I remember going through a really tough time in my life a few years back…I mean a good ten months of crying and trouble sleeping and eating. All throughout that time, I listened to Beethoven op. 59-2’s slow movement. I didn’t understand until I took my Beethoven Quartets seminar last year why I was so drawn to this piece and I actually thought that it was morbid and weak to keep listening to a slow movement that was not the happiest. But what I mistook for indulgence, was actually subconscious recognition of the healing this music was doing in me.
You see, what I went through at the time, was the hardest thing I had been through. It was to me, traumatic. Just as traumatic as, let’s say, the first movement of op. 59-2. The whole movement is a struggle between e minor and F major. It starts with open fifth chords, sounding almost like a call to arms. Silence. The statement in e minor. Silence. The same statement in F Major. Stalemate. And then the movement takes off in small unnatural lurches and just when some fluidity in motion is reached, the open fifths again. Silence. I remember my professor Susan McClary relating this movement’s key hostility to graph vs. host. Yeah…it was an awesome class.
e minor wins in the end….but that is not the point. By the end of the movement, you’ve been jerked around both keys so frequently and abruptly you have been traumatized. And then immediately following this e minor ending, the slow second movement in the reverse, E Major, rushing in to reverse the damage. But this E Major…has been wounded by the first movement. Each instrument enters individually in isolation, almost groping blindly for each other. The way the notes move, even visually is up, down, up down, up down. And the chords are doing the same- every other chord wants to collapse into minor…but it keeps reaching up instead, correcting itself. As McClary said…”All the wounds of the 1st movement are laid bare and being healed here.” At this point in the class, I was moved because I recognized myself in the music and it was because the music…the composer, had recognized humanity. As you keep listening, you realize what a precarious movement this is….the voices all tiptoeing around each other, halfsteps muttering and getting us into trouble because there it is! The call to arms from the 1st movement! But instead of a struggle, the slow theme slowly seeps in, ameliorating the alarm, though damage has been done…the rhythmic gesture comes back crippled.
This is great music to me. It isn’t an outpouring of joy and beauty like other movements and pieces are, but it is honest. In my time of sadness, I needed this- something that, like me, had been affected by 1st movement trauma, but kept striving not to collapse into minor. In this way, Beethoven was one of my greatest friends during this time because he wasn’t telling me things were going to be okay, but he was showing me that I am not alone in being affected by something that has happened to me and that I can choose to keep reaching up for the next chord. It is amazing to me that someone who did not listen to me, but rather, whom I listened to hours on end, helped me heal.
So thanks for that. Great talk, Beethoven. Thanks for knowing I would need that 2nd movement after the 1st…