Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 5 in Cm, op. 10 no. 1

performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, or below by Annie Fischer

I cannot overstate the wonderfulness of Sir András Schiff’s series of lectures about the Beethoven sonatas. They make me feel like I know these works so well, and even after having listened only once or twice to the lecture, I’ll go back months, even years later and feel like I’ve listened to the piece dozens of times. Here it is, one of the longest discussions of any of the early sonatas:

Just about everything I mention about the work in this article, save my own interjections and opinions, comes from this fantastic lecture.

Schiff points out in the beginning that Beethoven had just arrived in Vienna, from Bonn, and that the piano was, of course, “his instrument”, and there’s the suggestion that these sonatas were related to his announcing his arrival. Schiff points out that in the interim between the op. 2 sonatas and these op. 10, we have as the most notable compositions the op. 5 cello sonatas, which he calls masterpieces, the op. 7 sonata, and the ‘towering’ op. 9 string trios. This is also the first three-movement piano sonata from Beethoven. These three sonatas of op. 10 are also described as being, for “marketing” reasons, at least slightly easier than the apparently incredibly challenging opp. 2 or 7 sonatas, thus making them at least a little easier to sell, “a little more accessible to the amateurs… but no compromises.”

He also calls sonata form one of the greatest inventions of mankind, at least in music. I paraphrase, but I also agree. And of course, the first movement, marked Molto allegro e con brio, is in sonata form. Schiff makes reference to other sonatas before and after this one, also in Cm, that sound ‘related’: first there’s Mozart’s Cm sonata, K. 457, that opens sort of similarly, and one of Schubert, but Schiff emphasizes the ‘thickness’ or heaviness of Beethoven’s writing, like nothing you’d find from Mozart’s ‘transparent’ writing, as we saw last week. Beethoven’s is ‘music for two fists’, as he says.

The second main thing is Schiff’s point about sonata form. Of course, Beethoven says he learned nothing from Haydn, but we know that’s silly. I find these sonatas to be some of the most vivid, crystal-clear expressions of sonata form that I’m familiar with. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the late sonatas yet, but it’s so clear, Beethoven’s use of themes, contrasts, the ‘sighing’ that’s notated here in this first movement. Everything, every single gesture, dynamic marking, is so concentrated, has so much potential, and these ideas unfold before us for a truly wonderful first movement. Schiff also highlights this, that the material is more concentrated, more economically laid out, than the previous works, a sign of Beethoven’s increasing maturity. Nothing is without purpose.

Everything about the opening is drama: the aforementioned thickness of the chords, the dotted notes, the (in-time) silences that lead to yet another explosive expression. In such perfect contrast with this is the following material, which Schiff describes as “beautiful four-part writing,” asking us to hear it as if played by a string quartet. You may recall from our previous discussions of the sonatas how Beethoven appears to be thinking orchestrally in many passages, how it’s so easy to imagine a sound as a chirp from a flute, or as a horn call. This speaks to both the richness and the clarity of the piano writing.

Beethoven experiments always with different solutions of the sonata form. He does not have one scheme. And this is what later confused Schubert so much, who revered Beethoven…

Schiff tells us that here, for the second theme, we’ve reached the parallel key of Cm, E major. Schiff says E major and parallel, but it’s actually the relative major of Cm.

Anyway, keys aside, we find some similarity in the structure of a few rhythmic figures, and even in the relatively pleasant sounding close to the exposition, Schiff draws our attention to the unsettled bass line.  Obviously we know Beethoven has a thing for Cm, and even in one of his earliest of works in that key, we can hear the seriousness that will later be associated with that key.

You cannot miss the splash of the beginning of the development, an enormous surprise after the closing of the exposition proper. I’ll let Schiff take it from here, with introductions of new themes in different key areas. Of the Fm content, Schiff says “We have never heard it before and it will never return again.” We reach D flat major, “Neapolitan tonality,” an effect of strangeness, and I shan’t discuss any more of it, but his main point is that no matter where he goes, Beethoven ‘always finds the exit.’ Perhaps he delays the recapitulation or throws us a curveball like Haydn might, but he always manages to get himself back where he wants, and listening to Schiff’s explanation of how he does it is fascinating.

So that’s the first movement, an incredible one. If you have any doubts, wait for the exact return of the recapitulation, the returning of the original material, the completion of the argument laid out here, and you’ll get an idea of why this music is so outstanding.

The middle movement is marked adagio molto. From the opening, it contrasts so strongly with the masculine, minor key argument of the first movement. Do you hear more string quartet writing here? It’s delicate and transparent, so expressive. We have no real need to bother ourselves with the intricacies of this movement. It’s in a simple “sonatina” form, ABAB, two contrasting ideas without any development section, but a brief coda. The music is mostly tranquil, but also pensive, still not just pretty tunes, but the second subject is especially carefree.

In the finale we have again another sonata form, prestissimo, beginning in unison, back in Cm, dark and ominous. But wait for that unmistakable appearance of the second theme, seemingly out of absolutely nowhere, but also in a way so logical, never missing a beat, what Schiff refers to as a Gassenhauer, which nickname the op. 11 trio would eventually take. It’s friendly and melodic, straightforward, with wild, abrupt contrasts, sometimes coexisting, almost arguing with each other. The development is extremely short, but effective. Listen for the triplet figures here that prefigure the fate motif in Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony! It seems like a very insignificant development section, but it is concentrated, and once the recapitulation arrives, it all seems to make such sense!

But we have a coda, as we almost always do with Beethoven, with the second subject stated in that D flat major key again, but listen to what else appears in this genius final section to wrap up this wonderful, ambitious sonata. After all that fire and logical argument, how does the piece finally end? Please listen to find out.

I feel like… with music explained this well, there’s no way someone couldn’t appreciate such a wonderful work as this. Granted, that’s a compliment more to Beethoven’s genius than Schiff’s but he is an eloquent, clear speaker with remarkable talent, and these lectures truly are gems. It’s a way to get excited (and educated!) about what’s arguably the greatest cycle of piano sonatas ever written, and proof that understanding and comprehension make for greater appreciation and enjoyment.

We’re only getting through the op. 10 sonatas this week, but Schiff finished his lecture series on this cycle something like a decade ago, so it’s all there to enjoy. Please, jump ahead if you want. It’ll take me some time to get through all these works, but by all means, go listen to more of them. It’s wonderful stuff.

This is really music to be excited about, and although I’m a sucker for the symphony, and Beethoven’s are some of the greatest, perhaps his sonatas are indeed the heart and soul of his compositional efforts. We shall have to give them more time in the near future, but stay tuned for much more piano music this month, and thank you so much for reading.

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