Last week we caught Mozart peeking at the future in composing a passage that could have been written by Schubert (if on a more inspired day, perhaps, than even the latter ever had). In bringing off this miracle, Mozart’s futurescope was focused about forty years ahead.
When Beethoven pulled off something comparably prophetic, he shot beyond his time by something more like a century. His last piano sonata, the Opus 111 (1821-22), has only two movements rather than the customary three or four, but it’s safe to say that no one has ever felt shortchanged by it. The second movement, in particular, is, to adopt a phrase sometimes applied to Schubert, of a “heavenly length:” a theme and variations, marked Adagio molto, that lasts at least fifteen minutes (and often a good deal more) in performance. (It starts at 9:22 in this clip.) While the movement’s glacial tempo never changes, things seem to speed up from variation to variation in the first few of them, as Beethoven packs the same slow beats with progressively more (hence progressively faster) notes. (Eventually these notes speed up so much that they become a trill, which Beethoven uses, in a bit of paradoxical wizardry, to stop time altogether in the movement’s extended coda.)
It’s the movement’s third variation that gets prophetic. Of what? You tell me. When I first heard this variation, which begins at 15:56 in the clip, I could hardly believe my ears. Who knew there were honky-tonks in 1820’s Vienna? Not that Beethoven ever visited them again; it’s as though, having happened on an entirely new world we call jazz, he left the exploration of it to a later age.
Of course the composer himself didn’t hear the writing in this variation as “jazzy”–just powerfully syncopated. Can we “forget” our experience of jazz, and hear Beethoven’s variation in all 19th-century innocence of the future? Not easily, but that doesn’t mean that, as a mind-stretching exercise of our historical imagination, it isn’t worth trying to.