The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Shakespeare turns 450 today. Pianist Ryan McCullough talks about Beethoven’ problematic profundity and his Shakespearean sense of pacing and rhetoric. He will perform Beethoven’s titanic last three piano sonatas -– through which he sees a progression — this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

April 23, 2014
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NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.

shakespeare BW

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.

Ryan McCullough above keyboard

Farley 1877 piano

McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.

He is comfortable with repertoire ranging from classical works to electro-acoustic improvisation, and serves as Sage Fellow in Contemporary Performance Practice at Cornell University.

For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.

McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.

Ryan McCullough mug small

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?

By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.

My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.

I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.

ryan mccullough informal big

What is it about Beethoven and especially late Beethoven sonatas that appeals to you? Do you have a favorite among the last three sonatas?

There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.

But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.

Beethoven big

One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”

Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.

ryan mccullough playing 1

Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?

There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.

I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.

That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.

Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?

This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.

Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.

For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.

Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op.109

Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.

The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.

beethoven ms piano sonata op 110

Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.

Beethoven Title page Sonata Op. 111

The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op. 111

Is there something else you would like to add or say?

I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.

Leon Berliner

Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”

 

 

 

 

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