Thursday, September 22, 2016

Punctuating Beethoven: Michael Schelle's new piano piece sweeps away hints of satire or parody

Here's a novelty: A concert review that starts off with a disquisition on punctuation, and then covers only one of the works performed. But bear with me, because what appears to be throat-clearing turns out to bear directly on what to make of a particular new piece.
Michael Schelle, perhaps contemplating Beethoven at the piano.

Among the many uses of the comma is to set off words in direct address. Often these are names, but not always ("Comfort ye, my people," for example). Our informal age often trims out commas, nothing worth much tsk-tsking if ambiguity isn't the result.

There's no confusion when it comes to a title such as "Happy Birthday Wanda June," the new opera premiered at the Schrott Center for the Arts last weekend in an Indianapolis Opera production. There's only one way to read the title, even though the poignancy of Wanda June's untimely death would be more subtly underlined if the comma were used. The inscription in icing on the top of her birthday cake would then be directly addressed to the little girl who didn't live to be thus addressed. In its written matter, sometimes Indianapolis Opera used the comma, sometimes it didn't. I was likewise inconsistent in my posted review.

That brings me to Michael Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven," the work I enjoyed most (as well as the newest) in Tuesday night's Butler Faculty Composers concert, which opened the Duckwall Artist Series at Butler University. The identical title in a defining rock 'n' roll song by Chuck Berry never appears with a comma after "Over," even though it is clear that Beethoven is being addressed posthumously, as is Tchaikovsky in the next line of the chorus: "Tell Tchaikovsky the news."

Young Beethoven, before life tried to roll over him.
Schelle's following suit may not have involved conscious thought about whether or not to insert a comma in his title (modified in his online catalogue with an added "2.0"). But its omission — especially after hearing the piece in a stunning performance by Jim Loughery — opens up some mostly dark interpretations of the verb phrase "roll over." It goes beyond Berry's suggestion (grammatically speaking, in the imperative mood) that it's time for Beethoven to roll over in his grave at his music's displacement by rock 'n' roll.

Instead, it expands the imperative to include... whom? Mike Schelle? Mass culture? In other words, who is being told to roll over Beethoven, like a steamroller over asphalt or a tank (Happy 100th birthday, tank!)  over rough terrain?

Brooding over this question for two days has little to do with a wish to appoint myself punctuation cop. More interestingly, the ambiguity — is the composer instructing himself to roll over Beethoven, or is he telling Beethoven to make way for Mike Schelle, as Berry told the German master to make way for rock 'n' roll? — rests on the cusp of what Schelle has accomplished in the new piece.

Prompted by the new piece itself, let's interpret the title as not needing the comma. To start with, Ludwig van Beethoven is the archetype of the suffering artist. In his life more than in his art (where he was lionized from his young adulthood until his death), many things rolled over Beethoven. Not as clouds roll over us on a windy day, but in that steamroller or tank manner. There was a host of maladies, topped by the crucial loss of hearing.

In Schelle's piece, I sensed in its congestion of sounds, its unremitting clangor, the maddening onset of tinnitus and other symptoms of the deafness that overcame the composer. Zeroing in on the interface between life and art, the Beethoven work most strikingly recalled in Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven" is the "Appassionata" Sonata (No. 23 in F minor, op. 57).

And what was rolling over Beethoven circa 1805 when he wrote this work, which was given its appropriate nickname by the composer's publisher? Besides the overshadowing triumph of deafness, there was the conquest of Vienna by Napoleon's armies in 1804, throwing Beethoven's revolutionary fantasies into a cocked hat.

Middle-period Beethoven is where the crux of Beethoven's attempt to master his fate finds defeat and mastery in greatest contention. Schelle finds and wrestles with a key example of this struggle in the "Appassionata," a work that signals its gloom in the drooping theme at the outset of the first movement. But Schelle's focus is on the coda of the finale, a Presto launched by two firm fortissimo chords that give way to agitated staccato eighth notes.

When we hear the "Appassionata" in performance we are already near exhaustion from the finale's rigors. Just before the coda, these are compounded by Beethoven's direction to repeat the second half of the movement, a device so unusual that Donald Francis Tovey, in his edition of the sonatas, puts "(Beethoven's)" right above the repeat sign, as if to say: "Pay attention — this unconventional instruction comes straight from the master, not from me or other editors."

Thus delayed, the coda is one of numerous places in Beethoven where we are tempted to think: "Come on -- can he really be doing this after all he's put us through?' Another place is the feverish lead-up to the recapitulation in the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, a near-contemporary of the "Appassionata,"with its driving, recurrent "duh-duh, dah-duh-duh" in the left hand.

Schelle's piece pays tribute to the over-the-top aspect of Beethoven, which is inescapable, and sometimes off-putting even to accomplished musicians. Raymond Leppard once confessed to me he had to get over his early dislike of Beethoven: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Schelle has a habit of taking a humorously jaundiced view of cultural icons, so I have to allow that his "Roll Over Beethoven" may be a wicked parody of Beethoven's hyper-insistent manner. There was an unmistakably manic quality in Loughery's riveting performance — what good fortune it is for Schelle to have such a capable champion of his piano music! But I choose to take this "Roll Over Beethoven" with its tag of "2.0" as something of a salute to a man and artist who refused to be rolled over.

In his discussion of the Heligenstadt Testament, Beethoven's unposted letter to his brothers written in 1802, Maynard Solomon, the composer's shrewdest and most stimulating modern  biographer, analyzes how Beethoven dealt with the interface of his deafness and his art from then on. Mastery of his musical voice seemed to emerge, both in fact and in his attitude, from his hearing loss: "As his shift in style asserted itself and the advances in his art were consolidated," Solomon writes, "the symptoms themselves receded from him into a different perspective and were no longer the subject of lamentation."

The shift in style produced the "Appassionata" and, in the same year, his only opera "Fidelio," whose two most important moments are an aria sung in a dungeon and the eventual rescue of the prisoner unjustly held there. Beethoven would probably have endorsed Ralph Waldo Emerson's declaration in his diary, after the death of his favorite son: "I am defeated all the time, yet to victory I am born."

I choose to interpret Michael Schelle's concise dynamo of a tribute in "Roll Over Beethoven" as a reminder that nothing — not Napoleon, not ills of the flesh, not the threatened status today of high culture, and fortunately neither Chuck Berry nor the estimable Schelle himself — can roll over Beethoven.