07 December 2014

Some Personal Comments on the Beethoven Sonatas

Charles Rosen, in his lovely book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, quotes a passage from Proust where the narrator talks about his grandmother’s good taste; in courtesy, cuisine, and playing the Beethoven sonatas. “‘Elle peut avoir beaucoup de doigts que moi, mais elle manque de gout en jouant avec tant d’emphase cet andante si simple…’” (the grandmother is quoted as saying. (“She may have more technique than I, but she lacks taste, playing such a simple andante so grandiloquently”)). This got me thinking about the sonatas, from my own perspective, as an adult amateur with a relatively rudimentary keyboard technique. Over the years, I have looked at every single one of the 32, and have evaluated them, I will readily admit, from the point of view that a was actually quite common in Beethoven’s day, and was probably the primary concern of his publishers, namely, can an amateur with limited ability possibly play this, or at least approximate it?

Of the sonatas, there are a good number that Beethoven obviously wrote with complete abandon to the creative muse, meaning he gave no thought for the poor player (in two senses of “poor;” i.e., 'unfortunate,' and 'unskilled'). The late sonatas, Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111, all fall in this category, and are scarcely approachable by the pianist of modest skill (Op. 101 being the only possible exception, and it is a very beautiful sonata that would reward the effort). Some of the most famous sonatas, Opp. 53 (“Waldstein”), 57 (“Appasionnata”), and 81a (“Les Adieux”) are also realistically beyond that level of skill. While Opp. 22, 27(No. 1), 28 and 31 (Nos. 1-3) are all by no means easy, they are perhaps somewhat more approachable. Both Op. 27, No. 2, and Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) have individual movements which, taken alone, are the two most famous of all the sonatas, but both of these sonatas have very brilliant and difficult finales, which make them a challenge, although not on the order of Op. 57, perhaps. (Op. 13’s achingly beautiful, songlike slow movement and the dreamy first movement of the “Moonlight,” Op. 27, No. 2, are often played alone by young students and amateurs of even quite modest ability).  

As for the three sonatas of Op. 2, the very lengthy Grande Sonate, Op. 7, and the three of Op. 10, there are varying levels of difficulty, but none is “impossible;” here, the reality is that these sonatas, while all are fine and worthwhile, are not quite of the sublime level of the majority of Beethoven’s sonatas. They reward the effort to learn them, but not to the same degree as the later works. The same would apply to Op. 49 (both), which are the easiest of Beethoven’s canonical sonatas, but also the least musically interesting. Op. 79, which Beethoven (or the publisher) titled a “sonatina,” is, in fact, quite brilliant and unexpectedly tricky to play. Op. 78, apart from the remote key of F# major, is approachable, and intensely lyrical. Op. 54 is one of Beethoven’s least played sonatas, but it is a very worthy piece, and is not easy, but it, too, is approachable.

The two sonatas of Op. 14 are, though quite different, both quite Haydnesqe. Both also very much reward the effort to learn them, although, again, they are not quite on the sublime level of the sonatas written after 1800.

This leaves a couple of real gems for the somewhat technically challenged amateur (who, after all, will resemble the people for whom these sonatas were probably written). They can really get their teeth into the lovely “suite” sonata in A-flat (with famous funeral march), Op. 26, and the short (two-movement) E-minor sonata, Op. 90 which lies somewhere between the “middle” and “late” period (1810), and has a dramatic contrast between its E-minor first movement and the lyrical Allegretto (“nicht zu geschwind”) rondo which pairs with it. Op. 90 is as difficult as Op. 31, perhaps, or Op. 78, but it is a great sonata, and it is entirely playable.

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