ESSAY: Transcribing a Sonata


I structured this memoir as Beethoven structured his Piano Sonata No. 8, C minor, to ground my story in a way that inspired me most—through music. Beethoven’s first, of three movements, is nine pages–the longest of all the movements. As such, to align with his music, PART I of my story is also the longest of three PARTS. 

I analyzed the score, then visually observed the musical elements by placing tracing paper over the sheet music and used ink markers to color-code most key changes. This exercise helped me match my story to the tempo, tenor, and emotion of the music. 

The first movement begins and ends in C minor (magenta), where the introduction, Grave, marks the beginning of the end of my story when I walk into the hospice room. You’ll notice a small strip of the color violet on the first page–that is where Beethoven switched from C minor to a related key (E-flat Major) that has a softer, less ominous tone than his opening measures. I used that opportunity to introduce my characters and events, lengthened its presence, and took the reader back in time to set up my story. 

Beethoven modulated from key to key (shown in varying colors), expressing his main themes and development, creating musical instability, agitation, and tension. As such, I, too, was unstable while dealing with the speeding and ever-changing status and fear for the future of two women I loved.


The brutal, fierce pace of the first movement takes on an abrupt transformation in the second movement of adagio cantabile–slow and songlike. It is composed almost entirely in the same key, A-flat Major, but modulates ever so gently to its first episode in another key as if the music was reflecting and asking a question. So too, my stress level immediately lowered, and I took the time to think about my family’s and my past and realized I had many unanswered questions. 

At this point, I switched from writing in the first-person point of view (POV) and wove a story to answer some of those questions in the third-person POV. In that story, I stitched together what I knew, learned, and imagined, and assembled vignettes of answers. I’ll never know whether my third-person writing aligned with truth, but thinking it through and writing it down was cathartic to me. 

The music continues to weave in and out of its tonic key, then arcs to its dramatic second episode, a death scene, and gently back again to its tonic where I found solace and peace.

The music returns to its tonic, C minor, when I reflected on the six, frenzied months that had passed and recalled my despair over my mother’s and Margaret’s health crises. So, too, the melody harkened back to Theme 2 in the E-flat minor in the first movement and provided a common thread of remembrances. 

In the first episode, E-flat Major, of this movement, I discovered the natural beauty and simplicity of whole foods, and knowing her immune system would be severely compromised during treatment, I researched safe-food preparation practices. 

Returning to the tonic, C minor, I was ready to fulfill my cooking commitment to Margaret. C minor modulated to A-flat Major when time was of the essence, and I needed to work quickly so the frozen protein would not defrost as I ha1ndled them. I created two-dimensional and three-dimensional foods, shown through photos, and described my techniques. 

Back to the tonic, I again recalled the past turbulent months but found my kitchen a respite––a wondrous world where I could forget my troubles and focus on cooking. When the music modulates to C Major, Margaret and I reunite and visit the doctors for a follow-up consultation after her cancer treatment 

The music again modulates back to C minor, when Dr. Villaflor showed us arcane film images of Margaret’s tongue and throat area and mentioned the radiologist’s report indicated that the tumor significantly reduced. Modulating to A flat-Major, Dr. Portugal confirmed her throat was free of cancer, and her treatment was a success, was completed. She and I hugged with joy. 

As the score modulates back to its tonic, C minor, I headed back to my home. I was exhausted, and imagined how my mother would have reacted to Margaret’s good news.