The Beethoven sonata cycle

A major movement: Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas add up to greatness

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Till Fellner, the Austrian pianist, plays Beethoven sonatas like a poet. In a recital of five of them he gave at the National Gallery two weeks ago, he performed with a simplicity, a lack of showiness, an absence of affected mannerism. He played like an early romantic poet in the age before romanticism became synonymous with "over the top" -- the age, that is, in which Beethoven wrote these works.

The layers of analysis and performance and recording and interpretation that have accrued around Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas over the generations can obscure the fact that Beethoven isn't rocket science. If these sonatas were poems, many of them would be about flowers, birds, and love: 19th-century subjects, expressed in a 19th-century idiom. As it is, their meaning is often comparably direct. The sonatas are "about" the contrast between loud passages and soft, high notes and low ones, a rising figure in the right hand played off against a descending one in the left. They're "about" the stirring heroism expressed by dotted rhythms (in which long notes alternate with short ones: baDUM, baDUM). They're "about" the way that a C minor chord is startling when it comes in a place where the 19th-century ear expects a straight E-flat major (at the opening of the 26th sonata, called "Les Adieux"). To contemporary ears, a C minor chord is not very surprising. The art of Beethoven performance lies in finding ways to make it fresh.

Masters of the cycle

Beethoven's piano sonatas represent one of the widest-ranging bodies of work by a composer within a single genre, extending from his early years all the way through to his late great works, mysterious and episodic and heart-rending. More and more, they are taken in as a unit rather than 32 separate pieces. Playing the cycle, once a nearly unimaginable feat, has become a calling card for pianists like Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel.

This season, there are three different ways to experience the cycle in the Washington area alone. Fellner is in the midst of a seven-concert cycle over two seasons that he is playing in cities around the world; Washington gets the next (fifth) installment on Feb. 7. On Friday, the French pianist François-Frédéric Guy started an intense, nine-concert traversal of all 32 sonatas, lasting until Nov. 22. And in Baltimore on May 10, Leon Fleisher's piano students at the Peabody Conservatory will play all of the sonatas in a single marathon session lasting from 10 in the morning to around 11 at night.

Hearing all the sonatas at one go is a monumental experience, like a "Ring" cycle for piano lovers. But -- particularly when the sonatas are played in chronological order -- it tends to change the focus from poetry to story: The individual sonatas lose a touch of their individuality and become chapters in an artistic biography. Here's where Beethoven had intimations of his impending deafness (the slow movement of the seventh sonata: a favorite of Fleisher's). Here's where he says goodbye to his patron, who was leaving on a trip ("Les Adieux"). Here's where he commemorates two young women he taught (the ninth and 10th sonatas).

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the real point of these ninth and 10th sonatas is their exploration of the principles of contrast so dear to the composer's heart: two contrasting elements in the first sonata, one pleading and one resisting. Beethoven once allegedly said this, in a comment attributed to him and discussed by the musicologist Konrad Wolff. But today, it's harder to hear the distinction Wolff (or Beethoven) is describing, and more superficially appealing to see these sonatas as portraits of the sisters Therese and Josefine von Brunswick -- as they are described in the liner notes to the impressive new set of the sonatas the pianist Paul Lewis has just released on Harmonia Mundi.

The right order?

So how do you approach the cycle? The chronological approach -- which Guy is largely following -- allows one to hear the composer's development. But it also tends to reduce the early sonatas to the status of mere student work, looking ahead to the composer's middle-period maturity (which kicks in around the 21st sonata, "Waldstein," with its tautly driven opening). (Most of the major sonatas have nicknames, like the eighth one, the "Pathétique," or the famous "Moonlight," No. 14; and most of those nicknames reflect nothing more than the publisher's desire to make them more easily identifiable to customers. Musicians usually refer to the sonatas by their opus numbers, reflecting their position in Beethoven's oeuvre as a whole: The "Waldstein," for example, is Op. 51.)

The early sonatas "have a silly reputation of being early drafts," said the pianist Jeremy Denk in a recent e-mail, "as if Beethoven were kind of sitting around waiting for the middle style." But, he adds, "those earlier sonatas are full of shocks; he's the same person as in the late style, in many crucial ways" -- as if, he continued, "in old age he came back to the more disjunct thinking of his youth. Even in the earliest sonatas, the slow movements are truly epic . . . oversized statements." He cited the slow movement of the fourth sonata, which Fellner played in his last National Gallery concert: "astounding, austere, finding the most beautiful corners of the basic building blocks, the girders of tonality."

The chronological approach also tends to emphasize seriousness -- the story of the Great Man, leading through suffering to transcendence -- when part of the charm of these pieces is their moments of deliberate quirkiness. "I love Beethoven when he is being impish or perverse," says Denk, citing the 16th sonata, with "the 'ragtime' quality of the first movement . . . and then a kind of 'Keystone Kops' second theme."

The other approach, like Brendel or Fellner, or Lewis's recording, is to group the sonatas into viable programs on their own, following thematic and dramatic rather than chronological imperatives. The arrangement also allows the lesser sonatas to be tucked away unobtrusively; Fellner uses Nos. 19 and 20, which Beethoven used primarily for teaching purposes, as encores.

'States of ecstacy'

There are, inevitably, certain highlights. The 29th sonata, known as the "Hammerklavier," is one of the longest and most technically challenging in the entire repertory ("Hammerklavier" refers simply to the German name for the instrument it was composed for, more commonly known as "pianoforte," but it also evokes the hammering chords of the opening bars).

And it's hard to avoid grouping the last three sonatas together as a sublime group, culminating in what Denk describes as the "flowing stasis" of the final heavenly movement of Op. 111.

"A lot of fast playing in the late Beethoven sonatas," Fleisher says, "I think represents varying states of ecstasy."

Fleisher has witnessed two previous Beethoven marathons by his students in years past. It doesn't make the works any less individual and specific. "People talk about sonata form," he says. "Well, here are 32 examples that have no relation to each other whatsoever. You have 32 different sonata forms. That's pretty impressive."

The Beethoven Sonata Cycle

with François-Frédéric Guy, through Nov. 22 at La Maison Française, Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW. Call 202-944-6091 or visit

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