From C to shining C

No this isn’t about Pavarotti or tenors.

Today I finally closed the circle on Beethoven’s sonatas.  I’d played thirty-one of his thirty-two in a sequence following the first two posts I made, after hearing about Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I did it.

  • March 29th I posted about playing sonatas 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6
  • The weekend of March 31st  – April 1st (posting about the Air Canada Centre), played sonatas 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 on Friday – Saturday,  then paused before undertaking 14 (aka the “Moonlight” sonata), and 15 (“Pastorale”) Sunday afternoon.
  • April 20th I played the sequence of sonatas from #28-32 inclusive, writing about it a bit later.
  • That weekend I continued backwards, playing 27, then 26, then 25, then 24, then 23 and then stopped with 22, realizing how I would now finish the cycle.
  • Sometime over the next week I sat down to play all the remaining sonatas save one: I played sonata #1 (I’d almost forgot…), then tracked forward from sonata 16, including 17 (“The Tempest”), 18, 19 and 20.  It seemed a perfect place to stop, given that 19 & 20 are surely the two easiest sonatas, while 21 is one of the hardest: and the only one left.  It was still April.

Today –May 21st, the holiday in Canada known as “Victoria Day” and an occasion for fireworks –after some exhausting yard work this afternoon, mostly consisting of mindless lifting & lugging, I came inside, grabbed a glass of water, and decided it was time to finish the cycle once and for all.

This isn’t to be confused with Goodyear’s Marathon, but even so, I found it quite intriguing to survey the entire cycle, a magnificent body of music.  I think one sees different patterns as a player than as a listener, just as one reads Shakespeare differently as a critic or a historian than as a thespian or a set designer.  Sometimes the pieces are almost an athletic challenge, especially in the gargantuan Hammerklavier Sonata op 106.  Other times the music is refined, as though the big Beethoven of the massive sonatas (Waldstein, Appassionata & Hammerklavier), having vented, decides to speak more softly.  Each of these sonatas is its own world, with moments of extroversion and whispered confidences, sometimes sung by a soloist (as in the first variation of Op 109), sometimes by a deft chamber ensemble (as in those wonderful early scherzi such as Op 2 #3), sometimes by a full orchestra as in the first movement of Op 106 or the triumphant last movement of op 101.

At times I am listening to the music while playing it, wondering how well Beethoven was able to hear when composing.  Sometimes I feel certain his composition is conditioned by his hearing or lack thereof.  The opening of Symphony #9, for example, with its sense of order emerging from out of chaos suggests very strongly to me the struggle to hear, the desperate need to resolve the edge of a theme out of something fuzzy and indistinct.

But that late heroic Beethoven is one of several.  We meet the Mozartean Beethoven of that first sonata, already tossing discords at us as a way of creating conflict in a sonata movement.  In the first sonatas I frequently prefer the singing (or dancing) inner movements.  There are the slow and soulful songs to be found searching for meaning in each of sonata 3, 4, 5, 7 and the famous tune in #8.  And there are the delightful scherzi in these sonatas, particularly the break-neck possibilities of #3, suggestive of slapstick comedy.  Or there’s the romantic tale told in #4, still just about my favourite of all Beethoven’s movements.  Listen to what a stunner this is, in Anton Kuerti’s hands (and note, it’s not difficult to play, as all that fast stuff is completely under the hand).

For my money, sonata #3 is the first complete meal, four fabulous movements each better than the last.  Perhaps it’s heresy to say so (especially when there are so many excellent sonatas), but I believe something about this key raises Beethoven’s blood pressure.  He will be similarly aroused in two of the best early outer movements, namely sonata #8 in C minor.  Did C (major or minor) matter to Beethoven?  It’s the key of the Leonora Overture, the Fifth Symphony outer movements and the funeral march in the Eroica (which I am happily anticipating this week from Tafelmusik).  The late Beethoven comes back to this key for the Diabelli Variations, a fabulous series of miniatures.

I was struck by parallels between two powerful sonatas in C, namely #21 & #32.  Both sonatas are built out of contrasts:

  • #21 uses a brief meditative intermezzo to divide two very different movements;  #32 bravely works with two contrasting movements (although this is not the only such sonata).
  • The opening movement for each sonata bravely embraces the percussive possibilities of the instrument.  The closing movement is more lyrical.

Today as I sat with tired arms (glad to be inside, because it was too warm outside), facing the powerful opening of the Waldstein, I was struck yet again at something I observed previously on the night I played sonatas 28-32. that the longer I played the better I felt.  No, I didn’t play it perfectly.  But it’s quite an amazing piece of music, a fitting place to close the circle that embraces the potential found in the early sonatas and the towering brilliance of the last handful.  Opus 53 falls just before the Eroica, in the same remarkable period with the Appassionata sonata and the 4th Piano Concerto.

Goodyear has had a curious effect on me.  While I am humbled by the virtuosity of his reading of Op 106, I am inspired to play Beethoven more often.  It doesn’t bother me that I can’t play it as well as Goodyear.  So what?  I need to hear this music more often, to feel it emerge around me as it’s played rather than just encounter it in a recording or a live performance.  It makes me feel better, makes me not just a better pianist but perhaps a better person.

I have to think that playing Beethoven makes Goodyear feel better too.

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