Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Week 2

by Paul Mathers

ImageWe spent a great deal of this week focusing on Sonata No.4, Op.7. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, I recommend you give it a listen before (or while) you read my classnotes. I listened to the Schnabel recording:

It was composed in 1796 when Beethoven was 26, so this would be the “early period.” Scholars like to say that Beethoven had 3 periods, but, as with any chronological demarcation attempts in art, systems like that usually prove to have glaring imperfections. The three periods are marked by these traits:

1. Brilliance

2. Monumentality (heroic. Not programmatic)

3. Spirituality (this is indisputable in his late period. One of the arguments against these three traits of three different periods is that each period contains some of each of these traits and some pieces from each of these periods deviate from the list. It’s a game scholars play).

In his early period, his work was already mature, but still aspiring and occasionally “show-offy.” Nearly every early work is fully representative of Beethoven. Opus 7 is both typical and wildly impressive. It is the second longest sonata. It was dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevich. We don’t know much about her except that she was a student of Beethoven’s, and that she has one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed dedicated to her. Not too shabby. Some people get to be historical footnotes without doing anything.

In early Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart, there are contrasting themes, the dominant as critical event, and the center of emotional gravity lies in the first part of the work. It is unlike Haydn and Mozart in the wild inventiveness. This sonata has four movements. That was unheard of. Beethoven intended this as a serious statement and the piece crackles with energy.

In Sonata no. 23, Op. 57 “Apassionata”, the first theme contains a kernel of all of what’s to come in the piece. It is a miracle of economy. Op. 7 is not quite that radical. Op. 7 is “theme malleable” because it is neutral. This is the quintessence of Beethoven.

The piece is in a critical moment in the evolution of the instrument. This is the time when the instrument was shifting from the pianoforte to a close approximation of the instrument of today. Mozart’s piano only had 5 octaves, which was quite a restriction and it showed in his work. He attempted to wring every last bit of sound he could out of his limitations. Beethoven’s increased to 7 octaves and it showed in his work. He attempted to wring every last but of sound he could out of his newfound freedom. He was a bit of a techno-geek. He had a Broadwood imported from England. In spite of these advances, the instrument was never quite enough for him and that is always present in his work. Today we have the standard of the Steinway. Our era is one of equalization. Our great composers did not have this luxury.

Beethoven used silence to create atmosphere in his pieces. He composed the silence in his pieces.

Professor Biss told an anecdote of one of his piano teachers when he was young telling him “Beethoven must have been Jewish because he always answers a question with another question.”

Haydn and Mozart also used silence for effect, but the effect was outside of the piece. In Beethoven, the silence is part of the grammar of the piece. Beethoven’s slow movements are more transformative than Mozart’s. Beethoven was a master of time.

The last 2 movements return to the traditional. The 3rd is entirely unlike the 2nd (less acerbic and biting than usual). Minuets are usually the shortest and least enterprising movements of a piece.

Then comes the Rondo. It appears divorced from the rest of the piece. It might suggest that the drama of the piece is in the rearview mirror, but Beethoven has a surprise for us. It recurs to the opening theme and the listener expects a coda. He introduces a distant key when the piece should be winding down. The color of E major is so different that it paints the theme in a hallucinatory light. It breaks the contract Beethoven had with the 19th century listener. In this last movement, Beethoven transforms into a fulfillment of the whole work.

Next week, we will be talking about Opus 26, Opus 27, and Opus 28.