Today’s post is Part 7 of concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson’s series chronicling preparations for his Beethoven sonata marathon on November 12th in London. Julian will undertake the mammoth task of performing all 32 sonatas in one day, and, here, he muses on the much-admired Appassionata sonata.
You can read all the articles in this series, here.
On Beethovenian Passions
Consider the Appassionata, the ‘King Lear’ of piano sonatas. To this day, has anything more uncompromisingly furious, even terrifying, ever been written for the piano, or indeed for anything not on the operatic stage? Still today its violence has the power to shock – in the inexorable second development passage before the coda of the first movement, or in the grotesque, almost brutal coda of the finale, ending in undisguised ruin.
The typical Beethoven minor key work (5th and 9th symphonies, 3rd piano concerto) resolves in a major key ending representing “triumph over adversity” – Beethoven’s public face and message to humanity. In the solo piano works he could afford to show a less optimistic or triumphal face (a side of Beethoven which in any case has not been universally admired). The very first piano sonata ends in the minor, and in a bad temper. The Pathétique and Moonlight Sonatas also end in the minor, with a greater sense of weight if not of tragedy; the Tempest ends in quiet pathos. But the Appassionata ends in obliteration – everyone on stage has surely been murdered!
As usual, the nickname is not Beethoven’s. It did not appear till the late 1830s, and then attached to, of all things, a piano duet arrangement (I’d be fascinated to see this: I can hardly imagine how some of the wild passages that cover the entire keyboard could be arranged for two players without serious risk of physical injury). Czerny reacted indignantly at the new nickname, saying that it did not reflect the sonata’s epic, Greek-tragedy status: he felt the name could better be applied to the E flat Sonata op 7. That sonata in turn acquired the somewhat cheesy German nickname of ‘Die Verliebte’, Beethoven dedicating it to one Countess Babette von Keglevics, a pupil whom he no doubt fancied as only a young Beethoven could. But the name stuck, it’s after all pretty appropriate and no amount of pedantic special pleading is ever going to switch the name “Appassionata” to op 7.
I love the story of Beethoven’s inspiration for the main theme of the finale. Beethoven had gone for a long country walk with Ferdinand Ries, who writes: “He had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. In answer to my question what it was, he said: ‘a theme for the last movement of the sonata has occurred to me’. When we entered the room he ran to the piano without taking off his hat….he soon forgot all about me. Now he stormed for at least an hour with the finale….Finally he got up, was surprised still to see me and said ‘I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some more work.’ “. (from Thayer’s Life of Beethoven). I don’t know another story that so powerfully conveys the sense of Beethoven’s genius and what it must have been like to be with him!
Nor was he a venerable old master: a mere 35-year old, an age at which today a composer might just be finding their feet or even still studying. When one considers the following run of opus numbers, all written between 1803 and 1806:
54 F major Sonata
56 Triple Concerto
58 4th Piano Concerto
59 Three “Rasumovsky” Quartets
60 4th Symphony
61 Violin Concerto
- with only the Triple Concerto possibly not showing Beethoven at his absolute greatest, and all the time working on his opera Fidelio – one can (and should!) only marvel at such an unparalleled and sustained run of creative genius.
Between the stormy outer movements (there is no Scherzo – how could there be?), the D flat major theme with variations presents an ominous calm which, despite its great beauties in the later variations, we can’t quite believe in. There are only three main chords, with a single disquieting dissonant chord at the same point in every variation just in case we’re relaxing too much. Then the final cadence is broken by the mother of all interrupted cadences, a diminished 7th chord requiring nine of the pianist’s ten finger, first pianissimo then immediately fortissimo up an octave, and the finale’s relentless moto perpetuo is unleashed. From then on it’s downhill all the way!
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.
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