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Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.2.


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.2. IGOR TCHETUEV"

T he celebrated Russian pianist and teacher Nathan Perelman said that one aptly chosen epithet was enough to lend the required feeling to music in performance. He advised musicians not to begrudge time spent in the quest for an epithet, adding that once discovered it should be kept secret. The names Beethoven gave to his compositions sometimes call to mind such keywords: the Pathétique Sonata for instance, or the Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies.

Occasionally it was the public that found concise names to typify Beethoven compositions (in 1838 the Hamburg publisher August Cranz referred to Sonata No. 15 as the Pastoral Sonata and the name stuck). However none of these epithets alone give an indication of individual poetic style, and probably this distinguishes them from what Perelman had in mind. They are nonetheless worthy of attention, since they were frequently discussed in Beethoven’s day and are indeed an epitome of certain aesthetic ideas current at the time.

Contemporary scholars have already examined the question of what was understood by the word ‘pathos’ in the early 19th century. Elaine R. Sisman’s comprehensive essay gives the meaning of this term in different epochs, from Quintilian and Aristotle to Schiller. When Beethoven was writing this concept had become a synonym of expressions such as ‘sublime feeling’ and ‘sublime style’ (one 19th-century dictionary of aesthetics simply makes a cross-reference from the word ‘pathos’ to a definition of ‘sublime’). Such titles were rarely given to chamber pieces, as it was customary to express the ‘sublime’ in large-scale compositions such as church music, opera or symphonies. But the public were delighted when the Pathétique Sonata was put at their disposal.

Wilhelm von Lenz, a 19th-century Beethoven scholar, caustically remarked that ‘young hearts are enchanted by the permission to be pathetic for a little quarter of an hour.’ Anton Schindler noted the Pathétique was selling better than any other Beethoven composition and quotes the composer as saying that ‘the whole world seizes upon a single sonata because it has a name that pianists can exploit.’ Schindler’s unreliability as a memoirist leads us to doubt that Beethoven actually made such a comment, but the anecdote provides some insight into the situation. This calls to mind another observation by Perelman: ‘There are times when I would like to make an inventory of feelings and the numerous gradations of feeling, and most importantly to name them, for I am convinced that many simply gather dust in the nether regions of performers’ minds and are never retrieved for lack of designation.’ Pathos as designated by Beethoven was easily uncovered in the soul of a pianist.

Nowadays Path é tique sonata is used as an illustration in the teaching of various musical disciplines, as a source of examples to cover a wide range of different rules for composition. But in Beethoven’s time the sonata was perceived as an exception, an infringement or impertinence, and moreover further evidence for those who held the composer in bad repute. Beethoven’s notoriety is eloquently described by Ignaz Moscheles: ‘I learnt from some school fellows that a young composer had appeared in Vienna who wrote the oddest stuff possible – such as no one could either play or understand; crazy music, in opposition to all rule; and that this compo-

ser’s name was Beethoven.’ The year was 1804 and Moscheles was studying in Prague closely supervised by Friedrich Dionys Weber. To protect his ward from this ‘crazy music’ Weber forbade him to play anything except Mozart, Clementi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Nonetheless the young Moscheles craved pathos and waxed ecstatic after secretly obtaining the Eighth Sonata from the library. Having insufficient means to buy the score, he copied it out by hand.

Curiously it was the critics from whom Beethoven sometimes had to endure quite harsh condemnation that reacted favourably to the Pathétique Sonata. The first review appeared on February 12, 1800 in the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, one of the most influential critical journals at that time. An anonymous reviewer wrote that the sonata showed genuine aesthetic qualities, that it was united by one main feeling and full of inner vitality. Although he felt the finale would have been more accomplished if the main theme had not ‘too much of a reminiscence in it’ (he is chary of stating precisely what he has in mind). A puzzling statement, if only because the refrain in the rondo he refers to is obviously reminiscent not of something abstract, but quite definitely of the second theme from the first movement.

In the finale its intonations are expressed in an entirely new and tenderly restrained tone. This rondo is less ‘Pathétique’ than the opening movement, with no stormy, loud tremolo and less sforzando: instead we hear playful themes unthinkable in the context of the first movement. Here is an external rather than internal view, and the smile on the face of the observer is sometimes bitter, sometimes cheerful. The sonata serves as an excellent illustration of Joseph Brodsky’s remark that ‘Man only differs from himself by the degree of despair he feels’ – the movements of the Pathétique, too, only differ from one another by the degree of despair.

As already mentioned, the ‘Pathétique’ was not a typical mode for a sonata. A refined and ‘elegant’ style comprised of everything referred to as ‘pleasant humours’ by the aesthetics of the period would have been far more suitable. The Sonatas Nos. 15 and 24 are largely consonant with this.

There was a mainly positive response to the title of the Pastoral Sonata. Alexander Thayer describes the name as ‘not unfitting’. William Kinderman agreed, referring to the more ‘pastoral’ episodes: the beginning of the first movement, the Scherzo and Finale. But to what extent this sonata can be deemed a pastorale is a tricky question.

There are four movements (Allegro–Andante–Scherzo–Rondo) and the proportions of the sonata are rather unusual. Each of the first two movements lasts approximately as long as the two last movements together. The second movement, the large minor-key Andante, clearly bears no relation to a pastorale and is sometimes compared to a ballad or funeral march (in the present interpretation it is too lively and agitated to be a march).

As for the major-key movements, the atmosphere is not always serene and sometimes the view turns from a pleasing miniature to a grand spectacle. These episodes are of special interest. One occurs in the development of the first movement. The preceding exposition dances and sings. There is the promise of a waltz in the main theme; a little later in the approaches to the second and closing groups this promise is ‘fulfilled’. The second theme streams ahead – free-flowing in iambic tetrameter, it seems to call for poetic accompaniment. Incidentally, Beethoven’s contemporaries were more than ready to add words to his ‘vocal’ intonations, and several themes from his piano compositions became songs. Beethoven’s friend Wegeler wrote verses to the melody from the Adagio in Sonata Op. 2, No. 1 and the resulting song Die Klage (A Lamentation) was even published in Bonn in 1807.

Let us return to Sonata No. 15, in particular to the development. It contains only one main theme which takes a minor key, becomes entangled in polyphonic nets and splits in two (carrying the second phrase now into one octave, now another; now forte, now piano). Gradually we realise that the most enduring part of this theme is the cadence, which can weather any storm. Maybe when Beethoven began composing the development he was still unsure how it would end, and at bar 219 he discovered quite unexpectedly that the rounded conclusion of the theme had another aspect. At this moment the motif from the cadence gains unanticipated strength and struggles with the sudden syncopations, sforzando and fortissimo. Although there is apparently too much hurly-burly for a pastorale, they quickly render the motif harmless. The episode only lasts a few seconds, but this is enough to register surprise and realise that the world revealed in this sonata is by no means as tranquil as it first appeared. The element of surprise should not be underestimated: after the development we are surrounded by beauty that somehow seems incredible. Consequently we no longer feel surprise at the twilight Andante, the rather harsh trio from the Scherzo, or the marvels that take place in the Finale.

Among other things, after the soaring second theme towards the end of the exposition come thunderous passages with broken octaves (as in the prologue of Faust: ‘The Sun, in ancient guise, competing / With brother spheres in rival song, / With thunder-march, his orb completing, / Moves his predestin’d course along’). For eight bars during this ‘predestin’d course’ the ‘refined’ slightly oversteps the mark yet again, exceeds its own potential and unexpectedly grows ‘majestic’.

Finally the last question mark hanging over the ‘pastorale’ is posed in the coda. The orderly 6/8 is swept away by an avalanche of PiЭ allegro quasi presto: the cage is flung open, the tempo released, the theme turns to dust and we cannot understand how it was restrained for so long in this game of courtly manners.

Any comparison of Sonatas Nos. 15 and 24 reveals how aptly and naturally they follow one another. Although quite unintentional, their juxtaposition in this recording is instrumental in showing the difference in similar gradations of ‘refined’ style.

Sonata No. 24 comes in two movements. There is no slow movement: the Allegro ma non troppo is followed by a lively Rondo. This brings to mind Thomas Mann’s Professor Kretzschmar delivering his lecture on why Beethoven wrote no finale to his Sonata Op. 111. He would probably be fascinated by the question ‘why did Beethoven omit a slow movement from his Sonata Op. 78?’ Although there is an Adagio, like a small islet: the sonata opens with a slow introduction and the theme lasts for just four bars before vanishing forever. Scholars agree that it was written for Countess Therese Brunsvik, to whom Beethoven dedicated the sonata. Larisa Kirillina found what amounts to direct evidence of this from the fact that the composer used a variant of the theme in the song Mignon, setting Goethe’s verses (‘Knowest thou where the lemon blossom grows?’) to music. In other words, the sonata is a tender personal appeal. Obviously publication of this musical message (indicating the addressee) imposed particular obligations on the author: he was unable to express himself too openly lest he compromise the lady in question. Usually such compositions were characterised by painstaking detail and the level of complexity corresponded to the ability of the addressee. Countess Therese Brunsvik was not a brilliant pianist and this superb composition was probably rather demanding for her. Nevertheless Beethoven could rest assured of her appreciation: he often admired her profound understanding of music.

And there was plenty for her to appreciate in Sonata No. 24: the intimate tone of the first movement, the whimsical fluctuations in texture executed so lightly and naturally, the mischievous humour of the final rondo and the unobtrusive similarity of themes (in the first movement an episode where three loud chords are answered by two soft chords provides the basis for the finale theme). Moreover, the sonata features devices that probably seemed very daring for their time. In the first movement the piano ‘registration’ is quite unusual for this period: high, ringing figurations ‘crown’ chords in a low register so that we hear two different layers of texture divided by empty, silent space. The action of most classical sonatas developed in the middle register. Apparently interest in the extreme registers was natural for Beethoven to a much greater degree than for Mozart or Haydn. He paid close attention to the new pianoforte models that continually appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and observed with interest how the compass of the instrument was expanding, eager to extend his compositions to very high and very low notes (in scores he was obliged to write these in brackets and indicate an alternative for those who did not possess such an instrument).

As he played with these new colours the composer sometimes arrived at solutions that befitted the 20th century as well as the 19th. Stanislav Neuhaus once said in an interview that for him Beethoven was a mountain peak, Pushkin’s Kazbek wreathed in clouds, from which the entire world was visible ‘as far as Rachmaninov’ and ‘as far as Saint-SaС ns’. In Sonata No. 24 we see a world stretching ‘as far as Debussy’, who achieved similar colouristic effects in the piano miniatures he wrote some hundred years later.


Anna Andrushkevich, translation by Patricia Donegan

Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.2. IGOR TCHETUEV"


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