One of the benefits of Megan Kehren, my viola instructor, insisting that I always begin a practice session with scales, is that these scales imbed within my mind the keys with which pieces are composed. In some cases, with key changes in the same piece, these scales enable me to negotiate these key changes properly.
Scales remind me that they are comparable to the presuppositions and axioms we have that determine the overall “key signatures” as to how we view the episodes in our lives. We view (because they are) some episodes composed in major keys, some in minor keys.
An added benefit of my practicing scales is that they help me to truly appreciate The Great Courses course I am now taking on “The String Quartets of Beethoven” by Professor Robert Greenburg. I’ve taken several of his courses in the past, having just finished his “Bach and the High Baroque.” When Professor Greenburg states that in one of Beethoven’s earlier quartets in which he emulated Hydn in order to master Hydn’s approach to composing string quartets, Beethoven follows Hydn by beginning a certain movement with the subdominant. I know that the passage thus begins with the fourth note in the scale, rather than the customary first note, the tonic. It is often the tonic at the beginning of a piece and at the end of a piece that lets me know whether the key is a major or a minor key (thank you, Megan, for pointing this out to me).
Which brings me to how the last of Beethoven’s early six quartets, the last one, the Sixth in B Flat Major, speaks to my current experience as a care giver. It’s first movement is filled with light and joy. Commenting on its theme, Professor Greenberg states, “If that doesn’t make you smile, you’re either a hopeless kill joy or you’re embarrassed by your dentistry.” (The good Professor springles his lectures with all sorts of clever witticisms.)
The Sixth’s fourth movement is dark, melancholy, and is named “La melancholia.” Light moves into darkness. And its innovative fifth movement (up to that time, string quartets had only four movements), a rondo, returns to light—but—intruding in its recurring theme are twice repeated statements from “La melancholia.” In even periods of light, darkness is often present.
As I live through the sad but dramatic changes in my wife as her Parkinson’s Disease progresses, my life and hers have moved from light to dark. But there is, at times, light mixed with the dark. We often talk of the trips we have taken, the joy of family dinners, church functions, friends, those moments of light that shimmered like Beethoven’s opening movement of this quartet. But then dark melancholia intrudes. We are reminded of the reality in which we now live. But even that is not all dark. There are glimmers of light even in the darkness. We laugh. We live in the moment. We forget for the moment the physical malady that so consumes our lives. And we do have hope. We both look forward to the day in which light will dispel all darkness. When every tear will be dried. But meanwhile, the predominant theme of our lives is melancholia, well-tempered with joy.