Reading time: about 20-25 minutes
Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 7
Dedicated to Countess Babette Keglevics
Movement 2: Largo, con gran espressione
Form: Da Capo Aria-form
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.
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.
And in the next measures, here is the pianist playing the part of a soprano, or castrati at work, embellishing on the high notes:
Then, listen to this amazing drama in a slow movement. The way Beethoven goes from a silent, melodic character to almost violent chords in no time and then directly back to pianissimo is as shocking for an audience today as it surely was for the audience back then.
Then comes a part which sounds like this:
Most people today would look at this moment as a more light, happier than the dramatic beginning. But I have another idea about that, which I will write about further down.
THE ORPHEUS MYTH
First, let’s take a look at perhaps the most popular opera at that time, Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice. The story is, simplified, that Eurydice dies, Orpheus manages to bring her back from Hades but he is told not to look at her while they leave Hades. When Orpheus won’t look at her, Eurydice takes this as a sign that he doesn’t love her anymore, and stops since she prefers death to living without his love. Orpheus then can’t stop himself from looking at her, and again, she dies.
The myth of Orpheus, trying to revive the love of his life from the dead, was something that had a great impact on art. It still has. Over 150 years later, Alfred Hitchcock would make a movie many of you know, Vertigo. A masterpiece (which, like so many of Beethoven’s works, was not appreciated by critics or audiences at the time of its release), and the storyline is built around the myth of Orpheus. It is very different, but still obvious.
Sidelined from police work by a fear of heights, John Ferguson takes a private job from shipbuilder and former college friend Gavin Elster to follow his young wife Madeleine, because he suspects she might kill herself. Ferguson follows the beautiful woman in the gray suit across the city in long, hypnotic pursuits by car and foot. They meet, and he falls in love. However, she does manage to jump of a church tower, as he does not manage to save her because of his vertigo:
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…
Lastly, one more fantastic relation to Orpheus and Eurydice. This is the scene when Orpheus is begging Furies to give back Eurydice from Hades (this is before he does give Eurydice back, and the scene where she dies for a second time).
Orpheus is singing and Furies cries NO! NO!:
Listen now to what comes out of our melody from before in the sonata…Furies is saying NO!
And Orheus is begging…
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.
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.