By James David Jacobs | Thursday, January 17, 2013
A scene from "33 Variations" at Lyric Stage Co. (photo by Henry Lussier, courtesy of Lyric Stage Co.)
Playwright Moises Kaufman was listening to a classical radio station in New York when he heard something about Beethoven's obsession with variation form.
So he stopped at Tower Records, where he asked the clerk about it. When the clerk told him the story of the Diabelli Variations, as Kaufman himself has put it, "I heard the story of my next play."
Moises Kaufman has made a career out of creating plays that are quasi-documentaries. They deconstruct a real-life event and its impact on a community, such as the murder of Matthew Shepard in "The Laramie Project," or the trials of Oscar Wilde in "Gross Indecency."
Much of the dialogue in these plays are taken directly from primary sources like newspaper articles and trial transcripts. "33 Variations" continues on that path and adds a new element. The story of how Beethoven came to compose the Diabelli Variations is rendered as faithfully as possible, with much of the dialogue taken from Beethoven's conversation books and Anton Schindler's biography. It also addresses the issue of how truthful either of those sources really are.
But Kaufman introduces an entirely fictional character to the story, one who lives in the present day and who serves as a kind of envoy for a modern audience into Beethoven's world. This character, Dr. Katherine Brandt, also becomes the protagonist in a searing personal drama that takes the idea of "variation form" to a level of deep emotional resonance.
At Lyric Stage Co. of Boston, Paula Plum plays Dr. Brandt, a musicologist who journeys to Bonn in order to inspect Beethoven's sketchbooks for the Diabelli Variations as research for a monograph she is preparing. She's determined to answer the question that has puzzled scholars since the work was published: why would Beethoven, who in the years 1819-1823 had more important commissions to fulfill, severe health problems, and a devastating legal dispute with his relatives, wreak havoc with his personal and professional relationships in order to write 33 variations on a theme he apparently didn't like, just to satsify his publisher's silly vanity project?
To those close to Dr. Brandt, though, the question becomes: why does Katherine, whose body is rapidly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig's disease, forgo what may be her final chance to forge a relationship with her daughter in order to spend her last days investigating Beethoven?
The action of the play alternates between the present and the past, letting the audience see the parallels between the predicaments of Katherine Brandt and Ludwig van Beethoven (played by James Andreassi). I visited Lyric Stage Co. to learn more from both Paula Plum and James Andreassi. To hear the conversation and learn more about the play, click on "Listen" above.
“Any good crusade requires singing,” reformers like to say, and in the 19th Century, no cause was more righteous than in the decades-long crusade to abolish slavery.
As WGBH’s American Experience presents The Abolitionists on television, Classical New England brings you Let Freedom Sing: The Music of The Abolitionists. To hear the program, click on "Listen" above.
Let Freedom Sing, hosted by NPR’s Noah Adams, chronicles of the idealistic artists, uncompromising personalities, and powerful music of the era, and looks at how these forces combined to turn abolitionism from a scorned fringe movement into a nation-changing force.
Hutchinson Family Singers (1845; unknown artist; from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, via Wikimedia Commons)
Aided by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University musicologist Dale Cockrell, Let Freedom Sing profiles:
Henry Russell, the barnstorming Anglo-Jewish pianist and singer dubbed the master of “chutzpah and huzzah,”
Elliott Carter, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most signifcant musical voices of the last century, has died at the age of 103.
Carter's music was rigorously built on highly elaborate systems, but it did not represent complexity for its own sake. Rather, it challenged listeners to hear sounds in new ways. The result was music that spoke to both the head and heart, with a distinct humanity that matched the personality of its creator.
Elliott Carter was born in New York on Dec. 11, 1908. He knew Charles Ives, the great American experimentalist composer, who encouraged the younger composer. After studying literature at Harvard University, he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the greatest composers and musicians of the Twentieth Century. Upon returning to the U.S., he first lived in Cambridge, Mass., and then settled in New York City.
In 2008, the music world celebrated Carter's centenary with many concerts all over the world. That summer at Tanglewood, the entire Festival of Contemporary Music was devoted to Carter.
In October, one of Carter's true champions, pianist Ursula Oppens, visited our Fraser Performance Studio with two of Carter's works: 90+ and the Piano Sonata.
Also in 2008, Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Flutist Elizabeth Rowe gave the American premiere of Carter's Flute Concerto, a co-commission of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, Berlin Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony Orchestra.