PART ONE: INTRODUCTION. ABOUT BEETHOVEN’S ÉRARD PIANO
Reading time: about 10 minutes
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 53 “Waldstein Sonata”
Dedicated to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein
Count Waldstein, a nobleman who was Beethoven’s most important benefactor as a young man in Bonn. He was the one who, at the farewell party before Beethoven’s departure for Vienna, wrote the famous words that Beethoven would “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”.
I received your fortepiano the day before yesterday. It is really marvelous, anybody else would like to have it for his own, and I – you may laugh, but I would have to lie if I didn’t tell you that it is too good for me, and why? – because it deprives me of the freedom to create my own tone
– Beethoven to Andreas Streicher in 1796
Recently I was in Geneva to play with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and I discussed many things with my professor from years ago, Dominique Weber. We talked about listening with the score, if it helped the listening experience or not. I asked him “let’s say that you never heard the Waldstein, you had no idea it was a piece by Beethoven, and you just listened to the first movement in one of the mechanical kind of performances of that movement, would you think it is a great piece?” We agreed that no, we would probably not think it is a great piece. A performance that is too “mechanical” (and with mechanical, I do not mean “too technical”, real technique is required to achieve all the colors and character shadings!) is, of course, mainly on the performer, but the pianistic challenge is quite great on a modern piano.
In 1803, after he had finished his ground-breaking Eroica symphony, Beethoven received a new, French piano from the maker Sébastian Érard. It is unclear if he purchased the piano, or if it was a gift.
The Érard piano was different from the Viennese instruments in that it had English mechanics. Although the piano making during this time was much more complex than this categorization, the Viennese action and the English action were the two main ways of making pianos. The Viennese pianos were known for their lightness of touch, and to use the words of a journal describing the playing of Nanette Streicher, who was both a piano maker and an accomplished pianist:
“Her instruments don’t have the power of those by Walter, but in evenness of tone, clarity, resonance, charm, and delicacy, they are unsurpassable.“
Anton Walter was another maker in Vienna, who made instruments with less delicate tone but more power, so there we go, piano making was a jungle and it is a bit deceiving to only categorize pianos in English action vs. Viennese action.
So, back to this Érard, which was, obviously, a French instrument. Now, the thing with the French instrument is that it was NOT exactly the same as an English piano, but had characteristics of its own, on top of having a stronger tone and heavier touch. In Sébastien Érard’s own words (of course glorifying his own instrument, but nevertheless interesting)
“In England a completely different action has been adopted….but all the great masters such as Dussek, Steibelt, Woelffl and Adam agree that ours, which is the perfected version of the English action, is infinitely superior because of the precision of the touch”
It seems from sources that the French pianos had a more defined tone quality, a more distinct tone than the English piano.
So, why do I linger on about pianos like this? Well, because in this sonata the instrument itself is one of the major actors.
As a performer or a listener, you have the freedom to ignore the fact that this music was written for an instrument completely different from what we perform on today. In performance, I prefer to embrace the possibilities of a modern Steinway instead of thinking back too much to instruments of 200 years ago. But, as a listener to know something about the instruments of the time gives you a better listening experience and more possibilities to broaden your imagination, and as a performer I would say it should be part of your knowledge of the music.
Let’s get to it… What exactly is important to know about Beethoven’s Érard when playing this piece, and what kind of better understanding can we get from that knowledge also from a listener’s perspective?
To put it clearly, I will make a short list for you.
1) The Beethoven quote in the beginning, “it deprives me of the freedom to create my own tone” is quite important to understand. Beethoven, like nobody else, created a unique tone, or world of sound, in every sonata. He often manifests it right from the start. Compare, for example, the Appassionata, the Hammarklavier, Op. 101… when the start of these three pieces is played next to each other, it feels like three different instruments are heard. And that “tone” that Beethoven sets right at the start, will stay with the piece throughout. No other composer has been able to achieve this to the degree Beethoven did. I spent many years playing the sonatas having only a vague notion about it, but it was after meeting and discussing with Jan Swafford (authour of “Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph“) that I realized this.
2) Beethoven was clearly inspired by his new instrument, and started writing in new ways, not least with an extended use of pedals. In the finale, the sostenuto pedal plays a way larger role than anytime before in the sonatas.
3) Perhaps the least obvious, but to me the most important point is this: the playing with different colors of the piano and of the different keys is pivotal in this sonata, and oh-so-often ignored in performances. And believe it or not, they are often more obvious on a historic instrument than a modern one. The key here is how Beethoven obviously used different tonalities for different characters in music, so the dramatic key changes in the first movement are not only of color but also somewhat of character.
The Waldstein has so many shadings of color, different articulations, fine things that are easily lost on a modern instrument. It can be performed as an empty cascade of scales and triads, so for the pianist it is a great challenge to not only be brilliant in fingers, but also in colors and in imagination.