Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Weeks 3 & 4

by Paul Mathers

ImageFirst, a little housekeeping: Next weekend I am going on vacation. This means that, while I will complete week 5 this week, it is questionable whether or not I will have time to post my notes on it until after I return. And if the notes this week seem a little obscure, I apologize in advance. I am trying to get my thoughts down and preserve them, but am also vaguely aware that my focus is irreconcilably split this week.

Beethoven remarked, “From now on, I will take a new path.” From then on, he rejected old forms. This certainly seems to be the case in Opus 26, 27, and 28.

In Opus 26, Beethoven eschews the sonata form in the first movement (and in all the rest for that matter) for the first time. He makes no effort to unify the movements. It almost seems more like two pairs of movements, slow-fast and slow-fast. Otherwise the movements have nothing in common. Cohesion is not found by mechanics, but in emotional sense.

We leave home for the dominant and then find our way back. Once we’re back, the drama is to stay there, even though we revisit what took us away in the first place. With the interest in harmony paused, we can focus on details. This is very experimental ground (as was highlighted in our homework this week, which was to listen to a Haydn piano sonata from the same period. Haydn’s sounded like a throwback by comparison). The narrative relies on embroidery!

Beethoven’s theme is utility over beauty. Opus 26 does not fit with this theme.

The Scherzo second movement is unprecedented in 1801. It snaps us out of the dreamy first movement and pulls the rug out from underneath us. It also serves as a buffer between the slow 1st movement and the funeral march of a 3rd movement. This is a precursor to the Eroica symphony. One of the greatest strengths of the piece is the disjointedness of the movements. Which seems to very modern to me.

Mozart wrote one off the wall sonata, but then went back to normal. Beethoven just kept pushing the boundaries. Opus 27 is chaos making way for order. And welcome to one of the most famous pieces of music in existence:

A fantasy sonata seems like a contradiction in terms. Schumann loved the concept and, in fact, wrote his fantasy to raise money for a statue of Beethoven. Opus 26, 27, and 28 are like nothing else and not in any way like one another. Opus 27 has no breaks between moments. This was unheard of, to blur boundaries in this way. The 3rd movement does not resolve. However, 27 feels more unified than 26. Its movements answer each other.

Professor Biss hates the title “Moonlight.” As you might know, these titles were not given by the composer, but usually were nicknames put to the piece by someone else, sometimes even long after the composer was dead. Biss thinks the title robs the piece of its daring and terror. I am inclined to concede that he makes a point worth considering. The last movement is the id of the piece. This piece is far more primal than most of what was being written in this period. In every beat, the triplicate remains, hyponotic. The sustain pedal is used throughout which turns it into a menacing haze of sound. The second movement is the ego to the last movement’s id. This is like nothing else in the Classical period.

And now to Opus 28 (and, by the way, I have been listening to the Schnabel recordings of each of these pieces, followed by the Gould recordings where they exist, in order to note the differences. The Schnabel are, of course, sort of the gold standard of traditional performances of Beethoven’s sonatas. Having said that, I doubt it will surprise anyone to know that I infinitely prefer the Gould recordings)

Peace and reserve throughout. We are tethered in the tonic for a long spell. The ambiguity is, of course, deliberate. He is giving the illusion of eternal melody. While this is the “Pastorale”, there are moments in it as unnerving as anything in the “Moonlight.” He almost trivializes the return to the tonic. His capacity to manipulate time is highly on display in this piece. The moment we are waiting for passes almost without notice.

And now to week 4. By 1809, we are past the mid-point of his career (as we note passing the mid-point of this class). Beethoven begins searching for a new way.

Opus 31 eliminates the dominant as the main foil of the piece and replaces it with the mediant. Here’s Gould performing:

Beethoven has taken a critical relationship and replaced it with an incidental one. This is the first baby-step in serious music composition towards undermining the tonal system, a step which would be followed, literally, for the next 200+ years. Once Beethoven tries this, he ends up using it again and again. Professor Biss made this methphor:

Tonic= the present

Dominant= the future

sub-dominant= the past

mediant= uncharted territory

That latter is what Beethoven is most interested in.

Beethoven’s pace slows significantly in his later years. In 1806, he pens no less than 7 behemoth works. In 1809, he pens less than half of that. In 1813, he pens only one work and it’s arguably his worst work (Wellington’s Victory).  This has a lot to do with his deteriorating family life. Beethoven’s custody battle and triumph of his nephew Karl is a very sad story. Beethoven fell in love with aristocratic women who may have enjoyed the affair but, as Truman Capote said, “money sticks with money.” Beethoven had no proper employment or family. And, of course, he was going deaf. If you’ve never read it, the Heiligenstadt Testament is Beethoven’s letter to his brothers about his deafness and it is heartbreaking.

By 1810, heroism is gone from his works.

Opus 78 was one of Beethoven’s favorite of his works.

Beethoven won improv competitions in his performance years. 78 might be the closest we have to knowing what Beethoven’s improv sounded like. 78 is as conflict free as anything Beethoven ever wrote. It is a perfect response to the accusation that “Beethoven is not a melodist.”

Opus 81A is a highly experimental piece, and thought to be a companion piece to 78.

This is Beethoven’s most serious flirtation with programmatic music.

The sonata form began to bore Beethoven, so he blew up the dominant/tonic relationship. 81A is compact, flanked by a long introduction and coda, which are at least as long as the rest of the piece. It is a masterpiece of structure. Contrast with 78, in which lyricism trumps all. Each piece has its own shape and reason for being. Beethoven is building his pathway to an otherworldly future.