The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience

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... one of the most interesting, useful and even exciting books on the process of musical creation." -American Music Teacher

... noteworthy contribution... with plenty of insight into interpretation... remarkable as an insider's account of the works in an individual perspective." -European Music Teacher

Drake groups the Beethoven piano sonatas according to their musical qualities, rather than their chronology. He explores the interpretive implications of rhythm, dynamics, slurs, harmonic effects, and melodic development and identifies specific measures where Beethoven skillfully employs these compositional devices.

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I The First Raptus, and All Subsequent Ones

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For approximately ten years, according to Anton Schindler, Beethoven considered preparing an edition of his works in which he would have described the extramusical idea or the psychological state that had led in each case to the composing of the work. The importance of extramusical stimulus in Beethoven’s creative process was mentioned by others as well. Ferdinand Ries spoke of Beethoven’s use of “psychological images” in his teaching. In a similar way, Czerny, the most important contemporary witness because of his long association with Beethoven and his stature as a professional musician, referred again and again to character, mood, extramusical events, and images.

In the Adagio of Op. 2 No. 3, Czerny writes, there is an evolving Romantic tendency, leading eventually to an integration “in which instrumental music was heightened to painting and poetry”; it was no longer a matter of merely hearing the expression of feelings, “one sees paintings, one hears the narration of events.”1 Czerny describes the opening movement of Op. 27 No. 2 as being “extremely poetic” and easy to grasp—” a night scene, in which a plaintive ghostly voice sounds from far off in the distance.”2 The first movement of Op. 31 No. 2 will never fail to make a powerful effect “if the fantasy of the player stands on an equally high level with his artistic skill.” The sixteenth notes divided between the hands in the finale must be played as evenly as possible “in order to sound, as it were, like the gallop of a horse.” In a footnote Czerny continues: “Beethoven improvised the theme of this piece as once he saw a rider gallop past his window. Many of his most beautiful works originated through similar occurrences. With him every sound, every movement became music and rhythm.”3

 

II Technique as Touch

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Among the misguided reasons for playing an early instrument is the intent to do a demonstration, as though dressing in its clothes will bring the past to life. Music making is not historical reenactment. An early piano should be used only as a medium to conjure up the spirit within the music. The Spirit of St. Louis, like the Concorde, enabled a person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Lindbergh, however, flew without the aid of sophisticated instrument systems, depending upon his skill and endurance. He came to know, as we cannot, the awesomeness of transatlantic distance and the elements, as well as the possibility for disaster.

Playing an early piano, though not life-threatening, also requires an exercise of judgment and skill. Lacking the resources of the modern piano, the player is responsible for believable dynamic levels and sensuous tone quality. When listeners remark that the period piano enabled them to hear the music for the first time, what they heard was the stimulus of the instrument to the player’s imagination and ingenuity. In Beethoven, the player’s involvement extends to the expressiveness of physical effort as well. As the historic piano is forced beyond the limits of its sonority, the music itself sounds more imposing. Because of the lesser sonority and the change in character from one register to another (as opposed to the homogenizing of sound on the modern piano), expressive details become as personal as words whispered directly in the ear of a single listener.

 

III Tempo and the Pacing of Musical Ideas

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The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notesah, that is where the art resides!

ARTUR SCHNABEL

A score, like a map, is a visual representation of an abstract idea, the one a design in time, the other a location in space. To be meaningful, each must be experienced. A highway map indicates the exact distance between Denver and Salt Lake City, but driving a certain number of hours over mountain highways, through traffic, or while hungry or thirsty or tired will indicate the conscious distance between the two cities.

The indicated tempo for a piece may be conceived as an absolute, exact and unchanging, like the movement of a clock by which one keeps daily appointments. Pacing, as in “pacing oneself,” is the tempo of the moment, the time it takes to make musical ideas intelligible. Like the words we speak, not every musical idea is of equal importance, taking more or less time to be introduced, thought about, and left. The metronome marking merely indicates a mean, as Beethoven noted in a sketchbook: “100 according to Maelzel, but this is valid only for the first measures, since feeling also has its beat, which however cannot be expressed completely by this tempo (namely, 100).”1

 

IV Dynamic Nuance and Musical Line

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The worn faces and figures dressed in black in family photo albums from past generations, when placed next to the glamorous model in the cigarette ad who has “come a long way,” illustrate how far the reality of the one world lay from the illusions of the other. There was little to distract the one from the fact of tomorrow’s labor: no thoughts of “overnight to London” or “live via satellite from Tokyo,” no cars, no radio, no labor-saving appliances, and no wonder drugs. However, the figure in black and the model, each in her time, had in common the biological capability to pass on to the next generation life and physical characteristics.

A Bach fugue subject is for a fugue what human genes are for heredity. If the subject moves stepwise, the writing of the fugue will be smooth; if leaps predominate, the fugue will sound more instrumental than vocal. Like the average person living in the year 1722, who accepted more readily than we the social and occupational boundaries inherited through birth, a Bach fugue subject is less important in and for itself than as the genetic blueprint for the piece.

 

V The Role of Silence

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Speech after long silence; it is right.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Whether a jazz band playing sempre fortissimo, or electronic nothings piped into our ear when phoning or swathing our consciousness when shopping or dining, we become accustomed to decibels and white noise and become uneasy when we have to listen to silence. Silence is the sound of aloneness, when we become conscious of unhappiness or boredom. For the musician, silence is the sound of the inner self, the sound of concentration. As shown by the following table, Beethoven frequently notated an extended silence at the conclusion of a movement, creating a frame for the listening experience. The sonatas listed are those in which one or more movements end with a fermata over a final rest (marked *) or with a fermata over a complete measure of rest (marked **).

 

Tempo

Meter

Dynamic Level

Op. 2/1

*Allegro

ff

 

*Adagio

3/4

pp

 

VI Sound as Color

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Those who knew Beethoven as a child remembered his being held spellbound by unusual sounds, such as the whirring of the shutters in the wind, recalling Czerny’s remark that, with Beethoven, “every sound and every movement became music and rhythm.” Color goes beyond pleasing sonority or bell-like “singing tone” to the unique timbre of a particular sound that is only one step removed from the whirring of the shutters. Imagination for color is finding character in harmony that is tonally nonfunctional, in chromaticism, in a particular interval, register, accompaniment figure, or detail of articulation, in a character piece, in the contrast of major and minor, and in the indication of long pedals.

“Tonally nonfunctional” describes a suspension of harmonic movement during which sound is heard for its intrinsic property to draw the listener’s attention to itself (Exx. 6.1 and 6.2). In Ex. 6.1, the extended dominant-seventh harmony and the chromatic play within it introduce a few moments of stillness and reflection following the intensity of the first half of the exposition. This passage also marks the first appearance of the triplet sixteenths, which provide a kind of rhythmic relief from the duple eighth and sixteenth subdivision that has gone before. One may suppose that, because of the adagio in m. 24, the tenute and longer note values in m. 25, and the fermata in m. 26, Haydn would have played the triplet sixteenths freely, perhaps with a rallentando, so that the tempo of the latter would have led naturally into the adagio cadenza. Treating the triplets freely establishes a basis for contrast with the triplets in the closing theme, which begins in m. 32.

 

VII Descriptive Music: Op. 81a, Op. 13

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If a music appreciation class were to listen to the Sonata Op. 81a, without being aware of the programmatic titles, and another class were to listen to the same sonata but after being told the titles of the three movements, the second group would almost certainly remember the piece in greater detail. The historical background alone is like a fabric of fantasy woven of threads of a variety of colors—the Archduke who later became an Archbishop, Beethoven’s gifted student and patron, the relationship of a Hapsburg royal to a composer who once felt the need to insist that the “van” in his name indicated nobility, the approach of the French armies, the flight of the Archduke—making a pattern we know as the Les Adieux Sonata. Descriptive or programmatic music will be taken seriously or not according to the associations established in the mind. If they are too literal, the piece will seem more entertaining than serious. However, imagining the sentiments that were exchanged between these two flesh-and-blood human beings coming from two widely separated levels of society and meeting in a kind of temple of the spirit, musician and nonmusician alike will hear the music as an “immortal sign” of a human experience. Life does lend significance to the act of making music.

 

VIII Motivic Development: Op. 2 No. 1, Op. 57, Op. 110

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Armed with our urtext editions, scholarly studies of performance practice, and doctorates, we may think that our performances represent a more accurate reading of the printed page than any in the past. However indispensable reliable editions and an understanding of performance practices may be, to realize literally and irreproachably the printed page is no feat at all, compared with the “original interpretation” of the Fourth Concerto when it was still a blank page in the sketchbook. Like the composer, with every performance a true interpreter mentally faces a blank page of manuscript paper. The muscles know the notes; the intelligence and fantasy of the player must decide what to do with them.

Grouping particular sonatas under various headings should not be regarded as excluding other sonatas that illustrate the same procedure, in this case, motivic development. Op. 2 Nos. 2 and 3, Op. 13, Op. 27 Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 28, Op. 49 No. 2, Op. 78, Op. 106, and Op. 109 all contain one or more motives that reappear, playing new roles and wearing new guises throughout the sonata. The three sonatas grouped together under the heading “Motivic Development”—Op. 2 No. 1, Op. 57, and Op. 110—have been chosen because the motivic pattern is the vehicle for developing the singular character of each sonata; and because they are works that span a lifetime, one may follow Beethoven’s growing sophistication in the use of simple patterns to develop character.

 

IX Quasi una Fantasia: Op. 27 Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 26

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Fantasy, as in make-believe, the realm of dreams, is the safety valve of human consciousness, the drawing board of the architect, the curiosity of the inventor, the raptus of the composer. Beethoven seems to have used the term quasi una fantasia as an explanation for the departure from conventional form—beginning with a slow movement, joining movements, including a cyclic element—not to escape the restraint of the rational but to unify the sonata through rational means.

 

This sonata [Op. 27 No. 1], by its rather vague subtitle, “In the style of a Fantasy,” would seem to imply that it is somewhat rambling and incoherent in plan. Such was doubtless the composer’s intention, but at the period when he wrote it he had not discovered how to write rhapsodically His composition persists in presenting itself in watertight compartments, and it is in vain that he writes “attacca” at the end of each movement (meaning “follow on”) when he contradicts himself perpetually by making an emphatic cadence with a pause after it. The first movement, at any rate, is an ingenious attempt to get away from the discontinuity of a theme and variations by the agreeable expedient of breaking out into an Andante [?] and a Scherzo, yet relapsing into his variations again and again. This would make art excellent piece to play by itself, and the reason why it is not done can only be a disinclination to expose Beethoven’s failure of plan.1

 

X Line and Space: Op. 2 No. 2, Op. 101

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Touch may be the most basic of our senses. Form—repetition, departure, and return—is the means by which the mind recognizes continuity. Continuity, for the pianist’s fingers, is the physical feel of musical lines and shapes, perceived as keyboard space and the direction of movement. When we play Op. 2 No. 2 or Op. 101 our hands and our muscles discover the surface, the size, and the contours of the same piece of musical clay that Beethoven shaped with his hands. Thus, the composer speaks to the interpreter not through sound alone but also through the feel of the writing—the arm movement and the physical effort it requires. The grams of weight the finger should feel or the arc the elbow should describe cannot be notated, although the musician/pianist will understand as though reading an unwritten staff between the clefs.

The pianist who finds too few notes in Op. 2 No. 1 may occasionally feel that there are too many in Op. 2 No. 2. Both the A-major Sonata and the C-major, Op. 2 No. 3, surpass the F-minor Sonata in technical demands. In its vertical sonority and its clearly defined sections, the treatment of the keyboard in the C-major Sonata sounds orchestral. The A major, by comparison, is linear, suggestive rather than literal, smooth in its flow from section to section, and sophisticated in its invention.

 

XI Movement as Energized Color: Op. 53

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Once the technique to articulate non legato sixteenths has been developed, the keyboard patterns of the “Waldstein” lie well under the hands. Although the writing may lend itself to common virtuoso display, the extended piano and pianissimo writing (the first movement contains roughly twice as many indications of pp or p as f or ff) suggests a virtuosity through which notes shimmer instead of blind.

Ironically, the raw material out of which this quality of sound was created was something quite earthbound: exercises in the form of sequential scale passages in tenths, in contrary motion, and in canon. The sketchbook containing these exercises (and, a few pages later, sketches for Op. 53) was used by Beethoven primarily in the year 1803; it also contains sketches for the Third Symphony, Leonore, the Fifth Symphony, and the Triple Concerto, as well as the opening measures of the Fourth Piano Concerto.

Ex. 11.1.   BEETHOVEN SKETCHES TRANSCRIBED BY NOTTEBOHM.

 

XII The Moment of Creation: Op. 28, Op. 31 Nos. 2 and 3

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As musicians, would we choose to have lived in another time? During the 1780s in Vienna to hear Mozart play his own concertos? Or London in the 1790s to hear Haydn conduct from the keyboard? Or Vienna in March 1807 to hear Beethoven premiere the Fourth Concerto? Or conduct the Ninth Symphony? Or hear Chopin play a mazurka or a nocturne? Or attend a Schubertiad?

One could go on and on. Looking at a score is like reading the road signs beside dry creek beds in the American Southwest that warn of swollen streams. Dry ink on a white page is the only trace of the ideas that swept through the composer’s mind. Each of the three sonatas in this chapter—Op. 28 and Op. 31 Nos. 2 and 3—begins as though out of nowhere, as though grasped in the act of preludieren (to use Czerny’s term) and stilled as a specimen of a moment in Beethoven’s imagination. Even if one had been alive at the time, it would hardly have been possible to approach any more closely the freshness of the first moment.

 

XIII Facing Two Directions: Op. 49 Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 54, Op. 78, Op. 90

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The two-movement sonata represents a return, full circle, to the beginnings of the suite in the pairing of contrasting dance movements. Eliminating either an opening Allegro or a traditional Adagio from a typical three-movement sonata rules out an overall departure and return. A two-movement form lends itself to an either/or contrast that is illustrated by Opp. 49 No. 1, 54, 78, and 90. The ultimate, sublime example of such contrast of character is Op. 111, which will be treated separately.

Considered as a group, the opus order of the two-movement sonatas present an ascending dramatic unity and sophistication in the integration of motivic material. Admittedly, the motivic relationship between the two movements of Op. 49 No. 2 is more obvious than that in Op. 90, although in comparison with the latter, the G-major sonata projects little sense of drama.

Because of the title, Leichte Sonaten, and because of their suitability as repertoire for teaching, the musical substance of these works is likely to be overlooked. The pianist who plays for singers and thinks as a singer will find the angularity of the melodic line in the opening of Op. 49 No. 1 a clue to the substance of the piece. Keyboardists are deprived of the sensation of producing the actual sound and shaping musical ideas within the human body. In the melodic line of the G-minor Sonata, the vocal reaching, often for a pitch stressed with an mfp or an fp, remains meaningless if sixths and fourths represent only the span of notes under the hand. To appreciate melodic distance as a singer, the pianist might practice mm. 5–8 as notated in Ex. 13.1, without pedal, using one hand. For the voice, the appoggiaturas and short slurs in Ex. 13.2 offer an opportunity for communicating warmth and grace.

 

XIV The Enjoyment of Fluency: Op. 10 Nos. 2 and 3, No. 2, Op. 22, Op. 31 No. 1, Op. 79Op. 14

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Not every work from the pen of a Beethoven can be as profoundly moving as Op. 111 or as totally integrated as Op. 13. The appeal of the opening movement of each of the sonatas included in this grouping is not so much soul searching as the enjoyment of wit, brilliance, and imagination. The first movements of Op. 10 No. 3, Op. 22, and Op. 31 No. 1 are sleek, unhindered in their forward momentum; those of Op. 10 No. 2, Op. 14 No. 2, and Op. 79 are only of a somewhat less untroubled character. Yet, with the exception of Op. 14 No. 2, each has a second or middle movement of emotional depth, the Largo e mesto of Op. 10 No. 3 being one of the darkest soul-probing pieces of music Beethoven ever contributed to the pianists’s repertoire.

The first movement of Op. 10 No. 2 resembles a patchwork quilt. The opening theme itself joins two contrasting ideas, the first of which, a four-measure segment of melodic bits and pieces, is relatively insignificant as a theme. Its immediate purpose seems to be providing a beginning for the piece. The eight measures that follow introduce an extended arched melodic line that picks up the opening melodic third and adds a dynamic swell, syncopation, and appoggiaturas. Everything prior to the C-major theme beginning in m. 18 sounds exploratory.

 

XV The Cosmopolitan Impostor: Op. 2 No. 3, Op. 14 No. 1

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Throughout its existence, the keyboard has been the central meeting place for every genre of composition. It is the instrument of accompaniment, a chamber music partner, a concerto soloist, and the instrument for orchestral reductions. In a letter to Breitkopf & Härtel, dated July 13, 1802, Beethoven referred to the popularity of transcriptions as an “unnatural mania,” saying that the piano and string instruments were so different from one another that the practice should be checked.1 One wonders what he might have said about Liszt’s transcriptions of his symphonies, in which form the piano became a cultural missionary, making the music accessible in places where there were no orchestras.

Thinking in choirs of instrumental sound and independent voice parts is central to Beethoven’s keyboard style, just as an operatic vocal style emerges from the Mozart sonatas and the Chopin concertos. Op. 2 No. 3 has been chosen to group with Op. 14 No. 1, the only sonata Beethoven transcribed for strings, because its orchestral manner—in addition to a concerto-like cadenza in the first movement—is its most prominent characteristic.

 

XVI Embracing the Dachstein: Op. 7, Op. 106

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Op. 7 and Op. 106 would not seem to have much in common, one sonata from the early years of Beethoven’s creative life and the other from his last decade. What the two share is a breadth of conception and, aside from the Op. 106 Adagio, a spirit of assertiveness that overflows their many bars. The earlier work is perhaps the less self-assured of the two, lacking the cerebral armor of Beethoven’s maturity. Nonetheless, each is colossal in its own way, peculiar to the time of life in which it was written.

With the exception of the Hammerklavier, the E Sonata is Beethoven’s longest piano sonata. However, length calculated in minutes has little meaning for the imagination, which tells time by a different clock, on whose face the hours are marked by sensations and impressions. Op. 2 No. 3 might seem to be longer because each movement is equally imposing, or Op. 111, because its philosophical answer sums up a lifetime of thought.

The first movement of Op. 7 is more unified than that of Op. 2 No. 3. It develops one character and was, as Czerny wrote, conceived in a passionate state of mind.1 Clues in the first four measures define its character: 1. an Allegro molto in 6/8, seemingly swifter than duple subdivision; 2. repeated eighth notes; 3. a dynamic marking of piano, interrupted only by the sforzando on the E chord in m. 3; and 4. unslurred tonic chords, making the passage harmonically stationary.

 

XVII A Higher Revelation: Op. 10 No. 1, Op. 109, Op. 111

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I must despise the world which does not intuitively feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.

BEETHOVEN

Assuming that the foregoing quotation received second hand from Bettina von Arnim is not apocryphal,1 Beethoven was saying that the creative experience, originating deep within the self, discloses that which was not previously realized through one’s intellectual powers. The creative experience is the experience of what something is “like.” We can more easily define the phrase “I am” by describing what a particular facet of being is like. Describing what something is like is the role of imagery and the function of adjectives and adverbs.

Imagery gives the abstraction a perceivable body. To give an idea of the depth of her feelings of guilt which the audience can neither see nor measure, Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth sleepwalk through the corridors of the castle while the voice of her subconscious reflects that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Lincoln, writing a letter of sympathy to a Boston widow who reportedly had lost five sons in the war, referred to “the solemn pride that must be yours to have placed so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom,” sublimating the carnage of the battle to an image of a spiritual ritual for the survival of the nation. Or one might recall, as a moving example of imagery in everyday speech, the Civil War soldier who, thinking of the possibility of his death, wrote his wife that, were she to feel a cool breeze on her face, it would be his spirit passing by.

 

XVIII The Witness Tree

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Wem meine Musik sich verständlich macht, der muss frei werden von all dem Elend, womit sich die andern schleppen.

BEETHOVEN

In a field requiring sustained dedication with no guarantee of reward, the serious interpreter becomes obsessed with finding reassurance of valid accomplishment and self-worth. Within the vastness of musical creativity that has preceded us, the phenomenon of Beethoven, like the witness tree (a marker from which nineteenth-century surveyors made their measurements), becomes a living point of orientation for establishing aesthetic boundaries and clarifying one’s professional values. One would like to believe in the accuracy of the quotation above (“The one to whom my music makes itself understandable will, as a matter of course, become free of all the misery that others drag around with them”), which was included in a letter from Bettina Brentano to Goethe.

What scholarly research cannot prove or disprove, personal experience can. The comment attributed to Beethoven is remarkable, first of all, in personifying the music as an active agent: it “makes itself understandable.” The German modal muss is problematic, not to be understood “that the listener must (first) become free of all the misery,” but that it will happen unavoidably as a result of the experience. Above all, the statement is remarkable for linking the music inseparably to the human condition, although following this concept to its logical conclusion presents unsettling implications for our profession.

 

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