Two-movement form intrigues me, partly because there are so few two-movement pieces. Unlike three- and four-movement form, its paradigm is so far from being done to death that it is impossible to call any two-movement work typical – it still feels like partly unexplored territory. I love the Clementi two-movement sonatas, which come close to the most perfect balance in the genre, the movements differentiated in meter and density, yet weighted just alike; the Op. 33 No. 2 sonata in F major is the most exquisite case (though less well-known than the F# minor). The elephantine example, of course, is Beethoven’s Op. 111, which is perhaps second only to the Concord Sonata as a work that hangs over my life. Other instances are easy to ennumerate:
Webern’s Opp. 20 through 22
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2
Gottschalk’s A Night in the Tropics Symphony
Copland’s Piano Concerto
Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety Symphony (actually six movements in two continuous parts)
the Becker Third Symphony.
(No one knows John J. Becker anymore, but when we dedicated New Music America ’82 to Cage, Cage asked us to include a work by Becker because of his historical importance to the midwest. His Third Symphony is aptly regarded as his best work.) The two-part form of Beckett’s novel Molloy, with the second half mysteriously parallel to the first, is an incredibly masterful new paradigm of the genre. Other examples that come to mind seem like cheating; Schubert didn’t finish his Eighth, Schuman’s Third is in two movements but each divides into two sections (like the Berg Violin Concerto), and the two Branca Symphonies, Nos. 8 and 10, are companion pieces, with four movements between them.
I find the simple duality of two movements inspiring: either this or that, black and white, happy and sad, before and after. Three-movement form is so classical, so easy with its matching fast bookends around an aria (or in Ives’s refreshingly reversed slow-fast-slow pattern). By contrast, two-movement form defies you to find a balance. The very fact that one movement is first and the other last makes a true balance impossible; one of them will have the last word, and it can’t refer back too much to the first movement and still achieve a satisfying diversity. The second movement’s finality represents, in effect, the death of the first movement’s idea, and it can’t come back to life in the cheery third to make you feel better. These elements are not going to synthesize. One philosophy of life is going to win, and there’s no escape.
Perhaps that’s why it seems problematic. In 1994 I wrote a two-movement sonata for pianist Lois Svard, and it seemed like no performance would go by without someone coming up to me afterward and blithely telling me, “Great piece, Kyle. You oughta write a third movement.” The second 15 people who said this to me never realized how close they came to being throttled within an inch of their lives. I had balanced those movements by making them the same length, but – perhaps thinking subliminally of Nielsen’s Fifth, which I adore – I built up a great crescendo of energy in the first movement and slowly released it in the second. I never even had a glimmer of an idea for another movement: those two gestures were the piece, from its first conception. So either I failed to make my bipartite emotional arc convincing, or else my listeners were just so conditioned by the classical Oreo cookie with its creme filling in the middle that they were unable to quit waiting for the third shoe to drop. To mix metaphors.
And so, in my piano concerto, which is “about” Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans – thus “before” and “after” – I’m taking a tip from Op. 111. The first movement is seven minutes long, the second somewhere between 16 and 20. I imagine that Beethoven (along with Mahler in the Eighth and Becker in the Third) realized that, to make the classical audience quit waiting for a reassuring synthesis, they had to be dragged through a mysterious, disturbing, second-movement landscape that would kill any yearning for a glib rondo. Where Beethoven’s first movement is angry and the second transcendently accepting, my first is pure rowdy fun and the second devastatingly sad (before transcendent acceptance, of course). Like the first movement to the Ives Fourth, my first movement is almost little more than introduction, the setup for the devastation. As I see it, to cure the audience of thinking about third-movement symmetry depends on making the second sufficiently dreary, daunting, and disorienting (being only slightly tongue-in-cheek here) to make them forget there had ever been a first movement. And I swear to god that if people come up afterward and tell me it needs a third movement, I’ll double the length of the second movement and only use the pitches C and D-flat in the second half. In whole notes. Pianissimo. Muted.
UPDATE 2015: Can’t believe I left out the Wolpe String Quartet.
UPDATE later in 2015: Ethel Smyth Piano Sonata No. 3 in D.