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Beethoven's piano sonatas

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted June 23, 2003

Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor, is presenting, at Carnegie Hall, 8 concerts of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (the last two remaining concerts are this week). This made me think of my own immersion into Beethoven when I transferred my 33 1/3 records to CDs. I had all of Alfred Brendel's records of Beethoven's piano works, including sonatas, variations, and concertos. Listening to his sonatas is an education in the growth of a genius.

If I wanted to listen to a particular sonata on record, I often had to begin in the middle of the record, then turn it over and listen to the first half of the other side. It became more trouble than I wanted, so I just stopped listening. But CDs are different. Just pop the CD on and start where you want to listen. So as I recorded, I listened over and over, and essentially, relearned Beethoven.

Starting with the first three sonatas (Op. 2) written in 1795, each sonata became my favorite as I recorded them. I listened over and over at home, in the car, in my mind. When I got to #8, "Pathetique," (which Beethoven intended to mean, "tender") I listened to it so much that I started fantasizing about what Beethoven was thinking (of course, it was what I was thinking). It starts off with a very dramatic slow introduction, and then the tempo picks up. Soon after begins a conversation between the left and right hands, what one critic called "a magnificent piece of Homeric fighting." I see it differently.

I came to see the whole sonata as a conversation between two lovers. The slow, minor key introduction became the woman warning her man that they had some serious problems. This is followed by her questions (the left hand), and his unsatisfactory answers (the right hand). After an interlude, the same questions are followed by the same unsatisfactory answers. The slow introduction is again stated, impressing upon him the seriousness of her questions. "I'll give you another chance," she seems to say. The conversation begins again, he answers again, this time even a little differently, but the final, and third time the slow minor theme presents itself, it shows that his answers have been less than convincing.

Now here, if you are a man, you should stop the music. If you're like a lot of us, you aren't necessarily a good talker. Imagine the man telling his lover, "Look, I'm sorry I can't answer you very well. I've never been good at expressing myself in words. What I want you to do is sit there and quit talking. Don't say a word. Just listen." Now start the music. What follows is that gorgeous second movement. If any composer ever said, "I love you" with their music, Beethoven did it here. Apparently the woman is convinced, because the third movement is obviously happy. There is an echo of the first movement's conversation, but this time it's resolved satisfactorily. The couple runs off to live happily ever after. (I do not urge you to hear this sonata as the sentimental drivel that I do. Beethoven didn't write love stories, he wrote music.)

Beethoven went on to write 24 more sonatas, most of them probably greater than "Pathetique" and all of them magic. We all know the first movement of #14 in C sharp Minor, but do you know the next two movements of the "Moonlight?" #18 in E flat is a world of simple melodies and flying fingers, and in the final movement you can hear where the Rolling Stones got their idea for the melody to "Let's Spend the Night Together." #23, the "Appassionata," was called the "Monster" by the music critic Romain Rolland and #29, "Hammerklavier" has been described as a "battle song," and compared to "the statements of an astronomer about the universe." I hear it as the source for Mel Brooks's "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop," in "The Producers." (After all, Mr. Rolland, said, "I find that there are never too many points of view from which to take in a work of art." So there!)

I urge you to immerse yourself in the sonatas one by one. Play one of them over and over until you really learn it. Each time you listen you will hear something new, until it has become a part of you. Then go hear Mr. Berenboim play in person and your appreciation will be on a level you never thought you could reach. You'll also be spending your time much more productively than trying to figure out where the damn WMDs are.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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