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BEAUTY THROUGH BARENBOIM

by KS

When asked to review a classical musician with reference to ideas of beauty of either Socrates or Aristotle, two philosophers who had very different ideas on the nature of beauty and its appreciation, I could think of no better example than my now favourite pianist Daniel Barenboim. As I initially abhorred his interpretation of Beethoven but then grew to admire it more than any others, it seems to be the perfect example of how to compare these two ideas of beauty. Through this, he can demonstrate the validity of Aristotle's ideas of beauty through imitation and imagination, as opposed to Socrates' ideas, which largely followed on from Plato's Theory Of Forms, suggesting that passions and imitations drive a wedge between us and 'universal forms' (e.g. the form of Beauty, the form of Roundness etc.) and hence the 'realm of the Good'.

 

Since as far back as I can remember I have always been in love with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor "Quasi una fantasia", Opus 27, No. 2, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata. I love the celebrated first movement with its sombre, mournfully deliberate march, widely attempted by pianists spanning the full gamete of ability, offset by the joyously playful second movement. However, it was the turbulent third movement that kept me most captivated and, to this day never ceases to excite and engage my soul. The ferocity and angst that had been poured into it by the composer, combined with the frantic dance up and down the keys of the piano, requires an immense amount of technical prowess. No wonder we rarely hear it used in soundtracks, adverts and school piano recitals compared to the first movement, which being slower might, to the untrained musician, be mistaken for being easier to perform.

 

Having heard a variety of dramatically performed versions of the piece, I was delighted upon finding a CD of it when I was fourteen years old, performed by revered Israeli-Argentine conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who was at the time unknown to me. And how I was disappointed. The notes seemed to be played more deliberately, but I felt that they were restrained and subdued, lacking all of the drama which I felt was necessary to convey the pain that Beethoven felt when constructing the piece that was dedicated to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a student of his who he was allegedly in love with but was unable to marry due to the difference in their social statuses.

For years after that I avoided Daniel Barenboim's work, cursing the fact that I felt that he had done an injustice to one of my most beloved pieces of music. But then I watched something that not only completely absolved him in my mind, but transformed him into my most-admired pianist. Suddenly I saw with immense clarity the beauty of his interpretation of the music, how he refused to always allow himself to blaze over the keys without inhibition. So what had happened to force this drastic change of opinion?

It was simply watching a two-part programme aired on BBC4 in 2010, entitled 'Barenboim On Beethoven', that I happened across when flicking through the channels. These programmes were televised master-classes, given by Barenboim to rising world class pianists Lang Lang, David Kadouch, Shai Wosner and Jonathan Biss, about how to improve on their interpretations of Beethoven's music. Over the duration of these shows I was completely mesmerised as Barenboim took each pianist through a piece of their choice, illustrating the importance of structure, the relationship between tempo, harmony and dynamics, and how to maintain a line of continuity throughout each piece, as opposed to jumping between dynamic changes as if each part were unconnected.

 

Now, the Theory of Forms suggests that something is merely beautiful because it takes on the 'form of Beauty', just as somebody is tall because they share characteristics with the ideal 'form of Tallness'. Plato and Socrates speak of the dangers of art, passions and imitations because they blur or distance us from universal forms, which are in the realm of the Good.

 

Aristotle's idea of concepts such as beauty, however, is a far more scientifically thought out idea, as demonstrated in his Aesthetics, Politics and Poetics. He first recognises that the aim of art is to give pleasure, not just to have a mechanical function. It can purge excess emotions and allow us to see a more virtuous way of living. He also suggests that beauty in art arises from imitation of the beauty in nature, that the philosophical thought that goes into poetry and art rivals that of a philosopher without art, and that fear and pity are powerful elements in any work of art, much like the sadness and pity one feels when listening to the first and third movements of the Moonlight Sonata.

 

The point is, once we dissect the mechanics of Barenboim's approach to Beethoven, we can see the lucidity with which he is able to empathise with the composer's emotional state at the time of writing and, thus, successfully imitate the yearning building up to joy, followed by devastation at his true love never being requited.

 

It is true that beauty is subjective and one can never be wrong in finding any work of art beautiful or not. However, this experience is a powerful demonstration to me that if anyone finds beauty in a work of art that we do not, by taking time to understand the thought process, technical prowess and emotional state involved in the artist's work, we can then be swayed into opening our minds to how successfully the artist has captured their emotion and feel what they felt. And what is beauty in art if not a powerful emotional reaction?

 

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