Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: John Suchet's guide to the music
Of all the musical genres (that word again), the Piano Sonata is the only one that Beethoven worked on more or less consistently throughout his life. No large gaps as with the Symphonies or String Quartets.
There are 32 in all; there isn’t a weak one among them, and some are among the most important pieces he ever wrote. They contain every emotion Beethoven was capable of expressing.
To single out just a few. The most important of the early Sonatas is the Pathétique. For the first time Beethoven uses a slow introduction, and an introduction of such weight you know something truly significant is going on. The opening chord breaks once and for all with Haydn and Mozart. You are in Beethoven’s world now.
Among Beethoven’s few close friends in Vienna were the piano-building couple, Andreas and Nanette Streicher. The Pathétique demanded a wider keyboard than ever before, the sheer power of the chords demanded a stronger piano frame, and more resilient strings. The Streichers started building pianos to accommodate Beethoven’s needs. Thus we owe the beginning of the development of the modern concert grand to Beethoven.
If you are in any doubt of the sheer versatility of Beethoven’s music, listen to the beautiful simplicity of the second movement of the Pathétique – a theme so perfect it is as if it emerged from Beethoven fully formed; none of the struggle we usually associate with him. It impressed a modern musician too. Billy Joel put words to it, and it is one of the tracks on his best-selling album, An Innocent Man. The track is “This Night”, and on the sleeve it says Words by B. Joel, music by L. van Beethoven.
The most famous movement of any of the 32 Piano Sonatas is the opening movement of The Moonlight – the Sonata he composed for the woman he wanted to marry, Giulietta Guicciardi [see Chapter 6, Beethoven’s Women]. For the first time he put the slow movement first (something neither Haydn or Mozart ever did). Just like the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony, this movement is universally known. Yet – again as with the Fifth– try singing it. You can’t. That’s a trick of Beethoven’s: music instantly memorable, that lodges in your head, that you can play in your brain, but that is impossible to reproduce except on the piano. Plenty of amateur pianists can do that. Ask anyone who says they can play Beethoven to demonstrate it, and the opening movement of the Moonlight is what they’ll play (or Für Elise, more correctly a Bagatelle). Then ask them to play the third movement …
We already know the origin of the Waldstein from Chapter 3, The Spaniard. The gloriously spacious theme of the final movement is prefaced by a mysterious, fragmented middle movement, which presages it perfectly. That was not Beethoven’s original intention. The middle movement was a long complete piece with an instantly catchy tune. He realised it was misplaced, and published it separately.
It became an instant hit with the amateur pianists of Vienna. It was published under the title Andante grazioso, but was nicknamed Andante favori by Beethoven himself, who said: I wish I had never written the piece. I cannot walk down a street without hearing it coming through some window or other.
The Andante favori was at the centre of a dramatic sense of humour failure on Beethoven’s part. Ferdinand Ries recounts how, when Beethoven played the piece for the first time to him and a friend, they liked it so much they persuaded Beethoven to repeat it. On his way home Ries called in on Beethoven’s unswervingly loyal and generous patron Prince Lichnowsky to tell him of the new piece.
The Prince urged Ries to play it for him, and Ries did so, as best as he could from memory. He repeated it, remembering more of it each time. Then he helped Lichnowsky learn it too.
The next day Lichnowsky called on Beethoven and told him he had composed a piece of his own which he thought was rather good. Would Beethoven mind listening and giving his opinion? Beethoven said no. Despite this the Prince sat at the piano and played … theAndante favori. Beethoven was utterly furious, expelled Lichnowsky from his apartment and threatened to break with Ries totally.
Wagner’s favourite was the Appassionata. He loved playing it, and marvelled at the theme of the first movement rising from the depths. Once again, as with the Pathétique, the middle movement is simplicity itself, almost a theme on a single note. The entire work has such nobility and passion it is small wonder the publisher gave it the name by which it is known.
As with the Pastoral Symphony, the only Piano Sonata where Beethoven tells us what his music represents (though not as literally as with the Symphony) is Les Adieux. It has become known by its French name, since the publishers subtitled it in French, but the original (rather more cumbersome) German title was Das Lebewohl, Abwesenheit und Wiedersehn [The Farewell, Absence and Return].
Beethoven composed it in the most fraught year in recent Viennese history. On 9 May 1809 Austria (yet again) declared war on France. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had occupied Vienna three years before peacefully, this time decided to teach the recalcitrant Austrians a lesson once and for all. He led his Revolutionary Army into Austria and marched them north east to Vienna. Word travelled ahead. Anyone who could, fled from the city. Roads were choked with people, wagons piled high with furniture and belongings.
It was decided that the Imperial royal family, headed by the Emperor, should leave Vienna for their own safety. This included the Emperor’s youngest brother, Archduke Rudolph, friend and patron of Beethoven.
Beethoven told the Archduke he would compose a Piano Sonata to mark the occasion. He completed the first movement, Das Lebewohl, before the Archduke left with his family on 4 May, and said he would complete the other two when he was sure of the Archduke’s return. This he duly did. Above the three descending opening chords of the first movement he wrote on the manuscript page: Le-be-wohl.
It is a beautiful piece of music, and as always with Beethoven when you know what lies behind its composition, you listen to it with entirely different ears.
We come to the most monumental of all the Piano Sonatas, the Hammerklavier. This was the work that Beethoven composed at the height of the traumatic court case, when he was composing little else. What spurred him to do it? More than likely the thoroughly prosaic fact that at the beginning of the year he had received a remarkable gift. The famous London piano maker Broadwood & Sons shipped a specially built, specially robust six-octave grand piano to Beethoven, sending it by sea to Trieste and then overland to Vienna. This, combined with the fact that the Archduke’s name-day was on 17 April, persuaded Beethoven to compose a new Sonata.
Beethoven loved the piano, with its heavier English action which suited his music and playing style, and he was touched to see that Ferdinand Ries had signed his name on the board behind the keys. This most famous of Broadwood pianos – by the time of Beethoven’s death in poor state due to his pounding on the keys and numerous repairs – was sold at the auction of his effects to an antique dealer for 100 florins. He gave it to Franz Liszt in 1846, who treasured it but never played on it, saying he was not worthy to press the keys that Beethoven had pressed. In 1874 Liszt presented it to the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, where it stands today.
In the early 1990s the piano was restored – a major task which involved virtually rebuilding it. Ries’s signature was still clearly visible. Shortly after this it was transported briefly to England where the Malaysian-born English fortepianist Melvyn Tan performed on it. For this journey it was insured for five million pounds!
The opening sequence of chords, preceded by a fleeting note in the bass and a multi-octave leap by the left hand, is humanly impossible to play at the metronome speed marked by Beethoven. It sets the tone for the work. Massive, monumental, taking the Piano Sonata to totally new heights. Fugue, counterpoint, double trills … it is as if Beethoven is saying look at what I can do.
But as ever Beethoven is rarely satisfied. Around eight months after completing the Hammerklavier, and six months after sending it to Ferdinand Ries in London for publication, he wrote to Ries with an additional bar he wanted inserted at the start of the slow movement – just two notes, played in octaves. Ries protested that the work was about to be published, and to stop it now would cause unnecessary problems. In any case, just one bar of two notes? Beethoven insisted. Today’s musicologists will tell you those two notes, and the key they are in, are essential to what follows.
Piano Sonatas, opp.109, 110, 111
The Hammerklavier is often taken to signify the start of Beethoven’s Late Period. Certainly everything that now follows – Missa Solemnis, Ninth Symphony, Piano Sonatas, String Quartets – are on an entirely different plane to what has gone before.
Profoundly deaf, deeply miserable, failing health – and the greatest works of all.
The final set of Piano Sonatas, opp.109, 110, 111, (no names, just opus numbers) stand alone too. Not so monumental as the Hammerklavier, but more intimate and more deeply personal. Intimacy pervades op.109, there is warmth and optimism in op.110, and if you want more proof that Beethoven was a composer ahead of his time, listen to the second and final movement of op.111. It is a set of variations. For a whole page Beethoven writes pure syncopated rhythm. It is a glimpse of the future; it is jazz.
One passage of one of the three Sonatas in particular grips me every time I hear it. It is the final two movements of op.110. Beethoven has composed one of his saddest themes, even writing on the manuscript page: Klagender Gesang [Doleful song]. Finally, he draws the theme to a close, then sounds a chord, which he repeats no fewer than nine times. It is as if he is saying:
No, no, I will not give in to my deafness. I will not give in. I will not.
He then launches into one of the most complicated, exciting, climactic fugues he ever composed for the piano. Each time I hear it, I think of this profoundly deaf man who has triumphed over the worst fate that can befall a musician, and this is his way of telling us, in the only way he knows: musical notes.
Is he also telling us that if he can overcome such a disaster, then we of future generations, in listening to his music, can overcome our own private troubles? I think so.
My favourite Piano Sonata, Opus 110. And yes, if you push me, (please don’t,) my single favourite piece in all Beethoven’s music, Piano Sonata Opus 110.
Listen to the recording made in 1967 by Jörg Demus in Beethoven’s birth house in Bonn on the last piano Beethoven owned (built by Conrad Graf). Close your eyes and imagine…