(I wrote this text about the three sonatas Opp. 109-111 taken together.)
We finally reach the conclusion of the journey. The last three sonatas were neither the last piano pieces Beethoven would write – he followed them with the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 and the 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 – nor were they his final works in the sonata form – those would be the late string quartets. But after Op. 111 Beethoven’s path did not lead him back to the piano sonata genre. In strong contrast to the Hammerklavier, where the bulging, straining creative muscles are evident in every note, the last three sound like an uninhibited stream of inspiration, captured mid-flow by Beethoven and shaped and moulded by him until they appear to us as near-miraculous acts of effortless creation. Whereas the Hammerklavier feels probing, exploring, challenging, the last three are completely at ease with themselves, reflecting not the struggles of a creative genius trying to unfetter himself from all convention, but the poetic utterances of a composer who has gone so far ahead of us that one cannot but feel awe facing these inimitable musical worlds, and gratitude at having been granted access to them.
Much unites the three sonatas, besides the overall sense of transcendence suffusing the music. Structurally, they all lead towards their respective finales. All three incorporate large vocally-imagined movements or episodes – a ‘song with the most heartfelt emotion’ in Op. 109, a ‘lamenting arioso’ in Op. 110, and the simply named ‘Arietta’ as the magnificent theme of Op. 111’s finale. All three are also obsessed with polyphonic writing – a growing interest of Beethoven in his late years. It’s most overt in Op. 110, which contains two fully fledged fugues in its finale, but polyphonic sections abound in both Opp. 109 and 111 as well.
In terms of sound, Beethoven, who was almost completely deaf by that time, filled these sonatas with some of the most striking and memorable soundscapes he has ever created for the keyboard. His writing shows exquisite attention to colour and register throughout; to name just a few highlights – the angelic lightness of touch in the first movement of Op. 109, mirrored in the weightless floating in the middle of Op. 111’s finale; the muted grief of the recitativo in Op. 110, opening up to a line of 28 (!) repeated As, an unforgettable rhetorical gesture stemming from Beethoven’s contemplation of a single note; finally the overpowering wall of sound in the last variation of Op. 109’s finale, when the entire instrument seems to vibrate through the trills in both hands. But apart from these standouts, even the voicing and registration of the simple opening chords of Op. 110, or of the last movements of Opp. 109 and 111, have great impact, eliciting an immediate emotional response – the embracing warmth in Op. 110, the oil painting-like richness in Op. 109 and the pure, serene stillness in Op. 111.
Contrasts abound throughout. This, of course, has always been a feature of Beethoven’s music, but here, I feel, he reached new heights of not just juxtaposing utter extremes, but combining them into highly complex wholes. The macro-level contrasts are the major-minor keys of the movements and their respective characters: the light of the outer movements of Op. 109 contrasting with the intense darkness of its middle movement, or the boundless drive of Op. 111’s first movement contrasting with the tranquillity of its second. But it goes much further than this: the opening movement of Op. 109, for instance, is itself built from two highly contrasting elements: the unhurried opening flow, indescribably lovely in its simplicity, jars as soon as in bar nine with a prolonged Adagio espressivo section – it’s a clash of the narrative with the emotional, of the transparent with the dense, of the continuous with the hesitating and interrupted, of the serene with the turbulent. And this is just the beginning of the movement; Beethoven, inevitably, will develop both elements further, ultimately bringing them together…
On a smaller scale, this contrast appears in reverse in the opening of Op. 111, where the gravity and drama of the initial powerful sequence, based on dotted rhythms and diminished seventh chords, suddenly gives way to a questing journey towards the abstract [7 0:30]. At the end of the introduction, tension comes back through a quiet timpani-like roll in the bass before we launch into the movement proper with its wild drive. The rest of the movement is almost monothematic, as Beethoven obsessively repeats and reworks the opening motif of the allegro, but hesitations permeate the music, including a near standstill in the short second theme, harking back to the introduction – a beautiful frozen moment, before the music plunges back into the raging waters.
The pinnacle of this melding of contrasts comes in the finale of Op. 110, a unique form, which opens with an entire operatic scene: a hushed introduction, leading to a touching recitativo (which includes the aforementioned 28 pleading A notes), followed in turn by a tragic, lamenting arioso. Its final notes resigned, accepting of its fate, lead into a full three-voice fugue in A flat major. Its theme – a sequence of rising fourths – is serene and even slightly distant: a universal answer to the intimate pain of the arioso. This mixture of operatic and academic, of heart and mind, of the highly personal with the nearly impersonal, would be unusual in itself, but Beethoven develops this idea even further.
The fugue does become more impassioned as it progresses, and at the climax, the music gets suspended on a dominant seventh chord, after which it sinks into the weariest of G minors, draining life and colour in a heartbeat – a powerful dramatic effect. Then comes a completely unexpected repeat of the arioso in this new key, though now its line is halting, filled with pauses, as if overcome by grief, more personal than ever. Its final chord is G major, which Beethoven first writes very softly, as if hardly believing that any light could come out of such darkness. He then repeats the G major chord ten times with growing affirmation (a startling effect – almost a moment of hypnotic trance during the performance), out of which, as if through a lifting haze, the outline of another fugue appears. This new fugue is based on the same theme as the first one, but in inversion. Its narrative function is completely different; it depicts a gradual influx of light and life into the music as it grows faster and faster. This effect is intensified by Beethoven’s use both of single and double diminution (the motif becoming twice, and then four times faster), and augmentation (the motif becoming twice slower) – which, overlaid with each other, lends a sense of great speed to what previously was a stately flow of quavers. All this leads the music back into the home key of A flat major, joined with a triumphant return of the original fugue’s theme. No longer impersonal, it is a joyous celebration, finishing the movement with unstoppable drive and affirmation.
The finales of Op. 109 and Op. 111 are both sets of variations, following two different narrative arcs. In Op. 109, the variations are akin to a set of small self-contained worlds – a soaring aria over a waltz-like accompaniment in the first variation, a gentle interplay of crossing hands in the second, a fiery two-voice invention in the third, etc. The final, sixth variation, contains a tremendous build-up, culminating with an extended, piano-trembling climax, which subsides and dissipates at length, closing the movement with a full restatement of the opening theme. It’s a simple but powerful idea, as we perceive the same music differently, having passed through the journey of the preceding variations.
The variations that form the finale of Op. 111, on the other hand, form a single, continuous narrative. This movement is for me one of the greatest of Beethoven’s creations – all-encompassing, utterly beautiful and endlessly deep. The theme, belied by its name (Arietta – ‘a short aria’), is a prolonged slow melody, defined by its opening motif of three notes. Though universal and timeless in its message, it nonetheless touches a very personal world in its second half, set in the relative minor key.
The first three variations that follow are, for me, a gradual awakening to life, culminating in the boundless drive of the third, encapsulating the exuberance of youth, drunk on happiness and on the impossibility of defeat. (I respectfully but resolutely refuse to hear this variation as ‘jazz’, ‘ragtime’ or ‘boogie-woogie’ music, as it is often described – for me it is not a merrily unhinged ‘stomping dance’, but music that is completely and tightly held together, and moreover logically follows the stepwise doubling of speed in each preceding variation.)
Thereafter the movement makes a decisive turn: all earthly matters are left behind, and Beethoven embarks on a journey in very distant lands, be it outer space, or the farthermost reaches of the soul. An expansive double variation – its first half in the depths of the keyboard, its second floating at stratospheric heights – is followed by a transition (the main motif wonderfully hidden within the texture) – and then a standstill: a long trill appears, and the main motif is restated several times, above and below it. The trill gradually becomes the music itself, and the two hands separate, getting as
far apart as was physically possible on Beethoven’s keyboard – a sound effect thoroughly modern in its sparseness. A modulatory section follows, the only instance of Beethoven leaving the home key of C major in this movement; as if to make up for lost time, those ten bars cover a wide array of keys: a shifting, unstable harmonic world – but then how heart-warming the homecoming that follows!
That homecoming is both a recapitulation, with the theme restated in full, and a further development, building up to a powerful climax. The heart overflows – and at the point of utmost fullness, a trill returns, becoming the core of the final, ethereal variation. It is probably the only possible continuation at this point, the trill simultaneously being the highest intensification of movement, and its complete absence.
At the movement’s end, after the final farewells seem to have been said, a duet of figurations appears, soaring higher and higher to reach the highest note of this movement – a high C – and immediately
descending towards the final, sparse appearances of the main motif, and the gentle, nearly pastoral
closing chords. This high C, which appeared several times in the first movement – typical of Beethoven, who regularly writes at the extreme edges of the keyboard – has not been played even once in the second movement prior to that moment. It is impossible to know whether we can attribute importance, or indeed premeditation, to such ‘statistics’, but coming at the very end it seems to me to stand for something transcendent, which we, having made the arduous, transforming journey, are finally capable of touching for the briefest of moments – though never of holding permanently.
And this, for me, symbolises the movement itself, standing at the closure of the entire sonata cycle: its profound truths both alluringly simple and tantalisingly elusive. I believe it can never be held or known, not really, not fully. There is tremendous satisfaction to be derived from travelling the paths, and an even greater one if at a certain performance a small glimpse of these truths can be gained, but always more remains to be found: similar to the complete cycle of 32 sonatas, it is an endless quest, a life’s worth of soul-enriching searching.
Sonata No. 29 (Op. 106)
20th June 2021
If Op. 101 is a sonata that inspires love at first hearing, the next sonata in the cycle, Op. 106 – the Hammerklavier* – rather tends to inspire awe and admiration at first. It towers above the rest like a musical Mount Everest, alluring and dangerous, dwarfing all others through its complexity and colossal scope. In performing it, one experiences Beethoven’s titanic compositional struggle in every note, his vision in this particular work constantly driving him to test the extremes of size and intensity, to push the limits of piano technique beyond anything he attempted before. Later, as one comes to grips with the material, some of the admiration is replaced with love – but the awe
(*As a short – and futile! – aside, it seems to me that as nicknames come, the ‘Hammerklavier’ is a regrettably prosaic one. It stems from Beethoven’s decision to replace the Italian word ‘pianoforte’ with its German equivalent on the title page, and says nothing of the sonata beyond the instrument it is supposed to be played on. If I could choose another, I feel both ‘the Great’ and ‘the Titanic’ could reflect its musical spirit better …)
The sonata is conceived on a symphonic scale, with a four-movement structure that could be viewed from two different perspectives. On one hand, the narrative flows in one direction – we go from the light of the grand opening movement and the impish Scherzo into the deepest darkness of the slow third movement, gradually re-emerging from it in the connecting Largo, and fully triumphing in the final fugue, which is our goal and aim. On the other, the Hammerklavier’s form shows an exquisitely measured symmetry of proportions – both outer movements are eleven to twelve minutes long; going inward from the edges, we find the Scherzo and Largo at three minutes each; finally, at the centre, we reach the slow movement – which, at closer examination, exhibits the same five-part symmetry itself! The heart of this central movement, and thus the heart of the sonata, is the passage at 23:30, one of Beethoven’s most powerful personal musical utterances. Both views co-exist, supporting the vast musical tapestry, and helping unite the movements into one cohesive, albeit very complex, whole.
Another way in which Beethoven unites the sonata is by a nearly-obsessive use of the motif of a third, whether rising or falling. This motif is immediately introduced in the two opening fanfares of the first movement, first ascending, in the jump from the first left-hand note to the upper note of the following chord, then descending, in the last two right-hand chords of each phrase. The eloquent section that follows (0:15) also starts with a rising third, this time filled in with a passing note; and we will further find thirds in almost every bit of melodic material of the movement. The Scherzo’s melody, too, is nothing but a sequence made of pairs of rising and falling thirds, echoing the beginning of the first movement in a condensed form. The same is true of the beginning of the slow movement, which in its original form started directly with the falling third in bar two (15:45), until Beethoven, already after the sonata had been engraved, added an introduction bar: an intensely atmospheric slow rising third in octaves, again completing the pair. The theme of the fugue follows the same pattern (35:47) – a jump of a third up, followed by a series of descents whose final notes outline falling thirds. The fugue’s second theme (41:26) is the pair in reverse – a falling, then a rising third, both filled in with passing notes.
Even more impressive is Beethoven’s consistent use of thirds as a structural harmonic element throughout the sonata. The development sections of both the first and third movements are based on long sequences of falling thirds. The improvisatory Largo, preceding the fugue, is extreme in that respect – it is essentially a series of undisguised falling thirds, 19 in number (!), surrounding a string of short episodes. And zooming out further, even the home keys of the sonata’s movements form a falling and a rising third: B flat – F sharp – B flat. I wouldn’t normally dwell on this, as these are all technical devices, pertaining to the mechanics of composition and usually unnoticed by the listeners. But Beethoven’s focus on thirds in the Hammerklavier is so marked, and clearly so important to the evolution of the work, that I thought it worth mentioning.
To speak about the music itself: the opening movement (0:09) is perhaps the most conventional of the four, though distinguished by an unusual richness of textures, a great abundance of material, and an exquisite sense of registration – for a movement so physical and present, it’s remarkable how much of the material lies in the highest reaches of Beethoven’s keyboard. (I’d be tempted to speak of orchestration, if not for the painfully pianistic nature of the entire work.)
The Scherzo (12:31) makes good on the promise of its name (‘a joke’ in Italian), containing a good many musical jokes. The first is the unexpected mirroring of the first movement in miniature – both in the melodic outline of the two openings I mentioned above, but perhaps more importantly in a crucial tug of power between two tonal centres – B flat and B natural – which occurs on a large-section, tectonic scale in the first movement, but is much more apparent in the fleeting, light-footed Scherzo. At the end of the Scherzo, to literally drive the point home, Beethoven juxtaposes the two notes directly at 15:01. The B natural is at first the more hesitant of the two, but then, in a sudden outburst of rage (comic or real?), Beethoven hammers out 16 B natural octaves, covering most of the keyboard and reaching a manic fortissimo, as if to shout ‘Do you get the joke now? Do you?!’, before moving back to the B flat, and finishing the movement merrily and lightly, as if nothing’s ever happened.
The trio contains two further jokes. The first harks back to the first movement of Sonata No. 6, Op 10, No. 2; similar to the development section of that movement, Beethoven takes the last two notes of the Scherzo material – the two repeated octaves at 13:17, the equivalent of a musical full stop – and makes them into a proper motif, repeating them at the beginning and end of each phrase of the trio. The second expands the idea of making music out of empty material even further – over an accompaniment of shadowy triplets, the trio’s melody is built of nothing but octaves moving up and down broken triads, with the hands echoing each other, offset by one bar. As in Op. 101, it’s a canon at the octave, though here the material is so empty that it shouldn’t work – but, somehow, touched by Beethoven’s magic, it does, suffusing the music with way more atmosphere than broken triads should be able to generate. Still, the feelings of incongruity and bizarreness remain throughout.
Finally, something extraordinary happens between the trio and the return of the Scherzo – Beethoven inserts a catchy tune in B flat minor, an utter musical non sequitur, which, to make things worse, is written in a different metre from the rest of the movement. After introducing it in a sprightly unison (13:55), Beethoven turns it into a rowdy ‘oom-pah’, of the kind you might expect to hear (please excuse the anachronism!) from a silent movie pianist, accompanying a chase scene (13:59). After a third, more serious repeat of the tune, Beethoven angrily descends in leaps (of repeated thirds!) down the keyboard, before – even more angrily – running back up in a blazing scale, covering in three seconds the entire extent of the keyboard (14:10). Then a silence. A shaky tremolo on a diminished ninth chord (14:13). And then, unbelievably, the Scherzo comes back, all innocent, making us wonder what on earth had just happened.
The slow movement (15:38) leaves any jokes behind, as with complete sincerity and simplicity Beethoven bares his heart, taking us on an unforgettable exploration of human solitude. The key – F sharp minor – is unique among Beethoven’s mature works, and lends a particular colour to the profound melancholy of the music (one cannot but think of Mozart’s tragic slow movement in the same key from the Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488). The movement is extraordinary in its length – it is possibly the longest slow movement written by Beethoven for piano – though he maintains line and flow seemingly without any effort for the entire length of movement. Extraordinary also is the second subject (18:09) – an accompaniment in the style of a slow waltz (which we might now call ‘valse triste’), above which the right hand pours its heart out in an improvisatory ornamented line, so free that it could be seen as a precursor to Chopin. Moments of magical stillness abound, often centred around G major (e.g. 16:50) – the Neapolitan chord, which normally is among the darkest harmonies available in a minor key, but here it is a source of light and hope.
As I mentioned above, the slow movement exhibits a kind of five-part symmetry in its structure, and its core is the passage at 23:30. It’s a variation on the opening page, with the right hand lamenting high above an accompaniment of measured chords. It is music full of hardly bearable, heart-breaking pain. But by the end of the movement Beethoven finds solace, finishing it with a series of quietly luminous F sharp major chords.
The following Largo (33:09) is a masterful depiction of a gradual awakening from the trance of the slow movement. The hands feel their way on the keyboard, searching for harmonies, sometimes alighting or one or the other to improvise a short episode before moving on, going down another third, and another. After a while, life and direction begin to return to the music (35:10), there’s a growing sense of purpose and inevitability, and after a long stay on an A major harmony, the left hand descends one final third to an F, upon which Beethoven with great determination leads us back to the home key and the opening of the finale. He has passed the vale of sorrow, has found his way back, and the answer he brings is a fugue.
This fugue (35:47) is a hardly-believable contradiction. On one hand, despite Beethoven’s safeguarding himself by designating it as a fugue con alcune licenze (‘with some license’), he nevertheless employs a whole array of highly complex academic polyphonic devices – single, double and triple augmentation, retrograde motion, inversions and stretti. On the way, it even becomes a double fugue, incorporating an introspective episode as its second theme (41:26). On the other hand, it is a showy piece of blindingly brilliant bravura, stress-testing the performer’s technique to its limit, and then beyond. Moreover, Beethoven’s bravura is never empty, and here it is the expressive vehicle for an unstoppable life force erupting from Beethoven’s hands and heart. As a purely pianistic challenge it remains hardly surpassed to this day, but as a masterpiece of fugal writing employed in the service of extraordinarily expressionistic emotion, it has perhaps only been surpassed by Beethoven himself – in the Grosse Fuge for string quartet, composed a year before his death.
One last aside, which one cannot avoid mentioning: the Hammerklavier is the only sonata in the cycle to bear metronome markings given by Beethoven. It is therefore especially unfortunate that these markings happen to be controversial. The first movement’s 138 to the minim is jaw-droppingly fast – playable in theory, but depriving the music of any air to breathe and lending it a mechanical quality. It is also hard to reconcile this blaze with the relatively steady Allegro marking – if played at that tempo, the music would surely qualifyfor a Presto or Vivacissimamente! But it’s also hard to argue that Beethoven’s metronome was broken, as the markings for the other movements, while all fast, do not seem as far out as that of the first movement; and the marking for the Largo introduction to the fugue feels spot on. So they remain a somewhat open question for all performers – fascinating, un-ignorable, and problematic.
It is my unproved hunch that the Hammerklavier might be more enjoyable to play than to listen to. Apart from the heart-gripping slow movement, I am not sure that the other movements possess the same immediacy of appeal as Beethoven’s other great sonatas. But sitting at the keyboard, there is fierce joy in wrestling with the immense, sometimes seemingly inhuman challenges this sonata presents to its interpreters, in leaning into the visceral writing, in finding out how the many pieces of this puzzle come together to create a truly vast musical canvas.
Ultimately, I believe that the greatness of the Hammerklavier lies not just in itself, as a supreme, almost overwhelming achievement of pianistic writing, coupled with Beethoven’s ever-growing structural and textural genius. It seems to me that in overcoming the struggle of the Hammerklavier, Beethoven made the first step on the path which led him to his late works, both the monumental (Ninth Symphony, Missa solemnis, ‘Diabelli’ Variations) and the transcendent (the last three piano sonatas and the late string quartets). After the Hammerklavier, the horizon seems to open up infinitely, and everything becomes possible in Beethoven’s hands.
Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101)
29th May 2021
‘Holy ground for all music lovers’ wrote the great German critic Joachim Kaiser about this sonata, and I fully agree. The opening movement alone is a wonder of inspiration beyond belief – a melody as natural as breathing, lovingly spun into a delicate form akin to a flower covered in morning’s dew, yet reflecting a wealth of complex emotions.
The beautiful opening phrase conceals an unexpected fact: Beethoven starts the sonata off-key, on the dominant (E major). This start in medias res contributes to the openness and questioning character of many of the phrases, and later in the movement Beethoven develops this idea, systematically avoiding a resolution into the home key of A major. This turns out to be part of the sonata’s design – Beethoven masterfully builds up a subconscious need for a resolution throughout the movements and manages to delay the appearance of a strong A major until much later in the sonata – the opening of the finale. This also fits with the development of the sonata form in Beethoven’s late period, with the last movement increasingly becoming the main weight-bearer and focal aim of the entire work.
The first movement does achieve an ethereally light resolution at its end, and is followed by a march which functions as a brusque awakening from the wonderful dream. It’s robust, concrete and extremely present, contrasting – if not quite answering – the open questions of the first movement with its dotted rhythms and full-bodied sound, its vitality and assuredness.
The form of the march – a shorter A section followed by a much longer B section – is closely linked with the contours of the left-hand line. In both sections it descends chromatically from the opening F to a C, a fourth below. But whereas in the beginning Beethoven only needs four bars to complete this relatively short journey, in section B he takes 24 bars for the same descent – a sixfold prolongation (!) – as he keeps going lower and lower, eventually running out of keyboard and being forced to complete the descent an octave higher. But not before halting on the penultimate step – the D flat – for a long while, granting us one of this sonata’s most magical moments, almost as a collateral: an otherworldly soundscape of overlapping harmonies over the D flat bass, before it finally resolves into the long-sought C.
This pair – D flat and C – also reappears in the transition from the trio to the repeat of the march, as a somewhat ominous rumble in the bass (8:59),linking the two parts of the movement together. The trio itself exemplifies Beethoven’s increasing interest in polyphonic writing (which was hinted at already in the first movement (e.g. 00:52). It is a canon at the octave, first with the left hand following the right, and then the two switching places. The effect is of relaxed, pastoral simplicity – a very welcome change after the bustle of the march – though Beethoven’s strict following of the canon rules does lead to some unusual-sounding passages (8:13).
A slow movement of heartbreaking tenderness serves as the introduction to the finale. Beethoven writes ‘sehnsuchtsvoll’ – ‘filled with yearning’, the yearning embodied in the expressive melodic figure of the turn (10:56) and the suspended chords (11:06). Moreover, the entire movement is to be played using the left pedal, robbing the sound of brilliance, and introducing a world of hollow pain from the very first, once again off-key chord. The pain grows stronger throughout the movement, reaching a peak at 12:18, as the turn figure is repeated again and again over a chain of descending diminished seventh chords. This subsides, and from its echoes an unexpected memory arises – the opening phrases of the sonata, like a vision of spring and warmth in the middle of winter. The memory, again unexpectedly, grows more and more corporeal, finally bursting into an energetic trill, which together with a very decisive left hand ushers in the finale with its long-expected resolution into our home key of A major.
The finale for me is the essence of summer – bright and energetic, genuinely carefree and full of laughter. It’s down-to-earth and self-assured, but in an easy-going way, contrasting with the tense, on-the-edge presence of the second movement. It really feels like the answer to all the questions which the preceding movements posed – which makes its development section that much more surprising. Beethoven’s interest in polyphonic writing, which I mentioned above, receives a much more substantial expression here, as he writes a full-fledged fugue in four voices, transforming the cheerful opening motif into something much more suspenseful and even sinister, after he transposes it to the depths of the keyboard (16:58).
The fugue, brilliantly written and fiendishly uncomfortable to play, culminates in a truly epic buildup – the final one of the piece – which deserves a special mention. Throughout his life, Beethoven was pushing against the boundaries of the keyboard, always asking the piano builders for more keys. His ongoing defiance at the limited range is so apparent that you can often track the keyboard’s development by checking the highest note of a Beethoven piece at any particular point; more often than not, it would match the highest note available to him at that time. The upper end of the keyboard gained an entire octave throughout his lifetime, but the bass had only just started expanding downwards around the time of Op. 101. And so, Beethoven finally allowed himself to add one (!) extra note – the E – to the bass range, even though he didn’t yet possess an instrument that actually had that key (that piano was only to come in 1818, a gift from the London piano builder Thomas Broadwood). This note, like an exotic ingredient, was sparingly added at a strategically crucial point in the finale’s fugue – the very end (18:38), supporting a double augmentation of the fugue’s theme hammered out in fortissimo, which serves not only as the climax of the finale, but, by extension, of the entire sonata.
This passage brings to a glorious resolution the E major chord which hangs open in the air from the first bars of the sonata, thus completing Beethoven’s long game plan of this work. (Somewhat comically, Beethoven was so concerned about this unusual note that he scribbled it multiple times in the manuscript,to make sure the number of ledger lines was correct; he also requested that its name – ‘Contra E’ – be printed out in letters in the score, to remove any doubt of it being a mistake in the score.)
After the climax, any shadow still remaining from the fugue is firmly dispersed, and the music merrily continues up until the coda (20:20), which brings both an unexpected lurch into F major (creating a nice link to the second movement), and what sounds like the beginning of another fugue! But this is a false alarm, and after a few tender and light-hearted passages, the sonata ends with a thundering line of fortissimo A major chords.
Op. 101 is without any doubt one of the greatest highlights of the cycle, and in hindsight, our gateway into Beethoven’s transcendent late style.
Sonata No. 27 (Op. 90)
10th May 2021
Over four years separate this short two-movement sonata from its predecessor, Les Adieux, Op. 81a. These years saw the creation of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the Archduke piano trio, Violin Sonata No. 10 and the overtures to Egmont and Fidelio, among other works, but none for piano solo. The sonata was dedicated to Beethoven’s friend and patron Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, and was for a long time believed to contain an extra-musical narrative, similar to Les Adieux – namely the story of the count’s marriage to the opera singer Josepha Stummer, after the death of his first wife, against the wishes of his family.
This belief was based on an entry in Beethoven’s conversation book dating from 1823, in which his part-time secretary Anton Schindler noted that ‘Lichnowsky played the Sonata, Op. 90 containing the story of his marriage.’ In later years Schindler elaborated on the story, writing that upon being questioned by Count Lichnowsky about the idea behind the music, Beethoven burst out laughing and told him it was the love story between the count and his wife. The first movement, he suggested, could be titled ‘Struggle between mind and heart’ and the second ‘Conversations with the beloved’.Today we know that the original entry from 1823 was falsified by Schindler, and the entire story has likely been fabricated to support his claim that Beethoven often used ‘poetic ideas’ as inspiration for his music. The timeline doesn’t quite fit either, as the marriage between the count and the singer didn’t take place until 1820. But it is not inconceivable that there was some truth behind the story, as in summer 1814 – around the time of the sonata’s composition – the illegitimate daughter of the count and the singer was born, so Beethoven might have known about the liaison by then.
Whatever the case, Schindler’s story often remains quoted, as it strikes the imagination – the conflicted intensity of the first movement, and the strong contrast between it and the second movement do seem to suggest an extra-musical narrative, and Schindler’s titles fit the music wonderfully. But even taken on purely musical terms, the first movement is a masterpiece of dramatic construction. The intensity of the opening declaration and the immediate tender response, the heartfelt phrase at 00:33, the ghostly octaves at 00:49, the unabating drive at 1:16 – all add to an evocative image of turbulent emotion, at times controlled, at times overpowering both listener and performer. Of a special kind of magic are the transition to the reprise (3:28), where the opening three-note motif is repeated multiple times, overlapping with itself to create a memorable, poignant sound; and the very ending of the movement, where the opening phrases are played at the highest end of the keyboard, fragile and vulnerable, before a repeat of the heartfelt phrase closes the movement (6:00).
The turmoil and heartache of the first movement are completely effaced by the very first notes of the second (6:23), as the key shifts from minor to major and Beethoven inverts the descending three-notes motif, turning a dramatic gesture into a lovingly caressing one. What follows is pure Schubert – a never-ending song, repeated multiple times over the course of a nearly-cloudless movement, all light and flow.
Sonata No. 26 (Op. 81a)
17th April 2021
Sonata No. 26 is the only programmatic one of the entire cycle. It was created during the War of the Fifth Coalition in 1809, in which the Austrian Empire and its allies (Britain, Portugal and Spain) fought the French Empire under Napoleon and its German allies, chiefly Bavaria. It depicts the departure, absence and return of Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s longtime patron and student, who together with much of the Viennese aristocracy fled Vienna at the approach of Napoleon in May 1809. Beethoven may have begun the sonata before that (it might even not have been planned with Rudolph in mind, but rather meant to depict a more universal emotion), but it was definitely completed during Rudolph’s absence, and presented to him as a gift upon his return to Vienna in early 1810.
The first movement (00:10) is centered around a motif of three descending notes, above which Beethoven wrote in the score ‘Le-be wohl’ (‘fare thee well’). This motif is also the upper line of a perennial horn call, built from a sequence of three intervals – a third, a fifth and a sixth – which indeed opens the sonata. Normally it is a happy motif (in Russian we call it the ‘golden call’ for its noble, burnished colour), but Beethoven subverts expectations right from the third note, when an expressive C minor harmony replaces the expected E flat major one. A few bars later, another attempt at the call goes even more awry – it ends in a numb C flat major (00:47), as if Beethoven felt completely lost in face of the news of the imminent departure. He then manages to bestir himself, and the exposition proper, starting at (1:35) is full of happy activity, as if the bustle of preparation for the departure distracts him from the pain. The ‘lebe wohl’ motif appears here in a lighter character, above a contented flow of chatting quavers (2:12).
But the pain hasn’t gone away, and the development brings the original motif back, though with an interesting twist – it now only consists of the first two notes, as if the thought of saying a full farewell had become too painful to contemplate (3:38). This issue gets resolved in a poetic coda, in which the full motif is repeated multiple times, in various guises (5:47). On one hand, the music could suggest the image of a carriage gradually receding into the distances, appearing and disappearing from view, with the horn calls answering and overlapping as they fade into a pianissimo. But at the same time, it could be an image of Beethoven coming to accept the inevitability of the farewell, by teaching himself to say the word, again and again. Whatever the case, I find the coda exceedingly beautiful.
In the second movement (7:42) we can easily imagine Beethoven pacing desolately in his room, or sinking into a rapt reverie of reminiscing (8:42). The transition to the finale is done with exceptional emotional vividness – just as the music was about to go into a third repeat of the same material (depicting, I imagine, the monotony of waiting), a change of harmony occurs (10:42), heralding a possible change of circumstances; there’s a sense of a cautious hope, intensifying with every moment, growing more certain, until, YES!! The return is real, and the music is nearly delirious with happiness (10:51), the dreary steps replaced with overflowing energy, until the main theme (and with it, the returning Archduke) appear (11:02). In a lesser composer’s hands it could all be over-the-top theatrical. But coming from Beethoven, the heartfelt and utterly sincere music results in a loving sonata, unashamedly wearing its heart on its sleeve. It packs a rich, almost cinematic experience into its 15 minutes, supported throughout by Beethoven’s instinctive and sensitive understanding of the human heart, and his constant ability to find the right notes to evoke these emotions in us.
Sonata No. 25 (Op. 79)
19th February 2021
The genesis of this sonata is closely tied with that of Sonata No. 24, as both were commissioned by Muzio Clementi, an Italian-born, London-based pianist, composer and publisher. The contract for those and other works was signed on 20 April 1807, with Beethoven agreeing to compose the two sonatas ‘in an unspecified time and at his leisure’. This finally happened in the second half of 1809, and both sonatas were published by Clementi in mid-1810.
The G major sonata, Op. 79, is a work light both in spirit and in technical difficulty, recognised as such by Beethoven, who asked the German publisher to call it ‘Sonata facile’ (‘Easy Sonata’) or ‘Sonatine’.
The first movement (0:11) is a lively dance, titled alla Tedesca (‘in the style of a German dance’), which could refer to any number of quick dances in triple time, of which the Deutscher Tanz, Ländler and waltz were the chief types at the time. Its origin as a contradance is revealed in the coda, where its theme finally assumes the symmetric nature hinted at in the beginning (4:41). The development contains a surprising technical challenge, not quite fitting the sonata’s designation as ‘easy’: the left hand has to cross the right hand at speed in every bar, with lightness and precision (1:33). It is interesting music – the resulting ‘cuckoo call’ motif gave the sonata its unofficial nickname – but it’s anything but easy! (As an aside, Beethoven later wrote another alla Tedesca movement, as part of the String Quartet, Op. 130, and created a small link between the two: the four opening notes of the string quartet movement are the same as the sonata’s opening, inverted upside down.)
The second movement (5:08) is perhaps the least Beethovenian of the entire cycle – it is a beautiful melancholy barcarolle, which could have easily been one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Artless simplicity in the outer sections surrounds an operatic middle section (5:46), with a beautiful soprano line soaring above the gently rocking left-hand figurations.
The finale (7:42) is full of wonderful charm, its endearing refrain varied and elaborated with each repeat, surrounding several energetic and characterful episodes. Interestingly, Beethoven later used the exact harmonic sequence of this finale’s opening in the sublime beginning of Sonata No. 30, transposing the music for the ‘simple’ G major into a more refined E major.
Sonata No. 24 (Op. 78)
12th February 2021
The darkness which held us in its grip in the Appassionata could not be counteracted more completely than it is by the sound of Sonata No. 24’s opening. Like a hymn rising above the deep octaves in the left hand, these four bars seem to come directly from the heart, devout and almost in awe of being in the presence of something exceedingly pure and beautiful. They lead into the loveliest of first movements, poetic, lyrical and simple in its emotional colour. The key of F sharp major, unique in Beethoven’s output, lends the music a special luminosity, a constant sense of striving upwards, which is reflected by the music’s frequently residing in the upper part of the keyboard. This is not a detached, crystalline weightlessness, though, as the music is suffused with warmth throughout.
The second (and last) movement – 7:39 – is an irreverently playful kind of rondo, beginning strikingly on a dissonant chord. The short refrain is built from a series of bouncy phrases, surrounding longer episodes of merriment in which the hands chase and cross each other. The opening dissonant chord re-emerges at the end of each episode, prolonged more and more each time. In is last appearance (9:31), Beethoven takes this idea to a smile-raising extreme, stretching it over 16 bars of running semiquavers.
The sonata’s nickname, À Thérèse, is a simple reflection of its dedicatee, the Countess Therese von Brunsvik, Beethoven’s former piano student. Beethoven was much attached to the family: Therese’s brother, Franz, was a close friend and the dedicatee of both the Appassionata and the later Fantasy, Op. 77, while Therese’s younger sister, Josephine, has often been suggested as the addressee of Beethoven’s letters to an ‘Immortal Beloved’. (While this hypothesis remains unproved – and perhaps unprovable, barring a discovery of additional documents – we do know that Beethoven was passionately in love with Josephine, writing her at least 14 love letters between 1804 and 1810, in which he called her ‘angel’, ‘my everything’, and his ‘only love’.)
Sonata No. 23 (Op. 57)
22nd January 2021
Beethoven, in his core, is a composer of light, his music uplifting and life-affirming. But in a few works he addressed the darkness with a mastery just as absolute, giving us within the sonata cycle the Pathétique, Moonlight, and perhaps most vivid of all, the Appassionata. These three are without doubt among the most popular of his works, attesting to some irresistible attraction these dark soundscapes must exert on us. Perhaps it is also an attestation to Beethoven’s mastery of dramaturgy and his profound, relatable humanity: he knows how to grip us in a dark narrative, but we constantly feel that he lived through the same experience as us, felt the same emotions, possibly more strongly than we do. Trusting him, we willingly lower our defences and submit ourselves to this white-knuckle ride.
And thus, he takes us with him into the dangerous world of the Appassionata. The tension in the beginning is almost physically palpable, a coiled spring of dotted rhythms as the hands move in austere unison down and up the keyboard (it is only Beethoven’s magic touch that can transform something as mundane as an arpeggio – a broken chord – in a device of immense dramatic power). A trill – a shimmering shiver, more psychological effect than substance – completes the opening phrase. It is immediately repeated half a tone higher; a new, colder colour brought into the mix. The opening notes of the two phrases – D flat and C – then unite to form the famous four-note fate motif (0:38), not so much a menace but a doubtless promise of the eruption to come. The repeats of the motif, faintly pleading in the right hand, implacable in the left hand, also establish another recurring idea – a large stretch of empty keyboard between the hands, who throughout the movement will often gravitate towards their respective edges of the keyboard, exacerbating the austere, barren feeling of the opening.
When we think we can’t stand the tension anymore, the music finally explodes in a raging passage of semiquavers, followed by barrages of fortissimo chords, pummelling the keyboard with wrath and abandon. This constant pull between frozen, static tension and searing hot outbursts of rage forms the body of the movement. Small islands of calm are present, for instance in the second subject (1:40) – thematically just an inversion of the opening broken chord – but they are very short-lived, leading every time back to one extreme or the other. There is no real respite within the movement.
The development section ends on a powerful climax which rushes down the keyboard into a particularly enraged and agonised repeated hammering-out of the fate motif (5:08 – it is very satisfying to play!). The last repeat dissolves into a roiling pulsation of triplets in the left hand, over which the opening is then repeated in full. This is pure genius: Beethoven not only creates tension which is extreme even by the standards of this tension-filled movement. He does it while also upsetting one of the core tenets of the sonata form: the warm feeling of homecoming and recognition we expect from the reprise. Here we certainly recognise the opening lines, but there’s nothing comforting in them; rather, we soberingly realise that this probably was their intended character all along. It is closer to a twist in a psychological thriller, showing us a familiar location or a character in a new, unsettling light. (The only thing marring the atmospheric brilliance of this moment is that it is fiendishly uncomfortable to play – the right hand has to manage by itself all the material which was previously written for two hands.)
After the reprise, a long quiet episode builds the tension towards the biggest climax of the movement (8:22), but even that is not the end. After the climax dissipates, a few pensive repeats of the fate motif lead into the coda, where the theme of the second subject changes into a minor key, becoming an imploring plea. But fate is not to be assuaged, and a real battle erupts between the hands, as they are vying for dominance using a truncated version of the fate motif (9:29). The battle’s aftermath, perhaps unexpectedly, is quiet and once again frozen, static, as if heavy snow covers the scene, removing everything from view. (My mention of snow isn’t pure imagination; some decades later, Liszt will similarly use a quiet tremolo surrounded by a melody in the beginning and end of the last of his Transcendental Études, titled Snowstorm.)
Similarly to the Moonlight and the Pathétique (and masterfully ‘feeling the audience’ to judge how much calamity and stress they can take), Beethoven includes an oasis of respite in the second movement (10:08). It is a set of variations in D flat major, on a theme which, unusually, combines the deeply devoted feeling of a chorale with the dotted rhythms of a march. The variations increasingly add flow and life to the theme, while also pulling it away and up from the lowest reaches of the keyboard. After the third variation, light-fingered and sparkling, reaches a fortissimo climax in the heights of the keyboard, the music descends back and the opening chorale/march is repeated in full. This time, its ending is subverted, leading into a false cadence on an unstable diminished seventh chord (16:24). This cues an immediate return of creeping tension in anticipation of the finale …
… which starts without a break, with insistent fortissimo repeats of the transition chord (16:30). A series of aborted phrases then leads into the finale proper: a dark, shadowy soundscape constructed of never-stopping semiquavers. I don’t know of another movement in Beethoven’s output so full of a sense of danger, so tangibly standing on the brink of disaster. Rather than a traditional rondo, Beethoven chooses the more serious sonata form as a vehicle for this narrative, adding an unexpected repeat of the second (rather than the first) part (20:50). On the surface it is just an interesting experiment with the sonata form, but in terms of dramaturgy, it’s a strong narrative device: I see it as an attempt to stave off the coda, with its impending doom. When the coda does, inevitably, come, whatever we feared, whatever danger was suggested by the previous seven minutes, is finally upon us. A kind of desperate dance at first (23:44) the bulk of the coda is a tragic denouement, with the music forcibly rising in waves to bury everything underneath it. In the memorable words of the great British musicologist D.F. Tovey, these pages are a ‘rush deathwards’; an unforgettable ending to one of Beethoven’s darkest – and greatest – works.
Sonata No. 22 (Op. 54)
15th January 2021
Nestled between two titans – the Waldstein and the Appassionata – is an unusual, enigmatic two-movement work. Beethoven’s contemporaries and later generations of critics didn’t think much of it, and it remains seldom performed today. The Sonata was Beethoven’s first serious look at the possibilities of a two-movement form (if we disregard the two ‘for the drawer’ Sonatas, Op. 49), which he went on to explore in the increasingly poetic Opp. 78, 90 and finally 111.
Here, the first movement itself (0:06) seems to contain, if not two separate movements, then certainly a clash of two very different worlds. On one hand a stately minuet, its dotted rhythm opening motif repeated in several registers over the keyboard, rich and warm in the bass, pure and crystalline in the soprano. On the other hand, an explosive cascade of double octave triplets, insistent almost to a point of parody or ridicule (1:01). The two elements alternate, shifting the balance of power throughout the movement. At first, the thunderous octave passage is almost double the length of the opening Menuetto, seemingly overpowering it, but as the movement progresses, it is the minuet element that is developed and varied, acquiring elaborate ornamentation, while the octave passage becomes shorter and finally disappears completely until the very final bars. The incongruous mismatch of the two elements strongly suggests an extra-musical narrative – but without any indication from Beethoven as to what it may be, it would have to remain open to our imaginations.
The second and final movement (6:12) is a perpetuum mobile in calmly flowing semiquavers. In this core idea, it is surprisingly similar to the finale of the Appassionata; also in the unexpected repeat of the second half of both movements. The mood of course couldn’t be farther apart – allegretto and dolce in Op. 54, contrasted with the highly tense, most on-the-brink-of-disaster movement Beethoven has ever written in the later Op. 57. Like the opening Menuetto, this movement, too, seems to follow its own somewhat unpredictable logic. The (very prosaic!) image I have in the beginning is of two dogs happily chasing each other’s tails, but the dolce marking and the innocent delight of the opening bars do belie a fair share of drama in the development, with several chains of surprising modulations (at 8:00 particularly, the left hand, if played on its own, could have well been composed by Bartók or Ligeti). In a last similarity to the Appassionata both movements end with a fast coda (11:40), though here too, the similarity is outweighed by the contrast: Op. 57’s is a desperate ‘rush deathwards’ (in D.F. Tovey’s words), while Op. 54 ends with an exuberant celebration in F major, joyful and triumphant.
Sonata No. 21 (Op. 53)
27th December 2020
From two of Beethoven’s lesser sonatas (Nos. 19-20) to one of his greatest – Sonata No. 21, Op. 53, known as ‘Waldstein’, after its dedicatee, Count von Waldstein, a close friend and early patron of Beethoven. It is very tempting to talk of watershed moments – perhaps only visible to us in hindsight – but the Waldstein, its every note radiant with inspiration, is surely a landmark in Beethoven’s development, as well as in the development of the sonata genre in Beethoven’s hands.
The Sonata falls into two distinct parts: the energetic, taut as a wound spring Allegro con brio on one hand, and the expansive, poetic, highly imaginative finale with its slow introduction on the other. The very beginning of the first movement is pulsation made melodic, brimming with barely contained energy – the long row of repeated notes seemingly straining against the imposed metre, only content once they arrive at the short melodic figure in bar three. It is immediately repeated higher up, forming a micro-dialogue before the main theme is relaunched, a full tone lower than in the beginning, adding colour to what is usually a neutrally coloured key (no sharps, no flats).
That short, melodic figure proves important later on, as Beethoven builds half the development section around it – first as an imitative narrative (5:02), then in a veiled, pianissimo section (5:15), and finally as material for a wonderful build-up (6:22), from a mysterious (though always driven) half-whisper and up to a blaze of brilliance leading back into the recapitulation. The other half of the development, incidentally, is built around a minor transition motif from the exposition, that Beethoven takes out of its anonymous existence and puts centre stage, repeating twelve (!) times with nearly manic insistence in a wildly modulatory section (5:29). This is one of Beethoven’s hallmarks: taking tiny musical building blocks and developing them beyond the limits of their perceived potential.
The second movement (10:59), a very slow atmospheric introduction to the finale, is at its heart a similar exploration of the opening motif – a longer note followed by an ascending intrval, the three bound by a dotted rhythm. Beethoven never hides his interest in the motifs he develops, and here, too, it is made obvious in the last third of the movement, as the motif is stubbornly repeated, building up to a climax, and then descending, gradually calming down before the seamless transition into the finale.
Interestingly, this was not Beethoven’s original idea for the second movement. In its place stood the
piece we know today as Andante favori, WoO 57. It is a long rondo with a complex nested form, exploring a
graceful motif with increasingly elaborate variations. Ferdinand Ries wrote: ‘In the sonata (in C major,
Op. 53) … there was originally a grand Andante. A friend of Beethoven’s expressed his opinion that the
sonata was too long, whereupon he was frightfully reprimanded by Beethoven. Only calmer consideration
soon convinced my teacher of the truth of the remark. He then published the grand Andante in F major, in 3/8 time, on its own, and later composed the interesting Introduction to the rondo, that is now found in it.’ The Andante favori is utterly beautiful on its own, but the Sonata is certainly better served by the stark, almost austere Introduction, setting up this most inspired of Rondo finales.
The finale’s opening (15:08) presents us with what was (intentionally, I believe) missing from the first movement – a long melody of true poetic beauty, earning the Sonata its second, much more artistic nickname, ‘L’Aurora’ (‘The Dawn’), as its gentle caress seemed to evoke the first colouring of the sky at daybreak. And day breaks indeed, with the sun appearing in all its glory above a blazing trill and a burst of energy in the left hand (16:15).
A string of episodes follow, most of them boisterous (16:24, 18:42), one remarkably hushed and atmospheric (20:17). The final episode (22:07), an unstoppable wave of thundering semiquaver triplets, leads into a frenzy of a coda (23:20). There, everything is extreme: the tempo (the indication, prestissimo – the fastest one there can be – a marked contrast to the uncommonly held back Allegretto moderato of the movement proper), the dynamics, the accents, and, not least, the technical difficulty, culminating in an entire section of octave glissandos (24:05), which on modern pianos – their keys much heavier and deeper than those of Beethoven’s keyboards – often require inventive solutions. But even in Beethoven’s time this passage must have been a case of his showing off. Rather than a more common unmeasured sweep down or up the keyboard, here the glissando is to be played pianissimo, in strict measure, with both hands, and to make things worse, with a controlled stop in the middle of the line. So it was a double victory for Beethoven: a chance to showcase his extreme mastery of the keyboard, while enchanting the listeners with a hitherto unheard sound effect.
Following the glissandos the frantic energy suddenly peters out, and the theme appears several times above a pianissimo trill and a gently flowing left hand (24:24). My teacher, Arie Vardi, used to say of this part of the work that ‘material melts and becomes spirit’, and it rings very true to me; this forms an unexpected connection with Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111, as both this use of a trill – not ornamental, but part of the music’s core – and the concept of material-into-spirit will play a major role in that Sonata’s second movement. Here, however, it is just a passing, though highly effective episode, whereupon the dazzling energy returns and the Sonata ends in full triumph.
Sonata No. 20 (Op. 49 No. 2)
26th December 2020
As I wrote yesterday, the two sonatas Op. 49 were not, in fact, written at the time their numbers (19 and 20) would suggest – that is, between Sonata No. 18 (1802) and Sonata No. 21 (1804). Instead, they are much earlier works. Based on sketches in one of Beethoven’s notebooks, Sonata No. 20, Op. 49, No. 2 was probably composed immediately before Sonata No. 4, Op. 7, while Sonata No. 19, Op 49, No. 1 is likely to date from 1797 or early 1798, around the time of composition of the Sonatas, Op. 10, and before the Pathétique.
The manuscripts then lay unpublished for years until in 1802, Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl, serving as part-time secretary to Beethoven, included them in an offer to a publisher. They are mentioned almost as an afterthought: ‘two little easy sonatas of two movements each’, following a list of more major works available for publication: a symphony (No. 2), a ‘grand piano concerto’ (No. 3) and two ‘adagios for violin with complete instrumental accompaniment’ (the violin Romances Nos. 1 and 2). Considering the very long delay since their composition, it is probable that Beethoven never intended these ‘two little easy sonatas’ to be published at all. To quote Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s friend and pupil, ‘all trivial pieces and many things which he never wanted to publish, because he did not regard them as worthy of his name, secretly came into the world through his brothers… even small compositions which he had written down in notebooks were thus stolen and engraved.’
Whatever the case, both sonatas are certainly not unworthy of Beethoven’s name. The first movement of Op. 49, No. 2 (0:04) is the only one where a certain uneventfulness could perhaps be reproached, but Beethoven imbues even such a respectable, dependable Allegro with elegance and a refined sparkle. The second movement (4:35) is a minuet, thoroughly lovely and charming. Its inherent appeal was recognised by Beethoven, and he re-used the theme in the third movement of his hugely popular Septet, Op. 20, perhaps another oblique indication that the early Sonata was not meant to be published.
Sonata No. 19 (Op. 49 No. 1)
25th December 2020
Part of the original idea for the project was to explore the sonata cycle in chronological order. I wanted to follow Beethoven on his path and treat every sonata as I believe Beethoven would have treated it: as the pinnacle of what he was able to achieve at that point in his creative life. But I must admit a mistake of ignorance; when I was planning the cycle, I did not know that the two sonatas Op. 49 were not, in fact, written at the time their numbers (19 and 20) would suggest – that is, between Sonata No. 18 (1802) and Sonata No. 21 (1804). Instead, they are much earlier works. Based on sketches in one of Beethoven’s notebooks, Sonata No. 20, Op. 49, No. 2 was probably composed immediately before Sonata No. 4, Op. 7, while Sonata No. 19, Op 49, No. 1 is likely to date from 1797 or early 1798, around the time of composition of the Sonatas, Op. 10, and before the Pathétique.
The manuscripts then lay unpublished for years until in 1802, Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl, serving as part-time secretary to Beethoven, included them in an offer to a publisher. They are mentioned almost as an afterthought: ‘two little easy sonatas of two movements each’, following a list of more major works available for publication: a symphony (No. 2), a ‘grand piano concerto’ (No. 3) and two ‘adagios for violin with complete instrumental accompaniment’ (the violin Romances Nos. 1 and 2). Considering the very long delay since their composition, it is probable that Beethoven never intended these ‘two little easy sonatas’ to be published at all. To quote Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s friend and pupil, ‘all trivial pieces and many things which he never wanted to publish, because he did not regard them as worthy of his name, secretly came into the world through his brothers… even small compositions which he had written down in notebooks were thus stolen and engraved.’
Whatever the case, both sonatas are certainly not unworthy of Beethoven’s name, the first in G minor perhaps being the stronger work of the pair. The narrative of its first movement (0:06) is sincere and heartfelt, filled with an artless, touching beauty. The puckish second movement (4:30 – in G major!) is a delightful companion, wonderfully catchy and very fun to play. It reminds me quite a bit of the finale of the G major Sonata, Op. 14, No. 2 – the same irreverent ease, the same drive and mischievous humour, and the same unexpectedly calm ending over a bass drone.
Sonata No. 18 (Op. 31 No. 3)
18th December 2020
The two previous trilogies in Beethoven’s sonata cycle – the three sonatas, Op. 2 and the three sonatas, Op. 10 – both had the third sonata in the group as their focal point and climax. Whether this is the case in our Op. 31 is less certain. On the one hand, Sonata No. 18 is the only one in the opus to be written in four movements, like most of Beethoven’s Grandes Sonates (Opp. 7, 22, 26 and 28). On the other, the Sonata is so easy-going, so light-spirited, so full of sunshine, that it feels much more like a release after Tempest’s dark tension than a further intensification.
I must admit there is very little I can write about the sonata – if ever there was a case where the music speaks fully for itself, this is it. Whatever unusualness it does have can be summed up in two points: a) it begins with a dissonant chord (0:06); and b) it has no slow movement, containing instead a Scherzo (8:37) and a Minuet (8:37). Contrasting with these (not very major) points is the wonderful openness of character of all four movements, the clarity of narrative and the unclouded mood reigning throughout. Good-natured humour is abundant, as is virtuosity – sparkling and polished in the first movement, pointed and even biting in the Scherzo, and blindingly blazing in the tarantella finale (18:29; the blaze is explicitly requested by Beethoven – the tempo marking for the finale is Presto con fuoco – ‘Presto with Fire’). The Minuet is a jewel among the other movements, replete with beauty and poetry.
All in all, this Sonata is a balm for the heart after the Tempest’s darkness and pain, and a respite for the mind after the complexities of Sonata No. 16. It is immensely loveable and an absolute joy to perform.
Sonata No. 17 (Op. 31 No. 2)
11th December 2020
‘Just read The Tempest!’ Beethoven allegedly told his sometime secretary Anton Schindler, in reply to a request to provide the key to Sonata No. 17. This connection with one of Shakespeare’s last plays was the source of the Sonata’s nickname. But the problem with this story is twofold: first, in Schindler’s account, Beethoven’s reply applied to both Sonata No. 17 and Sonata No. 23. The latter, by the time of the story’s publication, already had a nickname – ‘Appassionata’ – and so the ‘Tempest’ nickname only stuck to the sonata that was still unnamed. Secondly, today we know that Schindler was a forger and a fabricator – many of his entries in the written conversation books with Beethoven were inserted by him long after Beethoven’s death (as shown by research in the 1970s and ’80s), and thus it is impossible to say whether any reply which he had attributed to Beethoven was true or falsified.
In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nickname wouldn’t have held, had listeners and performers not felt it reflected some true part of the music’s core. Whether or not we link it to the play, the opening of the Sonata is breathtakingly strong. With one simple broken chord, Beethoven creates so much atmosphere and promises so much magic that the music transports us elsewhere right away. This is also Beethoven’s own magic: to take something as commonplace as a chord used to signal the beginning of a recitativo in opera all throughout the 18th century, and to transform it into a work of art simply by slowing it down and bringing its dynamic down to pianissimo.
As always with Beethoven, once a motif has been introduced – and the broken chord is very much a motif – he will explore its full potential. The stormy main theme derives directly from it, as does the entire development section and the opening of the second movement. But the broken chords themselves recur multiple times inside the movement: in the repeat of the exposition, later on at the demarcation line between the exposition and the development, and most remarkably between the development and the reprise. There, their recitativo-opening origin is finally acknowledged – and in what a way! Beethoven writes two doleful recitativo lines, both pianissimo, bathed in a single continuous pedal, allowing harmonies to cloud over – it’s an otherworldly sound, haunted and haunting (5:52).
Two other elements are in play: a hyperventilating motif made of short two-quaver groups, and a tremolo of triplets. From these blocks, Beethoven constructs a movement unified in mood and colour – everything is dark and tense. Dynamics vary wildly, from the pianissimo of the broken chords to the stormy rage of the fortissimo tremolos in the development. The short coda – or rather afterword – is gloomy and subdued, a pause in the story rather than a full stop.
The second movement (8:41) allows us to breathe, its major key a respite from the preceding darkness. But the shadow doesn’t fully pass: later on in the movement Beethoven introduces a motif reminiscent of distant drums, bringing back coiled energy and tension (9:46). Harmonically, the movement is extremely stable, repeatedly coming back to the home key. This, together with the slow elegance of the music, creates a curious effect: it is as if we were in a stasis, safe for the moment, but inevitably feeling that if the story is to continue, we would need to leave this B flat major shelter.
Once this happens, the finale starts gently (15:11) – a spinning wheel of a perpetuum mobile, with a caressing dynamic and light tempo. Until, without warning, the world explodes about us (15:39), launching the music (and us) into narrative and emotional turmoil. From that point on, it is all relentless, unremitting tension, in one wave after another, almost through to the end. The softer sections return a few times, and it is that music, like a framing device, that brings the movement to a close. Viewing it from a 21st-century perspective, I can’t help but imagine it as a cinematographic effect – the soft sections are the tale being told from afar, while in the stormy ones we are put into the thick of action. It’s a harrowing movement, picking up the storyline from the end of the first movement to complete an arch of great emotional and dramatic impact.
Sonata No. 16 (Op. 31 No. 1)
4th December 2020
There are, in Beethoven’s cycle, numerous sonatas that grab you immediately, whether as a performer or as a listener. Prior to this project, Sonata No. 16 was not one of those for me. I was offered the chance to play it as a teenager; I read through it briefly, decided with typical teenage cockiness that it wasn’t ‘that awesome’, and asked to play Sonata No. 28 instead.
Today, I can both understand my initial reaction and see how superficial it was, and, ultimately, how wrong. Sonata No. 16 is a delight, but a delight perhaps more cerebral than emotional. It is akin to a pocket universe, where rules apply that might not apply elsewhere, and discovering and accepting these rules is a prerequisite to enjoyment. Like great science fiction writing often arises from a simple ‘what if’ question, the outer movements of the Sonata explore two musical worlds where something fundamental has been altered.
The first movement asks ‘what if it were okay for the hands not to play together?’ As any first year piano student can attest, normally this would be very bad – clumsiness at best, affectation at worst. But once the question has been asked, Beethoven explores it with all the seriousness and thoroughness he would accord any of his usual musical motifs. The results are often humorous, and Beethoven complements his fundamental idea with other comic ingredients – highly contrasting dynamics, theatrical fermatas and pauses.
But the final result is more than a joke: there’s plenty of genuine drama in the development, and a fascinating interplay between major and minor keys in the second subject, foreshadowing Schubert’s immediacy of mood changes. For sheer theatrical pleasure, though, listen to the transition to the reprise (4:18) – the crossing of the hands, as they simply can’t come together, the plaintive E flat clashing with the deadpan repeating D, the waits and stops and hesitations – it’s masterly; and so is the coda (6:14).
The second movement (6:52) can seem even more enigmatic than the first. It is decidedly un-Beethovenian at first listening – beautiful, but in a detached, equanimous way. Prolonged, but without an implied narrative or strong atmosphere (its C major can at times even seem bland). It has been suggested that the whole movement might be a parody of an overwrought and over-ornamented operatic aria (I would say a duet, if anything, as the left hand consistently repeats everything the right hand does). But it seems to me that the writing is far too pianistic to parody opera, and perhaps too pristine to be a parody at all. I see there a ballet for the fingers, with beautiful hand choreography implied in the music – stately steps in the left hand, slow wide leaps contrasted with fast-fingered runs in the right hand, all frozen on the page, awaiting a graceful reawakening. The question of an extra-musical meaning will probably remain open for this movement, but there is definite pleasure in simply letting go and floating slowly through this classically beautiful soundscape.
The finale (17:20) is my favourite movement. Its underlying question seems to be ‘what if there were no strong downbeats?’ This leads to a highly fluid musical text, almost devoid of hard stops or sharp edges, with seamlessly interlocking phrases, each picking up the narrative thread just as the previous line is about to end. Strongly accented notes, although rare, occur mostly on weak beats, helping obscure the bar lines. But this is an altogether more subtle question than the one asked by the first movement, and for me, the finale works wonderfully without any analysis too. Its easy charm is lovingly explored by Beethoven – the movement is full of imaginative sonorities (the shimmering accompaniment to the melody at 20:23 is a highlight), interesting harmonies (for example the descending chromaticism at 22:08), and a natural, easy to follow (and easy to like) narrative. The coda (22:37) is like an entire theatre scene in itself, finally erupting into a hyper-energetic presto – decisive, bold and even containing a strong downbeat or two. But in the very last bars the fundamental question of the movement reasserts itself, and all ends on weak beats.
A highly unusual, intriguing and fascinating sonata, far more ‘awesome’ that an initial glance might suggest.
Sonata No. 15 (Op. 28)
7th November 2020
A freshness emanates from the opening of the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata; its pulsing bass is akin to a beating heart, bearing the promise of a continuous, unstoppable flow.
Whether or not the nickname ‘Pastoral’ was approved by Beethoven himself, it is wonderfully fitting – the music strongly evokes nature, especially in the first and last movements. There is an unhurried gentleness throughout, climaxes are broad and harmonious, and the many ‘simple’ chords (triads and their inversions) lend the music an aura of stability and calmness which we rarely associate with Beethoven.
But more than a simplistic depiction, to me the first movement is an exploration of the mystery of life, from its first beginnings, evoking a sense of wonder and requiring utmost love and care, to the rich abundance of life’s full bloom, captured by Beethoven in multifaceted, sensitive, breathing strokes. And through it all, the pulsing bass weaves in and out, speaking of Life’s never-ending continuity.
The second movement’s (10:17) narrative, much more severe in mood, is personal and inward-looking, its measured accompaniment perhaps closer to the sound of an implacable clock. A brighter middle section (12:53) brings some playfulness with a dotted triplet motif, but the merrymaking only lasts its allotted 16 bars, unable to stave off a return to the bleaker world of the main theme. In the coda (16:45), Beethoven allows the music to become truly tragic, a reflection of inner pain and perhaps a deeply felt commentary on the fragility of a single life.
With the advent of the scherzo (18:10), the shadow has passed. A quadruple descending call is answered by an energetic rhythmical motif, as Beethoven resolutely effaces any residual darkness with the most vigorous, driven movement of the sonata.
The finale (20:39), with its bagpipe-like drone in the bass, brings back the tone of the first movement – calm and mostly gentle, transparent in texture, radiant in its sound. Its climaxes flex a bit more muscle than those of the opening movement; hinting, perhaps, at the coda, where Beethoven finally lifts all restraints and brings in the exuberant, exultant, Bacchic side of nature to end the sonata in a D major blaze.
Of the four sonatas in the recent group, the ‘Pastoral’ is the most traditional in its structure and in the composition of its movements. But the evocative power of the music, its heightened sensitivity show Beethoven’s unstoppable growth as an artist. For me, it is a masterpiece, occupying a special place in the cycle.
Sonata No. 14 (Op. 27 No. 2)
30th October 2020
Last week I wrote about sonata No. 13 that, for me, it was the true hidden gem of the cycle. The fault for its being a hidden gem lies at least partially with its sister, the incommensurably more popular ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2. The nickname was coined by Ludwig Rellstab, a German poet and influential music critic, some five years after Beethoven’s death, but its colossal popularity certainly dated back to Beethoven’s lifetime. Even without a nickname, the starkly painted landscape of its first movement, the forlorn melody, the quiet grief embodied in the accompanying triplets, the fateful descent of the bass line – all those gripped the imagination of the listeners. A middle movement of exquisite, fragile beauty, and a dark whirlwind of a finale with its rage and despair strengthened the impact that much more. And the fact that the first movement is relatively technically undemanding could only increase the work’s popularity.
Seen as part of Op. 27, the ‘Moonlight’ is like a dark shadow born in the afterglow of No. 13’s light. To No. 13’s myriad of moods it juxtaposes a single-minded unity of colour and expression, concentrated and powerful. It contrasts No. 13’s loosely joined sections with a linear progression of defined, clearly structured movements. And to the wealth of positive, kind and benevolent emotions radiating from No. 13, it answers with a uniquely perceptive exploration of the darker corners of personal feeling.
Years after the publication of the ‘Moonlight’, people were still talking about it, leading Beethoven to grumble to his student Carl Czerny that surely he had written better things! I am not so sure; different things, undoubtedly. But better? If the highest evocative artistry expressed in such a way as to garner universal appeal for over two centuries is our yardstick, then I would say probably not. We are enchanted and entranced by the ‘Moonlight’, we relate to it with a deep part of our soul, and I believe it will continue to touch and affect us for a long time to come.
Sonata No. 13 (Op. 27 No. 1)
23rd October 2020
Whatever depths of evocative storytelling we encountered in Sonata No. 12, they come to a glorious culmination in the sister-sonatas Op. 27, Nos. 1 and 2. They create two worlds, as opposing as they are complementary, similarly rich in atmosphere, and possessing a similar power to transport us elsewhere immediately upon hearing their opening bars.
Beethoven’s critics had previously reproached him for writing sonata forms too close to fantasies, too irregular, too free. With Op. 27, it is as if Beethoven decided to show what he could achieve when explicitly attempting to meld a sonata and a fantasy. Both works in that opus are subtitled ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’ – sonata in the spirit (or manner) of a fantasy. A fantasy was a free-form musical composition, commonly consisting of several loosely linked sections with abrupt shifts of tempo, mood and key. Interestingly, it is the less famous, unnicknamed Sonata No. 13 which adheres more closely to this ideal. Its four movements, performed without a break, show the ease of transition we might expect from an improvisation, or free associative thinking – or a dream.
Dreaminess suffuses the opening of Op. 27, No. 1, with its wonderful simplicity, innocence and utter lack of desire to move anywhere, harmonically speaking (this, in contrast to the most basic tenet of a sonata form – its inherent need to change key, change subject, modulate, explore). Change, when it comes, is as sudden as a wake-up call: a brilliantly happy C major section, exuberant and effervescent. As quickly as it came, it is gone, and the soft opening theme returns for one final round.
The music segues into the second movement, a scherzo in function. If one reads it without playing, the material seems almost primitive: series of broken triads, played with both hands in unison. But in performance, it’s as magically atmospheric as the opening movement: subdued and shadowy, with the hands gliding over the keyboard at speed, each triad a touch of colour and emotion, all masterfully painted with delicate, suggestive brushstrokes.
The middle section wouldn’t be out of place in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, juxtaposing two syncopated gallops, the first fiery in spirit and a bit steely in sound, the second light-footed and questioning. Upon the scherzo’s return, a simple device shifts the music into super-virtuosic mode: Beethoven offsets the right hand by half a beat, effectively doubling the number of notes in what is already a fast tempo. The music grows towards the end, whipping itself into a technical and emotional frenzy and culminating in a dazzling cascade down a C major triad. A complete, gripping narrative in under two minutes!
With the same dream-like immediacy of transition, we find ourselves in the relatively distant key of A flat major (linked to C major by the single common note, C). The slow movement is a moment of Apollonian beauty, expressed in pure and full-bodied sound over resonant repeating octaves in the bass. It explores the upper reaches of the keyboard too, in a weightless and pointedly beautiful crystalline middle section. A return to the opening theme, accompanied this time by a flowing middle voice, leads into a short cadenza; the music halts for a brief moment …
… and then the finale hits, and it is a bit of a shock at first – so utterly down-to-earth it is, with both feet on the ground and all ten fingers solidly on the keyboard. Beethoven finally gives us a movement in full sonata form, as clear in its musical language as if it were illuminated by bright sunlight, realistic, full of good-natured humour, and propelling itself forward on the endless self-generated energy of its happily industrious semiquavers. In short, it’s the antithesis of everything Beethoven created in the sonata so far.
When I began studying this sonata, I at first resented Beethoven for rupturing the dream in such a way – but the finale’s energy is far too infectious to remain resentful for long! And Beethoven does have one final trick up his sleeve: after a cliff-hanger near the end of the movement, the slow movement returns – a structural device unprecedented in Beethoven’s large-scale works – granting us a valedictory dose of poetic beauty, before the music plunges into a presto coda, ending the sonata with finger-breaking fireworks.
The richness and variety of the worlds Beethoven creates and effortlessly joins together in this sonata is astounding, more so if we consider it is less than 15 minutes long. For me it is the true hidden gem of the sonata cycle.
Sonata No. 12 (Op. 26)
9th October 2020
If Sonata No. 11 was a closing, summarising chapter of Beethoven’s early sonatas, then Sonata No. 12 is a door leading to exciting, hitherto unexplored musical worlds. The structural innovation is easy to point out: out of the Sonata’s four movements, none are in actual sonata form. Instead, Beethoven brings together a moderately slow opening movement (a theme with variations), a blazing scherzo, a funeral march and a quicksilver finale to form a fascinating story arc.
The musical development from Beethoven’s earlier sonatas is harder to pinpoint. Rather than any specific element, for me it’s a sense of a gradually eroding barrier between the content of the music and the emotions embodied within. From now on, Beethoven will push further and further in an attempt to capture ever more nuanced shades of emotion. He succeeds greatly, and his music embodies emotions ever more complex and multi-layered, ever harder to describe, but also ever easier for us to relate to; they feel closer, more realistic and alive.
Beethoven’s increasing emotional maturity and sensitivity comes alongside a boundless imagination and a control of the instrument which was astounding already around the time of his first sonatas, and has only increased since. The instrument becomes ever more malleable in Beethoven’s hands, the colours and sonorities he conjures ever more lifelike and evocative, natural and almost self-evident, inescapable in their truthfulness.
But I jump too far ahead – all this will apply much more to Beethoven’s later sonatas! Sonata No. 12 seems to me but the first step on this path, something we become aware of only in retrospect. I do believe we can sense the budding changes, especially in the first and third movements. The challenge of describing the opening theme exemplifies for me the complexity of feeling we’ll frequently encounter from now on. Outwardly, it’s elegant and noble, but rather than being detached or objective, the core is lyrical and personal, emotionally mature, suffused with a warm glow. It’s this combination of objective and subjective, perfectly balanced, which makes the opening page possibly the most challenging part of the entire sonata. Of the five variations that follow, two stand out: the third one, in the very uncommon key of A flat minor (seven flats!), which is like a premonition of the funeral march, heavy and hollow with pain; and the final one, with its gentle flow of triplets, embracing both listener and performer.
The funeral march, ‘On the Death of a Hero’, is yet another instance of a perfect balance between the objective and the subjective. The heavy, measured tread immediately conjures the scene of the march before our eyes, with the skill of a master storyteller. Yet personal emotion is constantly present, inseparable from the descriptive music; sometimes held back, sometimes barely controlled and overwhelming, specifically in the fortissimo chords of the climax, which are like cries of genuine anguish. The middle section that follows is, for me, problematic. The content is clear: depictions of drums and trumpets. But its very explicitness, unnuanced and direct, seems a jarring contrast to the complexity of feeling in the main body of the march. Perhaps this was Beethoven’s intention exactly – to clash the inner and outer worlds. And whatever the case, he fully compensates for it in the coda, in which the pain is transformed into acceptance and solace. Beethoven loved this movement, and it was performed at his own funeral in his orchestrated version.
The two other movements fit more conventionally in their roles within the sonata arc, but are not at all less exciting in their content. The scherzo is like an explosion of bright colour after the mellow first movement. Bold, full blooded and virtuosic, it blazes with vigour and youth. And the finale, a rondo in form, is a light-fingered perpetuum mobile, akin to a merrily bubbling brook which follows the funeral march to wash away all sorrow. It’s fleeting, like the play of light and shadow in a forest on a warm day, and disappears without a trace before you know it, evaporating into the depths of the keyboard.
Sonata No. 11 (Op. 22)
30th August 2020
Looking back at the sonatas Nos. 8-11, the Sonata No. 11, Op. 22 is the grandest of the four in its scope, probably the most challenging one technically, but curiously also the most conservative in its spirit and musical language. The elegant minuet and the easy-flowing, good-natured finale are even reminiscent of the sonatas Opp. 2 and 7, written 4-5 years earlier.
The opening movement is in textbook-perfect sonata form, putting on hold Beethoven’s previous experiments with structure and dramaturgy. I politely disagree with those who call this movement foursquare or perfunctory (those words could hardly apply to any of Beethoven’s mature works!). However, it is definitely a piece characterised by its sparkle, light-fingered drive and ebullient energy, rather than inventiveness or depth of emotion. Only towards the end of the development (05:05) does Beethoven’s customary ease of surprising us come to the fore, as he brings the left hand to the very bottom of the keyboard in a long, very atmospheric pianissimo passage.
The standout movement, for me, is the second one (7:46). Here, spirituality is abundant, and Beethoven’s sense of colour, texture and register is exquisite. ‘A long aria’, one could say of the big opening phrase – but it’s written in pianissimo, and as such, appears to us as if in a dream, or through a softening mist, an inspired effect. The middle section (11:30), rising from the murky depths of the keyboard, is a delight, rich with unusual, unexpected harmonies. It is also perhaps the most deeply-felt part of the sonata, questingly exploring numerous keys in a long modulating passage.
Having written the above, I wonder if it is unfair to reproach the sonata for mostly playing it safe. It is undoubtedly the work of a master, one in complete control of his craft and his instrument. Beethoven himself thought very highly of the work, and perhaps it is only in hindsight and through the lens of our own sensibilities that we find the sonata falling somewhat short of Beethoven’s greatest works. In a way, we could see it as a closing, summarising chapter of the first third of Beethoven’s sonatas cycle. The next one to follow, No. 12 Op. 26, will present us with very different musical worlds.
Sonata No. 10 (Op. 14, No. 2)
22nd August 2020
The other sonata of the pair, No. 10 in G major, is a real hidden gem. The outpouring of loving emotion in the first movement – outwardly tender, yet full of inner ardour – presents a Beethoven we haven’t really encountered so far in the cycle. The personal nature of the music is reflected in the parlando (‘speaking’) effect – music which seems to imply spoken words – particularly in the second theme, with its many repeated, entreating notes. None of those were necessarily new or original, but the sincerity of emotion and the lack of theatricality make the music particularly endearing.
As a separate element, Beethoven enjoys playing with shifting bar lines, right from the beginning. Based on the opening notes, it is impossible to say where the downbeat is – is it on the second note of the right hand? Or on the last note of the opening line, coinciding with the first note of the left hand? As one would almost expect, it is neither – the downbeat lies in the middle of the right hand line, almost imperceptible on the 4th note of the right hand. This opening line is also the basis of the development, the only truly turbulent section of the sonata.
The second movement counters any rhythm ambiguities with the squarest of all possible meters: it’s a march in common time. But the music itself is bursting with humour, closer to a comedy sketch. The short, clipped chords set the mood of comic seriousness, accentuated by a plump long chord at the end of each phrase. And the earthiness of the opening phrases is contrasted with the middle section of the theme, which is written legato and floats weightlessly in a higher part of the keyboard.
In structure, it is a theme with three variations. The first one passes the theme to the left hand, with the right hand filling in the gaps between the melodic notes with soft-spoken syncopations. The second variation, returning to the comic character of the theme, explores the syncopation effect to the fullest. In its harmonies, it is also the more adventurous variation of the three, adding dense chromaticism to what is otherwise quite a bland movement (harmonically only!). The third variation increases the flow by expanding the right-hand accompaniment into semiquavers. The original march-like movement returns at the very end, cautious and in pianissimo as if tiptoeing up to someone. Beethoven then pursues the slapstick routine to the end, with the penultimate hesitant notes being capped with an almost-inevitable fortissimo bang of a C major chord.
The finale brings back Beethoven’s enjoyment of manipulating meter. The very first bars are seemingly written in two, until the third bar establishes the real meter – in three. This interplay between two and three continues throughout the movement, as does the virtuoso interplay between the right and left hands. It is wonderfully humorous, full of endlessly self-generated energy, its flow barely interrupted by a few hesitations here and there. In the end, after the farewell coda with its drone-like left hand, it all evaporates like a summer day’s dream.
BEETHOVEN SUMMER MADNESS, AND IS THE PROJECT STILL ON? (it is!)
21st August 2020
Dear all, the blog has been silent for far too long. There will be many new videos released in the coming weeks and months, so I thought now is the moment for me to bring the website up to date. Those of you who have been following the project on social media will already know most of the below, so please feel free to skip this post and come back tomorrow for Sonata No. 10! But for those of you who followed the project here or on youtube, I would first like to apologize for the dearth of updates, and secondly, to fill in the gap between the last post and now.
Even though I kept posting new sonatas until May, all that material had in fact been filmed by late winter. We were supposed to film the next sonatas in March, but the world drastically changed course, and all our plans fell through. I was on tour in the States when cancellations and lockdowns started happening in Europe and the US. Half the tour got cancelled from one day to the other, and I barely managed to change my flights and get home. I won’t bore you with the ultimately unexceptional story of all my concerts getting cancelled in quick succession from mid-March to more or less now. Instead of live concerts, I was doing live-streams from home every 1-3 days, and it was the direct contact with the online audience, their support and their presence which helped me get through these difficult months.
In June, the first hints of a chance to continue filming appeared, and Stewart and I pounced on that chance like hungry hawks. We scheduled a period of filming in the second half of July, and decided to film as much as I could humanly prepare, as the autumn looked untrustworthy, with its risk of a second wave.
Happily, the July sessions took place, and we were able to film 13 (!) sonatas over 9 filming days. Those included the Moonlight, Pastoral, Tempest, Waldstein and Appassionata, as well as all the unnamed-yet-no-less-magnificent sonatas in between. As 9 of these 13 sonatas were completely new to me, those two weeks in Sacile, Italy (home of the Fazioli pianos) ended up being more intensely challenging than anything I've done in the last years. But they were also a huge source of joy and fulfilment; a truly unforgettable musical experience.
So what now? I still have two ‘old’ sonatas to share with you – Nos. 10 and 11 – and I will do so tomorrow and next weekend. Then, while waiting for the new material to be released, I will be posting session notes from July: thoughts about the sonatas and a kind of diary of how the filming went each day. And finally, on the 11th of September, it will be my great pleasure to share with you the first sonata from the July sessions – No. 12, Op. 26.
Sonata No. 1: animated score
20th May 2020
Something slightly different – a few weeks ago I was approached by Stephen Malinowski, who makes brilliant animations of classical music scores. He watched a few of the Beethoven 32 videos and offered to collaborate on some of the Beethoven scores we were filming. I thought it an awesome idea, and here's the first result – sonata No. 1. I love the sheer musicality of Stephen's approach and the clarity and transparency which his animation brings to the music.
Sonata No. 9 (Op. 14, No. 1)
8th May 2020
“I love all Beethoven sonatas,” I was once told in a conversation. And then my interlocutor added, as if a bit embarrassed by this, “even Op. 14…”
Op. 14 – the utterly lovely, fresh, charming couple of short sonatas, are not just an antithesis but an antidote to the Pathétique, as if Beethoven needed to cleanse his spirit with limpid tones after the extreme dark intensity of the preceding sonata. Both are chamber works in nature, content with a restrained emotional and aural palette, for once not straining against the boundaries of the instrument. Beethoven seems more relaxed here, softer, at times genuinely happy.
And lest it all sound like damning with faint praise, for me these are magnificent examples of Beethoven dedicating the same love, care and thought to all of the sonatas, no matter whether intended as world-altering blockbusters, or as intimate and friendly musical utterances.
This love he must have felt to this music shines through, and the emotion is so heartfelt and genuine – take the beautiful pleading passage at 3:58 for example, or the beginning of the second movement, at 7:06, this gentle lullaby, almost Brahms-like in its earnestness.
The finale (“what a weird little piece!” exclaimed Stewart after our first take) is light-spirited and jovial, full of fun and jokes. To point out just one – the unbelievable seven (!) repeated notes in its theme (11:16) are like Chekhov's proverbial gun, which fires towards the end of the movement, at 14:14, when the left hand, which has obviously had enough, goes amok and hammers out a long string of repeated octaves in fortissimo. And then, after 15 seconds of this explosive but not-too-dangerous rage, all is back to normal, as if nothing's happened.
Sonata No. 8 (Op. 13)
24th April 2020
The Pathétique! One of Beethoven’s most-loved and most popular works, it sent shockwaves throughout the music world of the late 18th century, and its gripping power hasn’t diminished in the 220 years since. The immediacy and intensity of emotion is staggering, right from the opening C minor chord. And just in the first-page introduction we are confronted with pain and pathos, nobility and hope, despair and crushing of said hope – a cry straight out of Beethoven’s heart and soul, hurled at us without any protective barriers. I can barely imagine the impact this music must have had on its first listeners.
The main body of the first movement is full of relentless drive, storm and drama. The dynamics are sharply contrasting, the tempo is very fast, and special effects (like the timpani tremolo imitation at 1:38) add to the turbulent, unsettling atmosphere. Even the second subject—a dialogue between the lower and the upper voices (2:09)—brings no relaxation of energy, as both the unremitting pulse and the sharp, spiky articulation go on. Only the closing section (2:56) adds a lighter colour.
And then—another shock!—the introduction returns (4:51). An unexpected, novel effect, perhaps less to us, who have heard the sonata countless times, but certainly for Beethoven’s contemporaries. The introduction material also comes back right before the end of the first movement (7:33), with hesitant, questioning phrases, before a final return of the fast tempo, and the decisive, defiant last chords. These unexpected throwbacks to the opening’s dark colour and atmosphere show Beethoven a master dramaturge, using structure as a psychological device to elicit a uniquely powerful emotional response.
Then, as a balm for our wounds, Beethoven writes a heavenly second movement (8:22). Tender and gentle, its melody unfolds like a beautiful, unhurried, heartfelt Lied. Beethoven (thankfully!) repeats it multiple times around the slightly more sombre episodes, allowing us (and perhaps himself too, as a performer) to enjoy it to its fullest. An absolute masterpiece in its own right.
After that moment of the respite, the darker C minor colour returns in the finale, crackling with tightly-controlled energy (13:15). The main theme is derived from the second subject of the first movement (a nice way to unify the movements), and its imploring, earnest character is augmented by the wonderful, extra-catchy bit at 13:20. The episodes are brighter, even humorous, which makes each return of the refrain seem that much more impactful, inevitable, even fateful. The final attempt to escape this doom fails, and leads instead into an explosive frenzy of a coda, crashing upon us with almost no build-up. A moment of hesitation just before the end, one final silence, and then the sonata closes with a final plunge into the C minor abyss.
Diary entry #4
18th April 2020
(A shorter version of this text was published in The Times on April 8th, 2020)
Even though I had been playing Beethoven since I was a child, I feel I’ve only really started to discover him over the past months, as I embarked on a journey to learn and film all 32 sonatas over the course of 2020.
Before that, it would have been easy for me to write: Beethoven in the isolation of deafness; Beethoven the grimly scowling, defiant as fate comes knocking at the door… Hard to think of another composer whose image would better relate to us at present, when times darken around, and an unseen threat forces us, too, into tightening isolation.
And yet – as I now understand, Beethoven’s core is life. He has known despair beyond any doubt, evident in his writing and some of his music. But time and again he fought and conquered it, and came back overflowing with unstoppable life energy. We hear it in the finale of the Fifth Symphony and in the glowing opening of the ‘Emperor’ concerto, written as Vienna was being bombarded in 1809. We hear it in the ‘Ode to joy’, and perhaps at its most transcendent in the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ (Holy song of thanksgiving) from the late A minor string quartet (Op. 132). At the time, Beethoven had just come out of a prolonged illness, and his music captures both the ineffable fragility of life and the profound, but no-less-ineffable joy at life’s resilience and resurgence.
Two weeks ago, in the middle of a US tour, I released the video of sonata No. 5. News from around the world was worrying, and I hoped the music might provide a moment of respite. Things crumbled swiftly afterwards – the remaining tour dates got canceled in quick succession, and so were all other performances for at least six weeks. This week I was supposed to be in Sacile, near Venice, filming the next block of sonatas at the concert hall of Fazioli. Instead, my eyes skip to any mention of Italy in the news, as my heart and thoughts are with them and with that small corner of Italy in particular.
As I was on my way home from the US, my half-formed plans for the weeks ahead revolved around Beethoven: blogging, writing listening guides, and of course practising – there’s so much new material still to come! But then, I saw colleagues live-streaming from home, and the need to reach people with live music at this time, even if through a smartphone, became overwhelming. Once home, I set up a rudimentary broadcast station (phones on tripods!) and have since been streaming 2-3 lunchtime concerts a week. The direct and immediate feedback from the audience, the unusual intimacy of the setting and the acuteness of the situation we all share, make for a concert unlike any I’ve experienced. These are the highest points of my week right now.
In the coming weeks I will release sonatas Nos. 7-11 – those that had been filmed before the lockdown – and will continue filming as soon as the situation allows. And I’ll keep streaming Beethoven sonatas, as Beethoven is an incredible companion for these times: life-affirming, soul-nourishing, full of love of humanity (his legendary grumpiness notwithstanding), and, in his music, optimistic and sure of a bright dawn to come after any darkness.
Sonata No. 7 (Op. 10, No. 3)
10th April 2020
Similar to the trios Op. 1 and the sonatas Op. 2, it's the third work of the sonatas Op. 10 – the sonata No. 7, in D major – which Beethoven intended as the high point of the trilogy. He returns there to the expanded, four-movement structure of his first four sonatas, and abandons – perhaps with the exception of the finale – the concise, sometimes even abrupt manner of composition he used in the fast movements of sonatas Nos. 5 and 6.
If we were to judge this sonata by its fast movements – inventive, fresh, brilliant and imaginative, assured, full of humor and surprises – it would feel as a natural development and intensification of a musical path Beethoven followed in his earlier works. But Beethoven went not a step, but a leap forward in the second movement (6:55) – perhaps the earliest undisputed mature masterpiece in his output.
This movement, a great tragic utterance, shows Beethoven's understanding of the human psyche and soul on an incredibly intuitive level; his fearlessness in presenting emotion so raw, so naked; and the sheer compositional and musical mastery he commanded in capturing this emotion in notes. From the first bar, there is an unadorned sincerity to the music which catches one's breath – I couldn't think of a bigger and less expected contrast to the fun-filled ingenuity of the opening movement. This music for me is both an embodiment of loss, despair and resignation and a show of great empathy from Beethoven to those who have experienced these emotions.
Sonata No. 6 (Op. 10, No. 2)
27th March 2020
The F major sonata, Op. 10 No. 2, is the short, bright, fun-infused interlude between the dark passion and enchanted lyricism of the C minor sonata, Op. 10 No. 1, on one side and the mature masterpiece which is the D major sonata, Op. 10 No. 3, on the other.
The first movement presents a potpourri of short motifs, differing in mood, filled with drastic contrasts and bits of pseudo-anger, all wonderfully employed for comic effect. The development (2:54) takes on a more serious tone, though even there Beethoven conceals a joke – probably not lost on the connoisseurs, at whom the sonatas in general were aimed – this development doesn't develop any of the main themes of the exposition! Instead, Beethoven takes the last three notes – the musical equivalent of "that is all" – and builds an entire extended (and even somewhat dramatic) narrative around it. This could also have been a small way of showing off: look, I can take something utterly inconsequential, as far as musical motifs go, and create good music out of it.
A final tongue-in-cheek moment occurs at the end of the development, when everything signals the impeding return of the opening motif (4:01). Beethoven does bring it back – but in the wrong key of D major. (You might well think here – what interesting jokes Beethoven had! But any kind of upset expectation can be humorous, if the expectation is widely shared – as this one probably was at the time among the connoisseurs). The D major material goes on for a good several phrases. Then Beethoven stops (4:16), reconsiders (4:18) and finally continues in the right key of F major (4:27).
The second movement (5:57) changes the mood completely – no jokes or fun-making here. Instead: a hushed, heartfelt narrative, growing at times to outbursts of raw emotion. The middle section (7:30) with its reserved D-flat major chords feels more like a containment of strong emotion than a point of relaxed calm. Only at the very end (9:55) does Beethoven allow the emotion to take over, finishing the movement in forte.
The finale (10:08) brings us sheer fun, a precisely controlled mayhem spun out of a pecking motif based on repeating notes. Beethoven starts out as if it were a fugue – first one voice, then two, then three – but like in the first movement, it's all wrong, at least according to the academic rules: he mixes the order of the entries, putting the third voice before the second. The music merrily rolls from there, generating its own incessant energy, wave after wave. The big climax comes at the point of reprise (11:32), which continues the fugal character, though in fortissimo, and with keyboard-spanning passages in alternating hands. It's tremendously fun to play.
Sonata No. 5 (Op. 10, No. 1)
13th March 2020
C minor: by far the most iconic Beethoven key. It's the key of the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture, the Pathétique, etc., etc. – so much, in fact, that 'C minor mood' became a semi-official term in Beethoven literature. It's temptingly easy for us to connect the brooding scowl on Beethoven's portraits and busts to the dramatic, stormy, high-intensity music he wrote in this key: works full of deep pathos and possessed by a relentless, sometimes demonic drive.
It's also temptingly easy to compare the C minor sonata, Op. 10 No. 1, with its younger sister, the Pathétique, Op. 13. The two are but a year or two apart and have a similar structure: a lyrical slow movement in A-flat major surrounded by an energetic first movement and finale. Perhaps, though, dubbing Op. 10 No. 1 'the small Pathétique' isn't that helpful. The earlier sonata may not possess the same catchiness or plumb the depths of human emotion to the same degree as Op. 13, but surely it has more than enough individuality to be loved for what it is, and not just as a precursor to a later work.
The heart of the sonata for me is its middle movement (6:20): a slowly unfolding soliloquy, gently glowing, suspended in a timeless world. There is a dreamily loving quality to the static opening, which Beethoven animates with ornaments or injects with short outbursts of passion, only to bring it back time and again to a magical standstill (try 7:57!). A development would upset this idyllic world, and Beethoven reduces it to a single chord (9:21) linking back to the reprise. A third repeat of the theme (12:36) turns into a coda, closing the movement (and perhaps one's eyes) with a a contented weariness of limb.
To counterbalance this immense tranquility, Beethoven infuses the outer movements with heaps of energy. The jagged, nervous impetus of the first movement's opening belies the lyrical, heartfelt or light-spirited music which makes up most of it. Only towards the end (from 5:25) do darkness and passion prevail. The finale (14:06) – one of the few 'prestissimo' movements Beethoven wrote – starts as a tautly wound spring, soon to explode with thundering passages. Everything is intense, yet small-scale, with abrupt mood shifts between the sharply defined sections. The second theme is unexpectedly humorous, and just as unexpected are the premonition of the famous fate motif in the super-short development (16:19 – the 5th Symphony for a moment!) and the ending, which includes a visit to the relatively distant key of D-flat major (17:37), a spooky atmospheric arpeggio (17:55), and which finally evaporates in a curious C major, leaving an ambiguous, unnerving afterimage.
Sonata No. 4 (Op. 7)
28th February 2020
In 1796, a year after the successful publication of the three sonatas Op. 2, Beethoven composed the Grande Sonata for Pianoforte, Op. 7. By the 'Grande' designation, Beethoven wanted to single it out as a special work, which didn't need other sonatas to be published as an opus. Later, he would give the same epithet to the Pathétique, the Waldstein and the Hammerklavier
And the grandness totally applies to the music. It is a tangible evolution from the earlier three works, with extra richness in its textures and timbres (the E-flat major key lending itself to glowing brilliance – think the 'Emperor' concerto years later!), and a more organic integration of virtuosity and music. But perhaps the biggest shift is in Beethoven's imagination – the very concept of what a sonata could be seems expanded; it is as if a previously two-dimensional painting began to acquire depth. A bravura first movement, overflowing with effervescent energy and good-natured humour, presents an abundance of melodies and motives. Beethoven's writing is almost orchestral – one could easily hear horns in the opening, jolly oboes and bassoons in the bridge section and multi-layered string tremolos in the codetta. The exposition is so chock-full of material that Beethoven keeps the development to a minimum: just a short dramatic episode. To balance it, an even more virtuoso coda finishes the movement.
The second movement is the dramatic core of the piece: an unfolding narrative, its opening an early embodiment of 'Innigkeit', this elusive word, part heartfelt, part hushed and awed, part personal and treasured. Replete with poetry, it reaches a purely orchestral climax, in which Beethoven demands a crescendo on a single note – an unplayable effect on any keyboard instrument, but one so easily done with string or woodwinds. The ending achieves even greater heights of lyricism – surely among the most beautiful pages written by Beethoven.
A simple, sincere elegance permeates both the third movement and the finale. Both contain a middle section in minor – hushed and shadowy in the third movement (in the deep-flat key of E-flat minor), stormy and dramatic in the finale. But it is the charm which prevails in the end, bringing this grand sonata to a surprisingly serene, low-key end.
Diary entry #3
18th February 2020
Last week I played all 5 Beethoven concerti in Brussels, for the first time in my life as a concentrated series. This week I’m in the UK, playing Shostakovich and Dvorak with the PHQ, Rachmaninov 2 with the Halle, studying and filming new Beethoven sonatas, the whirlwind goes on – but I’d love to stop time for five minutes, and talk about the concerti.
I’ve been playing all 5 quite regularly since I was a teenager, and I’ve recorded four of them last year. But none of this prepared me to the white-hot intensity of those three nights. With a bright spotlight shining (literally and figuratively) on nothing but these 5 concerti, every musical phrase, every cadenza, every slow movement, every coda became somehow more – more lyrical, more fiery, more personal, more fulfilling and more demanding. My old preparation, my fallbacks, my useful comments in the scores weren’t enough – the first rehearsal results were predictable, okay, and absolutely unsatisfying. Then things progressed during the second and general rehearsals of each concerto, but it was only during the concerts themselves that I felt that I got anywhere near touching whatever musical truth lies behind the scores. Beethoven revealed himself, as happened several times over the past months, as more poetic, more searing, more desperately human than I had ever imagined him.
The high point for me was No. 4, during which I experienced something which until now I’ve only felt while playing Russian music: a kind of floating, when your brain disengages or splits in two. One (small) part is alert and following the performance, and perhaps directs the musical flow a little bit, the other (much larger) part is completely sunk into the music, experiencing it in a kind of visceral, instinctive way which precludes logical thinking and seems wired directly to your deepest feelings, without any buffers or defenses. After that concerto I was drained, bewildered, exhilarated – a complete mess. But what an unforgettable night.
An unforgettable week, to be honest. And none of it would have been possible without Thierry Fischer and the Brussels Philharmonic, who were incredible partners. Their energy, attentiveness, transparency were the best musical and emotional support I could have wished for, and the trigger for everything I did on stage. And of course, the amazingly warm audience in Brussels, at Flagey… I love you guys. It was extra special that this project took place precisely in Brussels.
Now life continues, and with intensity, but I will be digesting last week for a while, I’m sure. And I’m also sure that this ‘extra more’ Beethoven I experienced last week will remain a guiding light for me as to how Beethoven can and should feel onstage.
Sonata No. 3 (Op. 2, No. 3)
14th February 2020
As with the 3 Trios Op. 1, also among the 3 Sonatas Op. 2, it was the final, third work which was to be the culmination of the opus. After the passion and darkness of the F minor sonata, and the easy, warm eloquence of the A major sonata, Beethoven turned to C major for a work of explosive brilliance. Virtuosity is the core trait of the music, whether serious or humorous, thundering or quick-fingered. One can imagine Beethoven proclaiming with happy self-assuredness: "look what I can do at the piano, no holds barred!" And yet there's nothing empty or ostentatious here: the technical brilliance rests upon a glowing musical foundation, and there's so much atmosphere, colour and narrative throughout to complement the passagework. The slow movement, too, stands out in its emotional maturity and often exquisite beauty – its deep musicality wonderfully balancing the fireworks of the fast movements.
Sonata No. 2 (Op. 2, No. 2)
31st January 2020
If the first sonata of Op. 2 showed us a laconic, tense and passionate Beethoven, here in the A major sonata he is charming, good natured, outgoing, eloquent. The form, too, is gradually becoming larger, the textures more generous, the writing more pianistic. The first movement, energetic and at places blazingly virtuosic, contains an unexpected and inspired second subject in the minor key, lending a personal, urgent note to the music. (It also contains a fiendishly difficult canon-like section in the development…) The second movement is a stately procedure, with a very slow, yet steady pulse. There’s a feeling of great depth and awe there, but also of elegance and beauty. The third movement is a lovely minuet, gentle and, apart from the more animated trio, carefree. The rondo finale contrasts a wonderfully flowing refrain with more ebullient episodes as well as a highly dramatic middle section. The repeats of the refrain (five in number!) become increasingly varied and ornamented, showing Beethoven’s easy ingenuity and delight in exploring the material in an improvisatory way.
Sonata No. 1 (Op. 2, No. 1)
17th January 2020
Beethoven's sonatas Op. 2 were his calling card in Vienna as a composer. At that point – 1795 – he was already famous as a keyboard virtuoso, but the transition to fame as a composer was not obvious, and he took great care with the first works he published, a set of three trios (Op. 1) and three sonatas (Op. 2).
The F minor sonata, opening the opus, is laconic in its musical language and form, but highly expressive in its emotional content. The first movement sets the tone: very personal and sincere; but reserved, its emotional outbursts never overpowering. It is followed by a serene second movement showing Beethoven already on a quest for lyrical, poetic beauty. The third movement is a hybrid minuet and scherzo, starting off as a melancholy, somewhat stylized dance, which changes its character drastically towards the end. And it is the finale which is perhaps the most striking movement of the four. Beethoven takes the closing chords of the first movement and puts them above a stormy whirlwind of sound, at times furious, at times impassioned, at times haunted and driven. A beautiful middle section, repeated twice, serves as a point of calm, but can only delay the inevitable return of the storm and the final collapse.
Diary entry #2
15th January 2020
In two days’ time, the first sonata video will be released on Apple Music and YouTube – the actual launch of the project! – and I thought today will be a good moment to write a bit about where things stand.
On the factual side, we have filmed the first seven sonatas over the last 6 weeks. All seven were completely new for me, and I very excitedly learned the first four in the empty bits of time between concerts in October and November, and even more excitedly learned Nos. 5-7 over nine consecutive days over the New Year holidays. It felt like stuffing your mouth with a delicious dessert (think the musical equivalent of a hot chocolate souffle with a molten core and ice cream), and I couldn’t be happier.
This isn’t to say there are no challenges; in a way it’s one big, ongoing challenge. Sonata No. 1 was perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as it’s No. 1 (hence, expectations! first impressions are so important…), also as we were still refining our filming workflow, and musically as No. 1 is the most laconic in its material; in a way the more extrovert Nos. 2, 3 and 4 were easier to imagine and to construct.
Those three came with their set of challenges though – though musically very clear, all three are virtuosic and increasingly expansive in scope and ambition (No. 4 felt surprisingly close to the 5th piano concerto in its richness and breadth, though a lot more driven and quirky in the first movement). In a word – increasingly hard. 😀
And the three sonatas Op. 10 which we filmed last week – to be honest, to move from absolute zero to filming in 9 days is crazy… But I loved it so much: utter intensity, utter focus, the music occupying your brain morning till night, evolving before your eyes – it’s exhilarating, and with the music being SO good, the challenges recede before an overwhelming desire to make the music justice and to make it as vibrant, captivating and alive as you can. Can’t wait to share it all with you.
See you in two days! I will post the link to the video on Friday morning. And over the weekend I will post a listening guide to the 1st sonata, and write about that first filming session.
Diary entry #1
17th December 2019
(On this day 249 years ago Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised. I thought it would be a good point to start the blog.)
This year I will be intensely living through Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. I don’t mean this as a florid exaggeration; I say it based on the experience of learning the early sonatas over the past weeks, of having filmed sonata No. 1 two weeks ago, and of being about to film Nos. 2, 3 and 4 later this week. What started as a cool idea has quickly become a… – I honestly don’t know how to describe it in a word; it’s passionate, engaging, sleep- and thought-consuming, stimulating, surprising, sometimes infuriating – love? life? (Sigh inwardly all you want at such over-the-top-ness.)
And with this intensity of feeling, comes an overwhelming desire to share. Not just the final results (though I know with a clear certainty there can be nothing final about these results – years of repeated exploration await), nor a list of listening guides or analyses, but that very intensity of feeling. To try to capture and share those fleeting changes of emotion, of falling in love with the music, of discovering a grand architectural plan to a movement or a tiny detail in one bar; of grappling for days with a section as you feel you can’t make it work yet, can’t yet make the music justice; and then, sometimes, the happiness of finally finding it, whatever ‘it’ is.
I realize now that what I’d love to emerge from this year is a kind of a dreamscape, shaped around the pillar of the sonatas cycle, born of an interaction of sound, word, emotion and thought. Why dreamscape: Hesse wrote that music scores are frozen tone-dreams; but so are interpretations, since what we imagine, what we hear inside our heads while looking at a piece of music, can often be miles away from what our fingers are actually producing. And so, each performance is but a frozen (though fluid) snapshot of that dreamed-of interpretation, and much of the daily practising struggle is trying to bridge the divide between the two. And the dream-interpretation changes and morphs as well, as you yourself change with time and experience.
I’m typing these paragraphs, and inside there’s a whole bubbling fountain of other things I’m eager to write about: experiences from the past weeks, thoughts, impressions and questions about each of the first four sonatas, the recent filming session, etc etc. But I’ll leave it to the next posts.
I will end with a technical announcement – I’m very happy to say that the complete cycle will be available on Apple Music, simultaneously with the YouTube releases. This necessitated a change in the original schedule, and the first sonata video will be released on January the 17th. From that point on, a new sonata will follow every one or two weeks, always on a Friday. The end point remains the same – if all goes to plan, Op. 111 will be released on New Year’s day 2021.
About the project
To celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, I will be learning and filming all 32 of his sonatas over the course of 2020. This is a massive undertaking – I have played 9 of them so far, so 23 will be completely new, including some of the most challenging.
I’ll be releasing a new sonata every few weeks starting on the 17th of January, and I’ll be writing about my experience throughout the year. You can follow the entire project here on beethoven32.com