Saturday, October 15, 2011

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, part 2

Now for a middle-period sonata and I'm not going to pick the Moonlight even though that is not only the best-known Beethoven sonata, it is one of the best-known pieces of piano music by anyone. Actually, that's exactly why I'm not picking it. I'm going for the Tempest, another title not chosen by Beethoven and therefore only useful as being easier to remember than "op. 31, no. 2".

Three movements, just like the last sonata. The first also starts with a slow section, but this one consists merely of a single, arpeggiated chord before launching into the allegro. The long chord, a dominant in first inversion, forms the first part of the theme. Here is page one of the score:

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A few things to notice. The Largo is like a question, to which the Allegro is the answer. The Adagio--three different tempos in the first line!--serves as a transition back to the Largo. Later on, this Largo is developed into a much longer recitative-like passage that lies in the middle of the development. Beethoven's idea of sonata form is far more involved than that of Haydn or Mozart. Have another look at that opening Largo. Apart from the spread chord itself, it consists of a brief motif: the top note of the chord, a half-note, followed by two quarter notes and another half note, all outlining a triad. Now look at the second theme, which starts in the bass in measure 20. Aha! A half-note, followed by two quarters but this time ending with a whole note, all outlining a triad. Beethoven always gets full value from his themes. Now let's listen to the whole movement.

Isn't it nice to have the score? I much prefer listening with the score because you can see what's going on. Also, sometimes my mind wanders a bit if I don't have the score in front of me. The second movement is rather Mozartean in its construction, but with a couple of characteristic rhythms. Here is the opening:

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The first rhythm is the double-dotted figure rising from D to F in measure 2. The other is the 'drum-beat' figure in octaves in measure 16. When this is alternated with its echo up a couple of octaves so that it sounds like bells, it gives this movement a unique flavor. Here is a performance of the slow movement.

The last movement, in the texture known as perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion), is particularly inventive rhythmically. When I read commentaries on Beethoven I find that they talk a lot about themes and harmonies, but rarely get very much into the rhythmic structures. I find this odd as you don't have to look at very many scores to notice that Beethoven is as inventive with his rhythms as with everything else. This last movement is a good case in point. Writing in triple time gives you a tremendous number of options that duple  time doesn't--unless you completely override the meter. Composers have used hemiola in triple ever since there was triple time! The basic idea of hemiola is that six is divisible by both 2 and 3. Here is how it works:

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In 6/8, the usual beat is the dotted quarter note, giving you two beats per measure. But by simply writing quarter notes, you change this to three beats in the same amount of time. This is a fundamental feature of much Spanish music, especially dances like the Zapateado. But you can also go the other way by writing three half notes that take up two bars of 6/8 as in the example above. Beethoven writes his last movement in 3/8 time, which is like half a measure of 6/8, but the same principles apply as you can see in the second line of the example. This all plays out in the Allegretto. At first the rhythm is solidly in 3/8 but towards the end of the first page we see hemiolas starting to creep in when he writes eighth notes that beam over the barlines. This is the rhythm shown in the last two measures of the second line of my example. In the second half of the movement, after measure 115, we start hearing the other kind of hemiola when the three note treble figure starts sounding like the third measure of the second line of my example: two beats instead of three in the measure. It has a strange sort of sliding feel because it turns 3/8 into 6/16 time! There are other places where a steady stream of sixteenth notes is grouped so as to turn the 3/8 time into 3/4 time again, as in the last two measures of the second line of the example. You can hear this at measure 205 and following, for example. In movements like this a very big part of the excitement with Beethoven is simply in the rhythm. Here is page one of the score:

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And here is an excellent performance by Andras Schiff who demonstrates that Allegretto is not as fast as you think it is at this moment in music history.

Well, those are some of my thoughts on the Tempest. Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

On long car rides, years ago, whenever my random rotation of tapes hit the rondo, after the last note, my young daughter would say, "Dad, play it again!"

If I taught music appreciation to kids, I would always include that piece: it's immediately accessible, it's enchanting, it's rhythmic, and it teaches that variations on a simple motif can be an endless thrill.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! But there are other Beethoven sonata movements that make a similar impression. And lots of them! Oh,right...