Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on the Role of Music in Dark Times

Both musicians were cannily aware of the parallels between our present moment and the history of the sonata. The piece, perhaps the most well-known of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, could be understood as a deliberate attempt to counteract encroaching darkness with a bit of light. Beethoven wrote the sonata in 1808, when, anguished by Napoleon’s betrayal of the progressive ideals of the French Revolution, he “sent his patron a copy of the manuscript with the inscription, ‘amid tears and sorrow,’ ” Ax said. And yet, the sonata is “hopeful, beautiful, generous, noble—all of those things.”

The discussion occasionally evolved into a masterclass in music theory and interpretation, as Ma and Ax (“Yo-Yo” and “Manny”) highlighted the tension and release brought on by a particular motif of chords—a feature of Beethoven’s works—or illustrated their points with virtuosic snippets of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

By Madelyne Xiao, New Yorker

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