Valéry Afanassiev studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Jacob Zac and Emil Gilels. In 1968 he won First Prize at the Leipzig Bach Competition, and likewise at the Concours Reine Elizabeth in Brussels in 1972. Since then, he has concertized in all European countries as well as in the USA and Japan.
Valéry Afanassiev is certainly one of the most strong-willed artists of our time. He writes the booklet texts to his recordings himself. His goal is to give listeners a comprehensive pic-ture of his insight into the composer’s thoughts – a tour through his alchemistic laboratory, in which poetry, philosophy, painting, Kabala, good wine as well as the music itself may be cited for reference. Valéry Afanassiev has written novels, poetry cycles, stories and two plays.
On this CD, Valéry Afanassiev has found a coequal partner in Hubert Soudant and the Mozarteum Orchestra for his sensational performance of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos.
Ludwig van Beethoven
In his lectures on Anna Karenin, Nabokov drops a curious remark about how Tolstoy handles time in his works: ‘He is the only writer I know of whose watch keeps time with the numberless watches of his readers.’ What really seduces the average reader is the gift Tolstoy had of endowing his fiction with such time-values as correspond exactly to our sense of time.’ In the same lecture Nabokov reproaches Tolstoy for devoting too many pages to the agrarian problems and provincial elections which are bound to grow obsolete, being ‘linked up with a certain historical
period’. I think, however, that Tolstoy’s (and our) time depends a lot on short-lived, ‘local’ matters for the simple reason that in our everyday life we cannot help getting involved in all sorts of unimportant, ephemeral events and problems. They cannot be kept in the margin or ignored altogether; and even if we don’t give much thought to such and such daily occurrence, its mere existence usurps our time, casting a shadow on the sun-drenched monuments of our ideas and ideals. (The same goes for those thoughts of ours to which we don’t give much thought.) Besides, our body always meddles in the internal affairs of our
mind and soul, according to some philosophers and religious thinkers. And to scientists.
Tolstoy doesn’t put Anna’s life in a nutshell, contrary to what most novelists might have done in their eagerness to hold the reader spellbound. During her last trip to the railway
station she automatically takes notice of the signboards that glide past her: ‘Office and warehouse. Dentist … Filipov’s bun shop.’ Those signboards expand the time (and space) of Anna’s interior monologue, conveying a peculiar rhythm to the whole chapter – the rhythm of the heart that might miss a beat now and then, which differentiates it from a metronome.
The agrarian reform, provincial elections and the author’s numerous meditations, which are so frowned upon by many readers, including
Nabokov, play the same role in the overall structure of the novel, expanding, humanising its literary time, amplifying its pages until they reach the size of a landscape: Tolstoy’s space also coincides with ours. (After all, our meditations,
our interior monologues are a part of the things we are looking at.) Throughout the novel quite a number of so-called nonlocal connections
are thus established. All this contributes to the three-dimensional – better still, quantum reality of Tolstoy’s characters about whom, to paraphrase Nabokov, elderly Russians talk at their evening tea, failing to distinguish between Anna, Kitty, Vronsky and their own acquaintances.
Nonlocal connections are the essential part of quantum theory. Each event is influenced by the whole universe. Thus Anna’s destiny is influenced
by what seems to happen somewhere else, in another novel – in the novel devoted to the provincial elections and Lyovin’s search for good and God. Einstein could not bring himself to accept the existence of nonlocal connections,
saying that God did not play dice. Well, Tolstoy did play dice. So did Beethoven, especially
in his last period. Within his late quartets and piano sonatas the laws of music can be formulated only in terms of probabilities.
The Classical sonata, which emerged in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, replacing the Baroque sonata, has many affinities
with psychological novel – and with our sense of time and our mind in general. Human life seems to have been composed in the sonata form: the exposition, the development, the recapitulation. The so-called contrast of key that reached full expression in Haydn and Mozart reflects the conflict between the hero and his destiny (incarnated by a mortal enemy, an unrequited love, a war) – an unavoidable feature of human life and the novel.
Haydn’s works, for all their individual, intimate
traits, remain on this side of the mirror, as it were. They may be likened to the novel of manners, to the historical novel and sometimes
even to the picaresque novel in which a roguish theme embarks upon a series of tonal adventures. The plots of his late symphonies
and quartets often rival the intricacies of Tom Jones. And of course his works are very realistic, endowing the world of sounds with a kind of immediacy, almost tangibility – to such an extent that we are reminded of real objects and natural phenomena. And yet Haydn’s orchestral and chamber music has no literary programme. (The Farewell Symphony is a notable exception.) What is reflected in Haydn’s mirror? Cosmology, high-society balls, fancy dress balls, open-air dances, harvests,
games, grandfather clocks, animals, etc. It is not for nothing that various nicknames were bestowed on some of his symphonies: Le Matin, Le Midi, Le Soir, La Poule, Surprise, The Clock, Drum Roll, Military. Only La Passione and Funèbre remind us of the names given to some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Appassionata,
The Tempest, The Moonlight.
Mozart likewise remained on this side of the mirror; and yet he strove to break it many times. What actually happens when you look in a mirror?
The world is seen only from the outside; and even your perception of whatever surrounds
you comes not from your mind but from your own reflection which is a part of the picture.
At least you might get the feeling of being outside yourself. What is reflected in Mozart’s mirror? A lot of dramatic conflicts which originate
in an opera house, on a stage. Mozart is primarily a composer of operas and his handling
of the sonata form reveals his predilection for contrasts and disguises. He prefers strongly differentiated themes and often reshapes his second subjects when they reappear in the recapitulation, as if unconsciously imitating the metamorphoses that his characters undergo in Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro. He goes so far as to create a tonal conflict between the first and the slow movements, setting the latter in keys only distantly related to those of the former. (Haydn has a penchant for combining dualistic key schemes with monistic thematic material, using the basic theme in both keys and thus attenuating the conflict.)
Mozart dramatised instrumental music to the point of making it sound like an opera in which he himself takes part, incidentally, being one of his own characters. In some of his works, however, he attempts to transfer the action into his mind, breaking the mirror. But
even in the Requiem we find ourselves in the presence of two Mozarts: one is at a writing desk, the other on his deathbed. The former is composing a requiem for the latter – or for the mythical ‘black man’ who commissioned it. The final (unfinished) product does not sound like Anna Karenin’s death-tinged interior monologue.
(Or like the second part of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.) Actually it does not sound like an interior monologue at all. And many of Beethoven’s pieces do sound like interior monologues.
‘There’s something bizarre and sombre in your music because you’re sombre and bizarre yourself. And the style of a musician is always the man,’ said Haydn to young Beethoven who, for a short period of time, was his pupil in Vienna, studying composition and counterpoint. As a true representative of the age of Enlightenment, Haydn might also have desired to teach his pupil a more impersonal, harmonious approach to personal feelings. He continuously strove for balance between emotions and thoughts, whereas in Beethoven’s works there are too many thoughts, too many emotions – at the expense of naturalness and objectivity.
In both his life and music Haydn was dependent on Esterházy and other patrons or sponsors, to use modern terminology; he often worked to a tight deadline and therefore had no time for living either with his works or his own self. He had no time (and no desire) to cross the mirror in order to withdraw from the world, replacing it by his mind and heart. The feelings he expressed are general feelings ñ the feelings of those who walked around him and danced in nearby towns and villages. (Is there such a thing as a general feeling of solitude? Did Haydn ever express the feeling of solitude?) Beethoven, on the other hand, was an independent composer – the first musician to receive a salary with no other duties than to compose how and when he felt inclined. He could afford to work on the same piece for years, resorting in his search for the note juste to his ‘second thoughts’ and ‘third thoughts’ and ‘fourth thoughts’ and so on and so forth.
Flaubert demanded of a writer to be everywhere
and nowhere, reigning over his or her characters and sentences from invisible thrones. (Nowadays it is the reader that reigns over characters and sentences – over books in general. And there are powers behind this throne.) The music of Haydn corresponds to this conception; so do a great many of Mozart’s works. But Beethoven never leaves his melodies
and harmonies alone, often behaving like a busybody or even a bully – especially when composing a fugue. Indeed, contrary to some artists who happily assume the role of a medium, he never attempts to copy an alleged pre-existent idea from the mind of God. (Bruckner said once that his symphonies had been dictated to him by angels.) Nor does he ever copy a work that exists already in the listener’s mind. (A common procedure nowadays. Copying something from the minds of customers, whoever they may be: concert-goers, readers, television-viewers.) And yet his music seems to be inhabited by the people about whom we might talk on the terrace of a country house. In other words, his watch keeps time with our watches; and his heart beats in rhythm with our hearts. It is noteworthy
that the Missa Solemnis bears in epigraph the following words: ‘From the heart. May it penetrate to the heart again.’ These words seem to have been written by Tolstoy: the style of his late works is both ponderous and poignant. However, he might have replaced ‘the heart’ by ‘the soul’.
Had Beethoven been a novelist, he would have proceeded in the manner of Tolstoy, forcing his thoughts upon his characters (and upon the reader). ‘We have the feeling now and then that Tolstoy’s novel writes its own self, is produced by its matter, by its subject, not by a definite person moving a pen from left to right, and then coming back and erasing a word, and pondering, and scratching his chin through his beard,’ says Nabokov in his lectures
on Anna Karenin. I, for one, never have the feeling that Tolstoy’s work was dictated to him by angels or other heavenly emissaries. (By those who have first-hand experience of Platonic ideas: a work of art is a Platonic idea after all.) On the contrary, Tolstoy always moves his pen from left to right (and from top to bottom). What’s more, he writes on our hearts and souls, erasing in the process our own thoughts and feelings – as every tyrannical
Carried along by his didactic élan, Beethoven often repeated chords or arpeggios
or just one note (the final movement of the Piano Sonata, Opus 110) as if to inculcate a musical idea into his sluggish, indolent audience. Actually he had no need to do so: in the long run the accumulation of his thoughts produced a new brand of musical communication,
somewhat akin to what is called psychokinesis.
Indeed his music is so condensed that we are constantly under the impression that everything is repeated several times,
leaving an imprint inside our bodies. (From the body. May it penetrate to the body again.)
The Heiligenstadt Testament ends thus: ‘As the leaves of autumn wither and fall, so has my own life become barren: almost as I came, so I go hence. Even that high courage that inspired me in the fair days of summer has now vanished.’
In Dickens’ Dombey and Son I chanced upon the following example of psychokinesis: ‘Mr Dombey represented in himself the wind, the shade, and the autumn of the christening. He stood in his library to receive the company, as hard and cold as the weather; and when he looked out through the glass room, at the trees in the little garden, their brown and yellow leaves came fluttering down, as if he blighted them.’ Let me repeat in this connection
the words that Haydn addressed to his pupil: ‘There’s something bizarre and sombre in your music because you’re sombre and bizarre yourself.’ This remark dates back to the years when Beethoven was still unaware of what lay in store for him – the deafness which plagued him for the greater part of his life. Yet he already represented in himself the wind (or rather the tempest), the shade, the autumn. And the leaves of his autumn had withered and fallen long before he picked up a pen to write the Heiligenstadt Testament. (Actually that pen was moving from left to right for many years.) In my essay on the Diabelli Variations I attribute the origin of Beethoven’s deafness to his unconscious desire to shield himself from the Viennese School, from its objectivity
and easy-going style. Likewise his unconscious
might have been looking for an excuse: Beethoven had to exonerate himself from Haydn’s
(and other people’s) accusations. And his body obligingly provided an excuse, playing the part of a courtier who kills somebody (an heir to the throne) only because he thinks his sovereign wants him to commit the murder. As might have been expected, in the Heiligenstadt Testament Beethoven blames everything on his disease: ‘O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the cause of my seeming so. From childhood my heart and mind was disposed to the gentle feeling of good will.’
Apart from providing him with a pretext to withdraw from society, his deafness put an end to his career as a virtuoso pianist. Did he unconsciously desire it? He might have been aware of the danger lying in his wonderful, unmatched gift for improvisation: even Mozart was inferior to him in this field. The gift for improvisation would certainly have influenced Beethoven’s music, barring the way to his second thoughts, let alone his third thoughts. No wonder that, at the end of his life, he felt nostalgia for the days when he used to improvise a piece of music before a wonder-stricken audience. And this nostalgia gave rise to many passages – to entire movements – which sound like improvisations. (Or like interior
monologues.) But these improvisations are the fruit of a time-consuming and painful creative
process in the course of which music often seized Beethoven by the throat, to paraphrase his own words. (‘I will seize fate by the throat,’ he wrote in a letter to his friend Franz Wegeler.) For hours and hours, for days on end, he would pace up and down his room, shaking his head (to loosen the music’s grip) and abstaining from food despite his landlady’s culinary efforts. (When composing a fugue he would not touch food for two or three days.) In those moments he was not merely in the throes of creation; it was, as usual, a question of life and death.
Notes, notes, notes – to paraphrase Hamlet’s
words. Adjusting notes to his life. And adjusting his life to notes. (The other side of the mirror – the inner mirror.) Now and then Beethoven seems to go in circles, as if exploring
the vicious circle in which he has been imprisoned. (And only prisoners can really experience the freedom that is symbolised in Beethoven’s works by improvisation and the opera Fidelio.) In this respect he was also akin to Tolstoy who would have become addicted to variations as a musical form, had he been a composer. Both Beethoven and Tolstoy strive to express their thoughts with the utmost clarity and completeness; and variations is a form best suited for the purpose. (After all, life is a cycle of variations on genes.) What is more, it coincides with the subjectivity of human time about which St Augustine spoke so eloquently in his Confessions. It is the form of our interior monologues that are often centred
upon one idea, one thought – one theme, in musical terms. The famous last episode of Joyce’s Ulysses is thus centred upon love. Molly’s thoughts circle around love, around its light, until both are extinguished by sleep. We are far from what Calvino advocates in his American Lessons: fastness and lightness. Of course neither Tolstoy nor Beethoven are long-winded and slow-witted. A lot happens in Beethoven’s works; in comparison with Schubert’s pace and space, they are packed with action. And so are Tolstoy’s novels and even his sentences. Here is what I chanced upon in my edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
‘If Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a greater novel than Fielding’s Tom Jones or Dickens’ David Copperfield, it is not because its theme is nobler, or more pathetic, or more significant historically; it is because Tolstoy brings to his panoramic drama the compression
and urgency usually regarded as the monopolies of briefer fiction.’
The same goes for Beethoven, naturally. How do the compression and urgency operate
in his works? Let us take a piece that everybody
knows by heart: Für Elise. Why is it so intense, so popular – so inevitable, in a sense? The theme is rather simple, not to say primitive.
A short motif (a compressed melody) is repeated many times with only slight variations.
But most people would consider it a haunting, hypnotic melody. Why? On account of its simplicity? Sure enough, many melodies written by Beethoven are simple and even rudimentary. Often they consist just of a short arpeggio. (And Für Elise starts with a trill in slow motion.) But works of tremendous complexity grew out of those ‘genes’. Why do they haunt us despite their complexity which is invariably frowned upon in the realm of art? (Many people talk about Mozart’s ‘divine simplicity’.
I have never heard anybody utter the same words in relation to Beethoven’s music.) Why are we tempted to talk about them as if they were our old acquaintances, our friends and even our mistresses?
A hypnotist repeats the same words in a suggestive tone. We fall asleep and dream of things that we are not likely to recall in our waking state. Beethoven often repeats the same motif with only slight variations. (The first movement of the Fifth is a good example.) We stay wide awake of course, but something similar to a hypnotic séance does happen during
a performance of his work – even if there are no ostentatious repetitions in it.
Beethoven drives everything home. (‘Home’ is one of his keywords.) In addition to his hypnotic
powers, he occasionally reveals his surgical skill as well, carrying out a heart transplant operation to reduce his motto ‘from heart to heart’ to its simplest form.
In Beethoven’s sketchbooks one might follow
the metamorphoses undergone by his symphonies and sonatas, by his quartets. Some melodies would get reduced, abridged, as he continued to work on them – for years; others expanded, came into blossom as if to counteract the autumnal predominance upon which he touched in the postscript to the Heiligenstadt Testament. (The adagio of the Emperor Concerto is a good example of the latter variety. So is the andante of the Kreutzer Sonata.) ‘Spring’ is another keyword.
The way Beethoven worked on his melodies
reminds me of the following passage from Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden:
‘Each generation is a filter, a sieve: good genes tend to fall through the sieve into the next generation; bad genes tend to end up in bodies that die young or without reproducing.
Bad genes may pass through the sieve for a generation or two, perhaps because they have the luck to share a body with good genes. But you need more than luck to navigate
successfully through a thousand sieves in succession, one sieve under the other. After a thousand successive generations, the genes that have made it through are likely to be the good ones.’
No composer had ever worked like that before. And very few did after.
The river of DNA ‘flows through time, not space. It is a river of information, not a river of bones and tissues: a river of abstract instructions
for building bodies, not a river of solid bodies themselves […] The river of pure digital
information, majestically flowing through geological time and splitting into three billion branches.’ Für Elise and the first movement of the Fifth Symphony are based on building blocks – on genes rather than on themes. (So are the Piano Sonata in F major, Opus 54 and the greater part of the Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109.) They have more affinities with living matter than with works of art, displaying
the phenomenon of self-organisation whose key features are self-renewal, adaptation
The first movement of the Eroica is chiefly based on an arpeggio-theme which, in the course of its self-renewal, adaptation and evolution, outgrows the habitual framework of the sonata form, eventually introducing a gigantic, tumour-like coda. It sounds like a benign tumour at first; there follows the Funeral
All his life Beethoven strove to counteract the postscript to the Heiligenstadt Testament, seizing fate by the throat. Sometimes the result is a naïve outburst of joy; sometimes his joy seems to border on hysterics. (In the finale of the Ninth.) But a lot of melodies that adorn his slow movements are placid, serene and may be likened to Japanese poetry. They
disclose no sensual nuances which are so characteristic of Mozart’s melodies.
Picking a violet, –
Heart of Spring!
To that obedient ear within.
‘Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei’ (‘more as an expression of the feeling than painting’) – in these words he described his Pastoral Symphony. (Many of his works might have been nicknamed ‘Pastoral’.) Another reflection in the inner mirror, another interior monologue. The point is that a great many of Beethoven’s thoughts originate in his heart so that, instead of ‘heartfelt’, I should rather say ‘heartthought’ in regard to his music, thereby coining a new word. (Another of his keywords.)
Matthew Arnold wrote in one of his essays: ‘The truth is we are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.’ (The agrarian problems and provincial elections are the indispensable ingredients of that huge slice of life.) And Haydn composed
works of art. So did Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Monteverdi. (They did not play dice.) Beethoven is closer to Bach in this respect. (And in many other respects. Psychologically, mentally, he is closer to Bach than to Haydn and Mozart, especially in his last period. Only, Bach’s interior monologues were dialogues in disguise – a continuous prayer.) A lot came to be reflected in Beethoven’s inner mirror: Napoleonic Wars and Japanese poetry, the Moon and Filipov’s bun shop, dead leaves and the Garden of Eden. In my essay on the Diabelli Variations I said that Beethoven was the best exponent of Paradise in music, for all his trials and tribulations. Actually he seems to have made a Dantean journey: from Hell to Paradise, from Minor to Major (often within the same work), from here to eternity. And like Dante he had the knack of predicting the future – at least that of music. In a way, he was writing science fiction novels.
And the future can be reflected only in the inner mirror. The future also speaks to that obedient ear within
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)