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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14 and 23
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, grandson of the
Kapellmeister of the musical establishment of the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne
and son of a singer in the chapel. His father, Johann van Beethoven, was of
little help to him, and denied him a sound general education, while attempting
to exploit the child's still undeveloped musical gifts. Beethoven was to suffer
for the rest of his life from his lack of education and a consequent inability
to express himself at all clearly.
By good fortune he found an able teacher in
Christian Gottlob Neefe, court organist and musical director of a theatrical
company. Training was thorough, with a study of J. S. Bach's famous 48
Preludes and Fugues and the duty of deputising for Neefe both as organist and
as conductor of the theatre orchestra. Beethoven's position was officially
recognised when, at the age of fourteen, he was appointed assistant court
In his final years in Bonn Beethoven profited
from experience as a viola-player in the opera orchestra, playing the works of
composers such as Mozart, Cimarosa and Cluck. It was in Bonn that, in 1792, he
met Haydn, returning from a visit to London, where he had conducted the first
set of his London Symphonies.
Whether at Haydn's invitation or of his own
volition Beethoven travelled to Vienna at the end of the year, and was to
remain there for the rest of his life. He took some lessons from Haydn, to whom
he dedicated his first piano sonatas, but found in the court organist Albrechtsberger
a more satisfactory and systematic teacher, particularly of counterpoint, the
art of putting melody against melody. From the court Kapellmeister Salieri, to
whom he dedicated his first violin sonatas, Beethoven learned the techniques
necessary to the setting of Italian words.
Mozart in Vienna had struggled to earn an
adequate living without direct patronage, and without a remunerative position
at court, although the success in Prague of Don Giovanni had brought him the
official position of Kammermusikus, chamber musician, with the responsibility
for writing minuets for court balls and entertainments.
In the 1790s there had already been changes, as
the French Revolution took its course, disturbing the stability of society, as
the more privileged classes became alarmed, and the radicals more optimistic.
Beethoven sought to exist in Vienna by his own exertions, in independence of a
patron. He was soon respected as a remarkable pianist, performing, as was the
custom, mainly in the houses of the aristocracy, but offering a certain number
of the public concerts in the year. As a teacher he had distinguished pupils,
and was able to gain some support from his compositions, although much of his
later correspondence seems to be concerned with the difficulties of this, in an
age when copyright agreements were unknown.
The event that was to alter Beethoven's life
dramatically was his deafness, which, becoming evident as early as 1798, was to
make public performance impossible, and to drive the composer into an enforced
A remarkable document, the so-called
Heiligenstadt Testament, a message written to his brothers Kaspar and Johann,
allows us to see the despair that deafness brought him. The letter is in the
form of a final will and testament, to be read after his death. Written in the
countryside outside Vienna, at the village of Heiligenstadt, it was the prelude
to an act of will by which he surmounted his fate. The death that he seemed to
welcome was to occur only 25 years later, after a life in which new heights in
music had been scaled and a new world opened to his successors.
Probably the best known of Beethoven's sonatas
are the Pathetique, Moonlight and Appassionata. Only the
first name was given by the composer. The Moonlight Sonata has its name
from the inspiration of the poet Rellstab (whose verses were to be set to music
by Schubert). Writing in 1832 he likened the sonata to the wild scenery
bordering Lake Lucerne, seen from a boat by moonlight. The French romantic
composer Berlioz, on the other hand, preferred to see sunlight in the sonata,
and other writers have been equally imaginative.
Sonata No.8 in C Minor, Op. 13
The Sonata pathetique was written in 1798
and 1799, and was published in the latter year with a dedication to Prince
Lichnowsky, the nobleman who had travelled to the court of Berlin with Mozart
in 1789. The work, Opus 13, is in C Minor, and is described as a
"Grande" Sonata, music suitable for public performance by the composer,
who was at this time one of the most distinguished keyboard-players in Vienna.
The first movement opens with a famous dramatic
introduction, fragments of which reappear to open the middle, development
section, and to introduce the final bars (the coda or tail-piece). A brilliant
rapid section makes up the body of the movement, with a contrasting theme of
suaver outline contrasting with the stronger emotion of the first theme.
The second movement, marked Adagio cantabile
(slow and singing in tone}, is) as is usual, in a different key, here that of A
major. It is followed by a Rondo derived, it would seem, from sketches made
much earlier for other purposes.
For this and a number of other sonatas one
German scholar has suggested, on a hint reported from a conversation with
Beethoven, a literary model. In this case the parallel proposed is the story of
Hero and Leander, as related by Musaeus. The first of this pair, a priestess of
Aphrodite, was visited nightly by her lover Leander, who used to swim across the
Hellespont to her tower at Abydos, and was finally drowned, when Hero's light
failed to guide him through the stormy seas.
Sonata No.14 in C Sharp Minor 'quasi una
fantasia' Op. 27, No.2 "Moonlight"
The Moonlight Sonata is more properly
described by its title Sonata quasi una fantasia, Opus 27 No.1, in the
key of C Sharp Minor. The imaginative writer Arnold Schering, already referred
to, found a literary parallel with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but
others have chosen to find in the sonata romantic notions of a different kind.
It was completed in 1801, and dedicated, at the last minute, to Countess
Giulietta Guicciardi, a young pupil of Beethoven.
This sonata has always enjoyed enormous
popularity, and has, therefore, been the subject of speculation. It has also
undergone the indignity of various arrangements, including, in 1835, a concert
performance in which the first movement was played by an orchestra, and the
second two by Liszt.
The form of the Moonlight Sonata is
unusual. Its first movement, a texture of delicacy, is a slow one, and it is
followed by a brief second movement in the form of a scherzo and trio, the
slightly less regular successor of the Minuet. Histrionics are left until the
last movement, with its contrasts of melody and dynamics.
Sonata No.23 in F Minor, Op. 57
Sonata in F Minor, Opus 57, the
Appassionata, was considered by Beethoven to be among his best piano
sonatas. Its nick-name, although not chosen by the com- poser, is an apt one,
although Schering's parallel with Shakespeare's Macbeth may appeal to us
less. Dedicated to the Countess of Brunswick, the sonata was completed in 1805
and published two years later.
Once again this sonata proved a fertile source for
imaginative speculation in the nineteenth century, writers finding in it grim
spectres, heartfelt emotions, storms of passion and the ominous threats of
Fate. Musically its first movement is one that allows a full exploration of the
resources of the keyboard. It is followed by the kind of slower melody that
Beethoven knew so well how to write. This is treated as the subject of a number
of variations. Fiercely repeated chords introduce the Finale, which, with its
great technical and musical demands, brings us into a new world, before the
coda, with its sudden reminiscences of the beginning of the movement.
Jeno Jandó was born at Pécs, in south Hungary,
in 1952. He started to learn the piano when he was seven and later studied at
the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music under Katatin Nemes and Pal Kadosa, becoming
assistant to the latter on his graduation in 1974. Jandó has won a number of
piano competitions in Hungary and abroad, including first prize in the 1973
Hungarian Piano Concours and a first prize in the chamber music category at the
Sydney International Piano Competition in 1977. In addition to his many
appearances in Hungary, he has played widely abroad in Eastern and Western
Europe, in Canada and in Japan.
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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14 and 23