The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience

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Book review: Kenneth Drake. The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994

IN THIS SECOND STUDY OF BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATAS, Kenneth Drake, professor of piano at the University of Illinois and fortepianist, expands on what he had previously broached, but not developed. The Sonatas of Beethoven As He Played and Taught Them (1972) concerned mainly such technical matters as announced by the various chapter headings: "Tempo and Modifications of Tempo," "Dynamics," "Pedaling," "Ornamentation." The two remaining chapters of the earlier book treat Beethoven's creative milieu and the milieu of the present interpreter whose aim is at bottom more a matter of philosophy than of execution.

In The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience Drake begins where the earlier book ends. "The present work," Drake declares,

is not an exercise in musicology or performance practice, nor does it offer measure by measure analysis. Instead it is a work about meaning a personal account of studying, teaching, and playing the Beethoven sonatas, the significance they assume in the innermost self, and, especially, the musical basis for their significance. The immediate purpose is to isolate ideas within the score and to perceive meaning in them and derive meaning from them.

Drake readily admits the difficulties inherent in the idea of "meaning" in the context of a musical composition. And yet, following the example, for example, of Owen Jander, who took his cue from, among others, Adolph Marx and Carl Czerny, Drake insists upon the significance of the extra-musical images that ultimately "imbued a newly found musical idea with character." The "humanly moving experience" that gave rise to Beethoven's musical ideas provides the key to the performer's total involvement in the music, an involvement that rises above technique to communicate the inner, the spiritual, content of the printed score. "In describing Beethoven's visions and images as the true key to interpretation," Drake insists, "Czerny was stating as the one, all-encompassing rule of performance practice for the playing of Beethoven, total personal involvement."

The emphasis upon the extra-musical might lead the reader to believe, perhaps to fear, that Drake's book is a regression to a branch of Romantic music criticism that naively saw paintings in every tune, and a story in every period. The book, however, avoids all such anachronism, and provides in fact a highly sophisticated analysis of the musical content of the sonatas. Drake's point remains, however, that unless the player accepts the basic humanity of what Beethoven conveys, he or she is bound merely to go through the motions, however so competently, without conveying meaning.

The introductory portion of the book ends with the reminder of the significance to Beethoven of the concept of suffering. Drake's is the "willfully philosophical" Beethoven, driven to reach beyond his grasp, who finds meaning in struggle. Drake quotes Beethoven's "joy through suffering" letter to Countess Erdödy, a letter in which the composer asserts that "Man ... must endure without complaining and feel his worthlessness and then again achieve his perfection, that perfection which the almighty will then bestow upon him." The performer must therefore reach beyond, risk failure, even, as Drake quotes Lily Kraus, risk shame. The truly communicated Beethoven sonata, in Kraus's words, sheds grace upon the audience. And "to experience grace is to be forgiven for the one forgiven and to forgive for the forgiven It is an act on the part of both performer and listener requiring a belief in meaning, and this is the ultimate involvement."

It would be tempting to say here, "so much for philosophy." But the strength of the book, in fact, lies precisely in its philosophical conceptualization. Kenneth Drake is a seasoned teacher and performer who has devoted his career to the accurate conveyance of the spirit as well as the body of the works of the great composers, particularly those of Beethoven. …