Thursday, October 21, 2010

A "Kreutzer Sonata" alternative with slightly lower tuning; A439

It is the second movement of the infamous Kreutzer Sonata that becomes the focus of an unusual story in a charming book of fiction written in 1900 called "A439; Being the Autobiography of a Piano." The book contains a series of 23 chapters with a prologue and epilogue written by various authors and edited by Algernon Rose.

The premise is that a piano is able to write its own story, and it is dedicated "to my tuners good, bad, and indifferent." My favorite title: "She Kissed my Cold Keys."

One of the stories, "How I helped Angus Mackay to Success," by J. C. H. Macbeth of Aberdeen, centers on how the piano comes to the assistance of a young violinist with whom it sympathizes:

"The violinist was Angus Mackay, who had recently fallen in love with and married a very charming young lady. Neither of them was endowed liberally with the good things of this world, but, in their youthful rashness, they had not stopped to consider the prosaic, unromantic question of ways and means, with the result that they were finding it a bitter struggle to make both ends meet. The supreme moment of the young husband's life was now at hand, as the violinist whom Mr. Klug had engaged to play at Herr Flügelbrecher's recital that evening, had found himself unable to appear, and Mackay had been hastily sent for to take his place."

As Flügelbrecher plays the piano the second movement of the Kruetzer sonata, the piano notices a mistake (the piano has, after all, played the work countless times), and decides to help cue the violinist.

"When they reached the glorious Andante I thought that surely Flügelbrecher would allow his artistic feelings to triumph but no, his playing of the opening bars was positively slovenly; and when he came to the ten bars solo, before the second subject [0:49], he hastened the tempo considerably. To my dismay, Mackay did not come in at the end of those ten bars, but seemed to lose himself. The note be should have played was C [1:19], the dominant of the keynote. I determined to help Angus, and, as Flügelbrecher had left my vibrating strings free by holding down the sustaining pedal, I saw my opportunity. I made a supreme effort, and, taking a liberty my designer had done his best to render impossible, I made my overtones so powerful that the dominant C started vibrating loudly enough to reach Mackay's ear, and supply the cue I was anxious to give him, and thus he was able to resume correctly.

"This narrow escape of a breakdown, instead of disconcerting him, seemed to give the violinist more confidence, and he finished the Andante and Variations as if the muse Euterpe herself had inspired him."

This musical pointer is linked to an unusual and often unnoticed place within a work that unfolds like an English Garden. The author needed an entrance on a pitch sustained long enough for the "cue." He also had to find a place that could be referenced in the imagination of his musical readers as they had the book in hand.

Anyway, you've gotta love a piano that is willing to make a "supreme effort."


  1. More to come on that...certainly a complicated relationship between the novella and the sonata itself!


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