Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Week 1

by Paul Mathers

ImageThe photo is of our professor, Jonathan Biss, who happens to be releasing recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. As usual, when I’m taking a class, I like to digest my notes into blog entries. It helps me to retain the nutrients.

Let’s move on before I follow that metaphor any further.

We spent the first week talking about the times leading up to Beethoven, specifically J.S. Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. Beethoven studied Bach, whose fugal writing especially was a huge influence on him. Beethoven studied with Haydn personally. At one point, Beethoven left Vienna and hoped to study with Mozart. It never happened. Mozart’s shadow loomed large over Beethoven (just as Beethoven’s shadow loomed large over just about every composer since).

In Bach’s time, concerts did not exist, at least not as such. Music was a private function: at home, in politics, but mainly in church. The closest Bach’s music came to a concert was in coffeehouses. Performance was not at the forefront of Bach’s mind. He was more focused on published works. Appreciation was viewed differently in those times and Bach was, essentially, a servant as a court and then church musician. At nearly 60, with his greatest works in existence, J.S. Bach was still giving singing lessons to teenagers.

Haydn marked a new beginning. The place of the composer in society evolved. The Kapellmeister ran the musical life of the court. Haydn worked for the Esterházy family for 18 years. in 1779, he was permitted to publish music of his choice. This was a dramatic shift. This was unheard of. Haydn’s expressive palate broadened as a result. 

Mozart is 23 years old at this point. He is fully mature in his work (in his personal life… less so). Haydn and Mozart liked each other. Mozart chafed against the court musician system. He worked for Archibishop Colloredo and resigned in 1785 with no job lined up. This, too, was unheard of. Mozart returned to Salzburg. This was a composer refusing to be a servant.

Mozart’s first years as a freelance composer were successful. After 1788, his career became an absolute mess. Haydn, by contrast, was working at the House of Esterházy with freedom and great productivity. By 1795, he was quite wealthy. He continually enjoyed more freedom, which, as a result, made him more inventive. Still, by Beethoven’s time, the court system was disappearing.

Beethoven was the first composer with models to follow for a richer, freer life as a composer. Beethoven was recalcitrant. He refused patrons’ demands. He went to Vienna for a period of study and found a way to stay with independence. He viewed his patrons as friends, not as employers. Opus 1 brought in enough money for Beethoven to live on for a year.

After 1811 (the last 16 years of his life), Beethoven did not perform anymore. His 9th Symphony was paid for by an English patron. His piano sonatas had no performance history at all. Only one (Op. 101, the 28th sonata) was performed in his lifetime. The sonata was music for the home, music to publish for home performances. Managability and production were not his problem. That was the performer’s problem. Audience comprehension was also not his concern. The sonata was a private experiment between Beethoven and the player.

Form equals psychology. Form is the way music works on the listener, a sort of map of the emotional effect. The Classical period was the heyday of the sonata form. Without getting to deep into music theory: 3 movements, the first being the key shape or theme or whatever it is the music theory people call it, the other two in opposition. We are introduced to two key terms: the tonic (fundamental chord of the key we’re in) and the dominant (which always wants to resolve into a tonic). Again, I won’t unpack all of this (partly because I feel as if my own grasp on it is tenuous as best) save to say that the progression and resolution are the journey that we take when we listen to or play a piece. All of it is an embellishment of the tonic to dominant relationship. There is an expansion, a development (the sort of wilderness period of the piece in which we go fishing for the tonic), and the recapitulation (we do not leave the tonic, but otherwise revisit the exposition).

We have a strong need for resolution, even in benevolent sounding work. It conveys a sense of story, not a literal one, but a moving of states.

We ended with an analogy to Shakespeare. To know less is to have a more passive relationship to the work. Of course, you can enjoy something like Hamlet as a complete layperson, but your enjoyment deepens and increases by knowing the English language, poetry, form, or even knowing about the time and place in which it was written and the time and place in which the play takes place. That is why a layperson, like me, would want to take a class like this.

Next week: we get around to talking about Beethoven.