Für Elise the bell tolls

Monday, 20 June 2005 — 6:48pm | Classical, Music, Pianism

I’m to play a number of pieces at a wedding that is taking place on Canada Day, and the task of preparing them is my first serious return to the rigour of practicing small-C classical piano for the sake of performance since completing my Royal Conservatory ARCT three years ago. Skill at a musical instrument is something that atrophies quickly, but comes back with the kind of whoosh that brings to mind Stephen Chow, eyes shut and enlightened, reawakening to his repressed Shaolin or Buddhist Palm powers or what have you. It seems that if you spend a nontrivial proportion of your adolescence perfecting a tricky Liszt cadenza, it’s programmed into your fingers for life. The power that courses through your digits upon its return is a release of energeia so magnificent, you are led to think you can harness it to fry a rack of bacon. You would be wrong, but never mind those mortal limitations.

For this event, I was given a list of requests at a few weeks’ notice, with instructions to throw in any other favourites I deemed appropriate should the guests be taking inordinately long to seat themselves. Naturally, in addition to the standard corpus of the pretty Chopin waltzes nobody ever thinks of because they can’t remember the indices, I entertained the notion of sneaking in “Han and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back for good measure. “Across the Stars” is the more relevant cue in a wedding scenario, but playing it by ear is not a straightforward initiative, not because the compound rhythm is hard to pin down on first listen (it’s simple once you figure out which beat to think of as your anchor), but because Williams introduces a very subtle modulation with each iteration of the theme: the key you finish in is a whole tone lower than your key of origin. So you can take it for as long as you want, hitting five other keys before you loop back to where you started; the subsequent transpositions generate a cyclic group modulo 6. Whenever it comes up in the score to Attack of the Clones, a meandering transition escapes the cycle after only about two iterations at a time, and it’s a hard one to capture without having some sheet music as a guide.

The requests were an item of interest, though – and two of them in particular, both by that most temperamental of legendary German folk, Ludwig van Beethoven. They had two things in common: everybody knows them, yet after over a decade with the instrument, I’d never learnt them.

The first is “Für Elise”. Its popularity is unfathomable. I sometimes wonder what Beethoven would say should he return from the grave to discover that this innocent little Bagatelle in A minor he wrote for some chick is not only the default ringtone on the biggest overnight hit in the technological history of mankind, the mobile phone, but is – no joke – played by Taiwanese garbage trucks to signal their presence, like how ice cream cars over here use Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. It’s not a very spectacular composition – a simple ABACA with no modulations except for brief jaunts into the relative major a few bars at a time, and only meagre hints of Ludwig’s trademark tantrums – and one wonders if it is the phenomenon it has become because of its technical simplicity. It’s very easy for a beginning pianist to pick it up and woodshed it, and at the same time rewarding, because it has just enough musical elegance to not sound as dinky as a lot of early piano repertoire is wont to be.

The second piece to which I refer is the First Movement of the Sonata quasi una fantasia in C-sharp minor, perhaps better known as the “Moonlight Sonata”. I’m pointing out the obvious here, but like “Für Elise”, this composition is, to borrow what John Lennon said of the Beatles, bigger than Jesus. It was significant enough to be the namesake of an infamous German bombing operation – indeed, the source of one of Winston Churchill’s most controversial wartime gambits, a classic game-theoretical case study. Again, I have very little idea why it has penetrated the cultural consciousness so deeply, to the layman it bears on synecdoche for what classical piano sounds like. It is said that on the sonata’s popularity, Beethoven once wrote Carl Czerny with the remark, “Surely I’ve written better things.” And if we speak of quality in terms of the intricacy and range of his manoeuvres in the dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm, he’d be right. But maybe the simplicity of the piece – long pedal points that change up in broad strokes under the controlled pianissimo of periodic triplets overhead – is what attracts the casual listener.

More to the point, in both of these selections, Beethoven doesn’t go very far, but what he does is sit on universals. Now, the musically literate may harp on this idea of universals as good old-fashioned Western European paternalism, but the precept that makes Beethoven tick – the very property of Mozart that makes babies smarter – is the binary relationship of tension and resolution that occurs when you frame music as consonance punctuated by dissonance. “Für Elise” and the First Movement of the “Moonlight” are similar in this respect: they are, fundamentally, grounded in minor-key consonances that are broken and arpeggiated, thinned out so the listener can in effect capture everything. And for the performer, as I am discovering firsthand, these ideal patterns spin a safety net of technical comfort.

I would deem it likely that it is because of this property of traditional forms underlying a proto-Romantic versatility of expression that they persist, while in the latter half of the twentieth century, the experiments to dissolve the binaristic “othering” of dissonance in opposition to consonance (or in the case of John Cage, silence to sound) led the methodical compositions of art music down a path that an untrained listener would consider highly esoteric. Yet the divergent rise of popular music in the 1950s with the emergence of doo-wop and rock-and-roll went in the opposite direction – back to simple harmonies and catchy melodic constructions.

The implication is that there is a disposition present in all of us, and arguably not something merely constructed, to be receptive to consonant harmonies and furthermore, retain them not in their harmonic form, but in terms of the melodic variations built on top of them. It is like how we feel the push and pull of a conflict in a dramatic setting, but we don’t remember the different kinds of conflict in terms of their categoric labels. On the contrary, we retain instances: Hamlet and Claudius, Rhett and Scarlett, Linus and Lucy. In primary school some talk about conflict as a 3-vector of man against man, himself and nature, but even that is demonstrated by example, and remembered by example. Like melody over harmony, it is not a relation of part to whole, but of building to foundations.

There’s a much bigger question that comes out of all this, one that strikes out at what it is we acquire that one equates with a heightened cultural literacy. For the sake of not obfuscating the above with interminable length, this is a thread I will leave hanging for now.


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