Here at the University of Idaho, we’re still on a high from our recent and extremely successful Bach Festival. Among the many highlights was the chance to work with Jeffrey Thomas, Artistic and Musical Director of the American Bach Soloists on Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen BWV 43. During one of the rehearsals, Maestro Thomas made the interesting point that while this work–and much of Bach’s sacred music–is full of yearning (“Ich stehe hier am Weg” and so on), there is never any suggestion that we might not get what we desire, i.e. fulfilment, a prayer answered, religious salvation.
This idea provoked me to consider composers who don’t necessarily promise that we’ll get what we want. While coaching a couple of graduate students who were preparing Beethoven’s C major cello sonata op. 102 no. 1 this week, it occurred to me that the entire opening Andante never allows us a single perfect authentic cadence in the home key until we’ve got through 24 bars of music in a slow tempo. The sense of yearning is tremendous, and yet, we don’t really know that we’ll truly, definitely, end up where we want to go. Will we get the root position tonic triad we’re longing for, or Beethoven disrupt the natural direction of the harmony with a Beethovenian crash on a deceptive cadence?
When I imagine the lives of composers (an activity that preoccupies me more than it probably should), I think of Beethoven as being perhaps less happy than Bach. Bach didn’t get a lot of things he wanted, but he did get to marry twice and father many children, experiences that eluded Beethoven. Consider the Beethoven of the Heiligenstadt Testament and the Immortal Beloved letters–this was a man who was used to having his yearning answered with defeat and disappointment. Is that why he drags us out for 24 measures of intense yearning, never allowing us the satisfaction of a C major triad in root position? Is that why, when we finally land on one, that the cello’s gentle double stops and the rippling motion of the pianist’s left hand are so immensely satisfying?