Movement 2: Andante
Form: A-B-A: “Baroque Aria-template”, theme in A embellished after B-section
According to Czerny, this movement was one that Beethoven liked to play for friends. It is definitely linked to Beethoven the pianist-performer, with lots of different touches and articulations, which can be tricky and challenging for any pianist, especially on a modern piano.
The first movement of this sonata is in 3/4 time, where the time is in three beats per bar (or, more correctly put, in a ternary rhythm). That gives the whole movement a smooth flow. This all changes when Beethoven writes the second movement in a very firm binary rhythm (meaning that the time is in a beat dividable by two) . This makes the music more “square” and grounded. It is a march-like movement, with the left hand playing a constant staccato beat:
To have the the bass line played staccato is something Beethoven used in an earlier sonata, the slow movement of op. 2 nr. 2, the staccato bass in the left hand is defining the solemn character of this movement:
Beethoven is really making the piano imitate pizzicato by strings. To use a staccato bass like that can be seen in earlier music, for example in this beautiful slow movement of Bach’s f-minor concerto for piano and strings, here in Glenn Gould’s breathtakingly beautiful version:
Now, the second movement of the Pastoral Sonata is in Andante and the bass line is in sixteenth-notes, so it is rather fast and therefore does not have the same pretext of an intensely solemn feeling (although it DOES have a solemn, march-like and rather “deep” feeling). It comes back to “the Pastoral state of mind”: to not lose the sense of simpleness and to not get lost in an appetite for too much. Our movement has more of a flow, but the principle is the same: a floating melody played legato above a bass line in staccato.
This floating melody is played in chords, with many phrasing slurs; generally it should be played as legato as possible. But with the left hand playing staccato notes, very little sostenuto pedal can be used to help the poor pianist to connect the chords in the right hand. It is a really awkward passage to play.
Two things of interest here:
1) Although the modern grand piano is a wonderful invention, some pieces and passages are not really helped by the extreme exactness and precision of “attack” in the tone. Beethoven’s instrument had a more “flat” tone and staccatos were not as sharp, making the differences between left and right hand in this particular movement less difficult to deal with, easier to perform.
2) Beethoven is known to have thought the piano sound was not sustained enough, not “long” enough. His students have stated that legato playing was extremely important for him during lessons, and he did not think too highly of the “pearly” playing of harpsichord players, for example. At times, it seems to me that Beethoven ignores what can actually be done on a piano, writing in a way that would imitate, or be inspired by, instruments that can sustain a note instead of, as on a piano, having the note start dying out as soon as you play it.
I will go into more detail and depth, and how it challenges the pianist, on this in the video about playing this sonata on the Vimeo site but I thought it was still interesting to mention here.
So, are you at all interested in these little motivic relationships between movements that are so subtle and really not that clear-cut, that it could either be something that is real or it could also be something that crazy people are making up? Well, if you are, you are in for a treat. If you are not, well…bear with me for a little.
Let’s go back to the first movement
We talked about that drone in the first movement, the D that plays over and over again, right?
Now, we don’t have that in the beginning of the second movement for sure, that bass line is quite “jumpy” instead of lying still on a note.
However, we do have several D:s in the first phrase, played after each other… in the right hand, in the melody. Look at the phrase within the marked frame here:
Six times, Beethoven insists on playing that D. It is not the most “normal” way of a melody to go, I would say. So is it a coincidence, or motivic relation? I honestly don’t know, so you be the judge…
Those kind of relations between movements you will find a lot in the sonatas, I try to be cautious to not find things where there is nothing and honestly it doesn’t really bring much in terms of understanding the piece nor much guidance on how to play it. But it is, after all, a little fun, and it makes you dig a little deeper into the music somehow.
So, the first part of this movement, the “A”-section, tags along in a fairly normal manner, with the sixteenth-notes in the left hand as a constant. At one point it does turn into a repeating one tone pattern in the left hand, just as in the first movement, but this time it does not give a folksy feeling at all, but rather something mystical:
The whole A-section is quite static, as a march-like piece will be. That in itself is a big contrast to the first movement, which is fluid and smooth in many ways.
The B-section arrives with a great amount of contrasts to the first section: the music turns from minor to major, there are lots of silences (kind of “stops and starts”, as opposed to the constant bass-line). Its character is very playful, almost like children playing at times. It has innocence and lots of humor, let’s listen a bit:
When the A-section returns, we are back to the main theme, however, when it is played for the second time in that section, Beethoven turns to the typical baroque treatment of a theme: he embellishes it in an improvisational manner. Let me just show you quickly how a baroque aria would work. Here is the beginning of Handel’s famous aria Lascia chio pianga (“Let me weep”):
When this section comes back, the countertenor (or as in the days of Handel, the castrato) embellishes on this theme, as he was supposed to do:
It is most probable that if a singer did NOT take the liberties of improvising a bit on the original theme, the audience would be surprised. The times were different: today’s obsessiveness among interpreters with exactly what the score tells you and does not, was not the norm, for better or worse. When Beethoven performed his concertos, he often did not have the solo part written down. It is highly improbable that he played exactly every note as we now know it, in for example the fourth piano concerto. This is not to say that we can change notes as we wish in his music, but it implies that his priorities in what constitutes a performance true to his intentions were different from what many performers might think today.
In any case, back to the second movement of the Pastoral Sonata. When the theme returns, after playing it once in its original form, Beethoven starts to give it the Baroque Aria treatment with embellishments:
This is, in fact, very much the the same kind of embellishment Beethoven is using in his fourth concerto (first movement). All in all, this is a quite traditional movement (one of the reasons, I would say, for it being difficult to play well).
To me, the best moment of the movement arrives at the end. Something magic happens here: the music stops, tries again, asks questions, becomes desperate… And finally dissolves into a sort of nothingness. I truly love this ending, and the tense silence it creates in a concert after the final chord dies out. The reason Beethoven can do this is the huge contrast in momentum: while the music has been “walking” along during the movement it suddenly stops and builds tension with fermatas, crescendos and outbursts. And after that, it just fades out with a very Beethoven-sounding chord, playing the right and left hands with a wide empty space between.
The coda starts at 0.09. Beethoven plays the main theme without the walking bass, which creates a very still atmosphere. At 0.20, there is the subito piano after a crescendo, that thing that Beethoven likes to use so much. He does it again right after. At 0.32, the middle section comes back, but this time in a completely different character: threatening and dramatic. After a last outburst, the music dies out like someone breathing his last.