Beethoven and the Tyranny of Perfection 

I play the opening movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 31 no. 3 with a lot of rubato.  The piece is marked allegro, and though the multiple ritardandos liberally sprinkled throughout are more dramatic when following the original tempo, the fluctuations in time that were written in the score gave me the idea to make more drastic adjustments.  I have listened to Alfred Bredel’s recording of this piece from the 1990’s nearly a hundred times, so when I tried to play the movement without adhering to the allegro push that I was so used to hearing, it felt a little odd…but it still made sense. 

The piece really works with a more relaxed tempo and seems to change the meaning from a classical context, where an emphasis on playing in time is written into the music, to a more personal experience.  The relentless march of the allegro was composed with pensive moments integral to the piece, and I expanded on them.   I avoided formulating regular locations for the stretching of time or predetermine how much rubato is to be applied when it does occur.  In other words, I try to allow it to be an impulse of improvisation. 

It occurred to me that if I was having such a good time doing this, why haven’t other piano players thought of this first?  I’m sure some have.  The question that follows that assumption is: why hasn’t anyone recorded such interpretations?  Here’s where everyone is invited to write in and inform me of all the times that Beethoven classics “reimagined” have been recorded and released, but I just don’t know of their existence.  Typically, at this point I would search the internet for any such recordings I may come across, but in this case, I’ll place that burden on the reader. 

I have heard many versions of Beethoven’s music in contexts and instrumentations other than those originally intended.  I know rock musicians in particular enjoy taking classical and baroque music and placing a distorted spin on the familiar melodies.  I’m not thinking of these types of contextual alterations of the classics.  I’m thinking of a dramatic interpretive alteration that retains the intent and even instrumentation, but frees the performer from the expectations these legendary pieces impose. 

The inspiration for my rubato interpretation came from the opening chord.  The thirds are stacked so far beyond the classical triad that it feels anachronistic in this  opus.  On top of the fact that the chord is so top heavy for the time period, it appears in an inversion.  This makes it even more smoky in a classical context.  It sounds like jazz.  The sustained chords are surrounded by rests and then followed by a quarter note pulse leading to another sustained harmony.  This further suits my rubato interpretation.  The piece takes on a slightly improvised feel when the series of unaccompanied eighth notes set up the very classical sounding secondary theme.  The return of the scalar figure in an augmented form sets up the return of the secondary theme with further embellishments.  This type of development sounds improvised in the classical context, and this sense of implied freedom carries through in my interpretation.  I use it to reinforce my argument when I stretch time without concern for giving any back, as the saying goes, while I enjoy my improvised interpretation that Beethoven helped me to realize at the keyboard. 

I can imagine a small audience gathered around the piano listening to the premier performance of this piece two hundred years ago.   In that time, the methods of composition and the stylistic framework would have made this piece sound very fluid and improvised.  There is a moment in the recapitulation of the second theme where a leap in the left hand threatens to halt the timing of sixteenth notes urgently pressing forward.  I have heard performers, including Brendel, leave a little space there to give the spot some breath.  The effect seems intentionally written into the score.  The performer pushes the time to accommodate the leap in the left hand.  This style of playing was becoming more commonplace at the time opus 31 was written and is taken even further by other composers during the romantic period.  For the fictional audience I’ve imagined who are listening to the piece for the first time, it might feel like the performer is spontaneously creating the music.   

Imposing a rubato feel throughout certainly changes the suspense of these moments, but it also creates opportunities for other surprises.  During the small development section that appears in the coda, I usually maintain an even tempo.  This section features a cascading sequence of chords that avoids the resolution we expect from its earlier appearance in the exposition.  The relentless trills and staccato bass notes are more powerful when played as written.  This dramatic effect is enhanced after so much music has appeared in a free context. 

We are conditioned to have different expectations for different styles of music today.  We expect classical music to be prepared.  With the exception of a cadenza or a curtain call, there is little toleration for improvisation.  Jazz, on the other hand, is understood to be an improvised art form.  Audiences patiently await the conclusion of the head to hear the soloists take over.  Even if that solo is prepared beforehand, it is accepted as improv.  There are many reasons for this difference, but the primary one is the tradition of the performance practice of the two styles, and, ironically, the most restrictive practices that have come to confine classical music were adopted during the jazz age.   

The modern performer of classical music is encouraged to impose some personality on the performance, but tampering with elements of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics is typically limited.  Conductors are often criticized for the choice of tempo as well.  Many feel that the music is sacred as it stands.  The most revered classical music is thought to have been created either by geniuses, or, at the very least, really bright individuals who suffered to compose and had a powerful and compelling artistic expression that is still worth hearing many years later.  I share some of that reverence for the classics and the masters that created them.  That’s one of the reasons I play the Beethoven sonatas in the first place.  It’s for this reason that I also suggest that not every piece should be manipulated to the extent that I have experimented with for opus 31 no.3

The 3rd movement of opus 27 no. 2 (The Moonlight) is one of those instances.  To impose a rubato here would destroy the entire concept.  The insistence of the unrelenting presto is the source of most of the drama in the piece.  Without it, the intense pull of the dominant chords would be smeared, the sections would loose their meaning, and the piece would dissolve into a series of scales, trills, and arpeggios.  On the another hand, there is plenty of room to stretch in many of the other piano sonatas. 

There is a sense of perfection that I think most performers strive to attain.  I think it’s the main reason I haven’t come across a reimagining of Beethoven sonatas on the piano.  They are viewed to be a perfect creation by many and meant to be reproduced as such, even if there are already dozens of similar extant recordings.  With each new recording, the level of perfection and artistry can be compared with past recordings.  It’s an enjoyable pursuit, so I’m not speaking ill of the practice. 

All of the recordings are based on a written score.  It is that which provides the homogeneity that can allow for the comparison of artistic styles in a performance.  It would be interesting if similar music passed through the oral tradition.  Rock and blues music have a strong oral tradition, though I feel that rock is not thought of as such now that so much of it has become available in written form in specialty publications as well as on the internet.   

Much of the rock music by other artists that I have performed over the past twenty five years was learned by ear.  The obvious source for much of the music was the original recordings, but some songs were shared by other musicians in the practice room without a recording, which is the definition of an oral tradition.  I would often go to clubs and listen to performances of pieces and learn them from just a few hearings alone.  Some of the performances contained mistakes that the musician serving as my model was unaware of.  Those mistakes became part of my version.   

I learned a few errant chord progressions this way, but mainly, it was the lyrics that became distorted.  I can think of a couple of pieces I performed for ten years or more without realizing that I had the words wrong.  So much of the music in the rock catalog has lyric content that is intentionally absurd or nonsensical that I wouldn’t put much thought into a line that didn’t add up.  As I became aware of a few of these errors, I decided to ignore the discrepancy.  No one had noticed as far as I could tell, and I had become quite comfortable with my new incorrect version. 

Every year or so, I would encounter one of my misinterpreted tunes on the radio or internet.  Sometimes, I would make adjustments, other times, I would leave the music unchanged.  I would joke to others about this dilemma saying that the artists that penned the tunes were not paying me to perform the music accurately.  For a few of the pieces, I would alternate the correct version and my version at different performances.  All of these minor discrepancies began to accumulate in my set list, and I began to wonder how important it was to accurately reproduce popular music, especially considering that when I performed the music, it was not in a listening environment.  The function was to provide a beat for dancing or a background for socializing. 

Perfect reproductions of popular music aren’t expected as much as in the past.  The tastes of the audiences coupled with the fact that the changes to the songs occurred accidentally and with a seriousness of intent that was not meant to create a parody or otherwise trivialize the work made the errors ok.  Innovation can be a good thing in music, and it is possible that this mistake caused by the oral tradition is part of the larger tradition that goes into generating new styles and understandings about music.  Still, the question remained: Is it necessary to go back and learn the correct lyrics for the covers I perform? 

One answer can be found in the great deal of personal history that went into the reasons I play the songs the way that I do.  Years spent at performances smoky bars hanging on every note of a guitar solo that was being played, trying to copy the licks and learn the songs, studying the rhythms and vocal delivery of the performers I encountered.  It influenced not only stylistic aspects of my music, but also the songs I chose to cover that would be the vehicles for my own expression.  I also learned how to work a room and call the right songs for a given time during a performance as well as for a particular occasion.  I learned a few wrong chords and some wrong lyrics along the way, but I wouldn’t want the tyranny of perfection to change a single note.

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