The Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Warning: Classical music nerditry ahead.  (And some domestic violence.)

One evening while discussing the music of Beethoven with a friend (as is my wont), my conversation companion mentioned that, although Beethoven's music was very beautiful, she didn't see what, exactly, all the fuss was about. "He seems to have figured it out early on in the game, and then didn't change very much," she said. "He just knew what worked, and - OW!!!"

Although I felt bad about strongly pinching her thigh before she could complete her sentence, obviously I could not allow her to continue spewing such mendacity. However, even though our friendship was terminated shortly thereafter, I continued to be needled by her remarks, as her thoughts on the matter are not, it seems to me, an isolated incident. Beethoven seems to be not so much listened to as he is admired, not so much admired as merely accepted. Although plenty of his more popular melodies have permeated our collective ear, several of them have become diluted through overexposure of limited fragments. (How many are aware, for example, that there is more than one musical section in his "Für Elise" bagatelle?) The acquaintance that many have with Beethoven's work is, at best, incomplete; indeed, a recent survey showed that eighty percent of Americans believe Beethoven to be a limited edition line of Old Spice deodorant. To be surrounded by the music of today without a sense of where it has come from, without a proper perspective of Beethoven's role, is to be partially blind.

Beethoven's life and work are of one piece: Suffering, redemption, and extravagances of conduct mark both. Like the music he composed,  Beethoven was a force of nature. However, Beethoven was also by nature a developer - unsatisfied with the limitations of the musical forms of his day, Beethoven paved the way from the classical traditions of Haydn and Mozart to the new era of Romanticism, influencing virtually every major Western composer that came after him. And, while he innovated in nearly every major musical genre - a remarkable collection of violin and cello sonatas, piano trios, sixteen string quartets, and the monumental nine symphonies - it is the piano sonatas that most closely follow the trajectory of his compositional evolution. And they are perfection.

One of the most outstanding examples of his genius is the final movement of his piano sonata No. 17 in d minor, which begins with a four-note gesture starting on the dominant and circling from above to come down to the tonic. Problem: How to spin seven minutes of music out of a four-note motive? Through a series of transpositions, imitations, inversions, and unexpected shifts in register and dynamic, Beethoven manages to observe the motive through every possible angle, introducing subtle variations that heighten the drama and increase the tension. His suprametrical increases of the final note of the motive, for example, outlines larger-scale harmonic changes taking place over several measures, still foregrounding the swirling melody while driving the harmony through a longer musical architecture. When listening to it, note how the motive sometimes lands on accidentals (so-called because they actually are "accidents," where the composer screwed up but was too proud to admit their mistake) in order to segue into a new section. The result is an organic whole, linked by an obsessive, haunted idée fixe four-note gesture.

Beethoven's compositional vision was on a larger scale as well. Beginning with the trio of piano sonatas of Op. 2, Beethoven shows an adherence to the classical sonata form while hinting at future developments finally culminating in his sonata No. 21, Op. 53, the "Waldstein" sonata. While Beethoven wrote several piano sonatas in the "grand" style - most notably, the Waldstein, "Appassionata" (Op. 57) and "Hammerklavier" (Op. 106) sonatas - it is really the Waldstein that announces its themes and methods. Everything about the sonata's first movement, from the exposition to the development to the coda and the following rondo, is colossal in scope, and stretches the sonata-allegro form to extremes that could only have been thought of by Beethoven. Certainly it is the most trailblazing in technique, and one of the most important milestones in the art of writing orchestrally for the piano. The Hammerklavier sonata - containing a finale which, in the words of one of my former composition teachers, is a "fugue on acid" - would later outline all of the aspects and characteristics of the grand sonata form, and then exhaust all of their possibilities.

At the same time it is astounding that this notoriously difficult man, containing such volcanic, baffled passions, should have also been capable of musical ideas of such profound beauty, lyricism, and, sometimes, humor. (Several times I have observed that when Beethoven writes for the lowest registers of the piano, it is either to express emotions of titanic, epic proportions - or to make a musical joke.) The melody of his piano sonata in A major, Op. 101, for example, is one of the most tender outpourings ever conceived, occasionally pausing to breathe and collect itself, dissolving barlines but never stopping. It is the harbinger of his last decade of composition, during which Beethoven, increasingly ill and in pain, totally deaf and increasingly withdrawn into his own enigmatic inner world, managed to call forth his most spiritual and exalted music. A man who begins a sonata with the instructions Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung is imitating no one. He is not writing exercises. It is escapism, but of a very different order. Escapism, in the everyday sense of the term, is contemptible; here, it is an escape, but - like all great works of art - into a deeper, greater reality. Ideally, one where nobody can pinch you.

I think that I now have an answer for my former friend. Once she recovers and lifts the restraining order, that is.


The pianist in a couple of the videos I just posted - András Schiff - has also made a lecture series covering the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas. The lectures are rewarding experiences for both veteran and novice listener alike; and while one can profitably listen to any of them in isolation, there are a few particularly noteworthy lectures that I recommend to your attention: Sonata No. 7, Op. 10, No. 3; Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 ("Waldstein"); and the three last sonatas, Opp. 109, 110, and 111.