Op. 53 “Waldstein” Part Two

Difficulty level of reading: High



Reading time: about 20 minutes

Movement 1: Allegro con brio

Form: Sonata form

“You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow.”
~Oscar Levant, explaining his way out of a speeding ticket

In life, we go through all kind of emotions, and they can strike at any moment. We can get hit by a sudden fear of what life will look like ahead of us, we can suddenly feel grief by thinking of a lost life, there is the pent-up ecstasy in joy when your team wins and more and more.

One emotion is the silent happiness. The one that can strike you when you are out in the nature taking a walk, or just sitting with a friend, or any moment when you feel this sudden joy of living. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “silence accompanies the most significant expressions of happiness and unhappiness”. It is not a “screaming” emotion, but something inside, bubbly and on the outside it shows perhaps in a spontaneous smile, not much more. Its roots feels deep and honest.

This silent happiness is to me how the Waldstein Sonata starts. It is all the more amazing that it starts this way knowing that Beethoven was suffering from depression most of his life, and had not much to be happy about. When he wrote “Recommend virtue to your children… Thanks to it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide” in the Heiligenstadt Testament, it is not a self pitying statement, but the truth – there was basically nothing else than his music and work that Beethoven had reason to be happy about.

***

The first movement of the Waldstein is of a grand scale, difficult pianistically and definitely a great piece for a pianist to use a brilliant technique. And make no mistake, you need a good technique to play this piece. But needless to say, that is also a bit of a trap for the pianist.

The beginning is… what? Not a melody, and although it will be defined as a theme later on, in the first bar does not feel like it. X has described it as “an accompaniment looking for its melody” and although I don’t completely see it that way I think it is an imaginative way to describe the start. And this start signals the story of the piece, what it is about: happiness, enthusiastic energy, a drive of life. It is almost like Beethoven is painting his own creative energy in notes (this was a period of an incredibly intense productivity for him).

As noted in the intro post, this piece was composed on the new, French Erard piano Beethoven just got. It is interesting to note that Beethoven at this time was seriously considering a move to Paris. So, is there anything French in the Waldstein? Well, perhaps. When Mozart was in Paris, he wrote his dramatic A-minor Piano Sonata, which starts like this (this kind of accompaniment is completely unique among his sonatas) :

Do you hear the left hand? Repeated chords, giving that very special character to the piece: a tragic urgency. This way of sustaining a sound, a chord, was something the French were very much into. They loved the “tremolo”, and other effects with fast repeating notes. So, that the Waldstein starts like this:


You could argue that it has something French in it.

And is it not amazing the ease with which Beethoven makes, out of this “non-theme”, “non-melody”, a little tail that gives it all of a sudden a melodic feeling:


Now, harmonically this opening is very natural, tonic to dominant, it opens up, now it just needs to close again… which it doesn’t do of course, but instead it re-starts in B-flat, changing color in a beautiful way:

And consider this: it starts in C major, a key which was considered open and majestic and is perfect for the piece. But then, when we get to B-flat major, that is a different color, a darker, less clear, almost ghosty character. And listen how it sounds on a piano from 1825, in Paul Komen’s excellent version:

It also, to make this beginning even more electrifying, goes to a sudden minor in the B-flat minor section, right at 0.10, and then makes a sudden stop in…c-minor! This piece, which seemed so simple, so straightforward in the first measure, has already taken a tour of tonalities which you have not seen in any sonata before it:


Before we listen to what comes next, let us read what the French composer Louis Adam wrote in his book on piano playing:

“Tremolando must be made with such speed that the sounds present nothing more than a continuity of sound to the ear. To succeed in executing it, the fingers should barely leave the keys, and, with a small quivering motion, they make the strings vibrate without interruption of the sound, particularly in the diminuendo and pianissimo”

What follows in the Waldstein is exactly that, the beginning played in tremolando, in pianissimo. It is definitely more “French” than “Viennese” in effect:


To be honest, this part is often played more like a machine gun than “a continuity of sound to the ear”. And listen how, after the beginning in C major, it goes to…D minor! The changes of so many harmonies are amazing, exciting and gives the music such a palette of colors.

***

Now we arrive at an interesting moment in the music. Remember that, for Beethoven, how he uses the form is a big part of the musical story-telling. And so, if you recall how Sonata Form works (if not, feel free to read the post on Sonata Form), it starts the piece by establishing a tonality. That would certainly require that tonality to stay for at least a little while. Now, the problem with the beginning of the Waldstein is that the energy and impatience makes the music depart to so many different tonalities. On top of C major, we had B-flat major, D minor, C minor. And from D minor it went to the dominant of E (if it is E major or E minor we don’t know yet).

Why is this a “problem”? Well, because normally, after the main tonality is set, a piece would roam around a little in a sequence of tonalities to find the new tonality for the second theme. But now, with the Waldstein having started with such lucid travels to all kind of remote keys, this seems a hard thing to do. So what does Beethoven do? Well, for the first time in the piece he stays on the same bass note with the same dominant to E for much longer than he stayed on anything during the “first theme” (which is not really a theme). Eight bars, compared to maximum two bars on the same bass note before. He kind of turns the whole process of finding a new key upside down. OR, you could say… that he starts the process of searching for that new tonality already at the very start of the piece! All in mostly pianissimo and piano dynamically. Which, I think, does not compute with playing this first movement too simplistically in terms of touch, color and character.

To make things even more wonderfully complex, above the bass he adds this turning melody that snakes itself forward, making it STILL feel like the music is searching during those 8 bars of the same bass note. It feels like a whirlwind, dizzying and beautiful at the same time:

***

The whirlwind builds up to the final transition to the second theme. It is a slightly unusual and perhaps even awkward one (at least for the pianist). Beethoven makes the hands “interrupt” each other going upwards, until the second theme arrives, very beautifully:


This is actually the five descending notes which is part of the first theme, just played slowly:

5Notesc

Something that is interesting to point out regarding the second theme is the color:

We discussed earlier how the “restart” in the beginning is in B-flat major, in a darker, muddier color. Now, the second theme is not in the more common choice of tonality for the second theme, the dominant. It is in the mediant, E major. And, E major is NOT a darker tonality, but it is a “sharp” key as opposed to B-flat which is a “flat” key. While the first theme and its surroundings is in the “flat”, darker shadings, the second theme sparkles and glitters in E Major.

This glittering feeling is only even more obvious when Beethoven makes a variation on it, and puts the theme in the left hand with a glittery right hand:


So, think about this for a moment: while we certainly think of the Waldstein sonata as a brilliant piece, and especially the first movement, the second, lyrical theme is actually, in its color, MORE brilliant than the quick, energetic first theme. It is one of those surprising and complex things that Beethoven can pull off.

***

Beethoven is the master of many things, among them to change the energy in the music with something as plain-sounding as going from ternary to binary rhythm and vice versa. Beethoven does this a lot, and he achieves tremendous effects with it.

The terms binary and ternary mean simply if the rhythm is dividable by two, or by three. A waltz is ternary and a march is binary.

The first movement is in a steady binary 4/4 (4 quavers per bar). When Beethoven introduces the variation of the second theme with the “glittery” right hand, that glitter is in triplets, introducing a ternary rhythm:


Those triplets blossoms to a driving force sounding like this:


What follows is one of my favorite moments in this movement. It is so simple and plain, but simplicity in the right hands (mainly Beethoven’s, but also the performers’) can bring out more powerful effects than any complexity, and this is an example of that. Maybe I am crazy, but I always get extra excited playing this very spot.

What Beethoven does is to change from triplets (ternary) to sixteenth notes (binary), and it gives the music such energetic momentum:


After he enters this binary momentum, there is no stopping, and the energy of the end of the exposition is just incredible, let’s hear it to (almost) the end:

To end the exposition, a little beautiful afterthought, with what I would call “brilliant lyricism”, something melodic, poetic and brilliant at the same time:


***

I will not dissect the whole movement, but I could mention a few simple things that Beethoven does in the development to give you a little guidance:

1) He starts it by playing the beginning in the subdominant, which is a common thing to do to lower the tension in the piece (to be able to build more tension and drama)


2) He doubles the pace, as we have seen him do so many times, of the main theme’s “tail”, making it “breath faster” and gaining momentum:


3) At the end, he build up a tremendous amount of energy with a murmuring bass (which could be heard as imitating drum rolls) completely exploding to…a sudden pianissimo:


And we are back in the recapitulation.

The Waldstein Sonata is one of the most inspired and energetic of the Beethoven Sonatas. I think most pianists would agree that playing it creates a feeling of having fun, a feeling of positive energy. I discovered that it is one of the sonatas that audiences like the most (maybe I was a bit clueless being surprised by that).

If you study this piece, there is a video of instruction coming eventually on my World of Beethoven video site.

END PART TWO

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