Also, at the end of this post, there is a link to part two, at the end of the part two post, there is a link to part three etc etc. Enjoy!
Those who are interested in the score can get it for free on PDF HERE
Op.2 No.1 is Beethoven’s first published sonata. He wrote it in 1795 or 1796, dedicated it to Joseph Haydn, his teacher at that point. The relation between Haydn and Beethoven was complicated: the legend goes that Beethoven simply didn’t believe Haydn taught him much. I think it’s much more complex that that, and I would like to get back to that in a separate post.
A couple of things to think about in general when playing this piece:
1) The instrument of those times was very different. We can want to adapt to it or not, but listen to this piano which was Beethoven’s ( yes, this exact piano was his) in 1823, almost 30 years after he composed this sonata.
It’s a much more fragile sound than the pianos of today, no?
Not surprisingly, they looked more fragile too, with a wooden frame:
2) Beethoven was establishing himself as a composer when at the time of composing the first three sonatas. We can argue on the effects it makes on the music, but the fact is, Beethoven wrote this the same year (or the year after) as his first public performance took place in Vienna. In my opinion the music is more outwards than inwards, even in the beautiful slow movements.
The first thing almost everyone will say about this piece is that it starts with what is called the Mannheim Rocket, Mannheimer Rakete. It sounds like that could be a very fast soccer player from Mannheim FC, but it’s not. John Corigliano, an American composer, described it very well:
“a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term “rocket”)”.
Corigliano actually wrote a symphonic piece called “The Mannheim Rocket” and he also says this:
“The “motor” of the rocket is a very low, very slow “Alberti bass”, the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces.”
A rocket needs a motor…and you will see in a moment how Beethoven is messing with that fact in this sonata.
The Mannheim Orchestra is worth its own page. For now, let’s just introduce that phenomenon briefly. In the 18th century, Germany was not a country as we know it today. A “German” was basically someone speaking german as a mother language: Mozart referred to himself as being German, not Austrian (which was even more natural since Salzburg was not even under Habsburg rule). Every part of the German Empire, or more correctly, the Holy Roman Empire was locally ruled by a prince, or a count, or a duke. The ruler of Mannheim was actually all three, this guy:
Karl Theodore was his name. He loved the arts, and he spent some of his not-so-very-hard-earned money to pay the best musicians to come to his court and play in the court’s orchestra. This orchestra became the best there was, and it perfected things such as crescendo with the whole orchestra together and something we call the Mannhem Roller. That is when you keep the bass, but go higher and higher above it in a crescendo. I’m going to give you two examples:
The first is the beginning of An Arkeology, here we have three Mannheim inventions (Jonas knows his Mannheim history well!). There is the synchronized crescendo with the whole orchestra, there is a Mannheim Roller, and there is also what is called the Mannheim Birds (imitation of birds chirping in solo passages) in the solo violin. OK, here we go:
I love the bird…
Then we have another example of a Mannheim Roller. They stay with the bass tone (which is called ostinato) and goes up, up, up.
Sugar Baby Love:
Get the idea? These build-ups were not really existing before they started doing it in Mannheim. (I’m pretty sure they didn’t sing Bap-shuadi, Bap-shuadiadi for quite a long time, though).
Let’s then get back to the beginning of the Op. 2 No. 1 Sonata, which as mentioned starts with a Mannheim Rocket:
The classic example of another Mannheim Rocket is in Mozart’s g minor symphony:
Now, what is much more interesting to me than just establishing that those two pieces begins with the same kind of Mannheim Rocket, and this is quite essential to getting to know the Beethoven sonata, is this: Why do they actually sound so different when the begin with the same motive?
To me, the Mozart rocket is something you can sing along to easily, it gets stuck in your head right away (you might end up singing it for the rest of the day quite easily), while Beethoven does not have that quality at all. And it’s essentially the same motive. Now we’re getting to more interesting territory. Because it’s WHAT Beethoven does with his rocket, and what he surrounds it with that makes it so different.
Mozart puts a nice “motor” under his rocket ( plus the fact that strings have a more melodic sound than a piano), which gives the motive a bouncy and more melodic character. The “motor” is the accompagnement, and what does Beethoven do with the accompagnement? Well, instead of giving the piece a steady beat, he takes away the first beat in every bar. He tears things apart, the music breathes irregularly, and this is why you won’t sing this one in your car.
Let’s take the example of accompagnement from the little dictionary, and do to it what Beethoven makes with his left hand in the beginning of the sonata:
(Somehow I think this would not be the same hit, but it would be fun to hear a performance, though…)
So, while the accompaniment in the Beethoven sonata is being very unstable, the right hand rocket is the driving force, the “motor”. And then, instead of just playing the rocket twice, nice and balanced like Mozart, he repeats it with shorter and shorter versions, so there is this sense of urgency and impatience (which might very well be quite close to Beethoven’s own character, actually).
Now, here is the whole beginning of the sonata:
(yes, that’s me breathing, the music makes me breath like that…I gotta work on it)
This is actually much more closer to Joseph Haydn than to Mozart:
to build a piece by tearing apart what it’s made of.
Sounds like an impossible thing, doesn’t it? But guys, this is art and that’s the beautiful thing with art: it defies logic.
So, we got through the first seconds of the sonata, yay! We’ll cover much more in the next post, where I don’t have to yap about Mannheim…