“In opera, there is always too much singing”
Opus 2, Beethoven’s first opus for piano, finishes with a splendid, magnificent and very virtuosic sonata in C Major.
To start, I would like you to watch a couple of youtubes. Why? Because they are such wonderful examples from the world of Opera Buffa, which is comic opera. And to “get” the op.2 nr. 3 you got to have a taste of Opera Buffa first. There were two main style of operas, Opera Buffa and Opera Seria, which was, of course, serious opera. There is much more to it, and we will take a look at Opera Seria when we get to Beethoven’s next sonata, which is opus 7.
So, first one: The Magic Flute
Papageno has in despair wished to take his life instead of living without Papagena. He is reminded by the three boys that he can ring his magic bell, and BING, the bells indeed brings Papagena, and the happy couple is united, stuttering at first (“pa … pa … pa”) in astonishment. They can’t really believe it, and it takes them some time to realize that it IS him/her…Papageno looks scared at first:
I love those outfits! This is technically a Singspiel but has everything Opera Buffa you can wish for.
The second youtube is the first scene of “Marriage of Figaro“: Figaro and Susanna are busy making themselves ready for their wedding night. Figaro, of course, by measuring the bed: five…ten…twenty…thirty. Susanna wants to make herself pretty. This whole bed-thing is important since later the count will think it’s his right to sleep with Susanna before Figaro does. Anyway, here is the beginning, they sing something like this:
“Just look a moment, my dearest Figaro,
look over here at my hat.”
“Ah, on the morning of our wedding day
How sweet to my loving bridegroom
is this charming little hat,
which Susanna made herself.”
(I think we are all to understand that Figaro is, however, thinking a lot more of the bed than her hat…)
Hm…now when I listened something comes to my mind, and is this only my dirty mind playing a trick? Listen to how the violins goes up…TAAra…when Figaro is measuring the bed. Then it goes a little higher…TAAAra…and a little higher yet…you get what I’m hinting at? There are funny, erotic undertones here. Mozarts letters to his wife were sometimes very x-rated and I think he is having great fun here.
Anyway, back to Beethoven, who thought Mozart’s operas were great music but sometimes low in moral standards…
This Sonata begins in a Opera Buffa mood, with this first little thing:
answered by this:
And then this:
It has the style and character of comic opera, doesn’t it?
Just after this giggling, smiling beginning comes an outburst of loud, fast notes. A quite famous pianist wrote about this passage that it annoyed him, it’s empty virtuosity for show-off. I would like to make the case that it comes as a perfectly fitting subito fortissimo in Overture style. And of course Beethoven also writes this to show off his splendid technique…and so what? Relax, one can’t read Goethe for breakfast every morning.
What I mean with a subito (sudden) fortissimo in Overture style is this:
I also found it in my favorite song by The Ark! Bottleneck Barbiturate:
Here is the beginning of the sonata, watch out for the energetic, splendid subito fortissimo:
And then, just like that, there is a new theme, a new character entering the stage. It’s kind of a funny “trouble in paradise”-feeling to it:
People often say that Beethoven is a lot about “construction” and Mozart is a lot about opera. Well, in my opinion, this doesn’t work with the young Beethoven. His pieces are in many cases very theatrical, and I understand their charm and beauty much better through the prism of the opera style.
One more thing about this theme…this theme is in minor, and as said, it appears very suddenly. If you listen again to the beginning of the sonata, it is SO STRONGLY in C-major, it never moves half an inch away from it:
And then, all of a sudden, minor…this, my friends (as John McCain would say) is one of the first examples of when Beethoven uses (a new) tonality as a color.
It is a little strange word, color, to describe sound. But during the 18th century critics used many different ways of describing music, many of them gastronomical (this is why we use the word “taste”) and some of them stuck.
Let’s explain it like this: this piece is in C Major. If you then play C Major, you give the listeners other things to listen for, no need to feel any special stuff about what key you are in. But then, the music jumps to a very different key and all of a sudden you become conscious of that different key. That’s a tonal color. For example, the key change one step up in a pop song is one kind of a “coloring tonality” (At around 0.20):
The Ark: The Worrying Kind
Let’s jump to the end of the exposition (in this movement, we will HAVE to know the sonata form to get some jokes later on…)
This reminds me of Dick Cheney trying to shoot at birds…he is constantly missing. The left hand is just NOT getting it right, it’s like someone says “and you should play…NOW”, which would be on the first beat. Instead, the left hand is three times coming too late:
Of course, Beethoven will then put it three times ON THE BEAT!!! and it sounds just as silly:
This is musical humor, and also very theatrical. At least to me.
The theater continues…for a long time, I could just not understand how to play this, or what to think of this. But now I just think of it as the music “looking around a little anxiously”. We know something will happen, but what?
Well, what happens is that he just finishes the exposition in a grandiose way! Oh, and sorry the pianists thinking every note by Beethoven is VERY DEEP…this is totally shallow stuff. But oh so dazzling when played in a concert.
Now comes the development, stormy, stormy…and of course we are waiting for the recap, which will mean that we hear the beginning again…right? This?
OK, listen here, the storm followed by…
We got our theme…but Beethoven is playing a trick on us. This is not the real tonality, and it is NOT the recap. It’s a false recap. Dear Ludwig is setting us up so that he can chock us with a sudden loud chord.
You know what? I LOVE playing this part. Everytime, you will make someone jump in their chair. A little mean, but fun…