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Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.1.


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.1. IGOR TCHETUEV"

In one of the articles of his Dictionnaire de Musique of 1768, Jean-Jacques Rousseau deeply lamented the advent of the senseless and wordless music which, in his opinion, obscured opera to the point of marginalising stage performance, while the importance of symphonies, concertos and sonatas steadily grew. He attacked the depraved instrumental genres with great vehemence, and it was sonata that he viewed as especially unbearable: “To understand what all the tumult of sonatas might mean, we would have to follow the lead of the coarse artist who was obliged to write underneath that which he had drawn such statements as ‘This is a tree,’ or ‘This is a man,’ or ‘This is a horse.’ I shall never forget the exclamation of the celebrated Fontenelle, who, finding himself exhausted by these eternal symphonies, cried out in a fit of impatience: ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’”

This paragraph being written before Beethoven’s birth, the criticism was aimed at Mondonville’s violin sonatas, quite dissimilar from the Viennese piano music of the late 18th century. Nonetheless, Rousseau could have repeated the quote verbatim thirty years hence – it did not lose its sting, to say nothing of Fontenelle’s final question which became a timeless aphorism.

Why was the sonata so abhorrent to the giants of the French Enlightenment? They might have thought that such music was too vague, too obscure. A famous statement of Koch, a connoisseur of theory and aesthetics, claims that the music meets its lofty goal if the feelings it inspires “foster noble decisions and influence the education and ennoblement of the heart” (1782). Certainly many operas of that time strive to achieve that lofty goal. But what noble deeds may a Mondonville’s – or, later, Beethoven’s – sonata lead to? Instrumental music seldom presents a concrete idea applicable to complex life situations, and, in this sense, is “unintelligible”. Its appeal is unclear, and this is what might have been irritating Rousseau.

What did Beethoven think of sonata? Leafing through his letters – admittedly very thrifty with any musical comments – we find the same feeling of irritation. But its source, of course, was different: it’s not as if a sonata was unintelligible to him without an inscription.

In September 1809 Beethoven confesses to HÊrtel: “I do not like taking on sonatas for piano solo, but I promise you some”. In 1822, listing for the publisher Peters the genres he would like to explore, he names first opera, then symphony and liturgical music, and, finally, quartet – the sonata is not even mentioned. The publishers in the meantime were demanding sonatas, because they were popular. Perhaps that’s what irritated him? According to Koch, sonata was a very personal genre, describing “private individuals”, presenting “the finest nuances of feeling”. They were often dedicated to friends and lovely ladies, performed in candlelit salons – they were composed at a spiritual impulse, not at a company’s request! Also, a sonata, unlike a symphony or a concerto, could scarcely cause a sensation on a large stage; why should an artist of Beethoven’s calibre waste his time on such trifles? And yet he wrote sonatas throughout his entire life.

Thirty-two Beethoven’s sonatas display everything the piano of his time was capable of, and even more. In the early 19th century dozens of masters manufactured all kinds of such instruments: the range of Hammerklavier expanded, mechanics improved, some pedals appeared, some sank into oblivion – and Beethoven, before he lost his hearing completely, was abreast of all the news. He knew many masters, offered them advice, received or declined their instruments as gifts, and composed with consideration of the new possibilities; actually, somewhat above them. This “somewhat” can be appraised if one listens to his sonatas on the fragile pianofortes they were written for: under the assault of PathÎtique or Appassionata the ancient Hammerklavier moans and shatters, the strings are almost breaking, the keyboard almost cracking. Modern grand pianos easily handle it, the mess of the diminished sevenths is absorbed by the soft velvet, the cast-iron frame withstands the charges of the most savage octaves, and Beethoven starts to look like a pretty accurate piano composer. It is not quite true, which should be remembered when one listens to his works on a modern Fazioli piano.

This is the first album in the series which presents Igor Tchetuev’s rendition of all Beethoven’s sonatas. The recording order is arbitrary. The series starts with Sonatas No. 7 (D major), No. 23 (F minor, Appassionata), and No. 26 (E-flat major, Das Lebewohl).

Including Appassionata in the first album is a reasonable choice, but for Beethoven this opus was more of an end than beginning. The sonata generated many legends, and some facts of its “biography” virtually call for interpretation. For example, the book of Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s close friend, recounts the following: “Once I told the master about the deep impression made by his sonatas D minor and F minor […], and seeing he was in a good mood asked him for the key to the two sonatas. He replied: “Just read Shakespeare’s Tempest”. Thanks to that account the D minor Sonata (No. 17) was called The Tempest, and almost every researcher tackling this “Tempest” or Appassionata tried to find something Shakespearean about them. But the affinity is elusive to the point of bafflement: the style, imagery and plot of Shakespeare’s play do not have any similarities to Beethoven’s sonatas. A caution is in place: Anton Schindler is a well-known hoaxer and a narrator of extremely dubious reputation; his story might well be a fabrication. However, when we turn our attention to the time when Appassionata was written, we can see that the composer’s life was indeed tempestuous.

Beethoven wrote it in 1804–05 and published in 1807. The sonata did not have a name, it became Appassionata after the author’s death (on a whim of one of the Hamburg publishers).

In the autumn of 1806 Beethoven fell out with his patron Prince Lichnowsky. He furtively escaped from the benefactor’s estate, leaving the famous note: “Prince, you are what you are through the accident of birth; what I am I am through myself. There have been and will be thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven” (the original is lost, but the text is considered to be genuine). He and Lichnowsky never saw each other again, and no attempts at reconciliation were made.

Behind the threshold of the prince’s residence another tempest was awaiting Beethoven: the rain was so heavy the composer was drenched instantly. Apparently it was at that moment that the manuscript of Sonata in F minor was damaged (it was the final draft intended for the publisher). The manuscript survives, and one can see the traces of rain on it.

Finally, there seemed to be yet another tempest. Beethoven was close with the Brunswick family, and quite liked the company of Count Franz and his sisters. He had known Josephine and Therese since the days when they came to Vienna from their Transylvanian village as young girls. Josephine was soon married against her will, but her husband died several years later. She was left with four children, frail and very depressed. Beethoven started giving her lessons, they saw each other every day, and their tender mutual affection soon turned into something greater. However, their relationship collapsed in 1807, and Appassionata, written during the years of their intimacy, was dedicated not to her but to her brother. This dedication might have been a pretext for addressing the Countess for one last time. As soon as the sonata was out from the press, Beethoven dispatched a copy to Josephine and asked her to hand it over to Franz. His short accompanying note ends thus: “You wanted me to tell you how I live. One could not pose a harder question, and I prefer not to answer it than to answer too truthfully. Farewell, dear J[osephine]. As always yours, eternally devoted to you Beethoven”. It was his last letter to the Countess.

All these events have little to do with Shakespeare. There is, however, one mysterious conjunction which, indeed, makes Appassionata somewhat similar to the play. Those who consider The Tempest to be the work of William Shakespeare the actor note that it is actually his last opus. Having finished it, he left London and wrote next to nothing since. The words of Prospero who intends to break his staff, drown his books and thus abjure his magical powers are reinterpreted as the author’s hint – he indicates his wish to become silent. A curious coincidence: having completed Appassionata, Beethoven, though not abandoning music, did not write piano sonatas for five years. It was a long and very significant pause for him.

Five years later he writes that very letter to HÊrtel where he grudgingly agrees to send him some piano works. All three new sonatas (Nos. 24–26) are in major key and so inspired that they cannot be considered a half-hearted tribute to the public. The title page of the 26th Sonata’s manuscript has an inscription: “Farewell. Vienna, 4 May 1809. For the departure of His Imperial Highness the worthy Archduke Rudolf”. The archduke was the son of Leopold II and the younger brother of Emperor Franz. Beethoven served as his composition and piano teacher, and was very fond of him. When they first met in one of the Viennese salons (in 1804 or 1805), the archduke was but a teenager. However, Beethoven seemed to have found something attractive about him, and their friendship continued until the composer’s death.

In early May of 1809 the Napoleonic troops were on the verge of taking Vienna, and the Habsburg family was hastily preparing to flee. Beethoven handed the first part of the future sonata to His Highness on the eve of their departure (hence Das Lebewohl). The city fell in a week, but neither the frolic first part nor the other two had any trace of war: they didn’t write such things in sonatas. There is a unique proof that in this case Beethoven was adamantly against correlating his work with historical events. When HÊrtel published it with a French title (not the original Beethoven’s German one), the author replied with an indignant letter: “Lebe wohl is something quite different from Les Adieux: the first is something which one says only from one's heart, when one is alone, the other something which one says to a whole assembly, to whole cities”. He did not want to address a whole assembly or whole cities.

The movements of Sonata No. 26 are titled “The Farewell”, “The Absence”, and “The Return”. This is the only piano sonata, where Beethoven, as if yielding to Rousseau, named every movement. If we choose to believe Schindler’s Appassionata story, we may conclude that Beethoven was reluctant to provide “keys” to his music, even to friends. The insistent Schindler, once referred to Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, did not back down, and was rewarded the same day with a detailed account of Largo, the second movement of Sonata No. 7.

“He said that the time when he had written most of his sonatas was more poetic and warmer than the present (1823), and explanation of ideas was not necessary. Everyone, he continued, felt in this Largo the portrayal of a melancholic state of mind with all the shades of light and darkness in the picture of melancholy”. Quoting this story, Larissa Kirillina, the author of an excellent book on classical style, says that in this case Schindler sounds rather plausible: born in a Moravian village in 1795, he could not himself nostalgically recollect the Viennese salons of the time. She continues to explain that the late 18th-century “melancholy” was a surprisingly sociable feeling: it was a suffering in search of healing conversations and cordial understanding rather than solitude.

The desired consolation is provided in the next movement of the sonata, the wonderful D major Menuetto with a hint of future major themes by Tchaikovsky and early Skryabin.

The four-movement Seventh Sonata is very rich stylistically. In the initial Presto on the way to the second theme a B minor Schubert-like tune suddenly appears. This “musical moment” only lasts for a few bars, perhaps because the author overbrims with ideas: first he writes imitations, then scales which go on without resolving in a cadence, then garrulous bows and fidgety staccato (someone’s trying to escape and avoid ceremonious goodbyes?), and finally a long brisk promenade through the whole scale of the dominant – all that just in the exposition! The sonata can be reinvented as a novel with household and mystic scenes, a heavenly landscape and a bustling happy ending.

What did the critics say? The Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung published a lengthy review asserting Beethoven’s genius but scared by the liberties of his fantasy. “However, Hr. v. B. has to take care to avoid his, in part, too free writing style”, cautions the anonymous author. Somewhat later in a review of the Quartet op. 74 one of his colleagues would say more or less the same but more bluntly: “The author must confess: he would not like to see the instrumental music going along this path and losing itself”. Such quotes are likely to draw a smile these days – both critics were duly reproached for short-sightedness – but perhaps they deserve a re-evaluation. At that time, it was still considered possible to hold the vague genres within the limits of reason, within the boundaries of the carefully collected and arranged rules. It might seem that otherwise quartets and sonatas would cease to incite noble decisions, and would instead incite who knows what. The long-constructed musical order was under serious threat in Beethoven’s work, and the constructors (and guards) could not help lamenting its imminent demise. It would be wrong to ascribe their remarks to short-sighted bickering – rather, they were moved by perspicacious worry for their beloved art. The critics did not know that music would “lose itself” and all allegiance to reason somewhat later than in Beethoven’s compositions, but listening to his sonatas and quartets made them sound the alarm. As for the faithful Beethoven, they should not have been afraid of him: brushing aside all constraints of theory, he never betrayed the ideals of Enlightenment and, in a genuine urge to ennoble the hearts, cherishingly led his listeners along the road to Joy.

Anna Andrushkevich, translation by Viktor Sonkin

Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.1. IGOR TCHETUEV"


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