After many months I have at last taken myself to task and would like to offer some notes and personal reflections on each of the sonatas that I have been playing in such different places.
I am having some difficulty with handling the technical side of editing this page, so I regret, they are in reverse order.
The Sonatas; Opus 111 in C minor Beethoven
( dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph)
“Come, come, take me away to the transfiguration” LVB
Beethoven wrote this last piano sonata not very long before he died, and with the last quartets, brought us some of the most spiritually profound music of its time. The key of C minor and its antagonist, C major, were hugely important and significant keys, loaded with symbolism of dark and light.
Maestoso: Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile ( theme and variations )
Maestoso: Allegro con brio ed apassionato
Heralding the modern piano at a turning point in its evolution, Beethoven uses a huge range of pianistic devices to create such a foreboding and darkly spectacular opening. Tightly dotted rhythmic phrases, sudden dynamic contrasts and equally sudden silences produce a classic scene of apocalypse. This type of demand on the instrument of the day was a huge novelty and would have had the audience bolt upright in their seats!
[A brief word about the early forte-piano (literally translated as ‘loud-soft’)
Being of a wooden frame, the stringing was considerably lighter and so the overall sound was crisper and more sparkling, with especial clarity in the bass. On a modern instrument, perhaps with the exception of the Fazioli Piano, fast runs and trills in the deep bass notes tend to become rather submerged, with a blurry boom.
This sonata has a wealth of vital bass parts so it is imperative to try to bring as much clarity to them as possible.]
We are brought to a pitch of anticipation by deep rumbling in the bass as it closes the maestoso introduction to become the entry to the allegro.
Now we swing into a brutal 3 note punched phrase from which feverish runs mount upwards into the threatening counterpoint theme proper. The storm seems relentless until suddenly there comes a moment’s respite and time appears to stand still in the most beautiful of melodic and poignant phrases.
Beethoven struggled with intense mood swings, at once in a rage and then in great remorse before yet more storming.
We are flung out of this tenderness straight back into the fray with a massive diminished descending broken chord and the theme continues to be savagely stated. The pianist must observe the ‘Sf’ ‘sforzando’ ( sudden jabs of sound) markings to achieve the desired effects.
After the repeat of this turbulent first section there is a wonderful piece of stealthy counterpoint, a bit like cat and mouse before a huge climax and more of the same.
Beethoven had asked Broadwood (his favourite piano builders) to add more notes to the keyboard, so there was now a range of 5 and a half octaves to play with. A bottom F and top C , played one after the other with the right hand, come within just one bar, stretching both piano and pianist to the limit before another spacious and sorrowful moment of such enormous contrast.
This time it is extended by a mournful and subdued version of the theme which gradually picks itself up again until there is a roaring final burst of energy. Bold off-beat chords which ease away take us into the most remarkable last few bars…… beautiful left hand passage work (anyone who knows the Chopin etudes will recognize Chopin’s tribute to this passage in the famous ‘Revolutionary Study’) with transformative right hand chords which radiate light and warmth as they move from minor to major for the last 2 bars.
This miraculous ending now prepares us for the sublime theme and variations of the next movement.
Arietta; Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.
Too many words and I can only fail to adequately describe this heavenly, passionate and ecstatic journey.
It seems to me that in the aftermath of the joyous, almost jazzy climax, the cycle of the night through to dawn shimmers in expectation of the sunrise and in the final chorale we are bathed in rapture. A glimpse of the perfection beyond the earthly horizon.
A personal reflection.
Each of these sonatas stands alone as a magnificent and complete work of art. In their day, in middle Europe they were considered the most spiritually profound masterpieces of the time. Anyone who played all three, would have been awarded the equivalent of a knighthood.
Taken as a threesome, they represent a very special kind of journey; landscapes, if you like, with Opus 109 as the outer, natural world, Opus 110, the inner personal dimension, and lastly, with Opus 111, the spiritual plane.
It takes both arrogance and humility to even think of performing these works and I feel it is an ongoing privilege to have Beethoven at my side as my companion, friend and teacher.
I hope and believe that bringing this music into domestic and unusual situations is just what he would have wanted, and that his desire to be of service to his beloved mankind is alive and real today.
I am very touched by the brave little pianos I come across, each with their own unique sounds and abilities. Every time, these differences bring the music alive in new ways, and the musical landscape is as varied as the countryside and cities I pass through.
I realise that these notes are rather dense, but maybe if you are listening to the sonatas, they will help to give a bit of a ‘map’
Other performances that I relish.
I recommend Daniel Barenboim for his spaciousness; Alfred Brendel for his exquisite humanity and Bernard Roberts for his objectivity. Steven Bishop-Kovasovich on video is a perfect example of being in the present moment for EVERY SINGLE NOTE!
Let me know how you get on!
The sonatas; opus 110
1) Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
2) Allegro molto
3) Arioso Adagio ma non troppo;
Fuga, Allegro ma non troppo;
L’istesso tempo di Arioso, Perdendo le forze, dolente;
L’istesso tempo della Fuga, poi a poi di nuovo vivente
In other words, the third movement is in 4 parts, Aria, Fugue, Aria, fugue.
The first movement is radiant, warm and poignant, with a spacious introduction to a figure that is repeated and ingeniously varied throughout. At first the melody sings in the right hand to the eager accompaniment of the left, but quickly dissolves into feather-light demisemiquavers, which cover the keyboard. This is Beethoven being so delicate!
These rise to an octave figure and then the hands part company, with the left trilling it’s way downwards, while the right heads upwards. This gesture would have been understood as signifying the space between heaven and earthly realms. Indeed, the player can feel the outstretching arms as an intense opening. It is also the gesture of Christ on the cross.
After an energetic passage, we are then brought to rest momentarily by a beautiful descending chromatic scale in the right hand.
There is now a dramatic shift in mood and the opening theme now comes to us in the minor, with accompanying left hand scale passages. Each of these is utterly different and so gives a new flavour to each phrase as well as leading us back into familiar ground. This time it is the left hand that takes the delicate demisemiquavers, until we are truly back to the opening melody. We are treated to the whole picture again, but instead of being in A flat, we briefly enter first the key of D flat and then, surprisingly the key of E major before finally settling back into A flat and coming to a tranquil end.
The second movement is a great example of Beethoven’s erratic nature. Short sentences are almost immediately contradicted with a blasting reply, as though there is an argument taking place and there are some exciting syncopated, off beat ‘punches’.
A middle section sandwiched between these outer arguments is a gymnastic tumbling rush of right hand notes, while the left hand leaps around and then crosses the right hand in off beat points.
The first section is repeated, closing with grand off beat chords before dissolving quietly in a rising broken chord.
The first aria is immediately sorrowful, serious and tinged with tradgedy. The slow introduction leads us to a repeated note which is almost like a death nell (Beethoven had been dreadfully ill around the time of writing, not once, but just as he was recovering, he was struck down again) and then we enter the mournful aria proper. The left hand chords in triplets throb while the right hand sings most beautifully. Poignancy comes through wonderful lingering syncopation and the aria closes with a frail ‘do ti me la’ in sparse octaves.
Arising like a Phoenix the majestic fugue is Beethoven reviving with all his vigour and might. It would appear that triumph is near but this is thwarted by a desolate minor descending arpeggio which throws us back into a second even more plaintive aria, which Beethoven marks ‘ermattet, klagend’ … (Exhausted and weeping). Tiny 2 note slurs give an chilling sense of gasping for breath and it would seem as though it can only end in annihilation.
This is where Beethoven’s extraordinary will and courage flood in. From darkly minor, he shifts into the major, and the mood is instantly changed, as huge chords grow and punch their way out on the off beat.
With a limping ascending arpeggio he quietly feels his way back into the second fugue. First we hear it pale, frail and upside down but with such genius, he turns it around, first at half speed and then ever more quickly and powerfully ‘poi a poi di nuovo vivente’ (little by little regaining life) until in full glory it escalates and spirals out in a triumphant clamour.
My wonderful teacher John Railton ( who has just been decorated on this year’s honours list for services to Music!) suggested I should learn this sonata way back in 1996.
I remember feeling absolutely wrung out after my first performance, as though there might be nothing left to do…. ever again! it is so utterly complete!
Over the last few months of traveling, the first few bars of the first movement are what come to me whenever I have reached a pivotal point in the journey, and gratitude is uppermost.
A lovely moment in Sweden came as a result of the power of this music. I was about to play this sonata for a couple of friends in a beautiful little church on the island of Adelsö, near Stockholm. 2 lovely young people came in with their aged grandmother, so we invited them to stay. The elderly lady was very bent, pale and fragile.
‘Poi a poi di nuovo vivente’ seemed to transfer directly to her, for at the end she jumped up with rosy flushed cheeks and clapped her hands together, her eyes now sparkling and her voice shook with emotion as she cried ” beautiful, beautiful, magnificent!”
During my father’s appalling illness with cancer, his indomitable spirit rose time and again, and for me, was living practice of the arias and fugues.
Someone on his ward was no longer there one visiting time. I asked if he had gone home or ‘gone home’? My father smiled and said “all the way”.
Death need not be a submission, but with enough faith, can be a true victory.
The profound restorative, healing power of this music and sharing it in all kinds of situations brings my vision for the journey to life, and reminds me why I set out in the first place…. to take an inner journey with the music and combine it with the outer journey through all kinds of personal and outer landscapes and then share it with whoever is happy to hear.
There are few things that can be more fulfilling.
The Sonatas; Opus 109 in E
1) Vivace, ma non troppo
3) Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo
Variations Molto espressivo
Un poco meno andante ciò e un poco adagio come il tema
Allegro ma non troppo
Tempo I del tema, cantabile
“For surely wood, trees and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear” (Beethoven)
This sonata was written at a time when a dreadful conflict over custody of his nephew had at last been resolved in Beethoven’s favour. There is overall, a sense of spaciousness and immense gratitude…. also, perhaps, a reference to the stormy nature of the conflict.
Vivace ma non troppo
The lively, happy opening is abruptly arrested (adagio espressivo) by a dramatic diminished chord and a grand scene of sheer fantasy takes place, with sweeping arpeggios which ripple downwards and upwards over the keys; likewise a beautiful scale passage which returns us to the first figure which now develops and expands forcefully until we are again treated to another dramatic landscape. The first figure is echoed in a higher octave and warm chords signal the end before closing gently in the home key.
The furies fling everything they have got at us from all directions for the first 8 bars and then we alternate between nervy skittering and thunderous storming. This appears to calm down and an ominous bass tremolo precedes a whispered passage fearfully seeking shelter from the elements.
But the storm brews relentless again and Beethoven stamps his way to the end.
Theme and Variations. Andante cantabile e molto espressivo( singingly with utmost expression)
Heartfelt and prayerful, the opening theme is hymn-like and seems to speak of dedication and benediction. A flood of warmth, gratitude and peace.
a slow waltz of gentlemanly invitation and tenderness with just a hint of mischief!
when I describe this movement to children, I say that this is where the jolly frogs go hippety hop! The theme of course is most beautifully woven in, and the jocular good humour also suggests a surge of expansion and longing.
Extrovert, spikey and gesticulating this is a short-lived Beethoven-blast showing off his formidable technique, imagination and force of character. The single notes of the theme switch between the hands while the opposite hand is engaged in energetic runs. It is full of daring!
Then in the space of one short bar it has to evapourate and seamlessly glide into
The Sublime. Fluid. Loose woven. Perfectly balanced. The pendulum swings imperceptibly as this variation breathes thankful rapture. Nothing in excess. Nothing missing.
More of Beethoven’s genius with counterpoint in this good-natured, subtle and tricky little fugue. As with Var. III, he uses the element of surprise by fading this variation unexpectedly away so that entry into
Returns us soberly to the theme, stated at first by the right hand thumb in the alto register. Over an increasing whirl of successive subdivisions the melody rings out as the tension, texture and volume become more dense. For Beethoven’s competitors, this passage would have been impossible to analyse quickly enough to take down (‘plants’ in the audience would be busy with quill and manuscript paper) thereby confounding the efforts of the pesky Viennese to steal his ideas.
Technically innovative, it requires the fingers to trill with the upper or lower part of the hand while at the same time placing precisely weighted melody notes with the remaining fingers…. usually the little finger or thumb, which also has to negotiate wide leaps and stretches!
A rumbling bass trill forms the pedal note for a series of angular and rapid right hand broken diminished chords, which build tension and although the theme is hidden, it can be ‘imagined’ within. Finally it rings out high above the left hand scale passages (and the trilling right thumb and second finger) in the LITTLE finger of the right hand!!
The clamour ebbs away and the exquisite return of the theme, transformed by all it has been through, leads us movingly to its stillness and completion. Alpha and Omega.
I began to learn this sonata in 2006, just before a trip to Spain where I was walking for a few days in the Alpuharras. The landscape was so beautiful, with the sound of a nearby river and the first few bars of the first movement ran through my head. As I rounded a corner the next thing I saw was a dramatic cliff with a horrifying drop to a deep gorge below….. It seemed to match perfectly the abrupt arrest of the music in the first movement and the expression of nature, landscape and the elements. Beethoven loved to be outside in nature and the elements, and for me, this sonata is especially attuned to an outer landscape.
It also has a valedictory flavour. I had the privilege of taking it to a very dear friend who was dying with a brain tumour and playing this to her as she lay quietly, as a way of garlanding her path onwards. As I have known of dear ones who are preparing to leave it is the last movenpment of this piece I turn to.
On a lighter note, I played this sonata to a wonderful family group in Budapest. There were 8 children ranging from under 2 to about 14. I had given a little explanation of the whole piece ( frogs hopping, giants racing, swans gliding etc! memories of Joyce Grenfell?) and had no expectation of stillness or quiet while I played. They ran around and enjoyed themselves together just as they felt. Happily, nobody tried to prevent them.
Have you ever seen a group of under 4’s come to a Steiner kindergarten table to light the candle… that enchanted moment when all are quiet and we want to know where the kindergarten teacher keeps her magic wand?
Well, as the final clamour of the last variation melted away and the exquisite theme returned, all movement ceased and to the last dying chord, you could have heard a pin drop.
Opus 109, 110 & 111; an inner journey, an outer journey, these pieces represent vast landscapes, which reflect the beauty and turbulence of the outdoors, the cycles of the seasons, the elements and the challenges of being human.
Each sonata is magnificent, standing alone; on the rare occasions when these 3 come together, the nature of the ‘journey’ takes on epic proportions
I’ll be attempting to say more about each of them in due course! .. but for now..
Apparently a knighthood was awarded to anyone in middle europe who played the last 3 sonatas, as they were considered to be of such epic and spritual significance.
I was duly made a knight of South Zeal in November 2009, when I played for a fund-raising house party and was be-knighted with a bread knife, by queen of Tango, Ruth Zimmerman……