Tuesday, November 10, 2009

856. Pathetique

Last week I watched a video compilation of photos of a friend's family. The soundtrack was piano music—her mother had been a piano teacher—and after a few seconds I got very flustered. The music was like Cher to Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck": "Snap out of it!" (followed by a slap across the face). So I stopped watching, and just listened. It was Beethoven's "Pathetique" and "Appassionata" sonatas, to which I'd listened for hours on end as a teenager. The record—midnight blue sleeve featuring a man in a tux disappearing into fog—had been filed in the big living room stereo cabinet since I was a baby, but I became a little obsessed with it in junior high. Every day when I got home from school I'd choose between that and Mendelssohn's violin concerto (b/w Tchaikovsky's), and sprawl out on the gold carpet with the music and my math homework. I think those pieces captivated me because they were conversational in structure, a call and response of melodies, volumes, and emotions. I could imagine myself on one end of the discussion, engaging with the tunes like a close friend as they tried to set the cacophony of my own adolescence into some kind of tonal order.

I hadn't heard the "Pathetique" in years—decades—but after downloading it from iTunes last week, I realized I could sing the whole thing back, note for note (well, if people could sing in 10-part chords). I also had a feeling that other music was also hibernating in my brain, still waiting for a nudge. The "Pathetique" feels like a puzzle piece that was lost and forgotten under the sofa—now something is complete, although I'm not sure what. It may have to do with the fact that it's in the slightly agitated key of C minor. Almost all the music at my synagogue is in C major, a close and calmer cousin:

"Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise."
Wikipedia, Beethoven and C minor

(Describing how key signatures reflect mood is a nearly impossible task—I read a book review recently that used the phrase "ekphrastic nightmare." But, like the subtleties of body language, they really do.) Each week on Shabbat I listen for hours as C major helps us organize the discordant messiness of life. Beethoven's key is the same dialect, but with the added message of Lekh Lekha: go! take a chance! Hearing the piano concerto again reminded me that I was once a teenager up for anything, and that person was not as far away as I might think.

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