Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Creatures of Prometheus

One of my main hobbies is the piano, and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have been the focus of my musical studies for the past few years, nearly exclusively.  What started as simply the desire to learn to play the slow movement from his Pathetique Sonata eventually turned into a much broader survey of the entire group of 32.  The growth of my interest in the Beethoven sonatas was largely fueled by a series of performances that were being given around that time, of all 32 Sonatas, by pianist Andras Schiff.  I was able to attend nearly all of them at Disney Hall in Los Angeles.  In addition to these live performances and the release of his recordings of the sonatas on CD, Schiff also recorded a series of entertaining lecture-recitals on the sonatas which are available as podcasts.  He recorded a lecture for each sonata, and I still find them fascinating, even after multiple listenings. 

In the lectures, Schiff never passes up an opportunity to proclaim Beethoven a “great master of improvisation and variation.”  Indeed, Theme and Variation could be seen as a theme itself, to which Beethoven returned frequently throughout his career.

A few months ago, I was surfing around the internet and I decided to look for some other examples of theme and variation by Beethoven, besides those found in the piano sonatas.  I was already familiar with the Diabelli Variations, and knew that there were other sets of variations for piano that he had written.  Conveniently, the good old Wikipedia lists Beethoven’s compositions by type, and there is a section dedicated to his Variations for Piano.  From there it was off to YouTube for some listening.

One set of variations in particular that I came to really enjoy listening to is known popularly as the Eroica Variations.  This work is in the sunny key of E flat major, and is as bright and cheerful as anything you will find among Beethoven’s works.  It gets its name from his Third Symphony, which Beethoven himself called the Eroica Symphony, eroica meaning “heroic” in Italian.  (This is the symphony that would have been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but which Beethoven renamed in a fury upon learning that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France in 1804.)  They share a name because the theme and a slightly modified version of the variations also appear in the finale of the Eroica Symphony, which was composed shortly thereafter.  After a few listens I really started to enjoy the Eroica Variations for piano, and I decided to dig out an old sheet music volume of Beethoven Variations that I had acquired with a bunch of other music years ago, but had never really looked at, and give it a try myself. 

Reading through the music, I noticed a kind of sub-title printed at the top of the page where the theme finally appears.  Unlike most theme-and-variations works, in this particular piece, the theme doesn’t appear at the very beginning of the piece, but only after a four-part introduction.  The inscription reads: Thema (aus dem Ballet Die Geschopfe des Prometheus.)  I could somewhat gather from this that the theme was from the ballet Die Geschopfe des Prometheus.  But what on earth was a geschopfe?  All I could remember about Prometheus was that he was chained to a mountain cliff in punishment for stealing fire and giving it to Man, and that this punishment was further compounded by an eagle or vulture, who showed up daily and pecked at his liver.  Was the title of the ballet The Agony of Prometheus?  Perhaps The Ballad of Prometheus?  My curiosity was piqued!

After a bit of contemplation, I realized I wasn’t going to solve this on my own, so I consulted the All-knowing Oracle (aka Google) which revealed to me that Die Geschopfe des Prometheus translates as The Creatures of Prometheus, which is the title of the one and only ballet written by Beethoven.   I had a translation but still didn’t really have my answer.  Most of the internet sources on this work describe how Beethoven collaborated with a well-known choreographer at the time, and that while the entire ballet is rarely performed anymore, its overture is still performed from time to time.

Further research on Prometheus took me to various sources, including Wikipedia and the writings of Charles Bulfinch.  (As an aside, if you aren’t aware of his writings, Bulfinch is the go-to-guy for questions on ancient mythology.  No respectable 19th century parlor was complete without the compiled works of Charles Bulfinch on the bookshelf.  Nowadays there are iPhone apps that let you download his entire output to your phone.  Good stuff, I highly recommend it.) 

As it turns out, the Creatures of Prometheus were:  The Human Race!  Yes, in the ancient myth, the humans were created by Prometheus.  Actually, to be more specific, Man was created by Prometheus, and Woman was introduced a little later by Zeus, via Prometheus’ scatter-brained brother, Epimetheus.  Not only did Prometheus create man, but according to the various sources I read, he taught man the civilized arts, including literature, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, science, architecture, music, and the like.  This was apparently after all the other creatures were given their attributes and survival skills, and there wasn’t anything left by the time it was man’s turn.  But Prometheus was fond of his creatures, and was also benevolent and very smart, and taught them well. 

Fire symbolized this transfer of knowledge, as the forge of Hephaestus was emblematic of technology and industry to the ancient Greeks.  In fact, the ancient Greeks distinguished between destructive fire, which they associated with Hades (the underworld,) and creative fire, which was associated with Hephaestus (the forge, technology, industry.)  Thus, the allegorical association of fire with man’s use of his mind as his means of survival is tied up in a nice tidy package, wrapped in a bow.  But wait, the metaphors just keep coming:  the name ‘Prometheus’ literally means ‘forethought’ whereas the name ‘Epimenteus’ literally means ‘afterthought’.  Prometheus didn’t just teach Man a few useful subjects, he taught him to use his mind to think and plan ahead, to form concepts and exercise his rational faculty.  No wonder Epimetheus is derided as a scatter-brain.

This, and the fact that the other brother of the two Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus was none other than Atlas, makes Ayn Rand’s use of the glowing, lit cigarette as a metaphor in Atlas Shrugged all the more poignant:
“I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind--and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”

Later, when Zeus saw how clever and powerful Man had become, and also because he and Prometheus had it in for each other (the wily Prometheus kept outwitting Zeus and tricking him in various ways,) the angry Zeus took fire away from humankind, intending the poor creatures to languish and suffer in the cold and dark.  That is when Prometheus sneaked in, stole a glowing ember from Hephaestus, and, concealing it in a fennel stalk, he delivered it back to Man.  We know how the rest of the story goes.  (I love how the ancient myths always include such seemingly random details.  A fennel stalk?)

I have wanted to start a new blog for some time, but have struggled with the name and theme.  Several years ago I had a blog under the banner My Life Illustrated, which I eventually neglected and finally gave up on about 3 1/2 years ago.  I currently have another blog under my business, Parson Studio Group, but I often have ideas for blog posts that don’t seem to fit there, and I think I should keep that blog focused on my business-related activities.  When I finally solved the riddle of Die Geschopfe des Prometheus it was a  real ‘eureka moment’ for me.  Finally, I could envision a place where my interests in music, architecture, philosophy, design, and all the other Good things that make up proper, civilized life could intersect and coexist happily!

And now, when I practice and play the piece formerly known as the Eroica Variations, but which I now think of as “15 Variations on a Theme from The Creatures of Prometheus,” I play it like I’m playing my own theme song.  I am a Creature of Prometheus!  Welcome to my new blog.