LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Beethoven and the Piano
Beethoven the pianist, no less than the composer, was a force of nature who seemed incapable of playing by the rules of polite society. His unbridled energy at the keyboard and his formidable powers as an improviser are the stuff of legend. Like most of his contemporaries, Beethoven was weaned partly on a diet of Bach. When, at age 11, he received his first favorable review, it was for a performance of The Well-Tempered Clavier in his native Bonn. After moving to Vienna, he took lessons in counterpoint from eminent teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Decades later, those early studies bore fruit in the fugues of such works as the Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110, and the monumental Große Fuge, Op. 133, for string quartet.
The Beethoven who took Vienna by storm in late 1792, a year after Mozart's death, was a cocky young tyro bursting with talent, confidence, and ambition. He dazzled audiences with his no-holds-barred approach to the keyboard, which wreaked havoc on the light-framed Viennese fortepianos of the day. Anton Reicha bore witness to his elemental force when he assisted Beethoven at a performance of a Mozart concerto in the late 1790s. "He asked me to turn pages for him," the Czech composer recalled. "But I was mostly occupied in wrenching the strings of the pianoforte which snapped, while the hammers stuck among the broken strings. Beethoven insisted on finishing the concerto, and so back and forth I leaped, jerking out a string, disentangling a hammer, turning a page, and I worked harder than Beethoven."
Yet there was a tender, poetic side to Beethoven's pianism as well. Comparing him to another celebrated pyrotechnician of the day, amateur composer Carl Ludwig Junker wrote that Beethoven had "greater eloquence, weightier ideas, and is more expressive—in short, he is more for the heart." Testimony abounds to Beethoven's genius as an improviser—a key test of musicianship in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a vital element in Beethoven's creative process. His rival virtuoso Joseph Gelinek reportedly exclaimed: "I have never heard anyone play like that! He improvised on a subject that I had given him in a manner that I have not heard even from Mozart."
Improvising at the keyboard became even more important after Beethoven's increasing deafness forced him to curtail his performing activity around 1805. Three or four years later, the composer expressed his thoughts on the subject in words that reflect his growing dependence on his inner voice: "Real improvisation comes only when we are unconcerned [with] what we play, so—if we want to improvise in the best, truest manner in public—we should give ourselves over freely to what comes to mind." In listening to the music of Beethoven's late period, it is well to remember that he could hear it only with his mind's ear. Giving himself over to "what comes to mind" was not only an artistic imperative, but a practical necessity.
The Last Piano Works
In 1817, Beethoven received a six-octave Broadwood piano as a gift from the English manufacturer. Although he was too deaf to appreciate the instrument's expanded tonal and dynamic range, his music reveals a similar expansion of musical boundaries, as evidenced by the mighty "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106, of 1818 and its three sequels on tonight's program. Like many of Beethoven's late works, these sonatas juxtapose passages of great tenderness and lucidity with lacerating eruptions of raw energy and emotion. How, and how much, the composer's deafness affected his music and outlook on life is to some degree a matter of conjecture, but there is no mistaking the "inwardness" of these extraordinary works, with their radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfigurations of musical time and space.
Commissioned by Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger, the last three of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas were composed between 1820 and late 1822, the period in which he was struggling to bring the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony to completion. In these path-breaking sonatas, one often has the sense that the composer is not hearing, but rather feeling his way from one idea to the next, the notes forming themselves soundlessly under his fingers, detached from their auditory moorings. The Op. 119 Bagatelles were published around the same time as the sonatas, in 1823, but several of the 11 short pieces had been composed early in Beethoven's career, and others had already appeared in a piano tutor that came out in 1821. In light of this chronology, Richard Goode considers the first five bagatelles out of character with the late sonatas on the program and has chosen to omit them.
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
Compared to the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, the E-Major Sonata is the soul of brevity—it clocks in at barely half the length of its massive predecessor. The staggering of the two hands creates a delicately pointillistic effect in the opening Vivace, betraying its origins as a standalone teaching piece. Vast registral expanses soon open up in the first of the movement's two adagio interludes. (An early commentator praised Beethoven for being equally adept at playing adagio and allegro passages, further evidence that he was no mere pianistic powerhouse.) A hushed, coda-like reprise of the main theme flows directly into an explosive triple-time Prestissimo in E minor, which veers between similar extremes of motion and affect.
Storm and fury give way, in the sonata's third movement, to incandescent lyricism. "Songlike, with the greatest inwardness of feeling" is Beethoven's marking for the tender E-major theme, which unfolds in two eight-bar strains, each stated twice. Then follow six contrasting variations: a slow, achingly poignant waltz; a quicksilver scherzo; a short, Czerny-like exercise, full of spitfire runs; a lilting andante, to be played "a little slower than the theme"; a briskly contrapuntal version of the theme; and an extended tailpiece that plunges into a dense thicket of passagework and trills before finally emerging into the calm, clear air of the opening melody.
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Although the Sonata in A-flat Major is just as concise as the E-Major Sonata, its broadly drawn themes, and the boldness with which Beethoven transforms and develops them, make it seem weightier and more expansive. The first movement is a study in contrasts—between leisurely melodies and fast, rippling arpeggios, major-key innocence and minor-key angst, placid chordal passages and billowing crescendos. Beethoven's tonal scheme becomes increasingly adventurous and unpredictable as the scherzo-like Allegro molto in F minor leads, by way of a quietly ruminative Adagio, to a poignant "Song of Lament" in A-flat minor.
The throbbing triplet accompaniment conveys a sense of urgency. Then, suddenly, the momentum dissipates, and a soft, unadorned melody—a sequence of ascending fourths—sounds out in the home key, signaling the start of the sonata's climactic fugue. The finale proceeds for a while in familiar, almost textbook contrapuntal fashion until the lament returns, this time in the remote key of G minor. After it, too, runs its course, Beethoven neatly pivots to G major, brings back the subject of the fugue in inverted form (with descending fourths), and beats a tonally circuitous path back to the safe haven of A-flat major.
Selections from Bagatelles, Op. 119
Unlike the six Op. 126 Bagatelles of 1824, which were conceived as a unified cycle, Op. 119 is a set in name only. Yet these 11 miniatures are more than miscellaneous clips from the cutting room floor; even the shortest of them has a coherent shape and thematic integrity. Of the six pieces to be heard tonight, No. 10 is by far the briefest: Lasting only about 10 seconds, it flies past almost before anyone has a chance to register its existence, like a bystander glimpsed through the window of a speeding train. All the same, these 13 fleeting measures leave an indelible impression in their wake.
Other bagatelles look ahead to the vividly characterized piano pieces of Schumann—No. 8, for example, with its mellow, hymn-like melody and chromatically enriched harmonies. Although the key signature for No. 7 is C major, it too ventures off the beaten harmonic path, to say nothing of the insistent pedal-point trills that anticipate the second movement of the Op. 111 Sonata. Only Bagatelle No. 6 is long enough to fall into discrete sections (though, curiously, the six-bar introduction has no thematic connection to the rest of the piece). No. 9 is a tiny caprice based on the idea of a leaping arpeggio, and No. 11 conveys a mood of childish innocence, ending with a charming imitation of a music box.
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
In his last piano sonata, Beethoven painted on a more monumental scale than in opp. 109 and 110. Yet in its way, Op. 111, too, is a marvel of compression. Its two-movement format was sufficiently unorthodox that the son of Beethoven's publisher wrote to inquire if the copyist had inadvertently overlooked the finale. The Maestoso introduction sets the tone for the sonata in its wayward harmonies (the key of C minor isn't definitively established until the beginning of the Allegro proper), its explosive outbursts and ominous rumblings, and the stinging syncopations that blur the outlines of its sharply etched rhythmic figures.
The heraldic three-note motto (C, E-flat, B) that opens the Allegro contains more than enough energy to fuel the entire movement, rather like the Fate motif in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The contrast with the luminous second-movement Arietta in C major could hardly be greater. Here, within a nominally conventional theme-and-variations framework, Beethoven gives free rein to his poetic imagination, transporting the listener—and, one imagines, himself—to places we have never been before. Entwined in increasingly elaborate figurations, the simple tune takes on increasing shades of grandeur until, in the final section, it shines forth transcendently amid a chorus of high, shimmering trills.