Category: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas

#254 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #7 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 10, NO. 3

#254

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA #7 IN D MAJOR, OPUS 10, NO. 3

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

The first masterpiece of the 32…

Opus 10, no. 3 is the third sonata in the Opus 10 set. Like its companions, it was finished in 1798 and is dedicated to the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, Anne Margarete von Browne. Unlike Opus 10, numbers 1 & 2, it is written in four, not three, movements. It is a more substantial work than either of the first two sonatas, taking 24 minutes to perform. The sonata as a whole is regarded as the first masterpiece in the entire 32 piano sonatas.

The most notable feature of this D Major sonata is the extraordinarily profound 2nd movement, set in the parallel key of D Minor. Many commentators feel that this is the first time in the 32 piano sonatas that Beethoven really plumbs the depths of his own inner, emotional world. In it, Beethoven captures the feeling of utter despair, in sound. Sir Donald Tovey, one of music history’s most notable Beethoven experts, said of this movement: “‘The details of phrasing and tone-colour have been provided with extraordinary precision by Beethoven himself; and if you simply make sure that you are playing what is written you will go far to realize the tragic power that makes this movement a landmark in musical history. Do not try to ‘understand’ before you do as Beethoven bids. The people who ‘understand’ great music beforehand never see anything in it except a mirror of their own minds. The player who obeys orders faithfully will be constantly discovering music’s real meaning.”

The weightiness of the second movement is counterbalanced by the good cheer, humor, and inventiveness that Beethoven spreads all through the other three movements. The overall emotional architecture of the piece seems to demand this. The final measures of the fourth movement end without fanfare, and without a musical exclamation point. Some 19th century editors felt obliged to insert a final crescendo there, but that is very definitely not what Beethoven wanted. Each one of the first, third, and fourth movements in this sonata ends with a conclusion that Beethoven obviously assigned great importance to, as he sketched out the final measures of these movements before even writing their beginnings.

Just a final thought before listening. This is sonata #7. Because of its length and especially because of its depth, it is a substantial marker along the way for Beethoven. He would compose ten piano sonatas before he started in on his first symphony. I’m not sure how to evaluate what this might mean, if it means anything at all. Perhaps the sonatas served a necessary psychological, as well as compositional, run-up to his Symphony #1 (Music I Love #245), which he felt was necessary? There may be no connection whatsoever, of course. It just strikes me as something interesting to think about.

And just one other thing. Most classical pianists could not begin to even estimate the number of times they have heard every single one of the Beethoven sonatas. I’m not sure what the parallel experience would be like in some other arts-related discipline, or even if there is one. I’ve surely heard the Opus 10, number 3 sonata hundreds of times. And yet, it is so captivating—each time—that I have to stop and listen to every note, regardless if it is a Richard Goode performance or the performance of a student who is freshly learning it.

Such is the power of originality in Beethoven. He COMMANDS our attention!

Pictures–artist rendering of Beethoven, and beginning of the powerful slow movement.

The timings in Richard Goode’s recording:

1st movt 0:00
2nd movt 7:06
3rd movt 16:17
4th movt 19:00

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#236 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 10, NO. 2

#236

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA #6 IN F MAJOR, OPUS 10, NO. 2

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Continuing our traversal of the Beethoven piano sonatas…

PIANO DUELS

I happen to be reading a book right now about the sixteenth century wars that involved Charles V, Francis I, and Sulieman the Magnificent. Charles and Francis thoroughly hated each other. Charles—the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and therefore most of Europe—was continually challenging Francis to a duel—with swords, of course, since handguns were not yet in use.

The idea of settling things, mano a mano, goes back a lot further than the 1500’s, of course. I imagine the most famous duel that Americans think about was the famous one between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton—the Vice President and Secretary of Treasury of the United States!! Amazing that it ever happened!

Thinking about this human—or maybe just “male” would be more appropriate?—predilection for settling things violently made the subject of piano duels come to my mind. And who better to write about in this context than Beethoven?

Pianist-composers from the mid-18th to the early 20th century obviously had more civilized ways of staging duels—but stage them, they did. It is amusing to read of these duels because they were civilized blood sports—these were no World Wide Wrestling fake piano duels! The ones that we know about the best, of course, are those in which both of the participants—there were always only two—were amazingly impressive to all that heard them—but in which one person was always soundly defeated. Such defeats were decided by audience reaction, but I would have to guess that there was never much doubt about the outcome, even to those who were losers—maybe especially to them.

Beethoven, pugnacious as always, was involved in three of these duels. It cannot be much of a surprise to us that he won all three. In 1793—at the age of 23—he “battled” a Czech composer-pianist named Joseph Gelinek. Such duels would start with each combatant playing whatever they considered to be the most impressive technical display they could muster, to really show their pianistic “chops”. Round two would involve the participants at two pianos, each one alternately improvising spontaneous variations on a theme that the other one would put forward. Finally, round three would involve each player sight-reading a work recently written by the other player, and while reading it, also play variations on it. Gelinek went into the competition saying he was going to make “mincemeat” out of Beethoven. By contrast, after Beethoven soundly beat him, he said “I’ll never forget yesterday evening! Satan himself is hidden in that young man. I have never heard anyone play like that! He improvised on a theme which I gave him as I never heard even Mozart improvise…He can overcome difficulties and draw effects from the piano such as we couldn’t even allow ourselves to dream about.”

Just one more Beethoven “duel” story: In 1800, the composer-pianist Daniel Steibelt challenged Beethoven to a duel, something he ruefully regretted the rest of his life. Beethoven played a Mozart sonata in the first round, Steibelt a Haydn sonata. Beethoven easily won the “variations” round. Then came the final round where each sight-reads a piece by the other, simultaneously making up variations on IT. Steibelt sight-read Beethoven’s Opus 22 sonata (#11, which we will eventually cover) and did OK. Beethoven then took Steibelt’s work—a newly written work for cello and piano (technically, this was cheating, to include another instrument in the score)—and turned the music upside down on the music rack, sight-read it backwards, and improvised for a full 30 minutes on this. Steibelt—and his reputation, forever—was destroyed.

I’ll return to a couple more duels in later posts—those between Mozart and Muzio Clementi—the first two composers of stature to write for this new instrument, the piano—and between Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, the two towering virtuosos of their day, the 1840’s.
____________________

Neither one of these stories has anything directly to do with Beethoven’s sixth sonata. I just thought it would give a little insight into Beethoven, the man, in his 20’s, around the time he wrote this F Major sonata.

Beethoven was 27 when he wrote the sixth sonata. Like the sonata that came before it and the one that would follow, all three of the Opus 10 sonatas are dedicated to Countess Anne Margarete von Browne. She was the wife of a Russian diplomat stationed in Vienna and one of Beethoven’s benefactors.

Regarding composers and dedications, I suppose it is obvious, but I think it bears repeating that, historically, from the mid-eighteenth century on, composers were no longer reliant on their positions in the church or a court for their financial sustenance. Consequently, financial support was an ongoing, never-forgotten source of concern. Patrons and benefactors, therefore, HAD to be found in order to continue composing. It hardly mattered who this was. It could be nobility—meaning, those with titles and wealth—or business owners or well-to-do parents of students or really just about anybody. It would be a rare composition, say from 1770 into the 1900’s, that did not have a dedication preceding it—an homage and “thank you” for generous financial—and occasionally, just moral—support.

The sonata is in three movements, and is a relatively short work, taking just 13 minutes for all three movements. The first movement starts with two chords followed by a flippant little turn, which is immediately repeated—establishing a humorous mood from the get-go. The second movement is in the parallel minor key (“parallel” keys are those that start on the same note: F major/F minor) and it establishes a feeling of disquiet and restlessness. The third movement must be played with absolute control even though it is marked “Presto”—the fastest tempo indication—in order to convey the bustling merriness that Beethoven intended.

As usual in our Beethoven sonata traversal, the excellent pianist is Richard Goode.

Pictures are Beethoven, Gelinek, and Steibelt.

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#196 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #5 IN C MINOR, OPUS 10, NO. 1

#196

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #5 IN C MINOR, OPUS 10, NO. 1

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

C MINOR – an important key for Beethoven

As we observed with Beethoven’s three sonatas that comprise his Opus 2, there are again three sonatas that comprise his Opus 10. The publishing practice of including a number of similar pieces in a single “opus” would continue right on up to our present day. But while this would be the case for smaller pieces—say, Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives or Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, to pick two quick examples that come to mind—the inclusion of three major works—three large piano sonatas—all in one opus was something we encounter less and less after Beethoven’s time.

The subject of key choice—why composers choose certain keys, and whether there are, across the board, certain common emotional meanings that composers find in the various major and minor keys—is one I want to examine, both to offer my own thoughts and to get the thoughts of others. I’ll do that in a separate post—in the “Commentary” category of Music I Love.

For now I just want to make the observation that Beethoven used the key of C Minor in works of unusual intensity, works that were stormy and heroic. Beethoven chose C minor not only for the Opus 10, No. 1 Sonata, but also for another piano sonata he would soon write, the “Pathetique,” as well as for his Third Piano Concerto, the very famous Fifth Symphony, his 32 Variations for Piano, the Choral Fantasy, and his very last Piano Sonata, Opus 111. Every one of these works is quite dramatic, authoritative, and full of the sharpest dynamic contrasts. C Minor for Beethoven obviously was the conduit for a particular expressive palette, one that was turbulent and unsettled.

From its first notes, the Opus 10, No. 1 C Minor sonata is all business—announcing its presence in a “forte”, see-sawed, rising arpeggio—which immediately contrasts with a “piano” chordal answer, a sequence that he then immediately repeats. The nervous energy of the first theme in C minor is then set against the dolce (meaning sweet, tender) A-flat major second theme that follows. One can tell immediately that this is going to be a dramatic work. As in the other C Minor works I’ve listed, Beethoven’s SILENCES in this sonata are quite important and need to be observed precisely by the player. They set off—or frame—the turbulence and tenderness of the sections in which they appear. Clean and judicious use of the pedaling on the part of the player in these early sonatas—never overlapping harmonies—is also a necessity for the player.

I have probably mentioned before, regarding the quick juxtaposition of opposing dynamics—forte and piano—that Beethoven, and Mozart before him, were writing for a new instrument, the piano. For centuries, the harpsichord had reigned supreme as the keyboard instrument in all serious music writing and performance. Among its limitations, though, was the fact that it was dynamically very limited. The emotions that one could express on it had to occur within a limited dynamic range. And, the harpsichord had limited power and projection, not really suitable as a solo instrument in a large hall.

These were reasons why the piano came into being in the first place. Its very name—“fortepiano”—meaning, literally “loud-soft”—indicates how important this ability to play loud and soft was. The new instrument became the means for expressing a much wider gamut of emotions than had previously been possible. In 1796, the year Opus 10, No. 1 was composed, the piano had only been in use for 20 years or so. Mozart (and others) had written for it, effectively. But it was Beethoven who continually challenged—and in the process discovered—what the instrument was actually capable of. A common characteristic of the decades of piano writing was the abundance of “subito” (sudden) dynamic contrasts—suddenly going from loud to soft and vice versa—in order to fully utilize and highlight the new instrument’s dynamic capabilities. These sudden dynamic changes are something you will hear often in the first movement of Opus 10, No. 1.

Typical of Beethoven’s slow movements, the second movement here is all intimate lyricism and playfulness. As he did in the Third Concerto and Fifth Symphony, Beethoven favors stark octaves for the outset of the third movement. If you listen carefully in this third movement, you will hear the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony which, in retrospect, hardly seems coincidental!

Beethoven composed most of this sonata before commencing on a concert tour from to Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. He had originally planned on the sonata having four movements—as all his other sonatas up to this point had. He had a Scherzo movement all ready to go which would have become the third movement (out of four). But he abandoned that idea shortly before the publication of all three Opus sonatas two years later in 1798.

All three of the Opus 10 sonatas were dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, who was the wife of one of Beethoven’s most generous patrons.

As usual, Richard Goode’s interpretation is wonderful.

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#167 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #4 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 7

#167

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #4 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 7

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

This is Beethoven’s fourth piano sonata, and a great one it is.

While a young man living in Vienna, Beethoven had given piano lessons to a young woman, Countess Anna Louise Barbara Keglevich. The Keglevich’s had been members of the nobility for two centuries, first in Dalmatia, then in Slovakia. Beethoven was invited to the Keglevich Palace in Bratislava in 1796, when the countess, who was also called Babette, was just 17. It seems likely that Beethoven was in love with Anna. While there, he composed several works for her, which include the Sonata in E-flat major and the Piano Concerto (#1) in C Major.

It also seems likely that this young lady, whose life was later tragically cut short at the age of 33, must have been an absolutely formidable player. Beethoven was never one to suffer musical incompetence, even when in need of financial patronage–and even if in love. The fourth sonata is a formidable pianistic challenge. Written in four movements and taking 28 minutes to perform, it is second only to the Hammerklavier Sonata, Opus 106 in length. The nickname given to it—the Grand Sonata—gives us an idea of how the sonata is viewed in Beethoven’s overall oeuvre. Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s student, biographer, and composer in his own right, said that this sonata—rather than the F minor, Opus 57 sonata—is the one that should rightfully be called the “Appassionata,” not that later work.

It is worth thinking for a minute about the state of the development of the instrument—the piano—in 1796, when Beethoven composed this work. The fortepiano had only been in use in Europe for about twenty years at this point, and the use of harpsichord technique had by no means been fully supplanted by piano technique. As I mentioned recently when discussing the Chopin Etudes (Music I Love, #161), it took several decades for composers to adjust to the piano—as opposed to the harpsichord, which it had essentially replaced—and the piano itself was changing fairly rapidly.

In talking about the way Mozart—and his students—performed on the new instrument, Beethoven remarked that Mozart’s way of playing was too reminiscent of a harpsichord touch—choppy and detached—and that Mozart’s students also played that way. The cantabile playing that came to characterize Beethoven’s slow movements, and his novel way of using the pedal—so foreign to Mozart—were facets of piano playing that were still to come—but soon, in the near future.

“Undoubtedly, the manner of playing the piano is as yet the least developed form of instrumental playing. One often imagines one is listening to the harpsichord [when hearing a pianist], and I am happy that there are a few who realize and feel that one can also sing on the piano, so long as one has feeling. I hope that the time will come when the harpsichord and the piano will be regarded as two completely different instruments.” [Beethoven, writing in a letter to Andreas Streicher, the piano manufacturer, 1796]

I think it is accurate to say that no one did more to accomplish this than Beethoven.

The first movement of Opus 7 is characterized by incessant repeated notes, giving it a sense of inevitable propulsion. There is almost a jazzy feel to this movement with its syncopations and sudden accents.

The second movement Largo, like all the early Beethoven sonata slow movements, is a wonderful example of the very cantabile style of playing that Beethoven remarked about, above. Years ago, I made a cassette tape—yes, a cassette—of the slow movements of the Beethoven sonatas—which was a real treasure of beauty. The slow movement of Opus 7 is very intimate.

The third movement is a bubbling brook, now major now minor, a quicksilver changing of the emotional palette throughout.

Finally, the fourth movement is a rollicking rondo, and perhaps the only movement that looks backward, form-wise. Like the first movement, it requires the technique of a master player, such as Richard Goode’s, particularly in the C Minor mid-section.

The pianist Angela Hewitt has suggested that if only the E-flat major sonata had ended with a bang and a flourish instead of just fading away that it would have had even more of an impact on the music world. I think she is probably right—but this large work is still a feast.

First movement – Allegro molto e con brio 0:00
Second movement—Largo, con gran espressione 7:54
Third movement—Allegro 16:39
Fourth movement—Poco allegretto e grazioso 21:38

Pictures are of Anna Keglevich, Beethoven as a man in his twenties, and the Keglevich Palace in Bratislava. I believe the palace is now an airbnb, complete with an apartment called “The Beethoven Grand Sonata!”

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#125 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #3 IN C MAJOR, OPUS 2, NO. 3

#125

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #3
OPUS 2, NO. 3 IN C MAJOR

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

  

What is piano technique?

The third and last sonata in Beethoven’s earliest group of sonatas—his Opus 2—is the Sonata in C Major. It is often referred to, and written about, as his first virtuoso sonata.

Does this mean that, by comparison, the other two sonatas in this opus, are relatively easy? Not at all. It just means that the technical demands of the C Major sonata are even higher and require, in order for the sonata to be heard exactly as Beethoven intended, a virtuoso with a great technique.

What does having a great piano technique involve? Broadly speaking, piano technique refers to how the pianist physically interacts with the instrument. Just like in most sports which involve physical movement, piano technique is the physical skill, developed through training and much repetitive practice, involved in performing complex finger, wrist, and arm motions in the interpretation of the piano repertoire. Great finger strength, equally great finger agility, maintaining the proper balance in one’s hands between tension and relaxation, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to do anything and everything with the widest range of dynamic (soft to loud) coloring—all of these are fundamental facets of good piano technique.

Some specific skills involved in piano technique are the abilities to:

• always touch keys in their absolute center in order to avoid “split” notes (two or more notes played at the same time)
• use the fingers to play scale passages evenly and effortlessly
• use the wrists to play passages involving rapidly-moving parallel intervals
• have a hand span that encompasses an octave (the distance between a certain note and the next appearance of that same note on the keyboard—from C to C, for instance) and wrists that are strong and agile enough to play consecutive octaves at a rapid pace
• trill rapidly and evenly—the movement between a note and its immediate next-door neighbor
• tremolo convincingly—the rapid alternation between, for instance, a single note and an interval in the same hand
• execute “broken” chords well–chords that are played one note at a time, consecutively

As every pianist will attest to, these “requirements” only scratch the surface of having a fine piano technique. Some outstanding full-length books–and reams of piano exercises, some by the great composers themselves–have been written on the acquisition of piano technique. So suffice to say, the suggestions above are just a few of the basic building blocks of technique, and only deal with outcomes, not the actual how-to’s.

One of the easily-observable ironies regarding many of those who have great piano techniques is that much of what they do so impressively is completely natural, acquired at an early age, and accomplished perfectly without much (or sometimes any) thought regarding how they do what they do. For the rest of us—the equivalent in music, I guess, of the 99%–the “how-to’s” of technique are pretty important.

Teachers—in-person teachers—are, in my opinion, an absolute necessity in the pursuit of piano technique. I would not count on googling “piano technique”, hoping to acquire a decent technique through an online course! Can you imagine the equivalent of this: “Become a Superhuman Pianist, Have a Dazzling Technique in No Time At All, Subscribe to Our Guide to Complete Piano Technique Mastery!” (quoting some sites you can actually find out there)—can you imagine this, say, in gymnastics or ballet? smile emoticon:)

All of this talk–which I do hope is not boring–about technique is simply to point out that Beethoven’s Opus 2, no. 3 is his first sonata that requires a superb technique.

He wrote it in 1795 when he was 25 years old and dedicated it to his teacher Haydn, as he had done with the other sonatas of Opus 2. It is four movements long, and at 25 minutes, it is also one the longest of the sonatas from the first half of Beethoven’s life.

As we’ll see as we progress through the sonatas, Beethoven used the piano sonata, more than any other compositional form, as a kind of laboratory in terms of his own creativity.

I am including, above, the first page of the first movement and the last page of the fourth movement to give at least a visual idea of the technical difficulties involved. These pages are from the original 1795 first edition. The very opening of the first movement is a famously difficult passage which Artur Rubinstein reportedly used on any every piano he would perform on to see just how responsive the instrument would be. The last page of the piece with its triple trills—three trills going at once—is indicative of the technical demands of Opus 2, no.3.

I hope this brief discussion about piano technique does not seem too obtuse–and therefore possibly a turn-off to appreciating the actual music. My continual goal in these postings is to bring an understanding of music closer to the non-musician. One of the greatest aspects of much technically difficult piano repertoire is that the LISTENER gets so involved in the beauties of what he is hearing that he pays only peripheral attention to the actual performance. Technique, he realizes afterwards, is simply a means to an end.

One-word movement descriptions for Op. 2/3–my descriptors, you will have your own:

first—brilliant
second—soulful
third—vigorous
fourth—cheerful

This sonata is one more impressive step up the Beethoven Sonata staircase.

Richard Goode performs.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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#102 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #2 IN A MAJOR, OPUS 2, NO. 2

#102

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #2 IN A MAJOR
OPUS 2, NO. 2

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Continuing with our Beethoven Sonata listening survey…

As I mentioned earlier, publishers in Beethoven’s time often preferred to publish several works of a similar kind at one time, for better marketability. Beethoven’s Opus 2 actually consists of three separate piano sonatas. Op. 2, no. 2, in the middle, is the most gracious of the three.

When Beethoven was just 16, he travelled from Bonn, his birthplace, to Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart. It has never been determined whether they actually met. It is certain that Beethoven did not get the chance to study with Mozart. Just as soon as he had arrived in Vienna, his mother took ill and he had to return to Bonn. She passed away, and since his alcoholic father could not care for Beethoven’s two younger brothers, that responsibility was left to him. He spent the next five years in Bonn.

When he returned to Vienna at the age of 21, his stay there was subsidized by the Elector of Bonn, Maximilian Francis. This was supposed to be for limited-time study with Joseph Haydn, then the most famous composer in the world. Beethoven gained much in the way of wisdom and skill under Haydn’s guiding hand during these two years. And, he had gained enough of a following in Vienna to continue to stay there, his living expenses now being subsidized by several nobles—two princes and a baron.

To give an idea of what the sale of sheet music meant in those days, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that when Beethoven’s very first works were published—the three piano trios of Opus 1 (for piano, violin, and cello)—the proceeds of the sheet music sales were enough for Beethoven to live on for a year.

The Opus 2 piano sonatas followed on the heels of this financial success, and were written in the 1794-96 time period. They are all dedicated to Haydn, who at this point in time had to return to London—where he was quite popular—thus ending Beethoven’s study with him.

Like its companions, Op.2-no.1 and Op.2-no.3, the A Major sonata is in four movements–which was unusual for the time (three movement sonatas were the standard) and an indication that Beethoven already at this early age was stretching the traditional forms. Tovey, an early biographer of Beethoven, says of this sonata, it “is flawless in execution and entirely beyond the range of Haydn and Mozart in harmonic and dramatic thought.”

The first movement is all sunshine and happiness. The second movement is quite solemn, and is one of the few times Beethoven used the tempo indication of “Largo”—the slowest possible tempo. Both the third and fourth movements are technically challenging, lyrical, and good-natured. Placed as it is in the middle of the Opus 2 sonatas, the A Major sonata serves as a thoroughly enjoyable interlude between the seriousness of Op.2 no. 1 and the virtuosity of Op. 2 no. 3.

The hard-to-read picture above is the first page of the 1796 first edition of the work. The pianist is Richard Goode.

 

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#87 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #1 IN F MINOR, OPUS 2, NO. 1

#87

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #1 IN F MINOR
OPUS 2, NO. 1

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Beethoven composed 32 sonatas for piano, works that, with a couple of exceptions, are all intended for the concert hall. Collectively, they represent a giant monolith of the piano repertoire, comparable only to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. They are an Everest for the pianist, with the summit always being seen from a distance.

Beethoven composed his sonatas over a period of 27 years, from 1795 to 1822. The first of these was written when he was a young man of twenty-five in fine health, the last when he 52, totally deaf and, some would say, embittered. During these years, the construction of the piano itself was continually in flux because piano manufacturers were actually adapting to HIM—the demands he was making in his sonatas required stronger and bigger instruments, and he was not shy in letting his demands be known. If Liszt expanded composers’ imaginations by showing all the possibilities of the grand piano in its fullness, Beethoven—who preceded Liszt by a generation—revealed that the piano was in fact an instrument capable of revealing sublime expressions in the first place.

Musicologists and biographers have an inclination, however it has come about, of dividing composers’ lives into three periods—early, middle, and late—regardless of how young a composer may have died. These periods for Beethoven, who lived to be 57, fall roughly into: an “early” period ending in 1803, a “middle” period ending in 1814, and a “late” period till the end of his life in 1827.

In my survey of the sonatas, I’m going to go chronologically (with two exceptions, the Opus 49 sonatas, which I will explain when we arrive there). The first Sonata—Opus 2, number 1—was written in 1795 when Beethoven was 25 years old. Like many of the sonatas from the early period, it has four movements. With Beethoven, there was no “working his way into” writing virtuoso piano writing. These first three sonatas of Opus 2 were, at the time, probably only playable by him.

One might logically assume that, being an early “opus” number—number 2—that this would indicate it was Beethoven’s second attempt at composition. This would be incorrect, however. Beethoven, being the uber-perfectionist that he was, wrote scads of compositions his entire life that he discarded (or regarded only as “sketches”). Only when he felt he was ready to show the world his best stuff did he then publish his Opus 1 Piano Trios and Opus 2 Piano Sonatas.

One more little detail: I should explain, if the numbering system might seem unusual–Opus 2, “Number 1” etc–that publishers of sheet music in the 18th and 19th centuries very often published compositions in groups—three sonatas or six quartets or several trios, and so on. In looking at the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, one sees this phenomenon a number of times—Op. 2, Op. 10, Op. 27, Op. 31—all contain more than one sonata. This in no way diminishes the quality—or size—of individual sonatas. The three sonatas of Op. 2, for instance, are sizeable, each taking about 20 minutes to perform.

To reiterate something I mentioned early on in my postings, my intention is always just to share music that has made deep impressions on me. The emphasis is almost always on the music, not individual performances. Dozens of great pianists have recorded all the Beethoven sonatas, and much of their impressive work is available on Youtube. It is something of a rite of passage for the truly great pianist to present, over the course of a week or so, all the Beethoven sonatas – and that IS truly a great feat.

One such pianist is Richard Goode, who I’ve chosen to present the Beethoven sonatas. His is one of my favorite sets of Beethoven sonatas, and I believe most of it, if not all of it, is available on Youtube.

So let’s begin…

 

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#86 BEETHOVEN THE 32 PIANO SONATAS–A DIVERSION BEFORE A START

#86

I’d like to start a third “series” of postings–in addition to the cantatas of Bach and the piano concertos of Mozart—the piano sonatas of Beethoven.

Before I even start, though, I’d like to take a diversion. If you are a music lover—however deep or shallow your acquaintance with the great composers and their music—you may find yourself associating each composer with a certain picture—or if the composer lived close to our own time, with a particular photograph.

I think this associating people with single pictures or photos is a natural inclination, and not just for composers, of course. But I have always become a little irritated at myself for allowing myself to imagine everything about a composer through the prism of but one picture–regardless of the music of his I may be listening to! Maybe no one else does this, but I know I have, and even at my age, I have to keep reminding myself not to.

Accordingly, there is the bewigged Bach with the wide nose and an expression like he just ate a dill pickle, the tight-lipped Mozart with his ruffled shirt and red collarless coat. And the very romantic, angular-faced Chopin of the Delacroix painting. And so on and so on, for each composer…

Why am I even mentioning this obvious thing? Well, I’ll list a number of pictures of Beethoven at the beginning of this entry. The first one is a picture of Beethoven that I think many people have in their minds’ eyes—the tough guy Beethoven, the man with a set jaw who shakes his fist at the Almighty—how dare you cause ME to go deaf? But there are others that have nothing to do with the “defiant” Beethoven:

1  tough guy Beethoven
2  sweet, young Beethoven
3  30-year old Beethoven of the “early” first-sonatas period
4  pensive Beethoven at the height of his powers when he could still hear
5  Beethoven when his hearing loss was really setting in
6  Beethoven after the completion of his final piano sonata

Of course, had Beethoven lived in the 20th century, there would be hundreds and hundreds of photos depicting Beethoven in every mood—tender, jubilant, lovelorn, furious, deliriously happy, clowning, etc. I have always had to tell myself: with reference to all the great composers—they are SO multi-faceted, so capable of emotionally touching us on so many levels, that it is folly to allow oneself to imagine them through the prism of one, or even a handful, of pictures and photos.

Perhaps I am only talking to myself, and no one else has had this affliction. But if you do, or if you have, I can commiserate. Sorry for this diversion…

The piano sonatas will start in the next post…

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