explanations. From a practicality standpoint, Beethoven knew that what he wrote must sell—we oftentimes forget that even Beethoven struggled to make a living at his art! Only some of his writing employed notes (or other elements) that would not work on instruments available to the general public. So, although Beethoven was acutely aware of available instruments and their qualities (not just those he owned) and composed to the outer limits in terms of range, dynamics, and other capabilities, he also sometimes took a more conservative approach. Creatively, perhaps he was saving an ascending gesture for the recapitulation at ms. 170. Whether his choice was practicality or inspiration, we will never know. I would like to think it was a little of both.

Or, we can wrack our brains trying to understand why Mozart changed articulation ever so slightly during the retelling of the motive at mm. 37-38 to mm. 41-42 and later, in the recapitulation, at mm. 131-132 to mm. 135-136 in Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 309:

Mozart, Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 309, I, mm. 37-38.
Mozart, Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 309, I, mm. 41-42.

A “forest” explanation arises when we look through the eighteenth-century notational practice lens. Longer notes were not just longer, they had the capacity to be more expressive. Perhaps Mozart was leaving us a clear indication that on the repeat of the motive we must do something different with it: longer, louder, caress the second note, more…

Even more perplexing (so much so that it has resulted in several scholarly articles) is the mysterious rhythmic notation at ms. 5 in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110:

Beethoven, Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110, iii, ms. 5.

To the modern notation reader this measure makes no sense. What is up with tied notes that also contain a fingering change? Logistically, if Beethoven had meant an 8th note, he never would have taken the time to tediously write two 16th notes with a tie. The comical reminiscence of Seyfried trying to serve as page turner for Beethoven when many pages were almost blank save a few “Egyptian hieroglyphs… since, as was often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper,” makes it quite clear that time and efficiency of notation was of the essence. And, Beethoven simply wouldn’t have instructed a fingering change on a tied note. So, it must have meant something.

Historically, eighteenth-century notational practices were still developing, and this may have been as close as he could get. Notational practice of the day tells us that portato was as close to legato as one could get and that notes under a slur are a natural decrescendo:

Beethoven, Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110, iii, ms. 5.

Musically, Beethoven was known for his exquisite legato. This may have simply been the best way for Beethoven to relay the message to make the repeated notes as legato as possible but still articulated.

In On the Proper Performance of all Beethoven’s Works (1970), Carl Czerny (Beethoven’s student and protégé) provides a first-person detailed explanation for executing this most expressive figure:

“It is important that the second note of each tied pair be struck much more weakly than the first. Beethoven’s original fingering ‘caresses’ the second note almost by itself. If this instruction is disregarded, however, the passage will not sound like a vocal swell but like a piano tuner at work.”

So here we are, having examined a fair number of trees. If we are looking for consistency in the details, we will be sorely disappointed. The larger question, the forest question, is “What musical message is the composer describing and how can I convey it in my playing?” How can we use the trees to see the forest? Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn knew exactly what they were doing with the notational language and instruments available (the trees) and were inspired to use those tools to create beauty beyond imagining (the forest). With each piece I encounter, my role is to examine the score, study any pertinent information available, grapple with what I think the composer is telling me, and then ask myself how I may bring that message to light on my instrument. If I strive to do this, I believe I am pleasing the composer while creating my own art… my own forest.

Feature image: Forest by Steven Kamenar. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Michelle Monette

    I wonder why you don’t use living composers exemples?

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