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Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

In a series of exclusive blog posts throughout the season, Brad Mehldau talks directly to the Carnegie Hall audience, revealing his thoughts on composition and improvisation.

Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Part One: Taking Stock and Shoring Up in Opus 95

How do we map the total creative output of a musician over his or her lifetime? One approach is to divide that output into distinctive periods. An example is the well-known three-period appraisal of Beethoven's music: There is an early period where he is imitating, a second period of maturation in which he finds his own voice, and a third later period in which Beethoven transcends his own voice, forging yet another style. Does this method have any currency when it is applied to an improvising jazz musician?

There is potential folly in the practice of demarcating supposed creative periods. As a critical venture, it is retrospective, drawing its lines through a body of work that already exists as a totality. It is by nature anti-holistic and might mutilate the integrity of that work by severing the continuity that exists throughout a musician's lifetime. In short, this approach will be fraught with inconsistency and will have an arbitrary aspect.

Nevertheless, by demarcating different periods of creativity and assigning a specific quality to each one, we are trying to give form to that shapeless totality of a musician's total output. Once a preliminary form exists, the real venture of criticism may begin in earnest, and that is to fashion a credible narrative that corresponds to the musician in question.

The power of this narrative, like all narrative, rests on its ability to represent the passage of time. Throughout a novel, for example, we observe the protagonist. Events befall him that effect a change within him, or he elects to change his surroundings. This process of change is contingent on the movement of time, as is another key element of any narrative: memory. The memory of the protagonist will affect his decisions, and in turn, the memory of the reader will allow him to understand the protagonist more deeply. Ultimately, the role of criticism should be the same as the role of great fiction, to a point: By placing its subject in a temporal context, it allows the reader/listener to empathize with that subject more closely as he reflects on how time and its vagaries have affected him as well. There is an opening between the subject and his or her reader, and a communion is possible that can span centuries.

So we shatter the oneness of a musician's total work when we split it into periods, destroying the organic unity that existed, but this shattering is a creative act as well because it allows us to begin constructing a story about that musician. Time begins in this moment of rupture.

To the extent that we are telling a story about creativity, one great recurring theme will be mortality. Every time a musician can create, he escapes, momentarily, his mortality. The much-feared drying up of creative juices is a metaphor for one's demise. The passage of time is central to the narrative here because creativity is not endlessly doled out from above; on the contrary, it is often cruelly finite. Musicians, artists, and the like are given gifts along the way—most commonly earlier in their output—but as time passes, the gods are more fickle. Something truly creative must increasingly be coaxed out; it does not flow freely.

The narrative of Beethoven's creative output, with its exalted third period, has an Odyssean hue. Through ruthless cunning and sheer will, Odysseus vanquishes his foes and survives to return home as victor. He has completed his circular journey and is once again home, but now he possesses a great amount of knowledge and wisdom that he gained during his adventures.

Beethoven likewise returns in his later period to a simple, paired down form of expression that he never would have attempted in his earlier years. In his last string quartet (F Major, Op. 135), the music is unfettered and light in the opening Allegretto movement and touched by a new kind of grace in the slow third movement. In one sense, the lightness and grace evoke the Classicism of Beethoven's predecessors—gone is the Sturm und Drang of his early and middle periods—yet there is something new here: The composer has attained this classical symmetry once again, after a great struggle. A new, strange kind of peace breathes in this music, but it is not a peace that has been granted; it is a peace that has been won.

In comparison with the epic scope of other late string quartets, like Op. 131 or Op. 132, Beethoven's very last strikes us with its brevity and economy. I remember my first exposure to the late quartets. I listened to them in the order of opus number, eagerly awaiting the last one, and when I first heard it, I was puzzled and a little disappointed—it seemed like a dwarf among giants. The characteristic expansiveness was absent.

Beethoven's style had grown more expansive in his middle period, and that trend continued during his third period. But Op. 135 usually runs no more than 25 minutes in performance, compared with the 45-minute length of another late quartet, Op. 132. We often see this kind of expressive retraction as a welcome outcome of aging: We grow tired of our own long-windedness—and that of others—as the years pass, so we learn to express something more quickly and succinctly. Hopefully, though, our ideas do not become dulled.

This is certainly not the case with one of my favorite of Beethoven's string quartets: Op. 95, often subtitled "Serioso." In this quartet, it is as if all the kinetic energy of one of Beethoven's great extended middle-period works has been squeezed by a vice grip into something more compact: Because it is shorter in length, the gravitational force of the music has intensified. There is no fat on this quartet, only lean muscle. The "Serioso" still inhabits Beethoven's second period proper, but it can be seen as a transitional work between the second and third periods. I imagine, in my own narrative about Beethoven, a process of taking stock and shoring-up before a descent into deeper waters.

At the opening of the "Serioso," Beethoven presents his motivic material with no fanfare or introduction:

Brad Mehldau blog part 1 music sample 1 

There is no preparation for the jagged, almost brutal theme that begins the piece, and the effect is violent. What follows immediately is equally violent. The tonic F-minor tonality has barely strutted on the stage when it is brashly yanked away by the dominant:

Brad Mehldau blog part 1 music sample 2 

A quick battle between tonic and dominant ensues. The dominant tonality has the last word in bar 5, ending unquestionably on a unison C. This gives the listener an uncomfortably asymmetrical pair of phrases in the opening bars of the piece—a two-bar opening phrase and a three-bar reply. It is clear that this is not just an argument—it is already a shouting match. The dominant unison at bar 5 is that extra bit of screaming—"And don't you forget it!"—that is meant to eradicate any further reply from the tonic. These opening five bars are shocking and jarring, but there is also humor. The lopsided rejoinder in bars 3–5 is uncouth, disregarding the Classical ideal of symmetrical phrase length immediately at the beginning of the piece, with no explanation. The F-minor tonality initially argues its point forcefully but with restraint; what follows is simply screaming back for a longer duration.

There is a counterintuitive logic underlying all this feisty rhetoric. The opening phrase in bars 1 and 2 is scalewise and thus melodic in character; the next phrase is full of octave leaps and goes out of its way to not be melodic, with its repeated Cs. It is essentially a harmonization and nothing more. In fact, it looks strangely like an ending cadence—a kind of anti-cadence that ends on the dominant. A basic principle of harmony—one could say the basic principle of harmony for several centuries now—is that the dominant leads to the tonic. By strongly differentiating the shapes of these two phrases, though, Beethoven has cast the tonic and dominant as adversaries. They are like magnets that repel instead of attract each other.

This gesture is a prelude to Beethoven's later genius. His early- and middle-period innovations are largely expressive—the stormy introduction of the "Pathetique" Sonata, the mysterious opening movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata, or the great funereal slow movement of the "Eroica" Symphony are obvious examples among many. Beethoven was expanding the expressive potential of music, pushing it out of the 18th century court and giving the audience a richer, more intense emotional experience. The innovation in Op. 95, by contrast, is less overtly felt but more deeply subversive. Beethoven is calling into question a deep, founding principle of tonality. The music is deconstructive, not destructive—he is not doing away with the rules of tonality or turning them outright upside down; he is asking us to look differently at something that we always see.

Violence is a driving theme of this quartet. Beethoven willfully thwarts the development of his motifs, striking them down at once. But when he shuts down ideas like this, there is logic involved. The gesture in bars 3–5 is no mere stupid blow; as forceful as it is, it is a rejoinder to the initial motif. It forces Beethoven to essentially begin the piece again, as he does here at bar 6:

Brad Mehldau blog part 1 music sample 3 

The theme redresses itself in the warm key of G-flat major. In the opening, it was heard in stripped down, unharmonized octaves, which gave it a raw, brutal quality. This time, it is heard only in the cello, less threateningly, and is harmonized sweetly by the other strings above. It welcomes us away from the battle, promising reconciliation and a brand new start with its ascent upwards by a half step. This, coupled with the shift to a major mode, sends us a message: "Here is that theme for you, new and improved, easier on the ears and less jarring!"

We cannot properly speak of an actual modulation to G-flat major—there has been no voice leading between bars 5 and 6. This shift to another tonal center without preparation for a surprise effect had long been a favorite device of Beethoven's, for example, at the beginning of a development section. Here though, the stark juxtaposition between F minor and G-flat major has a specific meaning. It tells us right away what this piece will be about: opposition between poles, followed by resolution, followed by more opposition.

The resolution is always provisional and temporary. The sunny mood at bar 6 is over almost as soon as it begins. The listener feels G-flat major as a new tonic because Beethoven gave us the opening theme again. This is subterfuge, though. In bar 10, one more time, the dominant attacks again, with a pathos and subtlety that was absent in its first attack on the tonic seconds earlier; this mood change correlates to the more lyrical quality of theme's statement at bar 6. We see that G-flat major was ill-fated as a tonic: The dominant usurps that fleeting status through voice-leading at bars 8 and 9 and recasts G-flat major in a mere Neapolitan role—as a flatted second chord which must lead to the dominant. This is a completely legitimate move, well within accepted practice already for a good century, but it is downright sneaky here because G-flat had appeared to be the new tonal center seconds earlier.

The Neapolitan chord—built from the root of the flatted second degree of the scale that constitutes a given tonality; in this case, the G-flat of F Minor—is a more chromatic alternative for the subdominant in a progression that will continue to the cadential dominant and then resolve. But Beethoven withholds resolution here—the dominant is allowed to revel in its victory at bar 10 for the next several bars. So, for the second time, we have the strange feeling of anti-cadence: we have arrived at the dominant as if it were a kind of tonic, and we can go no further. The Neapolitan progression has been used partially and its original function is now eradicated. What we have now is a similar struggle between two tonalities like the opening of the piece, but one that sounds particularly sinister because they are a tritone apart. We see this simply if we harmonize those tonalities into simple triads and play them back-to-back a few times:

Brad Mehldau blog part 1 music sample 4 

The tritone relationship is one of equidistance within the chromatic scale: If I travel upwards or downwards from either triad in stepwise motion, I will arrive at the other triad in the same amount of steps. This directionless spatial relationship has a corollary effect on our ears: It is the sound of utter instability. Because they are equidistant from each other, neither triad wins over our ears as a tonic. In the early 20th century, as the tonal hierarchy gives way and we approach complete chromatic saturation—in the music of Richard Strauss and in Arnold Schoenberg's earlier works, for example—this kind of tritone relationship is normal. Or rather: It becomes a normative trope for everything that is not normal, and often denotes something sinister or scary. It becomes a cliché in film soundtracks, heard as the enemy's army marches toward us. Beethoven anticipates the sound of 20th-century instability, but he achieves that by thwarting and subverting conventional principals of harmony that had already existed—principals that he had reflected on, at this later point, for quite some time.

In his book about Schoenberg, the pianist and music scholar Charles Rosen comments on true originality—the kind that comes around only a few times each century—and distinguishes it from mere individuality:

Originality requires the exploration of a self-created universe coherent and rich enough to offer possibilities beyond the development of an individual manner. An individual style built upon the placid acquiescence in a disintegrating language is stamped, too, with a peculiar character; it is reduced to the exploiting of a limited set of mannerisms[...]

Beethoven is his own alpha and omega; when he subverts, he is subverting a style that he himself mastered. With some quick unpeeling, we always find that mastery. This is subversive and authoritative at once, and it is why no easy reduction of Beethoven is possible, as it is more readily with much of the music of the 20th century, which was never harmonically tethered in the first place. Rosen notes that Schoenberg spoke with contempt about contemporaries of his who composed "pseudo-tonal" works—those who acquiesced to that "disintegrating language" of tonality. Schoenberg took tonality—or more specifically, the guiding principles of Western tonality that began in the Renaissance and developed up through his own day—at least as seriously as Beethoven, and recognized that a limit had been reached.

Limitation, and how to bypass it or transcend it: In the narrative about Beethoven's creative mortality, he has won a victory in Op. 95 over the limitations of his genre, not by ignoring them, which would lead to nonsensical expression. Instead, he reexamines his—and our—assumptions about these limiting principles. Thus, the stage is set for Beethoven's compositional endgame strategy in his exalted third period, when he will return to seemingly conventional, at times even banal material, and then transform it into something the world had never heard before, and still shocks our ears today.

So much drama takes place in the first 15 seconds of Opus 95 that by the time the more lyrical second subject of the exposition starts, a bloody battlefield already stands before us. The expository material of the first movement unfolds through a dialectical process rooted in the sonata-allegro form, but there is a merciless quickening to that process, which makes the music sound perpetually modern.

That quickening calls to mind the writing style of the 20th-century German thinker, Theodor Adorno. In his Negative Dialectics, a sentence will fold back into itself like the thematic material of Beethoven; the act of positing and answering is wrapped in a single, compressed bundle. Adorno is critiquing the dialectical tradition of Kant and Hegel; the first movement of Beethoven's Op. 95, likewise, is a critique of the sonata-allegro form found in the high Classicism of Mozart and Haydn, and his own earlier works. In both Adorno and Beethoven, there is a disavowal of complacent thought, or perhaps they have unavoidably arrived at this impasse. This sentiment is familiar in the 20th-century context—there is a rejection of the expressive devices of the past and often an accompanying despair. That implies defeat or a Beckettian endgame, but in Beethoven's case, his new, leaner, and meaner form of expression is a stepping stone to creative victory. For when he turns again to the more expansive approach in his later works, it will be even more audacious and more profound than what he had previously achieved.