Sonata op. 7 Part two

Reading time: about 20-25 minutes

Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 7

Dedicated to Countess Babette Keglevics

Composed: 1796–97

Movement 2: Largo, con gran espressione

Form: Da Capo Aria-form

orpheus
Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades

***

This is a very intense piece of music. When performing it, one has to try to bring to life all its theatrical moments. It is stunning music, as Beethoven’s slow movements often are.

***

OPERA SERIA
This movement is based on the musical language of Opera Seria. In the post about the first movement of sonata op. 2 No. 3, we talked about Opera Buffa, which is comic opera. Opera seria is, well, serious opera. It was the form of opera with superhuman heroes, not the kind of imperfect characters like Figaro. Partly therefore, it was the preferred form of opera by the courts and the ruling classes.

At the same time, Europe went towards enlightenment, and in its wake, taking baby-steps towards a more democratic society. Therefore, Opera Seria was doomed to fall out of popularity as an art form. During times when the natural and less pretentious were on people’s minds, the uber-dramatic and heroic was not really going to be taken seriously anymore.

Opera Seria was what Beethoven preferred, he thought Opera Buffa dealt with “immoral” stories (he would certainly not start an opera with Figaro measuring his bed). This is one of the reasons why Beethoven never made it as an opera composer. While Mozart’s intellect, humor and razor-sharp observations on society fell in absolutely perfect synch with the times he lived in, Beethoven was quite backwards; an elitist with strong, moralist convictions.

***

THE DA CAPO ARIA
The big star of the Opera Seria was the Castrati, a male singer who was castrated as a boy and therefore kept a high voice, apparently with a very special color and lung capacity as he grew older. The most famous one was Farinelli, and this brings us perfectly to the example of a Da Capo Aria, the template of many slow movements of early Beethoven: a melody…then a middle section which is more stormy…then the first melody again, but this time with embellishments.

Let’s repeat, because this Da Capo Aria-form is the basis for endless slow movements.

– First theme at the start.

– At 1.34, a stormy middle section.

– At 2.05, the first theme comes back, but the singer is embellishing.

Here it is, “Lascia ch’io Pianga”, a painfully beautiful aria:

Let me weep over my cruel fate
And sigh for my lost freedom

May the pain shatter the chains
Of my torments just out of mercy

Let me weep over my cruel fate
And sigh for my lost freedom

A special thing here is the “sighs”…paaampa….papaaampa…..
Each “sigh” has its own value, its own presence.

***

BAROQUE “SIGHS” IN MUSIC
Let’s turn to the beginning of the sonata’s second movement. It also starts with “sighs”, the same as in the baroque aria, but Beethoven has it played much, much slower. That makes the silences long, and very special. Especially after the first movements incessant “engine”. It is one of those moments in music when we can “listen to silences”, when the empty, silent room in between sounds speaks just as much as the actual harmonies does.

It’s marked Largo con gran espressione by Beethoven, very slow with great expression. In a concert hall, the long silences makes an incredible impact, when things go right the audiences should feel like they don’t dare to breath.

He falls in to deep melancholy until he sees a girl with an amazing resemblance of Madeleine. They start to meet, and in his (quite unsympathetic) obsession he tries to change the girl’s looks so that she will look exactly like Madeleine. Here is a scene when he buys her the grey suit and other clothes worn by his dead beloved:

And when he also manages to make her dye her hair, and she certainly becomes the visual double of Madeleine, the composer Bernard Hermann is invoking Tristan’s Liebestod. Big time.

He is, in an obsessive way, trying to bring back Madeleine from the dead. And just like in the Orpheus myth, she will die twice…

A little side track perhaps, but I personally like when you can connect art from different times. And this shows what great creators do: both Hitchcock and Beethoven takes a dramatic idea and with their imagination and perfection, they create great works of art for us to enjoy. Plus, Vertigo is such an incredible movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope you will now!

THE EXPRESSION OF SADNESS
Here is a beautiful aria from this opera:

Now, would you say this is very sad? Maybe not. But the name of the aria is Che farò senza Euridice?, what will I do without Eurydice, I have lost my Eurydice…

This is the moment when Euredyce has dies again, after Orpheus looked at her. He is completely heartbroken, of course. So, this is a very sad song. Why would it be perceived as not being sad?

I think we live in a time when all expressions are to be shown in capital letters, without ambiguity. And it can simplify our minds. Listen again to the aria, and never mind that it is in major, never mind that the singing is quite simple and not boiling over with emotions. In its own way, it makes the whole thing even more painful:

The similarity with the part of the Beethoven sonata is quite striking. Note also that the accompaniment has basically the same figuration, this figure:

Now listen to the part from Beethoven’s slow movement again…

Listen now to what comes out of our melody from before in the sonata…Furies is saying NO!

[audio
https://beethovensonatas.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/bloggop7-2fem.mp3|righticon=0xff0000%5D

And Orheus is begging…

[audio
https://beethovensonatas.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/bloggop7-2sex.mp3|righticon=0xff0000%5D

Listen to the whole story, from the melody getting more violent, to Furies, who is, after saying NO twice, letting go. At the end the first theme of the beginning is put in a way that it sounds like an angel.

[audio
https://beethovensonatas.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/bloggop7-2sju.mp3|righticon=0xff0000%5D

Does this mean I can say for sure that Beethoven thought of this opera when composing this? Absolutely not. But it has helped me to understand the piece better to relate to the eternal story that is Orpheus and Eurydice. At least I think so.

12 thoughts on “Sonata op. 7 Part two

  1. Thank You for this lesson.
    I start with my thought in the end, “Låt stöld” can be seen as inspiration form a earlier production… I also liked the mark about “shown in capital letters” you see that a lot when you work with teens in school. It is sometimes hard for them to see the fine print, what is behind a story or to read between the lines. Also I recognized a hymn that we are singing in my choir that is a part of op.7.

  2. I know what the tabloid headlines would have looked like if Beethoven had participated in ESC with this … 😉 The resemblance is rather striking! But really, he is forgiven, I like his adaption as well.

    I have not seen the movie about Farinelli, but his part here IS sung by a woman, right? I have heard one of the last castratis in a very, very early recording. It was … awful. Like someone who was painfully stuck … But the aria is, for sure, heartbreaking.

    Back to the sonata: I don’t find that second part light or happy at all. I would rather call it “threatening”, actually. Maybe it is because of the basement recording!

  3. It’s funny that I ran into this aria by chance, when looking into similarities. Sometimes the gut feeling leads the way…

    Oh yes, it’s a woman, BUT here is a video with a man singing:

    I think it sounds very beautiful.

    1. Yes, I agree, that one is beautiful. But – I don’t mean to be picky here, but I suppose I am, anyway – this is not a castrati singer. (Castrati in singular? Castrate?) He is a counter tenor, and he certainly has a lovely voice. Extremely high-pitched to be a man, but still a natural voice. The real castrati were more artificial, I think.

      Oh well, this was a bit off-topic, sorry.

      I think it was a clever idea of you to relate your interpretation to the Orpheus opera. Do you often do that – refer to a certain story, or a picture, or something like that when you work out the expression for a new piece? (My apology if I have already asked you this.)

  4. Farinellis voice in the movie was made by combining voices of a countertenor and a coloratura soprano – brilliant stuff and all in all a wonderfull movie. Makes one think of the extremes that men were prepared to do to each other to keep women of stage.

    Per, 1st of all thanx for the blog. You got me totally hooked to Beethoven and two questons I been meaning to ask you for some time.

    1) When you write about how to play the sonatas, you often reference to the fact that the pianos of Beethovens time didn’t have as potent tone as the pianos of the day. Yet, Beethoven – by some sources, often said that we doesn’t giva a ratts ass if his music can’t be played as he was intended and actually broke several strings on his piano while playing. So, why care what could be done then? Or do you belive that that was just a reference to the understanding of the music?

    And queston 2, that’s actually maybe a bit aside from Beethoven:

    When teaching someone to play a piece, in your opinion at what point the student can apply his/her own interpretation to the music? If the playing is techically correct, but the views of the teacher and pupil are somehow different. Can the teacher just say, no that’s wrong do it like this.

    1. How glad I am to hear that you are hooked on Beethoven 🙂

      I anwered the first question in the post
      https://beethovensonatas.wordpress.com/op-2-no-3-part-two-new/

      and for the second question, the teacher can say anything, I guess, but it’s important for the student to know that ultimately there are very few “right” decisions and that he has to choose the one he/she can stand for. Sometimes I ask students “why do you choose to play it like that?” and the absolutely WORST answer is “because my teacher says so…”

  5. Thank you for the lovely picture for this piece. I would like to know if you are going to write about the rest of it… There are 2 more parts, aren’t there?

  6. Well, playing the piano, not really. But we are planning on performing this piece in eurythmy. That’s why it was so interesting for me to read about your pictorial impressions of this sonata. I look forward to your interpretation of the whole “story”!

  7. Hi,

    I learnt this sonata some years ago, and my most vivid memory is of playing the slow movement in a hall. Those dramatic groups of 3 violent chords didn’t just shock the audience, they shocked ME because they bounced off the back wall and reverberated back to me in the following silence. The effect was electric and unforgettable. And I’d had no idea, with all my practising in smaller rooms, that it could sound like that.

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