Interpreting Virtual Subjectivity in Performing Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: External and Internal Motivations for Extreme Shifts

Robert S. Hatten, University of Texas at Austin

Whenever we hear musical gestures as energetic shapes in time, there is the potential to hear them as energies reflecting the "will" of a virtual agent moving purposefully within a virtual environment. The virtual environment created by tonality and meter, with its directional orientation (e.g., up vs. down) and simulation of physical forces (e.g., gravity), enables us to infer virtual agency whenever we hear resistance to those forces. Tonal composers have gone further by staging conflictual dramas without words or actual voices. For example, by introducing higher-level resistances to the flow of a thematic discourse, a composer can suggest virtual actors (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) within a fictional world.

Rhetorical gestures, defined as those that break the otherwise unmarked flow of a discourse, were already used effectively and characteristically in the Baroque by Bach and others, and then in the Classical era by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to create moments of crisis (disrupted cadences, sudden departures) and subsequent reflection (fermatas or pauses after such reversals), and the interiorizing response to such moments can cue a deeper virtual subjectivity, as virtual actors are internalized as competing thoughts and emotions in a motivated unfolding of conscious reflection.

The source of energy for Beethoven's extreme rhetorical shifts, such as found in the opening movement of Op. 109, is often indeterminate with respect to virtual agency. We may ask whether the agent has "willed" a sudden change of direction or thought, or whether the actor is being "thwarted" in its will, either by another actor (an "antagonist") or another force external to the protagonist's will ("Fate"). If we internalize this dramatic action, however, we can frame the conflict as happening within our own consciousness -- e.g., a sudden insight, interpretable perhaps as a positive breakthrough, or a negative reversal. At this level of virtual subjectivity, we can negotiate our own psychological experiences, mapping them in tandem with the drama virtually portrayed by the music (which may in turn lead us toward new experiences, or further development of our thought-filled emotional lives). When we identify with the continual striving of an inner will/intentionality, one that is acting/reacting/reflecting on experiences with potential existential relevance, we compensate for purely instrumental music's lack of a grounded, specific reference. Indeed, music's universality (understood as its potential relevance for any listener who has become competent in the style) might be impeded by overly specific programs.

But how might a performer best project indeterminate rhetorical gestures? Should they be heard as "willed by" or as "happening to" a virtual actor/protagonist? Or heard as part of a singular virtual subjectivity either "intending" or "being struck by" extreme shifts in its interior thoughts/emotions? For specific examples drawn from the Beethoven piano sonatas, I will demonstrate how several options for performance may be understood as viable (stylistically warranted). I will also consider what might lead us to prefer one option over another.