Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sonata Form as a Lifestyle


3AM. And now I have to write this essay. Ever since the Renaissance we musicians are leading quite rhapsodic lives. Rarely do we have regular daily routines. And why do I write “daily”? Most of our active social gatherings happen at night when we celebrate our successful concerts (as well as the unsuccessful ones of our colleagues) and those nocturnes are decidedly less lyrical than Chopin’s. We seldom live at the same place for long and, if we do, our career might turn into a funeral march. A rhapsode, in fact, is a traveling poet, an itinerant performer moving from town to town and “sewing” songs together. Rhapsodes we are, we always celebrate a new theme and we hardly remember the past.

Is this rhapsodic lifestyle an exceptional one? It may seem so to all those secretaries and office slaves who live Etude-like lives, practicing the same scales rigidly day in and out. These slaves never forget anything. And why? There is nothing to remember. Life is monothematic and a pretty dull tune to sing: Get out of bed in a hurry, don’t eat breakfast, join the traffic jam, rush into the office, turn on the computer, sleep, etc.

Rhapsodies or Etudes: An overly exciting life in which our ideas appear disorganized and are immediately forgotten. Or a boring nonexistence, mindless repetition of nonsense that never develops. Are there no tastier dishes on our menu? Can we not find a more poetic form in our repertoire of human lifestyles?

In music we have sonata form. But I sincerely doubt that anybody has been so foolish yet as to propagate sonata form as a lifestyle. Chances are that you will stop reading this essay altogether. Not because you fail to be charmed by foolishness but because “sonata form” is such an incredibly dry and meaningless term. Nevertheless, if you listen to a great masterpiece in sonata form, you may feel reborn. Can there be a poetic description of sonata form? Let me try to be a fool.

Quite a number of our movements in sonata form start with youthful √©lan. The character of our hero is exposed in the opening idea and, very often, this characteristic motive is repeated right away. So far this could be an Etude, but the repetition here feels more like an expression of exuberance, an excess of youthful energy. And this energy causes a digression very soon. Our hero feels bored at home and wants to leave, the rhythmic affect usually quickens and a so-called “bridge”, or transition, leads us to another theme, another key, another character. Quite often this second character expresses the opposite mood. If the first theme shows dramatic energy, the second one may expose the lyrical sentiment of our hero.

The exposition thus showed us differing character traits and could be compared to childhood and youth. Right away though we plunge into adulthood, a very rhapsodic section in which themes and moods are mixed up and we increasingly feel without any clear key or identity. The process of fragmentation continues leading us to a very hopeless moment. Our hero is lost in chaos.

Quite naturally this is the most interesting, the most challenging moment in the piece. How does our hero, or how does our composer, manage to get out of chaos? Interestingly there are no formulas or recipes and each piece follows a new original strategy. And I also feel that my grand metaphor—sonata form = life—breaks down at this point: Sonata forms always succeed in finding the recapitulation, lives, alas, rarely do. It is all a question of poetic memory. Our hero tries to reinvent his childhood by recollecting certain motives. The music stops descending into chaos and starts to reorganize itself. But the actual recapitulation usually comes in a flash, like a “deus ex machina”, a sudden grace from above which seems to have been provoked by the energy of reorganization, by the willpower of our search.

In more mature sonata forms of Beethoven this recapitulation is far from a literal repeat of the opening. It is not a computer or photographic document but a poetic memory. Wisdom of old age is thus the reinvention of our own childhood.