for violin and piano(2015)
|Movements||I. Aubade, for a Golden Age|
II. Broken Scherzo: Tripping Up, Falling Down
III. Nocturne, Half-Remembered
|Premiere||Commissioned by MusicBridge, Inc. with the generous support of Augusta Gross, Seth Novatt, and Justus Schlichting. It is dedicated to Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner|
When I was approached by Jenny Koh to write a piece in conversation with Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 96 in early 2013, I was just starting to embark on several projects with the specific goal of responding to Beethoven. The orchestral work Lyra (2013-14) was inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice throughout the history of western music and its possible connection to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in particular, and the piano quintet Bagatelles (2014) took fragments of the Coriolan Overture and Fifth Symphony as points of departure. Thus the appeal was especially timely and prescient, though the shadow and influence of Beethoven has been a constant theme throughout my life as a composer and pianist. The composers in the Bridge to Beethoven project have each responded in very different ways to the calling, weaving biographical strands into reimagined histories and recontextualizing individual movements with interludes.
The title Elective Memory is somewhat of a cross between selective memory, either unconscious or by will, and elective affinity, a concept made famous by Goethe as a kind of pseudo-scientific theory of natural predilection and inclination in the realm of human relations, as guided by chemical reactions. An elective affinity between Goethe and Beethoven manifested itself in a mutual admiration for one another’s work, but also a mismatched series of meetings in July 1812 (the same month when Beethoven wrote his mysterious “immortal beloved” letters, and also the year of his Op. 96 sonata). The legendary encounters took place in Teplice, a spa town in the present-day Czech Republic, in which each rebuked the other on account of perceived social failings.
My piece begins with a hazily recalled fragment of Op. 96, the opening plaintive birdcall trill that becomes the basis of an ongoing dialogue between the violin and piano, transforming it into something lonely and with simple longing, a dialogue no longer between the instruments, but struggling within itself, in displaced phrases and registers across the violin. The “golden age” referred to in the first movement could be that of Beethoven’s mythological past (through the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight) or simply an idyllic, paradisal world that Beethoven’s pastoral language evokes.
The second movement is all about dramatic contrasts and increasingly larger brushstrokes. Here, I turn to the elective memory of an earlier sonata for violin and piano, written when I was 18, a piece that I later consciously repressed but occasionally revisited, and which is itself about involuntary memory, inspired by the fictitious Vinteuil sonata of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The re-awakening of that forbidden memory, recalled in fleeting moments throughout the movement, is interspersed with an equally passing gesture from the Beethoven, a simple up-down wavelike motion between the two instruments in absolute unity, before their bonds eventually become loosened. The naïve gesture soon transforms into a series of sweeping, impassioned movements, overlapping and traded between the instruments, before they are brought back together with rhythmic cohesion and propulsion. A final “Nocturne, Half-Remembered,” in contrast to the dawn music of the opening “Aubade,” returns us to the fragmented, drawn-out “bird” theme of the opening, this time even more disassembled and refracted. While the violin assumes an increasingly lyrical role, departing from yet always alluding to the opening motif, the piano’s role turns more accompanimental, providing a floating and ever expanding backdrop.
This is a piece about the selective affinities that Jenny and I share for this particular Beethoven sonata – it is our favorite amongst the cycle – and the elective memories I have chosen to guide my response to it.
– Anthony Cheung