Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas class notes- week 5

by Paul Mathers

ImageIt’s been two weeks since I finished this course. Now let’s see if I can still make sense of the chicken-scratch I call notes.

In many ways, this was my favorite week. Late Beethoven is one of those examples of greatness beyond what descriptors is the Queen’s English can capture. It is an example of some of the highest and most successful aspirations of humankind. Martin Luther said, “Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her are all emotions swayed.”

Late Beethoven is, to me, second only to the realm of the divine. I will go even further and say that I can think of no other figure than Beethoven who, for me, better communicates the modern perception of the sublime.

Having dispensed with the gooey superlatives, let’s get to the class notes!

Beethoven wrote a staggering number of piano sonatas. One of the greatest values of these (aside from the obvious quality of the works) is that they give us a sort of road map of Beethoven’s development.

You could not write a piano sonata after Beethoven without reckoning with him. His influence on the form was that extreme and enduring. Any serious musician must come to terms with late Beethoven (although some schools of moderns would deny this and claim that we’ve moved to territory entirely alien to that milieu, they are talking through their hats).

Opus 109 (Piano Sonata No. 30) was the first of the final three. It was composed in 1822. It was composed almost as a unit. It is a summation of Beethoven. There is a note here about the sonority of hands at two ends of the piano, which I’m assuming I wrote meaning to refer to Beethoven’s wildly inventive taxing of the newly expanded instrument. I think listening to the piece will back me up on that assumption. Unfortunately, I have no idea what 2 weeks ago Paul meant in writing that in the notes. But it is as if the piano is still too limited for Beethoven. We are at the time in which it seems like Beethoven would play the Universe like a woodwind instrument and still find it lacking.

Op. 109 is a bit of a structural magic trick. It is actually perfect in the sonata form, a sort of distillation of it. It contains the shortest first movement that Beethoven ever wrote. It follows with an even shorter movement which, when it arrives, provides massive contrast. Opposed ideas which offer a study in the concept of contrast itself. The first and second movements provide an elegy to the form. The last movement is spaciousness itself. It is twice as long as the first two movements.

Beethoven is after something deeper than the old school of sonatas attention to display and embellishment. He is interested in psychology (in the 1820s no less!)In the final movement, he is floating us in the Jungian miasma of dreams. He finds his way out with a fugue. The last variation is full of wonder. The need for tonal resolution is spotlighted in the final moments, fixated on the search for classical resolution.

Beethoven died in 1827. Franz Schubert died one year later (in the header photograph, you see their graves side by side, bisected with a monument to Mozart in an attempt at manufacturing a musical Mecca rivaled only by Wagner). Our professor said that this was possibly the year of greatest musical output in the history of humankind. Audacious, but, I think, a defensible position to take. The last music that Schubert ever heard was Beethoven’s Op. 101. Schubert sought to be inspired by Beethoven’s sonatas and not intimidated, which was a display of Herculean bravery unparalleled in the history of music (save, I think, perhaps for the moment when Brahms finally sat down to write his first symphony). Schubert copies Beethoven’s model, but still sounds like Schubert. Schubert was exactly one generation younger than Beethoven. 15 years later, an astounding amount of great composers walked the Earth at the same time. Beethoven had stretched the Classical to the breaking point. The next generation abandoned piano sonatas as too old for them. Beethoven’s influence was a destructive one, but necessary to keep music vital. Sometimes destruction is the most creative force available.

Thank you for reading.