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Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26 “Funeral March Sonata”
Dedicated to Prince Karl Alois Lichnowski
Movement 1: Andante con variazioni
Form: Theme with five variations
The Sonata op. 26 was one of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas during the time after his death. It has the heroic spirit of the Funeral March as well as beautiful lyricism in the first movement. Franz Liszt had a very special relationship with this sonata, which he adored since childhood. It was the Beethoven sonata he performed the most in his recitals. Chopin, who was not a big fan of Beethoven, adored this sonata and it seems like he modeled his own Funeral March sonata from Beethoven’s, but more about that in later posts.
It is worth noting that this is the first Beethoven sonata that has no movement in what we call Sonata Form.
The first movement is a theme with five variations. It’s in A-flat major, a key Beethoven used for warmth and melodic beauty, such as in the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata op. 13:
This key also has the advantage that if one changes it to minor, it creates one of the “sharpest” minor keys (Beethoven believed that different keys has different characteristics: c-minor is a dramatic key, F-major is a pastoral key, etc.).
Let’s listen to the beginning of the theme:
In fact, a melody written by Schubert in 1827, the same year that Beethoven died, seems to pay hommage to the theme and its composer. It is subtly fitting that he chose the Funeral March Sonata, since the Funeral March has the undertitle “sulla morte d’un eroe” (to the death of a hero), the hero, in Schubert’s world, of course being Beethoven himself:
The variations in the first movement are so different, and I would like to think of them as quite theatrical (or operatic if you want). Let’s say the theme is like the aria of the the female heroine, then the first variation has the character of an elegant admirer, trying to get the lady’s attention:
The second is like one of those passages that seems to evoke laughing, the lower part, the bouncing left hand, could easily be sung as Ha Ha Ha:
And of course, the scary third movement is perhaps the most theatrical of all. The left hand is continuing to bounce, but in half speed. That brings out a tense, threatening atmosphere. In fact, the third variation is constructed rhythmically the way the second is, just with half the note values (which makes everything move in half speed), and…in minor. Let’s hear the beginning of both variations next to each other:
The fourth variation is almost ballet-like. It brings back the music to major in a quite magical way. The short chords in the left hands hangs in the air, and we hear just as much silences as we hear sounds. Beethoven is dancing on the piano like a ballerina:
And then, the feel-good fifth variation: after so many silences in the fourth, Beethoven fills the music with constant flow of beautiful, happy notes.
At the very end, there is a sort of musical version of “and they lived happily ever after”, and it is such a gorgeous moment:
On playing Op. 26, 1st movement
One of the most difficult things with this sonata when you play it is the tempo relations between the variations. Should they all be in the same tempo? Or does keeping the same tempo force the pianist to not completely get the maximum character out of the variations. In my opinion there is a case for playing the variations in basically the same tempo, and it is closely related to the construction, and more importantly, the musical experience of the piece.
Let’s start with the theme. There is a little thing, which is just some passing notes in the theme, which will play a pretty big part in the whole movement. And that is this:
Those little notes will be, believe it or not, the main “glue” in keeping the movement together.
Let’s listen to this short segment of the first variation:
What is that? Well, that derives from those little notes from the first movement, in my opinion.
What about the second variation? So many pianists play this in a MUCH faster tempo all of a sudden. But, listen to this little part:
Do you hear those little notes coming back again in the middle of all the jumping around? It’s the “glue” I was talking about, and this might be personal, but I think it’s weird if this is heard in a completely new tempo.
We can hear the same thing in the last variation:
In my opinion, the challenge is to find a tempo that can fit all movements, of course with slight tempo adjustments. I could imagine a tempo faster than mine, but hardly a tempo that is slower.
A final note about playing this movement would be the importance of articulation. All the slurs in the theme should be phrased well and the staccatos should be differentiated by the pianist (for example, I consider the staccatos in the second variation as “softer”, and the ones in the third as “sharper”).