Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are a musical autobiography, charting the Master’s development from a young man up to his death in 1827. The early sonatas are more typical of the traditional Classical style, akin to those written by Mozart and Haydn, whereas the last six, which are possibly the greatest in this genre ever written for the instrument, show Beethoven pushing the boundaries of sonata form as never before, producing esoteric, ecclesiastical and deeply personal music.
Most piano students at some time or other learn a Beethoven sonata, partly because they have such an exalted place in piano literature. They are also beautiful, very satisfying to play and are extremely instructive to learn. Rather like studying works by J. S. Bach, their structure (particularly the early sonatas) encourages students to digest Sonata Form as well as chordal writing (a predominant feature of the Classical Style) and get to grips with rhythmic precision.
A popular choice is Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No 1. Written in 1797, first published in 1798 and dedicated to Anna Margarete von Browne, the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, a Russian diplomat living in Vienna. All three sonatas of his Opus 10 are dedicated to Countess von Browne. This work is the fifth in Beethoven’s entire sonata output and it’s interesting that he chose the key of C minor. Many of the composer’s most important pieces were conceived in this key, including Symphony N0. 5 Op. 67, Piano Concerto No. 3 Op 37, and Piano Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathétique).
Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1 is an exam board favourite. Currently, the first movement is on the ABRSM Grade 8 Syllabus (List B) and the whole work can be played as part of the DipABRSM programme. I played it for my entrance audition into the Royal College of Music Junior Department, so it has special memories for me and no doubt, for many others too.
A particularly Beethovenian feature in the first movement, Allegro molto e con brio, are the dramatic contrasts of sound and emotion. Before negotiating anything at the piano, it’s worth taking some time to examine this movement carefully. Notice the structure (Sonata Form), how the thematic material is employed, where the development section occurs (different material) and how the recapitulation and coda are both handled. This also makes learning easier because there is much repetition. Beethoven asks for a myriad of different dynamic levels and touches, and observance of these is vital to the overall success of a performance.
Possibly the main technical element to be assimilated is the necessary rhythmic precision required to play this movement effectively. The Classical style generally commands a crisp, articulated rhythmic drive, quite different from that found in Romantic works (that’s not to say that the latter genre doesn’t demand rhythmic clarity, but there is more freedom in terms of rubato here). Without attention to rhythmic detail, a rendition will not sound ‘professional’ or accurate. This aspect is often one of the most taxing to master because it’s not merely a matter of playing along to a metronome (although this helps!), but more importantly it all hangs on whether the beat has been successfully broken down (or subdivided) for total accuracy and absorbed by the pupil, the pulse becoming fundamental.
The work begins with a thunderous C minor chord (requiring proper arm-weight so as to create the appropriate rich, warm sound) followed by an arresting C minor arpeggio figure which is a dotted quaver declamation followed by a quiet answering phrase;
This rhythmic figure becomes crucial to the thematic material, so perhaps a good place to start is to mentally embed this rhythm. It’s all too easy to rush, losing the drama and sense of direction. If this dotted rhythm is placed correctly from the beginning, it bodes well for the movement as a whole.
So what is the most convincing way of articulating a group of dotted quavers followed by semi-quavers in this context? Start by deciding how best to sub-divide the beat and then take a very slow speed. Why not try keeping time in semi-quavers? Be sure to account for all four (in each crotchet beat), placing the dotted quaver on beat one and the semi-quaver on beat four respectively. It doesn’t matter how they are ‘counted’. Counting aloud is good; vocal counting can really help with this type of precision, encouraging the pupil to immediately understand where to place the note. Setting the metronome to accommodate semi-quavers (or quavers if you prefer) is a good idea. Play extremely slowly to start with.
Another important element to consider is the regularity of the beat. I have written about this in a past post (which you can read here). ‘Sitting’ on the pulse is vital. In a sense, it’s not really about counting; it’s the regularity that counts, or the evenness of time between each beat. Decide on the best fingering first (there are some suggestions in the example above). Good fingering coupled with free rotational hand movements used between each interval, will be vital to the rhythmic success here (rotational movement in passages like these is another whole blog topic, so I won’t go into that here!); if fingerings are awkward or haphazard then playing the note ‘on time’ will be difficult, similarly ‘stiffness’ when playing this motion will also cause problems with the timing again, which is why freedom in all hand and arm movement is imperative. The example below provides an idea of beat sub-division;
Admittedly, the semi-quaver beats look a little distorted written out under each note in this way, but if they are adhered to rhythmically i.e. evenly, then the dotted notes will be accurately placed. It’s most effective if the semi-quavers are played swiftly in a ‘snappy’ forthright way, so that each phrase is clean, clear and dynamic.
Once the dotted quaver passage has been dealt with, it must ‘fit in’ rhythmically with the rest of the phrase, so keep up the sub-division of the beat throughout each phrase and indeed the entire movement, at least for a while. After which, set the metronome to beat in crotchets when the dotted patterns have been assimilated and then gradually increase the speed. It’s essential to place the dotted quavers correctly in order to articulate the many triplet passages which also inhabit this movement. These triplet figures benefit from total differentiation to the dotted notes. Work at them similarly, keeping time with and without the metronome.
Aside from the dotted quaver passages, there are also many ‘Alberti-Bass’ figurations. Whilst they appear fairly straightforward in terms of technical difficulty, pupils can become surprisingly unstuck here. This is where technical issues merge with rhythmic ones (as so often in piano playing). As mentioned earlier, a free rotational arm movement is paramount to the success of the rhythmic regularity (as is good fingering). Try to tackle these passages slowly, working with a heavy touch and free wrist. It can be helpful to accentuate (or emphasize) the melodic line in each phrase here, which is the lower part in this case. The example below illustrates this point; the first beat of each crotchet provides melodic interest and the second quaver (middle C in this case) is of less interest and consequently needs to be ‘lighter’:
Focusing in this way will balance the hand therefore aiding rhythmic playing, it will also illuminate the musical line and the importance of giving each note its full value.
Chordal passages need proper placing too. If they are precise rhythmically, the effect is both dramatic and exciting. To work at this issue, set the metronome to a quaver beat and practice moving in time slowly from one chord to the next, always allowing the melodic line to ‘sing out’ at the top of the chord and try to keep a free wrist too, encouraging sufficient movement and a good sound. Observe the articulation; crisp staccato chords will further emphasize excellent rhythmic accuracy, for example.
Another rhythmical conundrum is the importance of rests. Silences can be easily ignored in piano playing, especially by students who are often nervous and eager to get onto the next section. However, it’s the silences that make the music, as Debussy remarked, “music is the silence between the notes”. So with this in mind, be sure to give each rest its full value; not just for dramatic effect, but also to allow the music to ‘breath’. It’s worth mentioning too, that it provides the pianist with more time to think, which can be of optimal value!
By working on the rhythm meticulously in this movement (or any other Classical sonata movement) from the outset, you will be on the way to giving an accurate account. The metronome is always a good way to start regarding rhythm particularly with a work such as this one (although I know many who don’t agree here), but once the pulse has been fully mastered, then pupils must learn to keep time independently. As with all piano playing, success is in the preparation and, in my opinion, the best way to approach any work is by breaking it all down. Good luck!