Back to the schedule at last–it’s the last day of the month, and I’ve actually been around this sonata enough for a change. May and June should be better, since the semester is ending.
After the massivness of “Hammerklavier’s” approach, this little gem in E major just blows me away. It strikes me that what Beethoven is really doing in the first two movements is preludizing, and that the meat of this sonata is in the set of variations of the last movement.
I will have to dig deeper some day and do some research on the first movement, because there are aspects of it that suggest to me that it is also a variation on the theme from the last movement. Beethoven isn’t the only composer to have put variations before theme, but I’m not aware of an earlier instance. This movment is related formally to the second variation (Leggieramente) in the last movement, although the first movment features an additional reprise of the opening material. The textures of the opening sections also seem to parallel each other. As a non-pianist, I find myself thinking linearly in much of my instrumental writing, while Beethoven (and other great composers for the piano) are able to draw melody from texture in ways that I often don’t initially perceive by a glance at the score. This is really the point of this survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas–to help me understand the approach to composition of a man with whom I believe I share some stylistic traits, but whose life as a musician was completely different than mine. Another way I heard the first movement is an an extended cadenza or fantasia, much like the beginning of the Choral Fantasy. This only extends as far as the character of the piece, of course, because a true fantasia would probably not bear so much repetition.
The second movement, Prestissimo, brings to mind some of Beethoven’s bagatelles in both character and design. I’m thinking particularly of the Opus 119 set in this instance. It also has the feel of a prelude, and I’m beginning to wonder if this sonata isn’t purely a set of preludes. More on that in the third movement.
I’m always a little taken aback when I see the title “variations,” because it inevitably brings to mind lightweight, virtuosic pieces by Rossini or Weber for clarinet. The variation form is, of course, much richer than this, and I wouldn’t trade Bach’s Goldberg Variations for anything. Beethoven’s Diabelli set is a close second, and he certainly knew what he was doing in this form. I have also used variation form on occasion, and my first published piece, due out this summer, is a set of Variations on a French Carol for concert band.
I’ve decided that this set of variations–masterful, of course–continues the series of preludes in this sonata. I’m thinking of the preludes of Bach or Chopin, which explore a texture to its fullest degree. Some of these variations have very clear parallels in the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Theme–a homophonic chorale, in binary form, with an augmented-sixth chord placed ahead of the half-cadence.
Variation 1–a slow waltz or landler? If the tempo marking were removed, it could look like Chopin.
Variation 2–I’ve mentioned the similarities to the first movement.
Variation 3–Ingenious use of invertible counterpoint… he only had to write half the variation. In this sense, some similarities to WTC I, C# major prelude. The texture is related to that of WTC 1, D major prelude.
Variation 4–This sort of counterpoint is almost a cliche of Bach’s style, but WTC 1, Eb major and A minor preludes come the closest, with G# minor not far behind. One of my teachers, Gregory Proctor, mentioned Beethoven’s habit of opening a window, harmonically, letting the listener peek through it, and then abruptly drawing the curtains. This happens at the end of the first section of this variation, where the German augmented-sixth chord is spelled enharmonically to resolve to F-major instead of to the expected dominant-seventh on B, but is immediately snapped back to the home key. Beethoven is playing with equal temperament here in a way that Mozart or Haydn would never have dreamed of.
Variation V–I’ve studied the book by Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher, Albrechtsberger, and it’s clear that quite a bit rubbed off on his pupil. This variation begins with a fantastic little canon in four parts, with entrances at the second. The parts don’t all continue, but the effect is quite fun. Again, Beethoven opens the window to F-major, but only lets us look out for a moment. Bach’s Goldberg Variations make use of canon, so why should Beethoven not do the same? There are similarities here to WTC 1, B-minor prelude in texture and form.
Variation VI–I am completely in awe of the compositional prowess on display here. There is no parallel to this in Bach that I am aware of, but the idea of creating a sort of accelerando and building the tension through faster and faster note values is so simple as to be genius. Absolutely fantastic. Bringing the theme back at the end is a clear homage to the Goldberg Variations, in my opinion.