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Program notes: Steven Osborne

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E minor, Op. 90

The use of the piano sonata in marriage counselling has not found wide adoption in the profession since Beethoven first introduced the practice with his Sonata in E minor Op. 90. The curious story associated this sonata is as follows.

Beethoven’s biographer Anton Schindler relates that in 1814 the composer’s boon companion, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, was having girl troubles. The Count, younger brother of Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, was romantically entangled with a stage actress many years his junior – a woman of undoubted charms but few dynastic connections – whom he wanted to marry. The Count’s family, of course, took a dim view of this prospect, but marry her he did, and it was not long afterwards that Beethoven informed the Count that a new sonata, dedicated to him, was soon to be published. Do tell, replied the Count, or wordsto that effect. And what might it be about? Making obvious jocular reference to the Count’s recent marital deliberations, Beethoven said that the first movement of his Op. 90 sonata was “a struggle between the head and the heart” while the second depicted “a conversation with the beloved.”

Now any musicologist worth his salt – whether Maldon flaked or Windsor free-pouring – would have reason to sniff at this account published, as it was, some years after both Beethoven and Lichnowsky had joined the Choir Immortal, and by a biographer with a less than sterling reputation for truthfulness in reporting. (Schindler actually forged conversations in the notebooks that the deaf composer had used to communicate with the outside world.) Besides, had not Beethoven been a student of Haydn, was he not a master of classical form and motivic development in the tradition of pure ‘absolute’ music? Are we to believe that this sonata from the late pen of such a master was intended as no more than a kind of film score to a Viennese ‘Pretty Woman’ rom com?

Absolute music and program music, its quarrelling proponents would have us believe, are as different as chalk and cheese. And yet both have valid claims to make in this unusual work. Partisans of the ‘chalk’ faction might rightly defend the two-movement structure as a perfectly normal inheritance from Haydn, who wrote many a two-movement sonata. They might point to the formal clarity of each movement: the traditional sonata-form structure of the first movement and sonata-rondo layout of the second. They might, not without justice, remark further on the intensity of motivic development in this sonata, particularly the importance of the first movement’s falling-third motive (G-F#-E) that not only opens the work, but also appears at important sectional divisions within it. They might even note how it recurs, transformed as a rising-third motive (E-F#-G#), at the start of the second movement: proof positive of the ‘absolute’ music composer’s mind at work.

Those of the ‘cheese’ persuasion, however, would see the two-movement layout as narrative in structure, with a tumultuously argumentative first movement resolving into a second movement lyrically evocative of marital bliss. For those steeped in the ‘cheesy’ faith, then, the transformation of the first movement’s falling (minor) third motive into the rising (major) third motive that opens the last movement is not simply an abstract musical transformation, but rather emblematic of the personal transformation of Count Moritz from a torn and tormented lover into a happy contented husband. While noting the traditional formal outlines of the two movements, they would see Beethoven working within these established forms to tell his romantic story in the smaller-level details: how the work opens with a gruff, head-strong pronouncement only to be answered immediately by a more submissive heart-felt restatement of it. Indeed, the whole first movement seems to alternate between forceful statements of irremovable principle made by the head and more submissive, emotionally inflected phrases (pathetically evoked in sigh motives with suspensions over the bar line) pleaded by the heart. To the esprit de fromage, then, the presence of such pervasive contrasts as these vividly suggests the interior dialogue of a mind in conflict, one that reaches its peak of argumentative intensity in the development section.

Especially intriguing in this movement is the retransition (the end of the development section leading to the return of the opening thematic material), which features two lone voices in stretto, like the opposing sides of an argument speaking on top of each other, repeating over and over the falling scale motive G-F#-E, slower and slower, as if gradually coming to the realization that they don’t disagree at all, since they are arguing the same point.

The second movement evokes the logical consequence of such agreement: the honeymoon, a period in which the maritally conjoined are given to staring languorously at each other with the eyes of dairy cows when together, and singing tra-la-la to themselves when alone. Pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, the first pianist to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas in the 19th century, described the difference between the two movements of this sonata as the difference between ‘speech’ and ‘song’. And Beethoven’s performance indication singbar (songfully) reinforces the eminently songlike character of the second movement. Indeed, one might almost suspect Beethoven of channelling Schubert here, but for the fact that young Franz was only 16 at the time that this sonata was composed, so the influence is more likely to have flowed in the other direction.

The other indication, Nicht zu geschwind (not too fast), was aimed squarely at pianists who considered every rondo coming under their fingers a rondo brilliant, to be taken at a breathless clip with the aim of bringing down the house and prompting riotous applause. Nothing could be further from the gentle onward pulse of this movement’s classically balanced, simply harmonized opening melody, that flows effortlessly between sections of episode and refrain without glaring contrasts of mood or tone. The last appearance of the refrain, presented in a ‘love duet’ alternation of tenor and soprano voices, confirms this match as a happy one, and the aptness of Beethoven’s own happy marriage of ‘absolute’ and ‘program’ music in this sonata.

Franz Schubert
Klavierstück in A major D. 604

This isolated movement, found amongst Schubert’s papers, is generally believed to be the Andante of a sonata composed in 1817 and published after the composer’s death as his Sonata in F# minor, D. 571. Its connection to the proposed sonata is not only based on manuscript evidence, but on its opening harmonic progression, a deceptive cadence in F# minor, presumably linking it to the opening movement of a sonata in that same key.

Structured in a sort of sonata form without development, it places its second theme, unusually, in the subdominant of D major. Maintaining an almost constant pulse of 16th notes throughout its entire course, it draws its principal musical interest from its harmonic fullness, textural variation (the melody is often placed in a middle voice), and imaginative filigree of ornamental figuration in the high register. Its pervasive chromaticism points to a Romantic style that would later emerge in the works of Chopin and Liszt.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A major Op. 101

In the Sonata in E minor Op. 90 a rough and argumentative first movement gives way to a sentimentally luxuriant last movement, but Beethoven’s next piano sonata does not make us wait quite so long for his lyrical side to emerge. In the Sonata in A major Op. 101, composed in 1817, lyrical effusion comes to the fore with a remarkable tenderness in the very first bars, stretching out its languorous melodic line to a length that won this sonata the admiration of Richard Wagner, that great champion of the ‘infinite’ melody. There is also a feminine grace to this opening melody that perhaps relates to the character of its dedicatee, Dorotea von Ertmann, a close friend of the composer as well as his student, whom he admired both personally and as a pianist.

And yet, despite its emotionally generous tone and mood, this first movement dallies little over its thematic material and is remarkably compact in form. After a few tuneful lines of melody that seem to be constantly searching for a home tonality, Beethoven emerges magically, like Esther Williams surfacing from the depths of her swimming pool, in the dominant (E major), without so much as a whiff of transition. Then, after a series of simple but wide-spanning gestures of almost Brahmsian dignity, he calls it a day and the exposition closes with a clutch of soothing cadences, the insistent syncopations of which blur the bar line out of existence (much to the delight Wagner, no doubt). Before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ the exposition is over – on the very first page. But the development is even shorter, pulsing along with the aforementioned syncopations until the recapitulation sets things back on a more regular rhythmic track. A surprising moment of high drama arrives just before the coda when unusually thick 9-note chords loudly call a temporary halt to the proceedings, but calm is soon restored and the movement concludes quietly, with a cadence at the extreme ends of the keyboard.

Another example of Beethoven’s influence on the following generation of composers is given in the scherzo that follows. While the last movement of the Op. 90 sonata glows with the congenial songfulness of Schubert, this march of stirring patriotic fervour is more than a little reminiscent of Schumann, especially the second movement of his Fantasy in C major of 1838. What makes Beethoven’s march even more interestingly complex is the combination of a pervasive dotted rhythm with an equally pervasive texture of imitation and contrapuntal by-play between the voices. This intensely contrapuntal constructive principle is distilled, in the trio, into a mock two-part invention à la Bach, complete with little points of imitation in strict canon, a strange bedfellowing of the lively and the learned in a movement meant to be the ‘lightest’ of the sonata as a whole.

The slow introduction to the last movement, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slow and with yearning), is one of those free-form intermezzos that Beethoven uses (in the Waldstein sonata, for example) to set up a weighty but exuberant finale. Its task is to make you stop and look the night sky for a while before the fireworks go off to rival the stars, and so its mood is introspective, its formal patterning improvisatory. It begins with a phrase containing a triplet motive that wanders, lonely as a cloud, though the various registers of the keyboard, sometimes ruminating in the bass, at other times pleading its case in the high register, until it loses all track of time in a dreamlike unmeasured cadenza, waking up to a reminiscence of the opening theme of the first movement.

The pace then picks up and after a few rousing trills we immediately find ourselves in the middle of the action, with a proud strutting theme that is continually leaping downward and then scurrying off in a series of runs. This sonata-form movement is packed with variety and no shortage of humour. Among its invited guests in the melody department are an Austrian yodel and a rollicking German country dance, all rubbing shoulders at the ball, of course, with a full-on fugue as a development section. Apart from the humorous incongruity of its melodic material, much of this movement’s knee-slapping merriment comes from Beethoven’s outrageous use of the low register, almost in imitation of a comic opera basso buffo.

The fugue, for example, begins low down in the bass, and ends in a trill that goes absolutely nowhere: it has no following note to resolve into, just an empty rest. And when it’s time for a good old-fashioned pedal point on the dominant, Beethoven stomps on the lowest E he can find, combining it with a few extra notes down there, just to goose up the ‘mud’ factor in the sound. This movement shows Beethoven at his most brilliantly infantile, sitting in his composer’s high-chair and gleefully flinging his sonic porridge with unerring aim against the wall.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in B flat major Op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

It has often been remarked that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata of 1819 is a work more respected than loved. Many admire it as magnificently ‘expressive,’ but few hold it to be ‘beautiful’ in the classical sense. Its status as a monument of Western classical music is justifiably founded on the sheer grandeur of its musical ideas and the vast expanse of emotional space that these ideas both define and occupy: the explosive heroism of its first movement, the wilful caprice of its scherzo, the profound lyrical introspection of its Adagio, and the dazzling intellectual vigour of its massively intricate fugal finale.

The sonata is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, a longtime friend and former student of Beethoven. An earlier sketch reveals that Beethoven had originally planned the dramatic opening of this sonata as the melody of a birthday greeting, for chorus, addressed to the Archduke with the Latin words: VI-vat, VI-vat Ru-DOLPH-us! (Long live Rudolph!)

But bypassing for a moment the high-minded dedication of this work, its extraordinary length (the Adagio alone is more than a quarter of an hour), and its vast emotional range, if we lift the lid and look at the compositional ‘plumbing’ that ties it together we find something very odd. We find the musical interval of the third, occurring over and over again, from the small-scale patterns of its melodies to the large-scale harmonic organization of its grand formal outlines. The musical space defined by three scale steps occurs so often, in fact, as almost to qualify as a constructive principle in this sonata, the steel rods in its reinforced concrete, if you will. When Beethoven thinks of what kind of melody to create, he thinks of using thirds. When he wonders what tonality to modulate to for the next section, he thinks that three notes away might do the job. When he thinks of the key to put the next movement in, he puts it three notes away. While he is careful not to to be too obvious about it – his choices are always effective musically – one thing is clear: the man has thirds on the brain.

The work opens with two arresting statements in the Vivat Rudolphus rhythm, each initiated by a cannon echo booming up from the bass and proclaimed by a brassy fanfare in the high register. These gestures cover virtually the entire range of the piano of Beethoven’s time, and lay out the extraordinarily wide tonal range within which his musical thoughts will travel in this sonata.

The work’s wide emotional range is hinted at, however, by the immediate change to a more lyrical tone of utterance, expressed in a much smaller tonal range, leading to a thoughtful pause. In a handful of bars we have gone from the explosive to the intimate, and we then head back into heroic territory as the opening salvos take centre stage again. A surprising cadence awaits, however, in D major, that grabs our attention, and as the dominant of G major, it leads us into that key for the second group of themes.

Without our noticing it, Beethoven, through all this, has been hammering thirds into our ears. The opening fanfares end ringingly and emphatically on two falling thirds (D to B flat and F to D). The melody of the lyrical passage which follows reverses these into a series of rising 3rds (as little 3-step runs). And the D major cadence is not coincidentally three notes up from the home key of B flat, and leads to G major, a key three notes down from it. (Normally the second theme area would be in the dominant, F major.) And as if to dispel all doubt, this second group of themes is largely occupied with a gracious series of descending running figures, figures that tumble by … thirds. And just to hammer the point home, the exposition ends with bluntly emphatic octaves in both hands, rising up three notes by step, with a big fat goose-egg pause at the end to let slower members of the audience catch up to the plot.

The development section begins by making much of the dramatic leap that began the work, but soon settles down to put its main centre of interest – three little descending scale steps – through the ringer in an extended fugato in E flat (three notes down from G major). No one should be surprised, of course, when even these little three-step motives begin confronting each other in double … thirds. The recapitulation solemnly reviews the ground covered in the exposition, but after a climactic passage buzzing with double trills, adds a coda that resounds with the opening volley of Vivat Rudolphus to bring the movement to a close as it began.

Although Beethoven had not written a full four- movement piano sonata since Op. 31 No. 3, he shows in the second movement of this work that he had not lost his knack for writing quirky, whimsical scherzos. The opening is spun out miraculously from a single one- bar cell of melodic material – a perky third up, followed by a third down – that extends itself out in a series of harmonic sequences, and then finds contrast in a moody trio in B flat minor with rolling accompaniment. This trio burbles along with grim determination until it suddenly finds itself emerging into a disorderly near-riot that hammers its way up and down until issuing into a breathtaking keyboard-spanning run to the high register. After a cutesy little measured tremolo to add a bit of camp flair to the proceedings (a twinkly sidelong glance at the audience would not come amiss here), we return to the opening material. But the tricks are not over. A stand-off breaks out in the coda over what the last note should be: B flat, or B natural. After a lot of hammering, B flat ducks ahead at the last minute and crosses the finish line in the key the movement started in.

The Adagio is a gigantic sonata form, without repeat, in F# minor, enharmonically G flat minor (three notes down from B flat). Exuding a grave tranquillity, its opening melody (which starts with a rising third, followed by two falling thirds) extends for a full 25 bars before contrasting material, scarcely less emotionally intense, appears. Despite its great length, and generally subdued tone, it achieves a remarkable degree of variety through its many changes in texture and rises to a quite passionate level of expression through its operatic style of ornamentation. One notable feature is the use of Bebung, a pattern of off-beat repeated notes that reproduce the syncopated effect of sobs. In some passages the style of melodic variation is almost reminiscent of Chopin, but then Chopin’s own style of ornamentation was also operatic, influenced as it was by the melodic style of Bellini. The extended filigree of 32nd notes in the development is the most magical passage of the movement, evoking perhaps a lonely nocturnal figure staring at the moon, cold and desolate but still admirably radiant.

The last movement, with its mighty fugue that weakens the knees of all but the most intrepid of pianists, begins with a palette-cleansing Largo of improvisatory character, spiritually much akin to the kinds of fantasias that Bach was wont to place before his titanic organ fugues. After many changes of tempo and mood, a series of high trills announces the arrival of the fugue subject, a half-note trill approached by leap from far below (parodying the opening fanfares of the first movement) followed by a series of small runs that descend by intervals of – you knew this was coming – thirds.

While Beethoven pursues his own musical agenda in this early-19th-century re-invention of the fugue, a musical form that had essentially died out with the deaths of Bach and Handel more than 50 years previous, he leaves us in no doubt that the time he had spent studying fugal procedure with Albrechtsberger and Haydn was not wasted. All of the most arcane contrapuntal devices and manners of treating a theme – augmentation, stretto, inversion, even cancrizans (playing it backwards) – sooner or later make their appearance in this mother of all fugues.

The performing pianist tasked with keeping all of this clear to his listeners, a task that may reasonably be compared to juggling chainsaws while reciting Shakespeare, must not only balance sounds at the extreme ends of the keyboard, but often do so while playing extended trills paired with contrapuntal countermelodies – in the same hand!

Just at the point, though, when both hands are chasing trills high and low at a firecracker pace, a moment of calm arrives, a moment in which the skies seem to open and a heavenly melody in even quarter notes descends from on high to spread soothing oil on the troubled waters of contrapuntal discord. But not 30 bars later, however, the old contrapuntal itch returns, and Beethoven begins to combine his fidgety fugue subject with this new peace negotiator in the texture, sweeping it along into the vortex of swirling melodies and melody fragments, with the omnipresent buzzing of trills leering incessantly through the texture with dogged persistence.

In the end, the trills win out. Beethoven concludes his sonata by reducing our focus down to the most ear- catching motives that have marked its first and last movements in a great series of leaping octaves that trill, and trill, and trill their way to a final cadence.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015





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