Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Beethoven's Cheeriest Piano Sonata

We have this biased image of Beethoven as a kind of musical wild man, furiously writing tortured but profound music:

Or even this, a very common image:

And then we tend to focus, at least in our talk and writing about Beethoven, on the most demanding, not to say depressive pieces like the Symphony No. 9 or the Great Fugue.

But the truth is that Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart before him, wrote a great deal of amazingly cheerful music. And I'm going to prove it by introducing you to his Piano Sonata Op. 31, No. 3 in E flat major. It has four movements, all very lighthearted and cheerful. There isn't even a true slow movement. That function is given to a minuet, moderato e grazioso. Here are the beginnings (in the biz we like to call them "incipits") of each movement:

A fast, but somehow coy and graceful first movement:

Click to enlarge
A scherzo (which literally means "joke" in Italian):

The very elegant minuet:

And finally, the finale, a presto con fuoco, somewhere between a shindig and a hootenanny:

All together about 20 minutes of sheer, effervescent pleasure and fun. Now let's have a listen. My favorite Beethoven piano sonatas are by Friedrich Gulda. Here they are complete. To listen to just this one, go to YouTube where they are listed with links, or scroll ahead to the 5:12:54 mark:

Now why would we want to privilege Beethoven's more tortured efforts over sheerly beautiful and joyous ones like this? Are we just neurotic?


Ken Fasano said...

So which complete Beethoven sonata collections would you recommend? You mention Gulda. (The reason I ask is I am interested in buying one). I am familiar with Brendel's (from the 1990s) - very good recording, perhaps a bit too much reverb, excellent performance, very disciplined. I've heard Kempff is good too. I've heard the Schnabel 1930s recordings. The modern digital remastering makes the recordings listenable, but his performances are sometimes sloppy, especially the fast movements. But his op. 111 second movement is gorgeous. I would prefer something recorded in stereo on modern recording equipment. Thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

I haven't done anything like a real survey of complete Beethoven sonata recordings. Sounds like a good job for a future post. A lot of the ones you mention I only know through YouTube clips, so I don't know directly how the sound is on CD. Barenboim would seem to be another good choice. Plus there is the new set by Maurizio Pollini. But I first heard Friedrich Gulda's Beethoven in a box of vinyl I purchased in the early 1970s of all the Beethoven concertos with the Vienna Phillies. Wonderful playing and wonderful sound. My choice for the complete sonatas was therefore the Brilliant reissue of Gulda's complete set. I really love his playing: brilliant, no-nonsense, rhythmically acute. If Sokolov had a complete set on record I would gravitate to that, but failing that, I'm happy with Gulda. Just listen to some samples from the clip I posted; that should help you decide. I think that the only set available now is the complete sonatas and concertos together in one box.

Christine Lacroix said...

The question about why we would prefer Beethoven's more tortured music brings up the more general question: Why do we like what we like? Why does some music just resonate instantly, knock my socks off,blow my mind or whatever expression people are using these days. Other music can grow on me but only after familiarizing myself with it over a long period of time. Some music I love immediately and then get tired of quickly. And why is it so much easier and common for large numbers of people to love certain types of music but not others? What does it say about us?

Anonymous said...

Bryan: I am a big Gulda fan. He was the real deal: a great teacher (Martha Argerich)), a great pianist, and an all-around great musician (with a superb understanding of Jazz).

Christine: Excellent questions. I also wonder why music, of all the arts, is the one that requires repeat exposure to appreciate better. The music that I immediately like tends to be forgettable. I can only "get" the greatness of a piece after 3 or 4 listens. I wonder why that is. Perhaps the brain needs to "memorize" parts of it so that new listens cause a "recall" phenomenon. I am not sure but that's not true of other art forms. Every great novel is one I loved at first reading.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have the fear that your questions might have 7 billion answers, Christine! It could be one of those individual things. But I might be with Anonymous on this. I think that the really great pieces of music, like the Goldberg Variations, the Diabelli Variations, the Rite of Spring, the Shostakovich Quartets and so on, need prolonged exposure. But still, there is something that catches your attention right away, just not the heart of the piece. Some music does resonate instantly, like the Bach B minor Mass, but it still grows and grows the more you listen to it. Other tunes grab you instantly, but wear out very quickly. But most pop music, to my ear, tires me even on first listening! The "hooks" are so obvious that they turn me off.

But aren't books often the same? Who was it that said that some books are to be devoured in one session, others to be cherished over the years and still others to be flung against the wall almost as soon as you open them?

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks Bryan and Anonymous for your interesting comments. Personally I find that listening is harder than seeing. Years ago I studied something called Neuro Linguistic Programming which postulated that individuals in varying degrees have preferred sensory systems. So if you had a more auditive person sitting at the same dinner table with a more visual person they might be filtering input somewhat differently. The auditive would be taking in the sounds of ice cubes in a glass, background music, noise from the street, whereas the visual might be noticing the lighting, colors, textures in the room. One might be more influenced by the tone of voice and inflection of their interlocutor and the other the facial expressions and gestures. I've always thought this was a grotesque over simplification of the way people function but perhaps there is some truth to it.I noticed for example that Marc Pucket (I think it's Marc) often refers to a visual element in a video, the head wagging of the performer, the dress, the smile of a person sitting in the background. He also said in one post, I think it was about Wright, the evolutionary psychologist, that he far preferred reading the information than having to listen to it. I recently shared a hotel room with my step-daughter and she couldn't sleep because of the noise from the street which I barely noticed and I was disturbed by the stand by light from the tv. So perhaps individual differences in how we are 'wired for sound' account to some extent for taste and ability to appreciate music. Or maybe there's really just no accounting for taste.

Bryan Townsend said...

I've always been wary of NLP, but it seems quite reasonable that different people have different sensory leanings. I am very sound-oriented, but others can be very visually-oriented as you say. Perhaps this variability in sensory sensitivity is part of what goes into a person's aptitude for music.

Christine Lacroix said...

Having studied NLP extensively, I was even a certified trainer, I'm very aware of its failings. They make too many unjustified claims and it seemed too much like a cult. But to be fair I learned a great deal that has been immensely useful both personally and professionally.
As a child I remember with classmates discussing which would represent a greater personal tragedy, to lose ones' hearing or sight. I was shocked that anyone could choose hearing. It just shows how convinced we can be that our own model of the world is the only one, or the right one. I recently asked an artist friend and she said without hesitation the worst would be to lose eyesight and it might even be a relief to lose her hearing because then she wouldn't be distracted by the traffic and would be able to concentrate on her work!
Since you are or were a music teacher I would be interested to hear your views on the importance of innate talent for music as opposed to hard work and determination in learning an instrument. And do you have any ideas on where talent comes from?


Bryan Townsend said...

What are the big truths of NLP?

The loss of vision would be terrible, but for me, the loss of hearing would be even worse, I think.

I have put up a number of posts on musical talent:





That should keep you busy!