Monday, June 13, 2011

Beethoven and the Piano Sonata

Pianists used to refer to the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach as the “Old Testament” and the thirty-two piano sonatas of Beethoven as the “New Testament”. For pianists, these two massive collections represented the pinnacles of the repertoire. But a lot of sixteenth-notes have flowed under the bridge since then. We have the remarkable repertoire by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and others in the 19th century and the contributions of Ravel and Debussy in the 20th plus re-discoveries of collections like Domenico Scarlatti´s 555 sonatas and the repertoire of the clavecinistes. But, as a recent exercise by the New York Times classical music critic shows, it is not yet time to write off Bach and Beethoven. In his list of the ten greatest composers since 1700, they placed first and second respectively.

Something interesting was captured in this notion of old and new testaments. Perhaps it is the idea of an ultimate reference or standard—the most comprehensive explorations of a technique. Indeed, Bach provides several examples of this sort of thing in his Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and II and in his Art of Fugue, not to mention his “well-regulated church music” that resulted in multiple cantata cycles for the whole liturgical year. Most composers since have followed Beethoven’s slightly different example of explorations of a form or instrumental grouping. One composer who made contributions in both areas was Shostakovich who wrote fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets, but who also wrote preludes and fugues in all the keys, after the example of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Only the greatest composers seem to operate on this kind of compendious or comprehensive level. You can almost see Beethoven looking over his shoulder at Bach in his Diabelli variations—with 33 variations on the theme, exactly 10% more than Bach’s 30 variations on an aria known as the Goldberg Variations. Most composers in the last hundred years write a few pieces in any given form or genre and then move on to the next. The idea of returning again and again to a particular form—the sonata—or texture—the fugue—or even genre like the allemande or courante, is not one that inspires current composers. I suppose that it is because the whole idea of musical form has become vague and unstable. Composers struggle to find an idiom in which to deliver their thoughts in a single piece, let alone explore a form over and over.

Instead we find literary, artistic or even scientific titles and references or the unearthing of long forgotten minor forms. The 20th century took many strange side jaunts in music from Satie’s Vexations to John Cage's prepared piano.

Still, after all the rubble of the 20th century wars on harmony and melody has settled, it is strangely refreshing to return to the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Beethoven piano sonatas. For me it is not a return, exactly, but more a discovery because in many years as an undergraduate and graduate student I don’t think any time was spent on any of these pieces. Perhaps we looked at a fugue from the Well-Tempered in a fugue seminar, but no, I recall we jumped from the inventions to the Art of Fugue. The theorists of today seem rather reluctant to spend any time on Beethoven or Bach. They probably had to specialize rather young in something novel for their dissertations and, face it, Bach and Beethoven have already been ‘done’. So much the worst for graduate school! Because I firmly believe that if you really want to delve deeply into the true nature of music, your best bet is to study the works by Bach and Beethoven.

I suppose this sounds terribly judgmental and I don’t want to discount the pleasures of discovering a new composer (Osvaldo Golijov!) or genre of music (Javanese gamelan!) but the depth of the stream of music lies with Bach and Beethoven and—though this may be wildly premature—Shostakovich. When you get tired of some composers’ fumbling with form and harmony it is a relief to return to the mastery of B, B and S. It is like the difference between riding in a car with your aunt or uncle and taking a spin on the track with Mario Andretti. Of course, occasionally you stumble across a piece that is its own kind of perfection, like the prelude des pas sur la neige from Bk I of the preludes by Debussy, but you know why it is a kind of perfection from listening to the preludes of Bach. He is still the benchmark, the gold standard. And so is Beethoven. No-one said it better than Brahms when his dinner host presented him with a fine bottle of wine and said it was the ‘Brahms’ of his cellar. After having a taste, Brahms replied, “Better bring up your Beethoven…”

So let's have a listen to a Beethoven piano sonata. The obvious choice is the 'Moonlight'.

This is the most popular of the thirty-two piano sonatas and with good reason. It casts an unforgettable mood from the first note. But it is also very atypical--wait, most of his best sonatas are atypical! But it is very unusual to begin with a slow movement as this one does. Why don't we look at another sonata, one not so famous but equally fine? Here is the 28th sonata in A major, op 101 in a fine live performance by Yoon Soo Rhee:

Well, that's fairly slow as well... Actually, the tempo indication, originally in German, says "Somewhat lively and with deepest feeling." The mood of this movement is very elusive, but very beautiful. The harmonies seem to hover like a soaring bird in flight. The music seems to seep into you, slowly filling your mind. This opening theme comes back, just for a moment, at the transition to the quick last movement. The second movement is a march:

Only Beethoven can span the funky to the ethereal in the same piece. Dance or march movements in sonatas are usually in two parts, each of which is also in two parts, repeated. So, AABB--AABB--AB. The first part comes back again without the repeats. The contrasting section here has a folklike air. The third movement comes in three parts. First there is a short adagio. It is not uncommon to precede a fast movement with a slow introduction. But after this one, the theme from the first movement re-appears like a distant memory. Then, with a shock, the final, fast movement begins and all the languor vanishes in a swirling, energetic theme. About half-way through, the theme is used to generate a fugue. Yes, Beethoven learned a few things from Bach.

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