So, sitting at the dear little piano, Beth softly touched the keys, and in the sweet voice they had never thought to hear again, sang to her own accompaniment the quaint hymn, which was a singularly fitting song for her: -
And then follows the lyrics, which are from Pilgrim’s Progress: “I am content with what I have \ Little be it or much” (Ch. 22). Beth is singing about herself: “Since I had my little piano, I am perfectly satisfied.”
No other character in Little Women, not even Jo the writer, is so intimately associated with art. Her music and piano serve a functional purpose for Alcott, plumping up a character at risk of flatness, but Beth’s piano, like Beth’s story more generally, also suggests an alternative source of transcendence unavailable to most people. Beth is remembered by readers for her almost saintly virtues, or for her passivity and timidity, but she is also an artist, even if at times her art is intensely personal, an escape from earthly cares.
If you want, you can hear Beth play, sort of, or at least hear an expression of the idea of Beth playing. The third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 by Charles Ives is titled “The Alcotts.” Surrounded by the spiky “Emerson,” mysterious “Thoreau,” and chaotic “Hawthorne” (at certain points the piano is played with a wooden rod of a specified length, creating massive dissonant clusters of notes), “The Alcotts” is the quiet, peaceful, domestic piece. Mostly quiet.
I will imagine Beth is playing. Listen along – here is Jeremy Denk; here is Ives himself. The first four notes could hardly be more familiar, since they are those of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But Beth has just settled in, she is playing quietly, picking at the notes of the Beethoven transcription in front of her. Or perhaps she is looking at Piano Sonata No. 29, the “Hammerklavier,” or a hymn book, since the sonata and a hymn titled “Missionary Chant” quickly blend together. Ives is always borrowing, and in fact the Beethoven motifs occur in every movement of the sonata. But Beth is playing this time; back to her.
She plays at whim, gains confidence, and returns to try the beginning of the Fifth again. She repeats the figure she has improvised, creating variations, gaining speed and volume. Some wrong notes here and there – who cares, now she’s having fun. Back to those four notes, as can be seen above, fortissimo this time – we are at the two minute mark of the performances. But this is Beth, so she does not stay loud for more than a few seconds. She switches to a Scottish folk song, beginning at the bar line (see below, "Slower and quietly"), for about thirty seconds (3:00-3:30 or so). The folk song collapses and is somehow rebuilt as sweet, meditative Beethoven. Jeremy Denk cannot believe - look at 4:36 – how pretty the end is.
To Ives the Beth playing is the real one, Elizabeth Alcott, or perhaps a blend of the real and imagined sister. “Here is the home of the ‘Marches’,” Ives writes in Essays Before a Sonata:
all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family, and telling, in a simple way, the story of “the richness of not having”… And there sits the little old spinet piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony. (p. 47, W. W. Norton & Company, 1970)
It is a beautiful piece of music, especially meaningful to readers of Little Women.
The names of the hymns and so on can be found in the comprehensive Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives. I would not have figured out much of that on my own. The score has a long, complex history, but was first published in 1920. My copied bits are from the revised 1947 version.
Jeremy Denk wrote a fine piece for the New Yorker about the difficulties of playing and recording the Concord Sonata, but it seems to be unavailable for non-subscribers.