Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Arrangement that Conjures the Past; Beethoven's Op. 104 in "An Equal Music"

In "An Equal Music," by Vikram Seth," Beethoven's arrangement of the Op. 1 No. 3 Piano Trio (which was published as his Op. 104), becomes an integral part of the storyline.

Soon after his memory of Julia is triggered by the C minor trio, Michael hears about the arrangement that Beethoven did in 1817 of the trio for string quintet. “But that’s crazy. That’s at the wrong end of his life.” In his obsessive pre-internet search for the score and parts he also finds a specific an actual recording of the quintet:

“There are two Beethoven string quintets on the LP: my C minor, so desperately sought, so astonishingly found; and one in E flat major, another complete surprise, though I recall the librarian mentioning in passing its opus number, 4. They were recorded (with an extra viola player) by the Suk quartet and issued in 1977 under the Czech label Supraphon. . . .Bravo. Bravo Suk. Bravo Supraphon. What would I have done if it had not been for you? In twenty minutes I will be back in my flat, but I won’t listen to it immediately. Late tonight, after the rehearsal, I’ll come home, light a candle, lie down on my duvet, and sink into the quintet.”

This LP was re-released on CD in 1999 by Supraphon Archive [SU 3447-2 111]. The specific reference to hearing the trio through Michael’s past its symbolism are developed when Michael hears the transformations made in the arrangement:

"The sound fills the room: so familiar, so well-loved, so disturbingly and enchantingly different. From the moment, a mere ten bars from the beginning, where it is not the piano that answers the violin but the violin itself that provides its own answer, to the last note of the last movement where the cello, instead of playing the third, supports with its lowest, most resonant, most open note the beautifully spare C major chord, I am in a world where I seem to know everything and nothing.

(Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon playing the fourth movement of Op. 104)

"My hands travel the strings of the C minor trio while my ears sing to the quintet. Here Beethoven robs me of what is mine, giving it to the other violin; there he bequeaths me of what is mine, giving it to the other violin; there he bequeaths me the upper reaches of what Julia used to play. It is a magical transformation. I listen to it again from beginning to end. In the second movement it is the first violin—who else?—who sings what was the piano’s theme, and the variations take on a strange, mysterious distance, as being, in a sense, variations one degree removed, orchestral variants of variations, but with changes that go beyond what could be explained by orchestration alone."

The musical references harmonize the changes in Michael’s life in relation to Julia. Later, Michael’s quartet is joined by a guest violist to read through the quintet. Julia’s personality as represented by the piano part in the trio is transformed into string parts that now represent Michael’s present. This story now creates a context in which hear Op. 104 as a personality transformed. The first violin sings what was the piano’s theme in Op. 1 No. 3. From the standpoint of personality this allows Michael to visit Julia like only a musician can.

“We play the first movement without stopping, and do not get entangled once. It ends with Piers playing a tremendously zippy set of ascending and descending scales, followed by a huge resonant chord from all five of us, ebbing swiftly away I three softer chords.
We look at one another beaming.”

These passages give us opportunity to hear the trio through the characters, to make contact with how specific passages fit into the lives of its characters. We hear the affect of the music as it intertwines with the circumstances and the strangeness of living. We can hear the exact recording, we can observe and make contact with the exact notes and specific passages that take on or transmit the personality of those who played and loved it. It is also an emblem of a difficult time in his life that he is trying to interpret and transcend.

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