Sunday, 3 June 2012

Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata and Other Thoughts

It is often difficult to explain and justify aesthetic judgments, and more so, it seems, as one attempts to account for those residing in the musical pantheon. Received musical wisdom has traditionally told us that the pinnacles of classical music are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and, perhaps, Wagner.

That notion has been challenged in the last thirty or so years by the liberal left (the same arguments have been applied in America to the literary canons), who have, broadly, argued that our conceptions of what makes great art and music is, in fact, reflective of our social standing. Thus, the argument goes, we are told by the 'ruling class' that Beethoven is a great composer; in telling us, the ruling class extols the virtues of being a white male, which reinforces their own white male status. This is, of course, a greatly simplified view, but the main problem is that it denies the importance aesthetic judgments; that is, our potential to look at or listen to a work of art and judge it on its own terms independent of social and cultural considerations.

Anyone with an ounce of musical blood in them will tell you that such aesthetic considerations are possible and, indeed, are made all the time. Furthermore, as the musical philosopher Roger Scruton (Aesthetics of Music) has asked, if our sense of aesthetics is based solely on socio-political grounds, then why is Mozart revered so much more highly than his father, Leopold Mozart? Or Chopin much more than Hummel, Czerny, or Field?  Surely, it is something in their music that leads people to these views.

As much as some might assert this position, it can be a nightmare to argue. Scruton in Understanding Music tries to come to terms with his fascination for Mozart; looking at (for memory) the opening of his C major Piano Sonata, K. 545, he notes the utter simplicity and clarity of the arpeggiated melody line. "Anyone could have written it. Nobody else [but Mozart] could have written it," he muses. He continues with reference to Mozart's Piano Concerto, "we see a new art-form emerging, from a composer who has listened to the piano as he has listened to the human voice, so as to discover the soul within." Having pondered these words for a moment, we might hesitatingly agree with Scruton, but for all his poetry, they are rather abstract sentiments.

The main justification for superior musical achievement has concerned structural aspects of the music. As I may have mentioned in my first post, classical music is often read as a teleological development of tonality. Thus, Bach crystallized the rules of tonal harmony; his sons and Mozart then crystallized the structural plan of sonata form; this structure and the rules of harmony were then expanded throughout the 19th century in the hands of Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler. Again, I present a very simplistic version of history.

The problem with this position is that structure can be challenging to hear. Analysts may rave on about false recapitulations or delayed resolutions of harmonic tension, but often these concepts relate to events five, ten, or twenty minutes apart. From an analytical perspective, the evaluation is made with reference to the notated score. Although this is important within classical music contexts, it may appear to contravene the importance of aesthetic contemplation, which relies on actively listening to the work in question.

All of this leads, in a roundabout and elongated way, to Beethoven and, more specifically, the first movement of his Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, commonly referred to by its moniker, "Appassionata." Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas occupy an important part of the concert repertoire; they range in technical difficulty, with most amateur pianists capable of tackling the famous Moonlight Sonata; more moderately skilled musicians able to work their way through the Pathétique Sonata; the Appassionata Sonata is reserved for those nearing concert pianist level.

Beethoven represents a historical fulcrum, the point at which sonata form and tonal harmony are stretched away from their established conventions. What makes, I believe, the Appassionata Sonata (and Beethoven's music, more generally) so important and worthy of the highest praise is the composer's marriage of structural and surface tension and drama. Thus, the first movement of the Appassionata is structurally intriguing and demanding, yet this is manifested in plain musical terms, able to be comprehended by, I daresay, even the novice listener. To assist in this analysis, I have provided timings which correspond to this performance by Wilhelm Kempff.

Before addressing the movement in any detail, let me provide a brief overview of sonata form, which provides the formal plan for Op. 57's first movement. Understanding this structure lends a degree of support for understanding Beethoven's music. Sonata form is divided into three sections:
Exposition: The first theme is presented in the tonic (or home) key; there is a musical transition before the second theme which is in a different key (usually the dominant/a fifth above the tonic).
Development: A variety of keys are travelled through and we often hear fragments of the two main themes.
Recapitulation: The music returns to the tonic key and we hear the first theme restated. The musical transition is then adjusted so that we hear the second theme in the tonic key as well.
Thus the key point of sonata form is that it is goal-oriented; any musical material initially presented outside the tonic key returns at the close of the work (the recapitulation) back in the tonic key.

The first movement of the sonata opens with the foreboding arpeggios in F minor. Both hands move in parallel motion two octaves apart, outlining the tonic harmony. Two bars of a plaintive melody and left-hand chords follow (00"-10"). Instead of reinforcing the tonic harmony, Beethoven's answer to the opening phrase is to repeat it, but up a semitone. Now, the arpeggios are a major chord (on G-flat) and, harmonically, a great distance from the home key (11"-23"). The subsequent motif has the left and right hands echoing one another in triplets (24"). For some listeners, this may recall Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its famous opening motif, described as "fate knocking on the door." The effect here is unmistakably similar. The harmonic orientation of the work is dismantled from the outset; the hollow arpeggios (due to the space between hands) and the haunting triplets sound an ominous warning.

No sooner have the triplets made their mark when the music erupts in a flurry of semiquavers that fly down the keyboard (32"). The initial suspicions are confirmed. The opening bars are heard again but now with ravaging chords block chords. The schizophrenic dynamics juxtapose fortissimo (very loud) and pianissimo (very soft), before giving way to the more measured triplet figure which is now continuous (42"-1'00"). This is the transition period; its musical ideas are comparatively less melodic and its purpose is to shift the music towards A-flat major, which duly arrives thereafter (1'18"). The second theme is in the major key and is notable for its similarity to the opening theme. It is also arpeggiated and borrows the opening rhythmic structure. But where the first theme was filled with darkness and malice, the second theme is warm, courtesy of the lilting accompaniment in the left hand.

An unusual aspect of this movement is the absence of delineated sections. In, say, a Mozart Piano Sonata, the exposition would be marked by a double bar line, providing temporary closure to the music.  From the second theme, we shift seamlessly into a more developmental section, which is marked by fragments of both main themes. We hear the first theme in E major (2'30"), E minor (2'59"), G major (3'04", C minor (3'08") and E-flat major (3'11"), none of which are particularly close to the tonic key, F minor; the second theme reappears in D-flat major (3'59") and G-flat major (4'17"). The second theme is also used in a sequence, in which the same idea is repeated several times, each a step higher (4'20"). The tension through this section is palpable. Every time a new key is introduced, the music shifts onwards almost immediately. Even if we cannot hear our supposed resolution (back to F minor), it seems evident enough that the music is far from home during this time.

The first sign that we are nearing a resolution is the re-introduction of the dramatic triplet figure that oscillates between the depths of the left hand and the upper register of the right hand (4'40"). Sure enough, the right hand broken chords give way to the opening theme, signaling the start of the recapitulation (4'55"). But things remain awry, for the first theme does not sound like the beginning of the work. The opening was tense, but this is a different kind of tension. Beneath the right hand, the left hand is playing continuous triplet quavers on C (the dominant). Therefore, even though we have reached our home key, the left hand refuses to join the harmonic party. We almost reach home, but are left agonizingly short.

The quavers crescendo through the following bars and we return to the block chord variation of the first theme (5'30"). Yet now it is grandiose. Why? Because Beethoven has simply switched from F minor to F major. The path home lengthens once more. As if to further confuse the listener, Beethoven gives us a handful of diminished chords — the theme is in a major key, but the music surrounding it sounds distinctly haunting and, well, 'minor'. The second theme is once again presented in a major key, F major (7'44"). Recall the rules of sonata form - this second theme needs to appear in F minor before the end.

We hear fragments of the first and second themes, as Beethoven moves through yet another transition period. The sequential technique is employed again to heighten the tension (8'00"-8'31"). The right hand moves further up the keyboard before both hands sweep through rapid broken chords spanning multiple octaves. And then, the triplets return (8'32"). Just as they intimated fate at the door in the C minor Symphony, each time in this movement they foreshadow a musical explosion. They are heard alone. All seems clear. They get quieter and slower. The right hand embellishes the single notes with a dominant seventh chord....

And fate smashes the door in. The warm broken chords of the second theme are now harsh; the singing melody is cold. Martha Frohlich summed up this moment as the second theme being absorbed into the dark world of the first theme. The music has finally reached F minor and it is patently obvious to hear (8'49"). The triplet chords emphasize this point with a textual fury to match the structural significance of this moment. And then, as if to maintain the surface tension right till the very end of the movement, Beethoven fades out the first theme in the depths of the keyboard as the right hand dies away as well.

This movement's last breath is, possibly, a masterful compositional stroke. Having traversed the keyboard in the first movement, Beethoven faced the problem of engaging the audience for the remaining two movements of the sonata. Movies do not often have the antagonist killed off after thirty minutes; neither can large-scale musical works complete their narrative in the first movement. By avoiding a grand, climactic ending, Beethoven presents the possibility that the musical tension is not entirely resolved (akin to seeing a villian's leg twitching as they lie motionless). The second movement provides some respite in its serene and meditative theme and variations. The final movement opens with thunderous diminished chords, a nod to the first movement, and it is here that the entire sonata finds its appropriate, stormy conclusion in a pulsating rush of broken chords at both ends of the keyboard.

To provide some sort of conclusion, the Appassionata Sonata, I think, epitomizes Beethoven's supreme skill of tying together structural and surface tension. As I have hopefully pointed out, there are a number of points in the first movement which push the boundaries of sonata form, and at each point, the harmonies, the texture and the rhythmic motifs reinforce what is occurring beneath the music's surface. It may be that, from years of listening to Beethoven, some are able to grasp these ideas more readily than others, but with a small amount of background knowledge, it would seem that the power of Beethoven's music can be comprehended. Amongst other reasons, this is certainly why he deserves his place at the summit of Western classical music.

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