(In the video I play the exposition and the very beginning of the development, and there is text so you can follow when the first theme, second theme etc. are being played. For those of you who want to read up on Sonata form, go the the Sonata form page. There you will get all info needed, and note: V means the dominant, and V of V is, no surprise, the dominant of the dominant)
Piano Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Opus 14 No. 2
Dedicated to Josefa von Braun
Movement 1: Allegro
Form: Sonata form
Reading time: 10-15 minutes
All sound examples are me playing, except the Bach Prelude in C.
The second sonata in Beethoven’s 14th opus starts with a glimpse of one of the future styles of the composer. Until now, practically all the fast movements in the sonatas have been build on the principle of contrast: it starts with a quite defined character and after a while follows another character, more or less contrasting.
This is, of course, a good way to build a drama. Just like a movie presents different characters and the story builds on how they will interact with each other. As we have mentioned earlier, this is why a classical piece can be quite long, unlike a pop or rock song, which in 99% or more of the cases has one tempo and one character, or for that matter a Chopin Nocturne (no piece is neither of better or worse quality because of its length).
But Beethoven being Beethoven always wanted new territory in how he constructed his music. He is now trying to achieve momentum through seamless “evolution” of the music instead of dramatic contrasts that we see in the earlier sonatas. The music grows like a plant in nature, to use a popular analogy.
So, now the movie analogy does not really work too well. Very difficult to watch a movie with only one personality in it (unless it’s like a pop song, three minutes long, therefore what they call a short movie). But I think there could be a certain closeness to poetry – poetry often has this quality of focusing on one thing: a word, a person or a thought, and it grows out of that thing. Let’s take one of my favorite poems as an example, The House with Nobody in it by Joyce Kilmer, a poet and journalist from New Jersey ( born in 1886, he died already in 1918 as a soldier in the first World War). I always get a bump in my throat and wet eyes reading this, and that’s the truth. I know critics think it’s sentimental but I don’t care. May I quote the whole thing?
Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.
I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn’t haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.
This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.
If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I’d find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.
Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there’s nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.
But a house that has done what a house should do,
a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.
So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.
So, the house is what starts the whole poem, and with it, the poet builds all kinds of pictures and emotions and thoughts. But still, the flow of not being “disturbed” by some other subject is important to the form and content, wouldn’t you agree?
It is a bit the same with Beethoven’s “seamless” style, which feels, in most cases…poetic. Therefore, this first movement is quite lyrical, and has a pastoral character. To be honest with you, I re-recorded this movement, after having it all recorded, edited and done. The reason was that I felt that I had misunderstood the music, I played it like a typical fast Allegro movement instead of bringing out the lyricism.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Beethoven abandoned the style of writing music of great dramatic contrasts. His most extreme piano work built on contrast, the “Appassionata” was still to be composed. But his interest in composing music “without corners” so to speak, was increasing. He wanted to tell a story where each action sprung from another in a natural way.
One thing that is often used when a composer wants a flow, is an underlying movement that goes through the piece. The most famous example is the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata”:
The triplets in the right hand has an almost hypnotizing effect because they are repeated over and over again. Take the beginning of the Sonata op. 22 as an example of the opposite, a “start-and-stop” beginning:
The first movement of the sonata Op. 14 No. 2 has an underlying movement of sixteenth-notes, when the right hand stops playing sixteen-notes, the left hand fills in so that the flow in not interrupted:
It is like a river with flowing water running in a steady, beautiful stream underneath.
Exactly the same principle, right hand with a melody in sixteenth-notes where the left hand fills in the flow of notes when needed, is used in “Fur Elise”:
The beauty of this is that at the same time as there is melody, and movement, the gentle flourishes of sixteenth-notes also create harmonies that moves the piece forward and puts even more beauty in the music.
Now, where would Beethoven have gotten this idea from to start a piece as a sixteenth-note movement in this lyrical way? My guess is J.S. Bach, the composer Beethoven studied and played the most as a child, playing his pieces on both piano and organ.
Listen to this famous prelude which many of you probably have heard before (Sviatoslav Richter playing):
Same principles. And yes, how beautiful it is. Time stops when that Prelude starts.
This technique was also used quite frequently in improvisation, I believe. Take Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, for example, or the Moonlight Sonata for that matter that is an improvisation written out. It did not hurt that Beethoven was perhaps the best improviser that ever lived.
Beethoven is doing something in the Sonata that Bach does not in the Prelude, though: a subtle trick on our ears during the first bars of this piece. If you listen to Fur Elise, it is clear where the beat is, right?
Yes, where the ugly clicks are.
Now, if I was to put clicks on the first couple of bars in the sonata, it would be the same, like this:
At least this is where Beethoven wants you to think the beat is. But, as we will hear all of a sudden, that is NOT where the actual beat is, Beethoven just fooled us a bit. Try this: count 1-2-3-4 between the beats, with every “1” starting on the click. Then, on the fourth click…it will come on your “4”. Try it:
Ah. The click that ends up on your “4” is actually the real beat, where “1” should be. Beethoven just tricked our ears for the first three clicks, with the result that it feels like the music is having a very beautiful hiccup.
The movement of sixteen-notes continues almost without exception throughout the whole exposition. There are no large contrasts. This music is very far from Beethoven’s early sonatas in style. They were jumping from one expression to another, while this movement is floating like a nice river.
The “bridge” from the first theme to the second is of great beauty and a genius way of composing. Beethoven leaves the Bach-like style of sharing the notes in both hands like a pearl neckless, and goes to the most clear-cut Viennese style music you can think of, a clear melody with a so-called Alberti-bass in the left hand. Ta talk more simply: a melody with accompaniment.
Thanks to the left hand’s rolling movement, the music gets a gentle push in energy. And that is just what is needed to get the music to start moving into another tonality. It is so seamless and subtle, and always very beautiful. When the music reached it’s goal, the dominant, the second theme is quite different BUT: it shares the attribute of having the underlying sixteenth-notes present.
(This is easy to watch the video to listen to, the “melody with accompaniment” starts at 0.25 into the video)
As we have seen, the development has a few ways to start that are quite common. As I wrote in the post on Sonata Form, one of the main characteristics of Sonata Form is that it destabilizes the music by going to other tonalities, which we have done also in this sonata. But nevertheless, this sonata’s exposition is very stable in character: a sunny, pastoral feeling throughout. Beethoven then uses a common trick to change the atmosphere right away in the beginning of the development, namely by playing the beginning again, but in minor:
This darker mood continues with passages that are, in this context, quite dramatic:
We have finally come to a part with contrasts. However, the contrast is more between the exposition and development than within the exposition, as in Beethoven’s earlier sonatas. And note that Beethoven is using the same theme for the dramatic section as in the beginning.
This makes the contrasts more “glued together” and less confrontational. A little bit like someone who is conflicted and torn within, rather than two people fighting.
However, the very last notes of the development is so charming and ends as if to have us think that it was merely a little detour on our sunny, pastoral trip through this movement. And it was.