Beethoven’s first “hit”
This sonata is the first real “hit” of Ludwig van Beethoven, and that was also the case during Beethoven’s time. It became very popular instantly. The second movement’s theme has been used in several pop songs, we’ll get to that at the end of this post.
The first movement is getting a new audience because it’s used in an AT&T commercial, this one:
I think it’s pretty cool…but let’s analyze this piece a little.
A Pathetic Sonata
The first interesting thing that strikes me is the title: it’s an example of how language changes through time. Today, if you call a song “pathetic” you would probably mean that you don’t like it at all. But we keep calling this Beethoven sonata “the pathetic sonata” without feeling that we put any bad spin on the name.
In the days of Beethoven, “pathetic” was not something negative, it equalled affecting the emotions of pity, grief or sorrow, as it’s eloquently put in a dictionary. Same with “sentimental” by the way, nothing negative being sentimental in music until modern days ( in classical music, there is a tendency to be scared of anything that is not “objective”, as if there is such a thing as being objective in music. The desire to be objective is a subjective desire).
Let’s get to the music. The beginning is awesome, because of many things. If you remember most beginnings of the sonatas until now, they start rather quietly, like this for example:
But this sonata starts with a BANG…
It’s c minor, which was, in general, a key used for tragic pieces.
Mozart was Beethoven’s idol. But it’s interesting to see how different Beethoven starts his c-minor pieces if you compare to Mozart (again, in general). That is, I think, a measure of talent: you can still adore someone in your own field but keep your individuality.
For Beethoven, to not keep his individuality would be like falling asleep the moment you wake up – completely impossible.
Here is the start of Mozart’s Mass in c minor:
Pain, sorrow…but in a subtle, “not-in-your-face”-way. Only Mozart could write like this. It’s overwhelming (for me it is at least) but at the same time with the music in a distance (don’t really know how to describe that) so that it leaves us a certain emotional space to fill in our feelings. And I admit it right now: I think Mozart was the ultimate genius in music, on top of everyone.
An Overture beginning
The beginning of the Pathetique Sonata is inspired from an orchestral overture (not opera overtures, they were a different thing) in baroque style. The overture had what we call a dotted rythm, a very short chord followed by a long one, daDA, daDA, like this, in Bach:
I am going to show another example of an overture beginning, another piece in c minor by Arcangelo Corelli, another overture.
The difference between this one and Beethoven’s beginning is that Beethoven’s imagination and subtelty is different than Corelli’s. I will point out two things:
1) While Corelli uses a fortissimo almost through the whole phrase, Beethoven follows the first, strong chord with a soft piano:
If you think of it, the piano ( especially the pianos during Beethoven’s lifetime) could not sustain a long, strong chord, the tone dies out. This is one of so many instances when Beethoven had a genial way of dealing with the piano’s “shortcomings” (not being able to sustain strong tones like a string instrument could), turning them around to become advantages instead. The dying-out of the piano chord makes way to play the dotted rythms soft, which gives a very special effect. No piano composer had done this like Beethoven before him, not even close.
Let’s listen to Corelli again, and see what he does harmonically, which key does the music travel to from c minor. It will, pretty much right away, hit E flat Major, which is the major key “closest” to c minor. (remember the “harmony lesson” from Stewie in Family Guy…)
Both Corelli and Beethoven will march on to E flat Major, but this is how Corelli does it, it happens at 0.15:
Now, this is how Beethoven does it:
As you can hear, Beethoven twists and turns and finally when E flat Major arrives (at 0.22), we have the same “dotted theme”, but another world. However, not for very long…
Beethoven’s version is so full of surprises, expanding the music to lyrical passages, furious outbursts, brilliant scales, silences and nevertheless…it feels very organic. Leonard Bernstein used to say that Beethoven’s genius was in the way that however extremely surprising the next note, or chord, or silence is…it could only be exactly that note, chord or silence. Anything else would be impossible. It is a good way to put it.
The Pedal Point
And now we get to the AT&T part of this piece:
There are many things that make this part exciting: one is that after the introduction with all the stops and turns, this part just goes like a high-octan engine. And the bass just stays the same, pumping a low C. While the harmonies above it goes on, the bass stays the same.
This is called pedal point and probably the most famous pedal point is this one:
Stadium Rock…gotta love it.
I played the whole first movement in a shopping mall(!) recently. For those who want you can see that HERE.
As an end note, just a little on the beautiful theme of the second movement. You will hear the original in the next post on this piece, but here is the same theme, used by Billy Joel in a song:
OK, so…I wrote about quoting music you like in your compositions before in this post, I think it’s nice to pay hommage to another piece or song. If you like, An Arkeology is a piece that is all about paying a tribute to eight great songs by The Ark.
Sure, Joel’s version is Hollywoodesque, glamorous and in a sense powerful. There are moments when this is uplifting to listen to. But at the end of the day…this, to me, is stealing a melody instead of writing one yourself. And it’s up to everyone to like the way he does this or not, but why I like Ludwig’s version better is this: the melody by Beethoven has such tenderness, intimacy, like he is telling us all that he loves us but in a personal, quiet way:
Ever notice how parents would whisper to a baby how much they love them? That’s a little bit what I mean. It is a melody we would like to sing for a baby to fall asleep, or to calm a troubled soul.
Sometimes, whispering things is a lot louder and powerful than screaming it to the whole world…
There are many examples of meaningful “rip-offs” in arts. Here is one of my favorites in the movie world. The first one is the intro to The Graduate. If you haven’t seen it, do. The second one is from Tarantino’s masterpiece Jackie Brown. If you haven’t seen it, do.
It’s the same airport, but instead of a white, young, insecure (and a virgin) man in 1967, we have a black, not that young, confident, woman (and the actress’ history is Foxy Brown-movies, not exactly a virgin) 30 years later. In 1967, the music is Simon&Garfunkel. In 1997, it’s Bobby Womack. It is a telling picture of how our society, and Los Angeles, has changed. And at the same time, an homage by Tarantino to The Graduate.