Rhythmic Precision in the First Movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1

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;

Beethoven Sonata 3

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;

Beethoven right hand

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’:

Beethoven Left hand 2

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!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


In Praise of Slow Practice

There are so many different ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those that are ineffective or plain incorrect, it’s much harder to establish fail-safe methods which will work every time on every piece. Many believe slow practice is of little use and can be distracting or even damaging, but if worked at regularly and accurately, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.

The first obstacle to successful slow practice is encouraging students and young pianists to view it as a valuable process. Many think it is a good idea in theory, but when it comes to practice time, it’s far easier (and more pleasant too) to play as usual; up to speed with the usual hesitations or errors. It takes vast amounts of discipline to play at a fraction of the speed, which is  no easy feat, but once a student is able to see the value, they will generally work at it. All pianists can gain by practising slowly whatever level or standard, including professionals.

Slow practice can help with so many different aspects; establishing correct fingering (particularly of rapid passagework), understanding chord structure, promoting suitable hand positions, wrist/arm movement, articulation, dynamic range, phrasing, and just good old note accuracy too! It can help a pianist to grasp the complete picture or structure of a work and gives the brain more time to assimilate every corner or angle of a piece. Whereas playing up to speed often exacerbates ‘hesitations’ or rhythmic/note errors, stumbles and rushing, slow playing gives the feeling of space, time, serenity, clarity and precision. I have written many times about the value of practising separate hands, especially the left alone, and this can be taken one step further by practising separately AND slowly. Slow practice and preparation also really helps a pianist when they want to memorise a piece.

One further aspect that may be alleviated with careful, slow work is tension. Many of us feel tense and stiff whilst playing fast most notably if we haven’t prepared passagework or tricky, demanding sections very well, but if we take time and learn slowly, our upper body will simultaneously relax allowing for free movement and better sound quality. Once accustomed to the motility of playing certain passagework slowly, playing up to speed won’t be an issue because your brain will have already assimilated all necessary movements so speed is literally just a matter of thinking slightly faster. This is crucial if you are working on a piece with leaps or large chordal passages where a loose, free wrist and arm is imperative to the success of the performance.

When learning a new piece, start by playing each hand separately and of course, slowly. Next play hands together (small sections at a time can work well), once you can play the whole piece up to speed (or almost) it’s time to work very slowly. Perhaps a quarter to half the speed of the suggested metronome mark. Make sure your mind is fully engaged when practising in this way. It is easy to rush, but instead, give each beat its full value; it can be useful to sub divide beats here, accounting for every single note for total accuracy and control (I prefer to count in semi-quavers if the main beat is in crotchets for example). Play through your work from beginning to end with the metronome (you may be surprised at just how much concentration this requires). The metronome can really help when practising slowly giving a base from which to work and increase speed; it also quells the urge to speed up which is a perpetual habit especially if you are used to playing and ‘hearing’ a piece at its normal pace.

If you are playing a slow piece, conversely, fast practice may be of some benefit. In slow pieces it’s all too easy to lose the pulse, allowing for rhythmic inaccuracies, so playing a piece slightly faster than the expected tempo can reveal a work’s true sense of direction or musical line. It will be easier to hear and feel the shape of phrases and rhythmic structure when you eventually play the piece at the real speed.

Once a piece has been learnt completely, slow practice comes into its own, providing a sense of security, confidence and calm which are almost certainly not found when playing works at their marked tempo. Routinely playing through pieces at very slow speeds can be an effective way of preparing for important performances or exams.  Try it – you may find it quietens your mind during practice sessions, helps you play with more confidence and you’ll definitely notice an overall improvement in your playing.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.