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Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.4.


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.4. IGOR TCHETUEV"

Each of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas has a unique character. They give the impression of living entities with which the performer or listener must initiate his own relationship, either trusting or conflicting. Beethoven only gave two of his sonatas a programmatic title (No.8, the ‘Pathétique’; and No.26, ‘Lebewohl – Abwesenheit – Wiedersehen’), but the unusually vivid musical images prompted others to endow many of the sonatas with more or less appropriate titles, weaving diverse hypotheses and legends around them.
Dating from 1796 to 1797, the early Sonata No.4 in E flat major (Op.7) belongs to the brilliant series of ‘grand sonatas’ in which the young composer apparently tried to show that the sonata need be no less imposing than the symphony, and can be classified as concert rather than salon music. In the 18th century this was an innovation, for solo piano sonatas were not as a rule performed at public concerts (‘academies’). But the effect the sonatas produced in high-society salons was explosive, since they demanded vigorous pianism that was beyond some male virtuoso players, let alone music lovers of the fair sex. Moreover, Viennese pianos with their light, pliant keyboard and exquisite but rather muted sound could scarcely sustain the victorious onslaught of Beethoven’s polyphonic chords, passages and ‘steel’ octaves.
The fourth sonata was intended precisely for this kind of performance, although its seriousness is far removed from the purely bravura pieces of contemporary salon composers. Here the effect produced was not an end in itself, but generated by the complexity of the musical concept.
Curiously enough, in Germany it became customary to refer to this extremely virtuoso sonata as ‘Die Verliebte’ (‘The Maiden in Love’). In memoirs of the period there are implications that Countess Barbara (Babette) von Keglevics, one of Beethoven’s students, was enamoured of her teacher, but he saw her as no more than a good friend due to her plain appearance. However, this shortcoming did not impede her marriage to the Italian Prince Innocenzo Odescalchi in 1801. Consequently several piano works by Beethoven are dedicated to Babette as Countess Keglevics (Sonata No.4), and others as Princess Odescalchi (Piano Concerto No.1 and Variations Op.34). Babette’s technique as a pianist was probably of the first order, but her lofty status in society prevented her from performing in public and therefore no records of her playing have survived.
The Sonata No.4 in E flat major has four movements. A very forceful Allegro bubbling with joyful energy calls to mind a scherzo-toccata, although every bar of the music conceals hidden surprises: striking contrasts, unexpected accents, ‘rhetorical’ syncopations and ‘theatrical’ pauses, whimsical modulations – all demonstrate the style of the young Beethoven, who was often reproached by contemporaries for his deliberate inclination towards originality.
The magnificent Lagro, con gran espressione (in C major) at the heart of the sonata is a pantheistic nocturne filled by turns with sacral veneration (initial theme in the choral texture), restrained passion (episodic theme) and dramatic tension (dialogue preceding the reprise).
The third movement, the Allegro, also has unusual qualities. Beethoven refrains from calling it a minuet or scherzo. The principal theme is probably close to a scherzo, but the sombre music of the trio in the ‘gloomy’ key of E flat minor sounds far from playful with more of a romantic, confessional tone, predicting some forms that appear later in the work of Schubert and even Brahms.
Only in the finale does the sonata approach the traditional styli-stics of chamber and salon pieces. There ensues a graceful rondo, very complicated in performance but implying that all these chords, passages and interplay of registers are just a game, while the episodic darkening of tone-colour is a minor misunderstanding, nothing more than a fleeting lovers’ tiff.
In the late 1790s and early 1800s Beethoven resumed his experimentation with the piano sonata genre, as if setting himself a series of questions: what would happen if he wrote a cycle that did not take the usual sonata form (No.12), if he combined a sonata with a fantasia (two sonatas from Op.27, Nos.13 and 14), or if he introduced theatrical elements to the sonata?
Sonata No.17 in D minor, included in Op.31 between the more traditional Sonata No.16 and the mysterious but outwardly unsurprising No.18, is one of these extraordinary works. None of the sonatas in this opus bear a dedication, moreover they were composed separately and only collected together when they were later published as one edition.
The Sonata No.17 was written in 1801 and early 1802, when Beethoven suffered a serious emotional crisis after learning that the hearing disorder which had afflicted him for several years was incurable. In 1802 he finally understood that he was doomed to total deafness, even considering suicide. By the composer’s own admission he was only saved by his art: he could not allow himself to leave this world without first implementing all his creative ideas. During this period of crisis Beethoven gained spiritual support from philosophy and religion, as well as from reading his favourite writers and poets – Plutarch, Goethe and Shakespeare.
The D minor sonata reflects the tragic mood that frequently descended on the composer at this time. Indeed, the music expresses loneliness, despair and his challenge to higher powers so openly that it seems more like a wordless monologue. The work was later named ‘Sonata with Recitatives’, a very apt definition. Indeed, in the first movement the instrumental music abruptly changes and takes the guise of an operatic scene. Where did this idea spring from, and what does it imply?
When Beethoven’s future biographer Anton Schindler began to question the composer about his programme for the 17th sonata in the 1820s, the latter allegedly growled ‘Read Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’!’ and refused to give any further explanation. Although Schindler’s testimony can seldom be taken at face value, the fact that he himself was very puzzled by this response indicates that the episode was not invented. When the exchange took place it is clear that Schindler was not yet acquainted with ‘The Tempest’, and after reading the play he was unsure how it related to Beethoven’s music. Nevertheless, thanks to Schindler another title for the D minor sonata became established in English-language literature – ‘The Tempest’.
 Naturally there is no cause to seek a direct reflection of Shakespeare’s plot for one of his most enigmatic and ambiguous plays in the three-movement cycle of the Beethoven sonata. But there is no doubt that for the rest of the composer’s life ‘The Tempest’ was one of his favourite works. He was inclined to compare himself with the protagonist of this drama – the sorcerer and seer Prospero, ruler of a bewitched island, who is eternally lonely despite his mastery over the elemental spirits and finally renounces his unendurable spiritual burden by granting freedom from bondage to Ariel, his faithful airy spirit.
The theatricality of Sonata No.17 is obvious, particularly in the first movement. A profound contrast is encapsulated in the main theme – a mysterious question or summons, and the agitated reply. The hero’s dialogue with fate continues in the transition, while the second group leads to sorrowful resignation. In fact the recitatives written in accordance with all the rules of operatic style appear before the reprise. Performing them today creates a particular difficulty. Beethoven’s pedalisation directions presuppose the use of period Viennese instruments and are practically impossible on modern pianos. Clearly the composer was trying to achieve an effect of mystical reverberations, a vague echo resounding through the grotto. Although there are a few examples of recitatives in instrumental music prior to Beethoven, their expressive quality attains a truly tragic intensity in this work.
A strange combination of inner tension and nocturnal peace are characteristic of the second movement, the Adagio (in B flat major). Dialogues between divine and human elements are heard here, too, but the second theme calls to mind an almost tranquil song beneath a hushed starry sky.
The finale of the sonata produces a compelling image of ‘eternal movement’ which, following a circle of development (full sonata form), eventually evaporates – the final D tumbles into a black vortex. Despite the tender ethereality that evokes associations with the image of Shakespeare’s Ariel, this music is filled with inner tragedy and contains no joyful episodes, no mischievous touches, nothing playful or consoling. Maybe Beethoven was harking back to ‘The Tempest’ in 1814, when he wrote to his friend Count Franz Brunswick: ‘As for me – God help us! – my realm is in the air. The sounds eddy around me like a whirlwind, and such a whirlwind often rages in my soul’.
For Beethoven the years 1814 and 1815 proved a turning point. The high classical period was already a thing of the past and he desperately searched for a new style. The post-Napoleonic epoch had no need of heroes and heroics, these being replaced by fantasy figures, by romantic and restless wanderers or ordinary folk with everyday pleasures and anxieties.
Some genres that had become habitual for Beethoven faded from his work altogether (he ceased to write concertos), others were cast aside for many years (symphonies, string quartets). A pause also ensued in what had become his favourite genre, the piano sonata: No.26 was written in 1809 and the next one only appeared five years later.
Sonata No.27 in E minor (Op.90) is clearly a chamber composition and apparently unexceptional, but at the same time it is a very important and profound piece in a manner typical of Beethoven’s works. It can be regarded as the first of the composer’s later sonatas. Piano works always served as a kind of ‘laboratory’ for Beethoven to try out new ideas and consequently it was in this sphere that he first acquired a new style.
In previous years a sonata cycle in two movements usually indicated a composition that was lighter in character and intended as a teaching aid, but this obviously cannot be said about Sonata No.27. The two movements reveal two very contrasting worlds and images.
There was probably an internal programme at work here. Anton Schindler suggested that the sonata’s dedication to Count Moritz von Lichnowsky was of greater significance than simply a demonstration of amicable sentiments towards the composer’s old friend. Beethoven’s specification in a letter to Lichnowsky that he had no desire for this dedication to be rewarded in payment was not groundless. The count (younger brother of Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s patron, with whom the composer broke off all relations after a quarrel in 1809) was considered by his family to be something of an ‘odd man out’: he moved in artistic circles, forged a friendship with Beethoven and fell in love with the singer Josefa Stummer. While the count’s lawful wife was still alive there could be no question of marrying his beloved, but when the countess finally died Lichnowsky married Josefa despite his family’s disapproval. According to Schindler, when Lichnowsky asked about the content of the sonata, Beethoven admitted that he had intended to put to music this ‘story of the count’s love for his wife’, and that the first movement could be called ‘a battle between head and heart’, and the second ‘conversation with the beloved’. This account is not altogether reliable: the sonata was finished in 1814 and published in 1815, while the marriage only took place in 1820. But the dedication to Lich-nowsky was of course symbolic. Moreover, as he reflected on this complex love story Beethoven must surely have recalled his own doomed romance with the mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’ whose identity is unknown to this day. Beethoven parted from this lady in 1812 and remained faithful to her for the rest of his life.
The first movement of the sonata is filled with troubling dramatic tension: forceful outbursts alternate with lapses into apathy and each call to action is answered by a questioning intonation or fanciful retreat into daydreams… The Allegro in this sonata differs radically from analogous Beethoven movements written in earlier years. Instead of a second theme there is only harmonic figuration, while the circular development seeks no conclusion and ends with the thematic material disintegrating into separate notes. Beethoven’s determination gives the music a unified impulse, but attempts to preserve a heroic tone verge on despair.
The second movement portrays utopian illusion, a dream of earthly paradise combining tranquil happiness, peace and love, with nothing to pain or oppress the tormented soul. The rondo calls to mind the songs of Schubert, who by 1814 had already composed several of his masterpieces (unfortunately Beethoven was not yet acquainted with them). But even when Beethoven’s music is close to the genre of a Biedermeier ‘song without words’, it remains psychologically complex and imbued with widely diverse allusions. The key of this movement, E major, always represents a manifestation of hope and prayerful entreaty to higher powers in Beethoven’s music. Indeed, in the final bars of the rondo the music seems to soar away, into the effulgent heavens. This ‘evaporating’ finale is highly unusual in classical music, which customarily retains a precise separation of the real and imaginary, the theatrical and confessional.

Larisa Kirillina, translation by Patricia Donegan


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.4. IGOR TCHETUEV"


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