Ludwig van Beethoven has a special significance for Marina Sobyanina. “The first real pieces that I was able to play as a child in my piano lessons were piano sonatas by Beethoven”, explains the composer who was born in Russia but now lives in Berne. “My sister had a major influence on me because she is twelve years older than me. Back then, she was the most important musical attachment figure for me, apart from my piano teacher. She is a classical pianist and still thinks that you ought to composer like Beethoven.”
Marina Sobyanina, however, does not share this opinion at all. And yet you might surmise that she used him as a reference point in a current composition. After all, in 2018, she named a piece “Taub’N” (“Deaf’nin”) and alluded to Beethoven turning deaf: What would it be like to composer music without hearing anything? This was indeed her first idea for the “Swiss Beethoven reflections”, she confirms. “But I would repeat myself by doing so since I have already expressed this idea.” The composer also had, for a brief moment, the idea to create “micro variations”. “I wanted to take a small theme and develop it to hundreds of variations. But then I gave up on that idea because you’d have to be a computer to do so – and I did not want to do that because I am not one.”
Another approach taken by Marina Sobyanina was Beethoven’s method with short themes: How he reviewed them, cut off parts and then repeated this exercise. It was some sort of a cyclical work with themes which in turn was suitable for the lyrics of the Swiss folk song. This is where Dursli promises to return home each year and ask for Babeli’s hand in marriage with her parents again. Then she started to look for themes which often get repeated in Beethoven’s work “but are not that easy to discern, since it should remain my composition”. Marina Sobyanina also gave up on that idea in the end. “This also would have been limiting, a kind of jigsaw where you had to put pieces together.”
Instead, she focussed on Beethoven’s variations on a Swiss song, especially the first and the second one. “I kept some of the themes which are very characteristic for Beethoven. And work methods like playing with the octavation, modulations with arpeggios, which follow in lower registers, big chords, which combined different and even opposing registers as well as aspects which make his piano style discernible.”
Finally, Marina Sobyanina turned to the first variation which she actually plays during the conversation at the end of February. She imagines that the melodic lines for the right and left hand are not notes with specific parameters such as pitch etc but contours of a silhouette. If you fill the space between these edges, some sort of an image would emerge. And it is in that image that the composer imagined several characters to flow into each other (see picture) which “created strange musical associations”.
She explains this as follows: “When I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my music, there were always humoristic passages with arpeggios, tremolos or (plays it to the interviewer). When I then tried to only imagine these musical passages as graphic figures, I realised that this part looks like a bloke on a pony which points to the other side.” That is how she created an introduction which was based on a C variation (sings it back to the interviewer).
In this picture-like imaginations of Marina Sobyanina, cartoon figures emerge which try to fly, and swans which kick her in the back. “I just try to imagine which kind of music this should be. That is why I have composed a part called ‘The Train’ which starts with very low arpeggios a bit like something between Beethoven and Stravinsky which then accelerates and rises to higher pitches.”
In the following two parts, Marina Sobyanina simply wanted to let her imagination flow and not clutch too hard to the graphic score. While doing so, she reapplied the methods mentioned above from Beethoven’s work, also the massive chords which he had loved so much. “I use a few quotes such as from ‘Fidelio’. Another quote is the harmony from the beginning of the ninth Symphony (plays it back to the interviewer). And I also use a theme from a sonata which has the exact same melody line such as in the C major mass (plays and sings it to the interviewer). Fragments of this melody continue to appear throughout the entire piece again and again but modulated.”
Marina Sobyanina is of the opinion that Beethoven’s music had something very physical. “It is also very groovy. I think that if he was alive today, he’d probably be a modern jazz rock freak.” In line with that, she composed a passage with a primed piano which was very groovy. “The pianist plays it like a drummer, elsewhere he scratches with a ring on the piano wires.” And then there is a short opening into a different musical universe – like a bebop fragment. She had not elaborated that one yet because the relevant musician could possibly improvise this better than she could ever compose it.
The idea of improvisation is also reflected in the “micro looping” method used by Marina Sobyanina. “I wanted to reflect that Beethoven improvised a lot on the elaborated cadences.” In a part of her composition, each instrument was playing a loop with its own tempo and roughly the same accents with each note, that is why all notes appear at a different place. “The loops thus move horizontally but then reconvene when an instrument is played just like the next part requires it.”
Swiss Beethoven reflections: A project by Murten Classics and SUISA on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven had not much to do with Switzerland. He did, however, write “Six variations on a Swiss song” (Sechs Variationen über ein Schweizerlied), namely the folk song “Es hätt e Bur es Töchterli” (A farmer had a daughter once). This is the starting point for the composition assignments which the summer festival Murten Classics and SUISA allocated to eight Swiss composers of different generations, aesthetics and origin.
Oscar Bianchi, Xavier Dayer, Fortunat Frölich, Aglaja Graf, Christian Henking, Alfred Schweizer, Marina Sobyanina and Katharina Weber had a choice of basing their work on the variations, the folk song used by Beethoven or Beethoven in general. The compositions were written for the ensemble Paul Klee which allows for the following maximum instrumentation: Flute (also piccolo, G- or bass flute), clarinet (in B or A), violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.
The initiator of this project, launched in 2019, was Kaspar Zehnder who had been Artistic Director of Murten Classics for 22 years. Due to the corona crisis and the measures ordered by the authorities, it was not possible to hold the 32nd instalment of the festival in August 2020 or the scheduled replacement festival in the winter months that followed. The “SUISA day” with eight compositions of this project was performed and recorded nevertheless, without an audience, on 28 January 2021 in the KiB Murten. The recordings have been available for listening at radio SRF 2 Kultur in the programme “Neue Musik im Konzert” and are released on the platform Neo.mx3. The project is also documented online via the SUISAblog and the social media channels of SUISA.