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The Revolutionary Piano Sonatas

By Harry Haskell

Ever since 1861, when Sir Charles Hallé performed all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas on a landmark concert series in London, pianists have contemplated these canonical masterpieces with almost religious awe. Indeed, the late–19th-century virtuoso Hans von Bülow—who thought nothing of playing Beethoven’s five notoriously difficult late-period sonatas in a single sitting—referred to the complete sonata cycle as the “New Testament” of the piano repertoire, its scriptural authority implicitly second only to that of Bach’s keyboard works.

Cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas and string quartets, the other foundational genre to which he returned throughout his career, have been heard around the world in celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. From the Haydnesque Sonata in F Minor of 1795 to the monumental Diabelli Variations of 1823, Beethoven’s course is charted from the polished classicism of his early works to the rawer, more elemental romanticism of his middle period and the knotty, inward-looking idiom of his late masterpieces. “Right from the beginning, Beethoven strived to leave established traditions behind him,” says Evgeny Kissin. Still, he adds, “It takes the breath away to see where he began and where he came to in his final years.”

The time-honored image of Beethoven as a musical firebrand, the prototype of the romantic artist-as-hero, is well founded. As he slowly but surely transformed himself from a string-snapping piano virtuoso to a no less boldly impetuous creative artist, the composer grew ever more audacious in his handling of harmony, rhythm, and thematic development. His approach to form was no less pathbreaking. From the outset of his career, he expanded the modest scale of the keyboard sonata—traditionally considered a lightweight, domestic genre—to the more substantial proportions of a symphony or string quartet.

To pick two extreme examples, the compact Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op. 78, clocks in at a mere 10 minutes or so, compared to 45 minutes for the mighty “Hammerklavier.” For Igor Levit, Beethoven’s genius manifests in his determination to banish all extraneous content regardless of length: “Beethoven is uncompromisingly truthful. He constantly demonstrates his determination not to countenance anything that has no meaning, not even a modest countermelody. Every detail matters, has importance and relevance. His music is utterly under control from within.”

It’s easy to forget how firmly grounded Beethoven was in the musical forms and procedures of the Baroque and Classical eras. When, at age 11, he received his first favorable review, it was for a performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in his native Bonn. After moving to Vienna, he continued to take lessons in counterpoint from eminent teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Decades later, those early studies bore fruit in the intricate fugues of such works as the Sonata in A Major, Op. 101, and the rambunctious double fugue that constitutes the next-to-last of the Thirty-Three Diabelli Variations.

A similar 18th-century spirit informs the majestic, chaconne-like theme of the Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor of 1806. Three years before penning that work, Beethoven acquired a fortepiano from the French maker Érard that was substantially more powerful than the light-framed Viennese instruments of his youth. The instrument’s enhanced sonority and range (over the composer’s lifetime, the keyboard was extended from five to six-and-a-half octaves) facilitated what Beethoven called an “entirely new manner” of composing, as exemplified by works like the “Eroica Variations” and the “Waldstein” Sonata.

A master improviser at the keyboard, Beethoven was equally at home in the disciplined tonal structures of classical sonata form and in the freer, fantasy-like idiom of works like the “Moonlight” Sonata and its companion in the Op. 27 set of 1801. Both of these early boundary-pushing, genre-bending works are designated “quasi una fantasia,” foregrounding their quasi-improvisational character. The centrality of improvisation to the composer’s creative process became increasingly apparent after his incipient deafness forced him to curtail his performing activity around 1805, the year of the explosively dramatic “Appassionata” Sonata.

By the time Beethoven penned his last three sonatas in the early 1820s, one often has the sense that he was not hearing but feeling his way from one idea to the next. In opp. 109–111, passages of great tenderness and lucidity consort with lacerating eruptions of raw energy and emotion. Alfred Brendel—who has recorded the complete sonata cycle no fewer than three times—considers this expressive dissonance intrinsic to Beethoven’s late style, in which “direct opposites are forced together. A new complexity is matched by its antithesis, a new naivety. Apparent exaggeration is juxtaposed with apparent artlessness, abruptness with a new kind of relaxed lyricism. Simple, primitive, popular, and vulgar elements find a place in the music without damaging its structure.”

There is no mistaking the “inwardness” of Beethoven’s valedictory sonatas, with their radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfigurations of musical time and space. That these extraordinary works sound as revolutionary today as they did in the composer’s lifetime helps explain why pianists regard the 32 sonatas as both touchstones and talismans. “I don’t have a portrait of Beethoven hanging up above my piano at home, glaring down at me,” Levit says, but “Beethoven’s music is almost always on my mind. All day, every day. It’s been like that for nearly half my life. But I never know what ‘he’ wants or what ‘he’ means—let alone who ‘he’ is. What I’ve got in front of me here is the text. And what we hear when we listen to his music … I don’t want to pin it down in words. It’s for everyone to decide for themselves.”

Listen to piano sonatas that may have inspired Beethoven’s groundbreaking journey.

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