THE MIRACLE

This essay is about four remarkable measures at the beginning of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Opus 31 No. 3. The first movement is marked "Allegro" [quickly] and the meter is 3/4. Our four measures, m3-6, consist of a series of chords played by both hands together, with the top notes ascending: F,G-flat, G-natural. However, it is not the notes that are remarkable, but the accompanying verbal instructions. According to the instructions, these four measures deviate from the norm of the movement in speed, in volume, and in meter. The details are as follows:

measure no     note values                instructions      meaning
3                    three quarter-notes      "ritard.- -"         ritardando [gradually slower]
4                    one dotted half-note    "cresc."            crescendo [gradually louder]
5                    three quarter-notes      "- - - - -"           continue previous instructions
6                    one dotted half-note    "sF" and           sforzato [sudden accent]
                                                      fermata sign      hold longer than meter allows

The two measures which precede this (m1-2) are marked simply "P" [softly], and those which follow it (m7ff) are marked "P" again, and "a tempo" [return to normal speed]. Thus, the deviation from speed and volume and meter is confined to m3-6. The whole thing is repeated in m12-15, in different octaves, but there the instruction "cresc." is written, not in the second measure of the four, but the third (m14).

When I first studied this sonata, I carried on a protracted argument with my teacher, Irwin Freundlich. My position was as follows: After you strike a note on the piano, it dies away while you hold down the key, and you have no control over this. Even legato [unbroken connection between notes] is objectively impossible because of this dying away, and surely a crescendo on a chord sustained for three beats (as indicated in m4) is completely unrealistic. Freundlich's position was a follows: You are splitting hairs. Beethoven's manuscripts always look like hasty scribbles, so the exact position of the word "cresc." is not significant. The intention is that the whole four-measure group becomes both slower and louder, culminating in the last chord accented and sustained.

I was not convinced. I went to the New York Public Library and examined their microfilm photograph of the original manuscript. Sure enough, the manuscript showed that the printed score was accurate. The "cresc." is clearly written in m4, but in the repetition it is clearly written in m14, not in m13. (I assumed that this is because there it jumps up two octaves.) Faced with this factual evidence, Freundlich shifted his ground. His position was now as follows: Objectively. there cannot be a crescendo during a sustained chord. Probably what happens objectively is, that you play the next chord after the sustained chord with the loudness that it would have attained if it had actually been preceded by a crescendo. As you play the group, think ritardando and crescendo, and in the context it will seem as if that is what happened. Of course he was right, and the result was lovely. (It is, after all, an exquisitely beautiful sonata.)

At that time, I was not willing to accept this solution of the problem on the terms in which Freundlich had presented it to me. It troubled me. It seemed somehow fraudulent. Much later, I came to accept it, on my own terms, in two stages.

My first stage was triggered by Biographia Literaria by Coleridge, where he states that the appreciation of art requires "a willing suspension of disbelief." I also realized that Shakespeare had expressed the same idea in the Prologue to Henry V:

     Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
     Into a thousand parts divide one man,
     And make imaginary puissance;
     Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
     Printing their proud hoofs i'the receiving earth;
     For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
     Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
     Turning the accomplishment of many years 
     Into an hour-glass:

Both Coleridge and Shakespeare were talking about artistic conventions: things like the fourth wall in the theater, or the fact that the characters in an opera sing instead of speaking. That was what Freundlich meant when he told me to "think ritardando and crescendo, and in the context it will seem as if that is what happened" -- and it worked.

My second stage was triggered by Shakespeare's Sonnet 65:

     Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
     But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
     How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
     Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
     O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
     Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
     When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
     Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
     O fearful meditation! where, alack,
     Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
     Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
     Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
     O, none, unless this miracle have might,
     That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Shakespeare speaks of something that is incredible because it is contrary to the laws of nature -- black ink does not "shine bright" and love does not look like black marks on paper -- but which we are willing to believe because it makes us happy. And he calls this thing by its proper name: a miracle.

The word "miracle" usually evokes the religious association with acts of God. Nonetheless, there are also miraculous things in art, which are not acts of God but of human beings. What is common to both kinds, is the fact that they never happened, since they are contrary to the laws of nature. We can get the benefit of them only by "a willing suspension of disbelief" -- in religion called "faith" and in art called "artistic convention."

The miracles of the religious kind mostly seem to me dreadful and obnoxious. Nevertheless, the brainwashed believers thank God for them. A good example is the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. It is enough for weak-minded people merely to imagine that they encounter a ghost, to induce a numbing terror. How gruesome, then, would it be to consort with a dead body that had rejoined us in the world of the living? The Bible tells of the resurrection of the saints at the moment that Jesus died on the cross (Matthew 27:50-53). I cannot improve on Thomas Paine's comments on this miracle in The Age of Reason. He asks why the author did not tell his readers:

               whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their 
               husbands, and their property, and how they were received; whether they entered 
               ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions against the rival 
               interlopers; whether they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation of 
               preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive,   
               and buried themselves.

Other examples are: the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-28) wherein a whole Egyptian army was drowned; and the sun standing still over the valley of Ajalon (Joshua 10:12-14) wherein a whole Amorite army was butchered. (The author of this last did not know that the only way to stop the sun in the sky would be to stop the rotation of the earth. Unfortunately, this would not cancel the inertia of everything on the surface of the earth, so that it would all go flying off, including the victorious Israelite army.) In my (admittedly atheistic) view, one of the most horrible is the miracle of the incarnation, wherein the divine became flesh so that it could be brutally murdered. According to the priests, this miracle was performed to make mankind happier and better.

The miracles of the esthetic kind are (at least for me) much more agreeable. Since they are the acts of humans, they are humane. The miracles in art, like all miracles, are events that, objectively speaking, could not have happened. Nevertheless, they seem to occur because we choose to believe in them. Ballerinas seem to defy gravity; flat paintings seem to be three-dimensional and lifelike; stone statues seem to be alive; black-and-white movies seem perfectly natural.

Finally, we return to the four remarkable measures in the Beethoven piano sonata. I play the sustained chord in m4 as if it were not dying away, but increasing in volume. I choose to believe this, and so does the listener. And, lo and behold, the miracle does indeed occur: Beethoven speaks to us. And this miracle does indeed make us happier and better