Beethoven Piano sonata no. 1 in Fm, op. 2, no. 1

performed by András Schiff (or here by Daniel Barenboim, without the talking)

I had been listening to the box set of sonatas from The Complete Beethoven Edition, played by the great Wilhelm Kempff.
The above presentation, with performances of the individual movements interspersed with explanations of the music and performance notes, makes a very convincing argument for Schiff’s way of approaching the piece.
We’ve made it through Beethoven’s op. 1 piano trios, an economical and convenient and novel way to make a statement with an opus 1 while perhaps avoiding the danger of writing something in the shadow of either Haydn or Mozart (like a sonata or string quartet), but it’s only one opus number later, in the same year the op. 1 was published, that we move on to a small set of three piano sonatas.
I made the statement with the op. 1 no. 1 that it feels decidedly not Mozart or Haydn, and a lot of that had to do with Beethoven’s use of the three instruments, interesting keys, greater expressiveness, and more, and these things are also pointed out by Schiff in his discussion of this sonata, almost leading one to think that Beethoven strategically set the stage for himself, building up to what he could do in a solo composition.
This piece was written in 1795 and dedicated (the entire op. 2, including the next two sonatas) to Joseph Haydn, apparently in only those words, significantly less poetic or appreciative than what the great composer had hoped to receive from his student.
At the time of this writing, I’m really trying to prepare for all the pieces that you have hopefully already read and will continue to read for the rest of the month; I had to start early and get way ahead to pull off a month of articles like this. But coming up to Beethoven’s sonatas on the tail of Mozart’s, there might have been some conditioning to pleasantness, to saying “oh, that’s really pretty,” or “I see what he did there with that chord,” or that’s a nice melody,” but… sadly not a ton else, I’m afraid.
Maybe all I needed was an introduction to those works like we have to the Beethoven sonatas, because it seems Beethoven was very careful to play his cards perfectly and make the right statements in the right ways. Things that were shocking or uncommon then are hardly that now, so some of these statements are perhaps lost on modern listeners. I’d listened to this piece many times before enjoying this lecture, and it really makes you appreciate the piece a lot more. He gives a very nice introduction to the entire lecture series, and the actual discussion of this sonata begins something like 12-13 minutes in.
In a slower interpretation (like Kempff’s, I feel) of the first movement, you don’t as much appreciate what Schiff points out about the nervousness of this movement. In fact, I didn’t much care for his brisker tempo until I listened to him defend it.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. F minor. It’s the relative minor of A flat major, with
four flats. This itself is new. Remember we talked yesterday about Beethoven’s now-almost-iconic use of C minor, a key with three flats? Well, it wasn’t iconic or common then, and Beethoven is playing that same card again here.
Schiff points out that Mozart never wrote anything (he at least said sonatas) for piano with that many flats. I was dubious at what seemed like such a blanket statement, but he was right. Piano sonatas at the time were perhaps less for big concert halls and written at least marginally more with amateur performers in mind. A commenter on this video also mentions the possibility of more flats/sharps being a little more difficult to maintain proper tuning with. Even temperament in Mozart’s day? So even the key here is new. The piece is a la breve, hurried, anxious, and as Schiff points out, ‘breathy’ at times. There are what would have been “shocking dissonances” like minor seconds, accents on dissonant upbeats and lots of other little things that may not sound so new to an ear who has digested the late 19th and early 20th century repertoire. In any case, Schiff points out that these pieces were primarily, not for amateurs or salons, but “for himself.” The first movement sets an important tone for the sonata, and builds up for some contrast in the following movements. Even before listening to this lecture, which I’m trying not to regurgitate, the texture and sounds produced by the piano evoke very rich orchestral sounds. Schiff plays some little ornaments and says “a clarinet, a flute,” and you hear it. Although Beethoven perhaps wasn’t yet ready to present a symphony or string quartet to the world, it seems from his first piano works that big ideas were already brewing. It was how he thought. The movement ends in a dramatic, even Romantic way, something else we’d never see in Mozart.

After a breathy, nervous, and quite rich movement like the first, we move on to  something else, in the parallel major, F major. In fact, all of our movements are F something, which isn’t common. It’s our slow movement, and Mozart’s slow movements, as Schiff states, are andantes, from the Italian word for a walking pace. He says if you hear someone playing a Mozart movement really slow, they’re wrong. Beethoven’s slow movement, on the other hand, is slow. Donald Tovey, who Schiff mentions somewhere (probably many times) throughout these lectures with great esteem, says the following about the slow movement.

The slow movement…well illustrates the rare cases in which Beethoven imitates Mozart to the detriment of his own proper richness of tone and thought, while the finale in its central episode brings a misapplied and somewhat diffuse structure in Mozart’s style into a direct conflict with themes as Beethovenish in their terseness as in their sombre passion.

It’s an adagio, and it too begins on an upbeat. That’s only one of the ways it’s much softer, more lyrical and delicate, in great contrast to the boldness of the first movement. This might strike listeners (especially if you’ve followed along in our piano trios the past few days) as something rather… plain, kind of whitebread normal for Beethoven, and it seems this was intentional, a sort of appeasement or rest from the other three movements, each with its own shock value. Maybe this is Beethoven saying “I’m not unreasonable or crazy,” and when he wants, he gives us beautiful, simple, singing melodies like this. Or perhaps, as Tovey suggests, he was paying homage to Mozart. Do remember, however, that Beethoven is not and never was Mozart. Beethoven is apparently better at being Beethoven, and the world is a better place for it. This ornamented, quiet movement ends and we are back to F minor, beginning the third movement on an other upbeat.

It hints at sinister or mystery, but it moves to a major key just as you start to feel how dark it is. Schiff says “not obvious” and “subdued.” There are accents on the upbeats dissonances, and just as we’re getting used to things, there’s an explosion of sound in unison at fortissimo. There are many great contrasts of dynamic and accent in this movement. “Enough of this gentle business,” he says, and you can see how effective something like this is. It’s not always all about interesting harmonies and dissonances and things that are hard to notice. The rhythms and textures in this movement are what stand out, including sudden silences. But then something else jumps out at you in a very different way, something that, after listening to this lecture and then returning to a performance of the piece, almost made me laugh because of how ridiculously out of place it seemed. After our mysterious minor minuet, there’s naturally a trio. It’s almost comically clean, a very classical trio, very contrapuntal, with the line introduced in the right hand moving to the left and back again. Sixths were apparently “one of Beethoven’s favorite devices,” and the harmonies toward the end of this trio blossom into gorgeous melodious beauty. The counterpoint feels almost like Bach, and it’s beautiful, but so perfectly out-of-place feeling in this dark, mischievous F minor minuet, which reappears to close out the movement.
Our finale is again alla breve and prestissimo. It never stops, with eighth note triplet figures almost (if not entirely) throughout the bass. It instantly presents us with an enormous storm of sound, something Schiff describes as “visionary,” but my first thought was “revolutionary” in the same way as Chopin’s etude was. There’s something brewing here, aside from Beethoven’s pianistic virtuosity. This movement must have been shocking to hear at the time, and I see Beethoven basking in the attention for playing something like this. The triplet figures in the bass are played so fast that they begin to take on an almost impressionist kind of textured ‘sound-effect’ quality, a rumbling kind of energy galloping toward the sudden end of the movement. “Always cooking in the inferno,” as the maestro says. There is, however some contrast. White the busy bass takes a back seat, the right hand stops hammering out decisive chords and plays a lyrical melody instead. It’s quite beautiful, but the bass never goes away. “An oasis of lyricism in a very dramatic scenery” in a piece that ultimately “goes down to hell.”
I’m sorry for regurgitating so much of what Schiff said in the video. Just watch it, I guess. But what fascinates me here is that there is so much that Beethoven says in his music that took his listeners by surprise. The decisions in this piece, after hearing such an expert explanation, couldn’t have just been… accidents or coincidences. I can’t see Beethoven sitting down to write and saying “oh, that’ll do,” or “I’ll plop this in for a second movement.” Something that may at first seem on the surface to be just piano music has so much to offer, is full of contrasts, statements, questions, and even foreshadowings of things to come in the composer’s career. I’d love to have lectures like this for the Mozart sonatas, because it seems like what Beethoven is dealing with here is, no longer what I attributed to the artistic decisions of Mozart’s day, the attaining of stylistic or artistic beauty and perfection of form, but intensity, personality, statement-making, and shock value with purpose. These seem like very important prerequisites for the Romantic era, an era which we are, in this piece, still some years away from entering. That’s not to say that Beethoven is better than Mozart or that Mozart didn’t do anything relatively similar in his day, but even in his first piano sonata, our young composer is in uncharted territory, and it’s very exciting. Everything from his key choices, expressive markings, tempi, etc. are all indicative of a new kind of expression. A question to ask then, is, how long would it have taken for a lot of this to happen if it hadn’t have happened with Beethoven?
Something we’ll be seeing tomorrow and the day after with the other two op. 2 sonatas is an interesting relationship among these works as with the op. 1 pieces. The op. 1 set is a trio of trios, and op 2 is a trio of sonatas, and while they don’t exactly follow the same parallels, it is interesting that it seems each of the members of the opuses kind of plays its own role to create a unified but contrasting set of works. Anyway, more op. 2 sonatas tomorrow.
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