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Jonathan Biss
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 9

Virtual meeting date | Sunday, January 31 at 3:00pm

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Listening Guide by Jonathan Biss

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Beethoven piano sonatas as a body of music is how different they are from one another. So, first of all, I’d like to suggest a series of questions to ask yourselves while listening to these three sonatas, to highlight the very distinct ways in which they are put together structurally, and the even more distinct ways in which they make their emotional impact.

1. What devices does Beethoven use to create tension or uncertainty?

2. What binds the movements of each sonata to one another? Or, put another way, how do they relate to each other – how does one respond to the preceding one?

3. Do each of these pieces have an emotional center of gravity? (Either a particular moment, or a movement in general?)

And now, some more specific thoughts about each movement of each sonata. If you like to listen with a clear head, there’s absolutely no need to read these – you can come into the discussion fresh.

Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3 | Presto | First Movement

In a movement that is generally highly propulsive, Beethoven uses silences and fermatas as dramatic devices to punctuate the music, often midsentence. (Meaning, the punctuation is highly varied: it might be an exclamation point, or a question mark, or an ellipsis, rather than a period.) Some examples: 0:03, 0:54, 4:10.

Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3 |Largo e mesto | Second Movement

This movement is marked “Largo e mesto” – broad and sad. It is almost the only time Beethoven used the marking “mesto.” Obviously, sadness (a bland word, but it is the one he used!) is a quality Beethoven evoked frequently in his music. That suggests that he uses the word itself here to imply that the sadness in this movement has a special quality. To my ear – and maybe not to yours! – it is a slightly theatrical quality, given the sheer volume of dramatic accents, and other rhetorical flourishes.

One favorite moment I’d like to highlight: the evolution of a bridge passage that first appears just a few bars in (0:22) is then transformed when it returns (4:12). That full bar of b flats is, both times it comes, a moment of uncertainty – so many different things might follow it. But

the thing that does follow it the first time sets up an expectation…and the way in which Beethoven subverts that expectation in the return is deeply moving.

Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3 |Menuetto: Allegro | Third Movement

When Beethoven wrote four movement sonatas, the “extra” movement was usually a menuetto or a scherzo, the latter being more energetic – and, as per the Italian word, jokey – than the former. Beethoven more often opted for scherzos, and prior to this sonata had already written them in Op 2 no.2, Op 2 no. 3, and Op. 7. It seems to me that he went for the more traditional and less characteristic choice of a menuetto in this case because he felt that the intense drama of the slow movement – and the atmosphere of mystery that its ending creates – would be too rudely broken by a high-spirited scherzo. The dolce quality of this menuetto’s opening brings us gently back to reality.

Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3 |Rondo: Allegro | Fourth Movement

One of the main aspects of Beethoven’s compositional evolution is his increasing interest in the ways in which a sonata’s movements were linked together. Early in his life, these works become lighter and less substantial in their final movements; little by little, he flips the script, so that the whole piece builds inexorably towards its conclusion. He’s not there yet in Op. 10 no. 3, written in 1798 when he was just 28, but you can tell in this movement that he’s already thinking about these questions. This rondo finale can’t compete with the first’s crackling energy, or the second’s high drama, but it has an emotional ambiguity that makes it more interesting than the merely grazioso rondos that some of the earlier sonatas (op 2 no.2; op. 7) have.

Remember those strategically placed silences from the first movement? The last movement is absolutely chock-full of them The majority of the phrases in this finale are questions – we don’t get an answer of any kind – a cadence – until the very end of the A section of the rondo (0:21). This use of silence for dramatic effect serves two functions: it acts as a reference – felt only subliminally, really – to the first movement, helping to bind the piece together. And it gives the movement as a whole a quizzical, almost arch quality which holds the listener’s interest and is also honestly just delightful.

Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 | Allegro | First Movement

In a sonata that is altogether strikingly original and inventive, the most arresting moment is probably the very beginning. Traditionally, classical works “announce” themselves: they might begin softly, but their opening bars still tell you the most essential things about them, like their key and their meter. But this sonata begins far away from its E flat Major home, with an inverted II7 chord (don’t worry about it – the point is simply that the chord is unstable and remote!)…and then a silence. Only after one more silence, a ritardando, and a fermata, do we get our “Hello, I’m in E flat Major” moment. That sets this movement on its emotionally

ambiguous course – while there is plenty of wit and good humor, vulnerability is never far away.

Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 | Scherzo: Allegretto vivace | Second Movement

This delightful movement is a scherzo that isn’t quite a scherzo (it’s in 2/4, whereas a proper scherzo would need to be in 3/4), and an opera buffa without singers. This moment (1:03) has always evoked Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro to me, and this one (3:07) is pure Papageno from The Magic Flute. It’s a movement that is striking for its pure joy and sense of fun – qualities we don’t often enough associate with Beethoven.

Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 | Menuetto: moderato e grazioso| Third Movement

I mentioned in the context of Op. 10 no. 3 that Beethoven’s four movement sonatas typically have a menuetto or a scherzo. Well, this sonata has both. This menuetto sits in place of a true slow movement, which op. 31 no 3 doesn’t have. It’s not the only time he did this – the 8th symphony is another famous example of a piece with scherzo and menuetto. In op. 31 no. 3, if not the symphony, the menuetto has a serenity and a grace that help it fill the void left by the lack of a real slow movement.

One beautiful feature of this movement is its coda (3:09). The movement would be totally complete and totally coherent without it, but this coda, with its dark f flats (3:10, 3:15), and its marking of smorzando – usually meant as “dying away” – gives the movement as a whole a layer of ambiguity it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 | Presto con fuoco | Fourth Movement

This sonata is sometimes called “The Hunt,” and this romp of a last movement is the reason why. This music, shortly after the opening theme (0:08), is a perfect demonstration of the hunting motif, with its prominent 6/8 rhythm, and its juxtaposition of just two chords – it could easily be played by the natural horns of the time. Even though this music lacks any truly distinctive musical (i.e. harmonic, motivic, rhythmic) features, it dominates the movement’s development section (1:40, and beyond).

Whereas the first and third movements of this sonata have gentleness and moments of emotional vulnerability, this finale is more in keeping with the second, in its constant high spirits. However, at the very last moment, in the coda, it refers back to the first movement through a couple of sudden, crashing fermatas (3:55 and 4:05), and a ritardando (4:08-4:14). Just a couple of moments of questioning, of looking back, before the piece hurtles to a happy conclusion.

Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 | Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato | First Movement

I mentioned that Op. 31 no. 3 begins indecisively, not immediately revealing its essential features to us. Well, op. 111 goes a giant step further – it begins away from its c minor home, and at an emotional fever pitch. Usually, even highly dramatic works build to their moments of great intensity. Op. 111 begins at an 11.

Another thing to note about the opening of this movement (mostly because of how the second movement provides an absolute antidote to it, which I’ll get to shortly) is its severity. The rhythm is double-dotted – all angles. Each phrase begins with a diminished chord – all tension. There is no moment that brings a sense of relaxation, or release, or even just space.

And when the main theme (1:44) of the movement arrives, it is similarly severe. Not only is it in unharmonized, uncompromising unison, but the second interval in it – the E flat to the B Natural – is uncomfortable to the point of ugliness. This atmosphere continues with the extensive contrapuntal passages that appear in the exposition (2:15), development (5:27), and recapitulation (6:17) – the motion is at all times rigorous and purposeful and even relentless.

Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 | Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile | Second Movement

I highlighted the angularity and severity of the opening of the sonata, because this movement’s theme is a glorious, wondrous answer to it. The C major harmonies are consonant, the rhythm is a gentle, lilting triplet: all the tension has gone.

This is one of the great theme and variation movements ever written, and one of the things propelling it is the lack of a firm conclusion in the theme – it ends with a third at the top of the chord not the tonic, and on a weak beat, not the downbeat (2:27). This lack of a true conclusion forces a continuation: the first variation, where the motion is just slightly less gentle. This first variation, similarly, avoids a firm conclusion, which necessitates a second variation, now at double the speed (4:20). Once again, this variation fails to provide finality… which again leads to a new variation, this one again twice as fast (5:50) – it’s the same basic triplet rhythm as the theme, but at warp speed, and thus dizzying and manic, where the theme itself was serenity itself.

The first three variations, though extraordinary, follow a fairly expected path – a graded increase in speed. But after this, things get truly otherworldly. Nothing in the movement up until this point could predict what happens in the fourth variation: a faint pulsation at one end of the piano (7:46) in the first half; a meandering, sublime doodling around the theme at the other end of the piano (8:21) in the second half. Beethoven’s late period variations are never really just “variations” in the strict sense of the word: they are psychological explorations of their themes. This fourth variation is the moment where this movement enters that realm.

Having said that, though, the fourth variation is still a variation: it follows the harmonic and rhythmic contours of the theme to a tee. After this, though, the movement leaves the realm of variation altogether. The music that follows (9:51, and beyond) is not related in any

fundamental way to the theme. I won’t do a blow-by-blow, because it will only seem dry and take away the sense of wonderment that is so central to this piece’s nature…

…but I will draw your attention to the end of the sonata. After more than 15 minutes, it still doesn’t come to a true “conclusion.” It evanesces – a series of three short, soft C major chords simply…isn’t followed by a fourth. It is not an ending – it is a lack of a continuation, a kind of musical death. I find it endlessly moving that this – the last movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas – ends not with certainty, but with an embrace of life’s mystery.