Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 19 in Gm, op. 49 no. 1

performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, or below by Alfred Brendel

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

If you were to listen to the piano sonatas of Beethoven based on the order of their opus numbers, after a dozen and a half increasingly mature, complex masterful works, you’d come across the op. 49 sonatas. This is more than halfway through the composer’s total of 32 sonatas for the instrument, and yet each of these sonatas, in two movements, is only around or under eight minutes in length.

Looking back, you may think that even the op. 10 sonatas (numbers 5-7) seem to be as mature as, if not more than, these two works, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There’s a reason for that.

The opus 49 sonatas are like the deleted scenes from a movie, stuff only included in the director’s cut of a DVD. Beethoven’s op. 49 sonatas were published in 1805, but composed a full decade earlier, in 1795-96, around the time he composed the op. 7 or 10 sonatas. The pieces were published against the composer’s will, presented to the publisher by Beethoven’s brother Kaspar. They are sometimes referred to as the “Leichte sonaten” or ‘light sonatas,’ and were written as simpler works for friends or relatives.

Today’s work, the first of the two, is in G minor, in two movements, as follows:

  1. Andante
  2. Rondo – allegro

Essentially what we have is a kind of truncated sonata, with the middle movements cut out. The first of the two movements is in sonata form, and the second is a rondo, a not uncommon structure for the final movement of a sonata.

As is standard practice for our discussion of the Beethoven piano sonatas, I’ll draw your attention to Sir Andras Schiff’s superb lecture on the work:

You could really just listen to that.

Neither of these works bear a dedication, and Schiff assumes “a certain pedagogical purpose” for their composition, which we will see later, and which may why the composer did not wish for them to be published. Schiff considers them an “introduction to keyboard music and to the art of piano playing and to the art of composition.” He emphasizes how children (or adults, really) learning to play the piano need to learn all the technical aspects, the details of performance and technique, but that to make it more interesting, it “can be done in combination with really great music.”

This is the only G minor piano sonata of Beethoven, but while Schiff remarks that it has “a certain resignation” he says it’s also “nothing tragic.” I spend a probably inordinate amount of time choosing the cover art for these articles, and today’s is rather bright for a Gm work, but I really don’t think of it as that dark.

Schiff says that “all three themes of this exposition are closely related,” and there’s an exposition repeat. The development is “where we get the first forte.” The trills mark this moment, what Schiff calls a “rhetorical element.”

Schiff discusses some of the specific structural elements in this work, like the “very daring chromatic steps and dissonances” and a “beautiful poetic coda” but I’d like to focus on something else after the second movement, which is in 6/8, with an “unusual four-quaver upbeat… quite cheerful and funny in a way,” reminding us that the composer is “a master of humor.” This rhythm is difficult to interpret, but Schiff tells us to think of the meter of ‘Ludwig van Beethoven’ with the accent on the -tho- and that’s the rhythm of this theme.

There’s also some fascinating and subtle detail here, with a Mozartian theme (“with whom Beethoven has very little in common”), “Bachian imitation,” and a small coda. Despite all of these individual details, and all that Schiff discusses about them, this piece is again only barely at or likely under eight minutes in performance. So what is it that fascinates so about the work?

Listening to the piece itself as well as Schiff’s analysis, the impression is that the work touches on so many different things. There are little bits of harmonic or structural or rhythmic interest, some interpretive issues for the performer, lessons in how a sonata can be composed and developed… and all of this provides wonderful opportunities for a teacher to show a student not only why something is the way it is but how it works and how to achieve it.

Schiff also points out that there are “very few instructions in these sonatas as far as dynamics are concerned,” leaving room for the student to think about and make stylistic or interpretive decisions about how they will present this music. The bones of the work are there; it’s no ‘Waldstein’ or ‘Hammerklavier’, but as a small lesson in music, and with a competent teacher, one can see how beneficial and enjoyable this piece would be for the competent, motivated student.

How I’d love to be a fly on the wall hearing Beethoven teach his nephew or a patron’s child, from his very own composition. Imagine that. We don’t have such a thing, but what we can marvel at or speculate on is what it might be like, and what the Young Master might say regarding these works that he’d never have published if he’d had his way.

We’ll discuss the second of these two sonatas later in the week, and I’ll try to keep the article from being too redundant, so stay tuned for that, and thanks very much for reading.

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