Beethoven’s Sonata Op 110 : A Personal Testament of Spirituality and Adversity Overcome

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I was extremely excited to learn of this lecture-recital by Dr Azariah Tan [part of the Symposium Presentations on the third day of the Performers(‘) Present Festival ongoing at the Yong Siew Toh Consevatory of Music (YSTCM)].

 

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I’ve watched Azariah grow and mature since his undergraduate days at YSTCM. He graduated recently with a Doctor in Musical Arts in Piano Performance from the University of Michigan, after obtaining two Master of Music degrees in Piano Performance and Chamber Music there, and a First Class Honours from YSTCM and the NUSS Medal for Outstanding Achievement in 2011. Among his many accolades are winning local and International piano competitions and being awarded full-scholarships from the University of Michigan, the National Arts Council of Singapore and the Yamaha Music Foundation of Japan.

I have great admiration for Azariah, who was born with bilatereal neuro-sensory hearing loss. (There was a full-page article in the Sunday Times last week, where Wong Kim Hoh interviewed him about this, and how it has changed his life.) Azariah hears only 15% of what people hear. His is a high frequency loss and he is unable to hear anything ohter than a few bass notes. It is a real challenge for him to play music. Yet his playing is so exquisite, touching and inspiring. He can bring out the subtleties and harsh textures (and even good pedalling) in his playing and he humbly credits Prof Albert Tiu (his teacher at YSTCM) for helping him to overcome his challenges.

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Azariah started the lecture by saying that he chose Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 110 because Beethoven composed it when he became deaf and this sonata has a special appeal to him because he is also deaf. This really set the tone for the lecture-recital because not everyone in the near-full Recital Studio is aware of this fact. The three aspects of this work (structural, spiritual and emotional) are addressed through questions like

  • How is Beethoven’s use of thematic unity involved?
  • How did Beethoven’s deafness affect him and his musical composition?
  • How is this sonata spiritual, and how does it portray adversity overcome?

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Thematic Unity

  • The main theme is a¬†Hexachord (Ascending 6th) and the significance of the note F is that it gives a feeling of yearning and yet witholding, before finally breaking out in triumph (adversity overcome)
  • The note F-flat is a dissonance, a symbol of pain and struggle and then victory over struggle.

Beethoven’s Disability

  • Letters and accounts reveal that Beethoven’s deafness was progressive, which led to social withdrawal and the end of public performance; he had tinnitus, high frequency loss and reduced clarity of sound.
  • The effect of deafness besides depression was auditory seclusion and social isolation. Yet the reduced outside musical contact contributed to the originality of Beethoven’s composition because he had an awakened sense of spirituality and a different perception of sound. His compositiion became more intense, with wider chord spacing (use of extreme registers, perhaps due to having to put his ear closer to the piano, resulting in larger distance between hands), writing getting thicker over time, harsh texture and evoking physically embracing cosmos, increased vibrations, rumbling ff chords in the extreme bass and repeated, tolling G chords from pp to ff.

Beethoven’s Spirituality

  • With the hardships of inner solitude came the reference to divinity and allusion to diety. In particular, the 1st Movement is like a German Religious Cantata, with the opening melodies that give a feeling of elevation, reaching upwards/heavenwards. There is depiction of the physical conflict (a struggle), the suffering through the use of dissonance (F-flat). The hardships, inner solitude, and Beethoven’s vast humanity brought about a deeper search for the spiritual.
  • The second movement¬† op-110-2 is humourous and rough; here, Beethoven depicts the earthly, crude side of imperfect man in contrast to the lofty spiritual plane.
  • In the third movement, op-110-3Beethoven adds a second arioso and fugue and then a chorale finale. The falling 4th cadence in the arioso is very expressive, tearful and lamenting losing strength, symbolising deep religious sorrow. The fugue is a chorale fugue, not instrumental, and it can be sung. The broken rhythm depicts sobbing and the cresc to dim dynamics depict the inability to sustain inner strength. This movement represents death, weakness, suffering and pain.
  • If the Arioso dolente theme is a question about Christ’s death, what do the tolling G Major chords of the fugue mean? These chords raise spiritual questions: Christ’s resurrection, heartbeats, bell tolling and God’s opening up a way – the light getting brighter and brighter.
  • Beethoven also greatly expanded the metaphoric powers of musical ascents and descents – the descent into despair and out of it.
  • The second Fugue represents a progressive returning health, strength, deliverance and life, leading to a triumphant climax, victory over adversity.

Conclusion

Beethoven himself said: “Indeed, a hard lot has fallen upon me! But I resign myself to the will of destiny, and only ask God constantly to grant through His divine will that, so long as I must still suffer death in life here, I am protected from penury. This will give me the strenght to bear my lot, however hard and grevious, with resignation to the will of the Almighty.”

 

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This sonata is a personal testament, borne out of a lifetime of suffering. With great suffering came great depth of expression and a narrative arc that leads to a transcendental spiritual transformation.

Much of the above notes were taken during the lecture. This lecture has taken us on a journey Beethoven experienced personally and his response to it as a human being. Whatever our cultural background, we as human beings find ourselves compelled to respond to his present.

 

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After the presentation, Azariah performed the Sonata. I was mesmerised.

I thoroughly enjoyed the session and thought Azariah did a fantastic job. His lecture was very well researched and prepared. (He must have spent a lot of time on it, what with the 49 PowerPoint slides!) Unfortunately, the organisers restricted him to 40 minutes (including the performance which took about 20 mins). They should have given him at least one-and-a-half hours!

I hope Azariah would return to YSTCM soon (he has to return to the University of Michigan shortly as he is a teaching assistant there) to conduct masterclasses for the undergrads. He is such an inspiration to all!