I think I get a bit burned out on the large-scale works after a while and am ready for something more intimate. There’s beauty in both those extremes, but in a different way. The piano sonata is the exact opposite, to me, of a large-scale work like a symphony. There’s nowhere for the composer to hide with any flashy distractions from orchestration or percussion or anything else when you have such a large ensemble.
I tend to vacillate between the simple, straightforward sonata, and the heavy-hitting, drawn out, intense Romantic-era hour-long symphony in my listening habits. For me, it’s either a huge, monumental work like a 90-minute Mahler symphony (or something slightly less overwhelming like Sibelius or Tchaikovsky) or something pared down, simple, straightforward, an exquisite example of form, structure and style like a piano sonata.
Truth be told, I haven’t even gotten much into anything between these two extremes, things like quartets or other instrument sonatas (violin, viola, cello, etc.) that are often accompanied by piano. Part of the reason that the recent posts discussing Zemlinsky’s string quartet no. 4 and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht were so difficult for me, I believe, is that I just wasn’t familiar with the medium. Or something. It’s somewhere in between the two extremes that I tend to enjoy and it actually takes (for me) a different kind of attention or focus to be able to ‘see’ what’s going on there. I think.
Anyway, what is it about the piano sonata?
Well, for one,
It’s stripped down, personal, and somewhat naked. Pure. The piano is a much more versatile, limber instrument than a violin or flute. With 88 keys, it can harmonize with itself and create entire landscapes. Just listen to the Liszt transcriptions for an example of a piano doing all the things a symphony does with only ten fingers (well, not ALL the things, but everyone knows this symphony, and all the sounds are there).
But listening to that symphony for piano above, you’ll notice that there is also a challenge that this presents as well. The piano doesn’t offer any other timbre. One performer may be able to elicit a certain quality or effect out of the piano with a certain technique, but it is still only one instrument with a distinct sound. The composer doesn’t have the liberty or freedom of using contrasting timbres or pairs of instruments to create different effects or textures. To me, this means the piece must stand alone confidently and be able to hold attention and steal the show for however long the piece lasts, which is sometimes quite a while.
My taste in other styles of music bears itself out here as well. While I find Mozart’s sonatas to be pleasant, they generally don’t hold my attention for too terribly long or move me much. I can’t say I am as familiar with as many sonatas as symphonies, potentially because many composers wrote so many more sonatas than they did symphonies, for obvious reasons. Schubert for example, wrote a few dozen sonatas, and only ten (or parts of ten) symphonies, many of which he never heard in his lifetime. Beethoven wrote 32 sonatas for the piano and also wrote nine (completed) symphonies. Could it also be that the sonata, since it only requires one performer, may demand less… compromise from a composer, less need to appeal to common sentiments and ideals to appease an ensemble and a conductor to take the piece on? I’m not sure, but it would seem to me to be the freer medium for experimentation. Can we get a better glimpse into the mind of the composer who may dare to write something more bold and less conventional? I don’t know. I just enjoy hearing it.
All that is to say that I feel like I’m at the end of a long symphony phase, and although I’ll still probably keep listening to Mahler’s 6th, I think it’s time to change things up with a few piano sonatas. I have a few in mind, and while I don’t want every post for the next few weeks to be same same same same same sonatas, It’s probably time to get a few out there. So far, we’ve only had three actual piano sonatas: Reubke, Ornstein 4, and Berg, in that order. I was perfectly pleased to let Reubke be my first piano sonata on the blog, because it is by far one of my favorites.
However, there are a few other composers whose other pieces we’ve mentioned here that deserve to have a sonata or two in the rotation. I think it’s time we do that before I get too repetitive with another Prokofiev piece or another Mahler symphony (4 or 6) or another Sibelius piece (symphony 6 or 7, probably). Sibelius actually did write a piano sonata as well… Anyway, a few of these pieces are intimate, intense, clean, timeless, and provide a sort of private visceral sort of dialogue to the listener that doesn’t exist in other forms or pieces, and it’s just as easy to get lost in a piece like that as it is in any great symphony, just in a different way.
That’s it for now, but I’m excited to be introducing a few of my favorite pieces I have been waiting ages to write about.