On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 6: Julian Jacobson

Concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson continues his series here on my blog. With his Beethoven marathon edging ever nearer, this week Julian lifts the lid on Beethoven’s Fantasy-sonatas Op. 27.

Beethoven’s Fantasy-sonatas op 27, including ‘that one’…..

Let’s start off by remembering that Beethoven was a phenomenal improviser at the keyboard, perhaps the greatest ever, or sharing that honour with JS Bach. Contemporaries said that if you hadn’t heard him improvising you had no idea of the full range of his powers. Improvising by its nature indicates a high degree of fantasy, the improviser being deeply attuned to his subconscious creativity, and unobstructed in the channel that leads from that to the fingertips. Also a stranger to self-consciousness once he’s in the flow! (A perfect study for Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.)

So one could probably think of all of Beethoven’s sonatas as “fantasy sonatas”, though in his own mind there was certainly a distinction between the freer and more formal ones. It’s interesting that the sonata two before the op 27s is the almost excessively formal B flat op 22, regarded by Beethoven himself as a benchmark in his handling of symphonic form, whereas the one before, the op 26, is already much “looser”, with its gentle theme-and-variations first movement, its scherzo as 2nd instead of third movement, its famous Funeral March as third, and its short ‘perpetuum mobile’ finale. In fact op 26, 27 and 28 show a general tendency to greater freedom, even informality, before the crisis of 1802 catapulted him into a new toughness and formal rigour.

And so to the op 27s. One of them, of course, is much better known than the other. The first, in E flat, has tended to be underrated though it gets plenty of performances these days. Unlike the “Moonlight”, where there is a normal break before the finale, the E flat sonata is in one unbroken flow, with the end of each movement marked ‘attaca’ (go straight on to the next). The intimate, beautiful first movement starts off with the simplest possible alternation between tonic and dominant before we are startled by an unprepared chord of C major: but Beethoven is preparing us for the explosive Allegro that suddenly breaks the calm, as well as the C minor scherzo and trio (not so-called by Beethoven). Then comes a downward mediant shift to A flat for the short but deeply felt (‘Adagio con espressione’) slow movement, a short improvisatory passage to modulate back to E flat, and the merry (and difficult!) Allegro vivace finale – which makes room for a reminiscence of the slow movement near the end, in case we’ve forgotten that this is a “Fantasy-Sonata”.

Is the opening of no 2, the “Moonlight”, the most famous piece of classical piano music ever written? Instantly recognisable, its opening bars are played by millions in a more or less accurate form. Beethoven in later life was irritated by its popularity (just as Rachmaninov was by the C sharp minor Prelude), saying “surely I have written much better things” and mentioning specifically the F sharp major sonata op 78. But even he must have realised that he had tapped into some deep inner musical truth in the first movement, with its magical, seamless pianissimo flow. The much-maligned Czerny called it “a night scene, where out of the far distance a plaintive ghostly voice sounds”.

Beethoven’s influence on Chopin has been generally overlooked and underrated: but surely there’s, at the very least, a subconscious echo in the Fantasy-Impromptu, in the same key of C sharp minor, with its opening left hand arpeggios on exactly the same notes as Beethoven’s right hand broken chords (repeated in Chopin’s trio section), and the right hand melody opening on the same note, G sharp, as Beethoven’s.

Is it too fanciful to think of the twelve bass G sharp octaves (some of them tied) in bars 28-39 as the strokes of midnight?

The movement subsides and goes straight into the sweet Allegretto minuet with its rustic trio. It’s a tricky movement to play and students often trip up in it, having devoted all their attention to the outer movements! Then comes the ‘Presto agitato’ finale, a whirlwind of unstoppable energy apart from the dramatic pauses at crucial moments. For me hardly any movement conjures up such a picture of the wild young genius, his hair flying all over the place and no doubt with a fair sprinkling of wrong notes! I’m sure we’d forgive him if, with the aid of some magical time machine, we could hear him play it in person.

Julian Jacobson
Image credit: Roger Harris

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Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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