Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 9 in E, op. 14 no. 1

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

(cover image by Lex Sirikiat)

We have now moved on to the two piano sonatas of Beethoven’s op. 14. This first of the two sonatas that make up this opus number was completed the same year as the previous sonata, the famous Pathetique eighth, in 1798.

There is some difference of opinion, though, in a few matters regarding this work, not just in relation to the previous sonata, but overall. Andras Schiff, in addressing the work in his marvelously insightful, entertaining and deeply informative lecture series on the sonatas, says that with this piece, after the eighth, we “move to a completely different world… same period.” He goes on to say:

The opus 14 sonatas are considered lighter sonatas, or easier sonatas, and I really have to disagree, because they are frightfully difficult to play and to interpret.

This is in contrast with Charles Rosen’s statement that they are “destined for use in the home” and contain “few technical difficulties.” Rosen himself was not just a writer, but a celebrated pianist as well. These two works may not have the grandeur and pathos of the Pathetique, and they’re not as well known as most of the composer’s others, but Schiff speaks highly of them, and they are indeed delightful sonatas.

Each of the works is made up of three movements, and the op. 14 no. 1, in E major, is as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Allegretto
  3. Rondo – Allegro comodo

The opening allegro may seem bright and cheerful, but Schiff describes it as “mysterious.” It’s worth noting, also, that Beethoven published a string quartet version of this sonata, which is obviously different in many ways, but Schiff says that he always hears the this piece in the context of those four voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, as represented by first and second violin, viola and cello, respectively.

The exposition is rich, with a lot, in my estimation, to unpack. If we listen to this like a string quartet, you’ll hear the right hand play what sounds like the violin part, with the other three voices playing a three-note response in the background. The repeated ‘ta-ta-ta’ in the background at first only plays backup to the four notes the first violin is outlining, but wait for an agitated transition into the second theme. Do you hear it? What used to be a sweet little background addition sort of stirs up the piece into quite some dissonance until we settle into the second theme.

This second theme begins with one lone, naked voice, descending stepwise before the other voices of this imaginary quartet reenter, and this theme is marked by a slithery, contrapuntal, very colorful chromaticism, not in the way we’d use that term for 20th century music, obviously, but chromatic nonetheless. There’s a fluttery idea that presents itself in the right hand before the bass begins to blurt out these exclamations over the end of the exposition. There’s so much going on here, and the development is suitably exciting, moving quickly to the minor key.

When the recapitulation appears, it is a grand, glorious thing, triumphant and majestic; it’s the same material as at the very opening, but regal and big, and so in a small package, without the drama and abject tragedy of op. 13, we do have a nice little meaty first movement, which makes up for about half the playing time of the entire sonata.

The second movement, the E minor allegretto with C major trio, is breathtaking, to me, and the first place where I hear the kind of mystery that Schiff referenced. It’s like walking down into darkened catacombs, where a sudden, almost unsettlingly cool wisp of moist air greets you. This opening, to me, sounds like that. Schiff says it reminds him “anachronistically… of the Brahms intermezzo, because it’s E minor, maybe.” It’s simple, clean, with remarkable harmonies and a “swinging siciliano rhythm, something quite Italian,” says Schiff. He describes what follows this as “Medieval,” owing to the plagal harmonies, and it’s really something you can get lost in the magic of. The central C major trio lightens things up before the Medieval theme returns, which I love so much, and the piece ends with extreme restraint and power.

The rondo finale follows those three almost pointillistic notes of the second movement, like a musical ellipsis, without pause. Schiff says that Beethoven is “writing psychological sonatas from now on, so you should not think of separate movements, but you should think of unity. A sonata starts with the first note of the first movement and ends with the last note of the last movement, and there should be no relaxation in between.”

He says this to reference the “heartbeat” of the end of the second movement and how it can and should continue through to the lively finale. Try to pick out the different sections of the rondo, or at least identify the main theme when it appears, sometimes in minor. This is a wonderful, brief example, though certainly not the only one, of how something can be of excellent musical craftsmanship, but also playful, interesting, and very dramatic, including a syncopated variation of the main theme, and some almost cadenza-like passages toward the end.

It’s a lot packed into this small little 13-14 minute sonata that may lose in a competition with some of the composer’s other great masterpieces in the form, but is a wonderful little package of its own nonetheless. We’ll get to the second of the two sonatas in this opus number later in the week, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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