Sunday, October 23, 2022 at 4 pm
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Stephen Porter, piano
Beethoven & Buddhism: The final piano sonatas
*All quotations were written by Beethoven in his diary; I have chosen to pair them with movements from the piano sonatas
Sonata no. 30 in E major, Op. 109
I. Vivace, ma non troppo ~ Adagio espressivo
“Free from all passion and desire…[Brahm]” (Rigveda)
“If…I become darkened through passion for evil, I returned, after manifold repentance and purification, to the elevated and pure source, to the Godhead.—And, to your art.”
III. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung
“Of space expanded and of endless time” (Hymn to Narayena)
Sonata no. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
I. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
“Blessed is the man who, having subdued all his passions, performeth with his active faculties all the functions of life, unconcerned about the event.” (Bhagavad-Gita)
II. Allegro molto
“Let the motive be in the deed, and not in the event. Be not one whose motive for action is the hope of reward.” (Bhagavad-Gita)
III. Adagio ma non troppo ~ Recitativo ~ Arioso dolente ~ Fuga ~ Arioso ~ Fuga
“The chief characteristic of a distinguished man: endurance in adverse and harsh circumstances.”
Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
I. Maestoso ~ Allegro con brio ed appassionato
“Perform thy duty, abandon all thought of the consequence, and make the event equal, whether it terminate in good or evil, for such an equality is called [Yog—] attention to what is spiritual.” (Bhagavad-Gita)
II. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile
“There are works of architecture, the pagodas from unhewn stone mountains in India, the age of which are estimated at 9000 years.”
“Indian scales and notes: sa, ri, ga, ma, da, ni, scha.”
“Five years of silence is required of future Brahmans in the monastery.”
“For God, time absolutely does not exist.”
About the music
Beethoven was not a Buddhist. That statement will probably surprise no one, but what is striking, and little known, is that in the years leading up to his final decade of productivity, his celebrated “late style,” he made several entries in his diary which directly reference Indian philosophy and religion. For him, it seems to have been an aspirational relationship: in the tumult of his daily life, he yearned for—but was never able to achieve—the peace of mind, philosophical balance and emotional health to which these quotations point. In his music however, especially the late masterpieces which were large and few in number, he achieved just that: he created perfect worlds. This perfection was always in harsh contrast to the realities of his life, which contained enormous and constant stresses of ill health, deafness, personal isolation, anger, paranoia, and fraught relationships with all those around him. His final three piano sonatas were written for a single commission but took two years to finish, and though each one by itself is a formidable journey, the three together form one longer, overarching journey. Written between 1820-22, they present dramas of emotion, striving, and ultimate resolution, either by bold triumph over adversity (Op. 110) or by transfiguration into a world of timelessness, contemplation and acceptance (Op. 109 and 111).
In each sonata, the center of gravity becomes the long final movement, which is the goal and culmination of the shorter preceding movements. Op. 109 begins like an improvisation of bird calls, proceeds through a wild, stormy second movement, and ends with a hymn-like theme and six variations that reach a state of religious ecstasy with long, extended trills in both hands illuminating the whole keyboard. When the flame finally extinguishes itself, we hear the theme in all its simplicity and peacefulness.
With Op. 110, there is again a consoling gentleness that seems quite different from the forceful Beethoven we know so well. In the final movement, he confronts some nameless, deep sorrow with two mournful arias, in the style of a Baroque oratorio with organ and somber strings. He twice tries to “build” his way out of this sadness, with the most intellectual form in classical music, the fugue. In the final attempt, the fugue becomes more rapid and complex, until it actually begins to break apart. At this point Beethoven simply sweeps away intellect and lets the glorious, upwardly marching theme carry the piece to a triumphant conclusion, that stretches the very limits of the keyboard.
In his final sonata, Beethoven creates an even starker contrast by using only two movements. An introduction begins in chaos, then suddenly becomes serene and ascends chord by chord, each one a plateau attained along the steps to enlightenment. The main body of the movement then rages through double fugues in minor keys, the constant struggle is palpable – but with brief, tantalizing glimpses of Paradise. As in Op. 109, the final movement is a set of variations, set in purest C major, on a theme of Olympian calm. After the third variation, which is like a joyous dance of life that also anticipates jazz rhythms from 100 years later, Beethoven unmistakably passes through some kind of barrier into a totally new world. Vibrations in the bass, fragments of the theme in the tenor, and delicate, child-like improvisations in the treble create a hypnotic atmosphere of floating timelessness. Though the music does rise again to a conquering spirit, the die has been cast – each of the last three variations and their accompanying codas reduce in size with a mathematical consistency, moving toward infinity and silence.
About the musician
Stephen Porter has performed internationally as a soloist at venues that include the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, the Gothenburg Academy of Music and Drama in Sweden, the Sala Villa-Lobos at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Albert Long Hall in Istanbul, LSO St. Luke’s with the Amadeus Orchestra of London, Sarajevo as the featured soloist of the Bosnia International Music Festival, the Malmö Academy of Music in Sweden, and the Rockefeller Foundation at Bellagio, Italy. He is a four-time artist resident of the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and is currently Research Artist at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. Mr. Porter premieres the work of many contemporary composers, most recently the music of Martin Skafte (Sweden), Toni Lester (USA), Caio Senna (Brazil), Norberto Oldrini (Italy) and Andrew List (USA) in recitals in Europe, South America and the United States. In 2022 he performs with two Grammy Award winning artists, bass-baritone Dashon Burton and mezzo-soprano Krista River. A graduate of Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory of Music, his primary teachers were Peter Takacs, Estela Olevsky, Jacob Maxin, and Paul Doguereau, a protégé of Ravel.