Thoughts on a Thursday Afternoon

So, it’s about 3:30, I’ve just finished a leisurely lunch (roast beef with onions and celery, skins-and-all mashed potatoes, and mixed veg of string beans and carrots)(num!). I’m sitting at the computer(s). I have one of the puzzles I made on Jigsaw Planet up on the left screen (photograph of a frilled jelly (Chiarella centripetalis) against a navy blue background)(!). On the right screen, I have YouTube on the Firefox browser and WordPress on the Google browser.

I have a bowl of knitting — a swirly hat. Dead simple knitting. (Evenly divide the total number of stitches into sections and make them swirl one direction or the other by putting a k2tog on one edge of the section and a yarn over at the other. The panel “swirls” toward whichever side the yarn over is on. Crown decreases with a k3tog instead of a k2tog.

If you want a tight swirl, you do the k2tog, yo thing every row. If you want a looser swirl, you alternate the k2tog, yo thing with a row of knit stitches.) (I am loosely swirling.)

I’m pleasantly full of a good lunch, sitting and knitting, and listening to Mozart piano sonatas, as you do, and that little rocking octaves in the baseline thing Wulfi does catches my attention, and it occurs to me that Mozart (and Beethoven) does that little trick a lot. And then it occurs to me that both composers were writing at that time at the end of the 18th century when the pianoforte is gradually taking over from the harpsichord (because brass instruments, but that’s another tangent). The instrument had not yet evolved into its final form and composers hadn’t had enough time yet to fully explore the instrument’s capabilities and modify their performance techniques to exploit them. And I realize that this little rocking octaves thing (the thumb on one note and the little finger on the same note but an octave lower, alternating quickly between the two notes eight or ten times by quickly rocking the hand from side to side) is a harpsichord technique (ditto the rapid repeated striking of the same bass chord or notes) that’s been carried over to the pianoforte.

The name of that game is sostenuto. String instruments (violin, viola, cello, etc.) played with a bow can sustain (hold) a note from one end of the bow to the other. A wind instrument (clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, etc.) can hold a note until the player runs out of breath. But the harpsichord is a plucked string instrument. You press a key, you get a note, and that’s it. The sound isn’t all that loud to begin with and it dies out rapidly. And that rocking octave thing, and the repeated striking of the same note/chord are workarounds to get a sustained note/chord you can set the tweedly-tweedly bits against.

But here’s the thing. It’s called a “pianoforte”because in the language of music, which is Italian BTW, piano means “quiet”and forte means “loud” — which gives you an important clue about the main difference between the pianoforte and the harpsichord. You can’t get any volume to speak of out of a harpsichord. It’s mechanics. No matter how hard you hit the keys, pling is all you get. (Most harpsichords have two separate keyboards and two separate sets of strings, and a way to “slave” one keyboard to the other to double the volume.) You put a harpsichord together with more than a dozen string and wind instrument (even using both keyboards) and the other instruments will flat drown it out.

The pianoforte, however, plays notes by having a hammer hit a string, and there is a direct correlation between how hard you press the key and how hard the hammer hits the string. This is the first time there’s been a (portable) keyboard instrument with dynamics — the ability to vary the volume of the notes played for dynamic effect. Strings have that ability. So do wind instruments. But not until the pianoforte do you have a keyboard instrument that can hold its own against an orchestra. (I’m not counting the pipe organ, because it’s not something Herr Gottbucks is going to get for the 18th century version of the family rec room so they can have the neighbors over for a fun evening of sight reading trio sonatas.)(Yes, they actually did that.)

So, Mozart and Beethoven are transitional composers, and a lot of their music for the pianoforte has holdover techniques from the harpsichord. As you progress through the sonatas chronologically, you can hear how Mozart is coming to terms with this new instrument and beginning to exploit its dynamics. Beethoven comes along somewhat later (he idolized Mozart and wanted to become his student, but somehow that didn’t happen), still using those rocking octaves and repeated notes, but using them to add an emotional undercurrent to his music.

There’s a neologism in Lewis Carroll‘s poem “Jabberwocky” (the poem features in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) that to my mind perfectly captures Beethoven: “frumious” it’s a portmanteau word that combines “fuming” and “furious.” Mozart is agile, elegant, a tad effete, and a bit of a show-off. Beethoven is one intense dude; we’re talking major league Sturm und Drang here. His music clearly has an emotional undercurrent, and the level of that emotion is turned up to 11. Mozart happens at the culmination of that orgy of cerebration that was the Enlightenment. Beethoven gets in at the ground floor of that emo-fest that is the Romantic Movement. Listen to the entire Moonlight Sonata, not just the played-to-death first movement, but the whole thing. That second movement is ne plus emo. I like Beethoven, but only in small doses.

But in the closing chapters of this Thursday afternoon, Mozart and I are sitting quietly, knitting a hat, (working my jigsaw to give my hands a break). And seriously considering getting up and making a pot of tea. And maybe some toast.

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Author: WOL

My burrow, "La Maison du Hibou Sous Terre" is located on the flatlands of West Texas where I live with my computer, my books, and a lot of yarn waiting to become something.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Thursday Afternoon”

  1. I played piano for many years-Mozart and Beethoven were always top of my list. Alas, my hands are to stiff to do much anymore.


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