First, if you get confused with words like first theme, second theme, exposition, recapitulation etc, just go to Sonata Form
After the three sonatas Op. 2, Beethoven (well, rather his publishers but you get what I mean) published the following works before his next piano sonata:
op. 3 one String Trio
op. 4 one String Quintet
op. 5 two Sonatas for Piano and Cello
op. 6 one Sonata for Piano Duet
The next published piece is a Piano Sonata, and a grandiose one at that. It is, naturally, op. 7, and it is in E Flat Major.
The fact that it’s in E Flat Major already gives us some hints. That tonality is often used by Beethoven in majestic, heroic works. Much because that tonality was easier to play and sounded better for many brass instruments. So, when the composer wanted a bigger, more glorious sound in orchestral works, he often chose E Flat.
Thus, many works in E Flat Major had a quite “grandiose” character. Listen to the beginning of the Emperor Concerto, for example:
Yours Truly at the piano, Tapiola Sinfonietta of Finland is the orchestra.
So, Beethoven begins this Sonata with the following motive:
A kind of powerful, majestic beginning, no? Except…Beethoven, in his habit of doing something that others wouldn’t do, starts it instead…in piano, quietly:
It now sounds almost elegant. I have to admit that when starting this piece I was not entirely comfortable with playing this beginning in piano, but now I just love it. Plus, there is a point to all this, which we will discover later in the piece.
We could say that the first movement has an orchestral character. In piano teaching, many teachers love to point out to students to hear different instruments when they play “this should not sound like a piano, it should sound like a violin”. Or clarinet. Or whatever.
I’m not so into that. I never thought it helped much as a student either. Just because I hear it not as a piano but as this and that, the listener will still probably hear very much a piano. If I want a legato on a piano, I need to know how I should move my arms, hands and fingers to achieve it. Doesn’t matter if I hear Itzak Perlman in my head, because it’s what the listener hears that is important.
Now, to know that many passages and melodies derives from other instruments is another matter. It’s good and important knowledge. For example, in the beginning of the Sonata op. 2 No. 2, the Finale (fourth movement), the high short notes jumping down in a slur to two repeated notes, is clearly a violin figure, imitated on the piano:
If you’re the pianist, that’s not only important to know, it is necessary. But knowing it will make not much difference if you don’t know how to imitate that violin on the piano, which means knowing what your hands should do to create the sounds you want. That’s technique just as much as being able to play fast. It’s in many cases more difficult actually.
But back to that orchestral first movement. One reason to me that it sounds orchestral is that it starts with a steady beat which sets the tempo:
Why would this be orchestral? Well, in those days, the “bands”, as they were called, did not have conductors as we know them today. Rehearsals were few, if any: probably many performances sounded pretty awful. So, when writing for orchestras, composers sometimes wrote in a way that didn’t invite for too many mistakes. Take this wonderful symphony by Joseph Haydn, for example. It starts, and just goes on without any room for slowing down or any rubato:
The Op. 7 Sonata starts with that same feeling of movement that starts…and just continues. But, as this is piano and one instrument, Beethoven can (hopefully) expect a larger sense of beauty and sensitivity. Nevertheless, it is like a wonderful little engine that is going by itself…
All pieces in a tonality (which means they are in some key, which all pieces written at this period were) will at some point tell us which tonality they are in. Sometimes, the composer can make us really wonder WHAT tonality the piece is in. Listen to this beginning of a string quartet, it’s in…ummm…uuhhh…
Well, it’s actually in C Major. But you can’t hear that for another half minute. Wagner?
No. Mozart. The Man.
Beethoven gives us for the most time the tonality right away, but to state it for THIS long is almost comical: it’s E Flat Major ALL over the place…
Of course, Beethoven uses this kind of momentum to his advantage. Remember how, in sonata form the music moves from one tonality to another in the exposition? Mozart was the master at moving from one key to another so smoothly that we can see no corners, we are suddenly in a new tonality but we have no real idea how we got there.
Beethoven in this sonata…well, let’s just say that the change of key (at 0.03) is not exactly subtle…
We should remember that the critics complained about Beethoven’s early work that they had “violent, harsh modulations”. To that Beethoven answered “the critics do not have the wings of an eagle to lift and see my art as I can” Hah. He WANTED a sudden break, something that surprises us. Of course.
This movement continues with its “inner drive”, that little engine never leaves the piece. And around that engine, Beethoven makes all these beautiful things. Let’s listen to the second theme. It’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t really lose any momentum.
And right away, after just a few seconds of sweetness, he converts it into a raging tiger.
Then, there is this beginning that was in piano instead of forte, remember? Well, the most silent part of the first movement is this:
And…what would follow that, in a Beethoven sonata? The beginning (we are now at the recap), but this time…
in forte! This makes the whole thing kind of backwards. Normally, the main theme would be trumpeted out loudly, and then perhaps go soft. Not here. You gotta love Ludwig.
This is a movement that balances between the “engine” and the details, which are kind of keeping each other in check. If a pianist goes too much into details, trying to play out the pretty things too much, he/she will loose the “engine”. On the other hand, if you just go forward without looking at all at the beauty around you, you miss something.
Sounds kind of like… life?
So, to all you wonderful readers, here is the exposition of this movement, with again, Yours Truly at the piano.
I just love the bubblyness, the joy of life of this movement. And then…comes the second movement, which is so, so beautiful. And slow. That’s up next.