Yesterday afternoon Emanuel Ax coached four students of the Community Music Center over the course of a master class lasting about 50 minutes. Two of the students were pre-college (eighth grade and eleventh grade); and the other two were adult amateurs. This was far from a “standard” master class; but Ax always seemed to find the right channel for communicating with each of the students. He also did not overload any of them with more details than seemed reasonable. Rather, he tried to distill his impressions down to a single take-away significant enough to have a lasting impression.
For those on audience side, the most memorable impression came with the final student, who had prepared the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s first published piano sonata, the F minor sonata that is the first of the three published as Opus 2 and dedicated to Joseph Haydn. Ax took a brief excursion to talk about the structure of the movement as a harbinger of things to come. He emphasized that, while there are tendencies to think about structures in terms of the balancing of equally-sized components, there was an unevenness to the lengths of Beethoven’s phrases. Instead of keeping the phrases symmetrically balanced, over the course of an episode, Beethoven would progressively shorten them, creating an impression of increasing excitement or nervous energy.
This is a rhetorical device that can be traced across the full corpus of Beethoven’s work (or, at least, his published work) and then reaches into the subsequent unfolding of music history. Think of some of the metric rigidity of the many strophic poems that Franz Schubert set, and then think about the fluidity of both meter and phrase length in the music that carries those words. Think, for that matter, of the many uneven (if not jagged) phrase structures of Thelonious Monk, many of which may have emerged from his improvisations around “standards” and then found their way into his original compositions.
For all the praise that is lavished on balance and symmetry, we have to remember that symmetry implies duplication. In the performance of music, duplication tends to imply repetition. Repetition, in turn, is ultimately boring, another point that Ax left as a take-away for one of his students. If music is to engage the mind of the listener, it cannot lull that mind into going into an “autopilot” state. Yesterday, Ax reminded us all of how skillful Beethoven could be in avoiding that danger, thereby encouraging a mindset that would serve the experience of listening to just about any composer in the current concert repertoire.