Robert on Beethoven (updated 2011)
There are many reasons why only a handful of pianists have recorded the 32 Beethoven sonatas more than once. So, when I was invited to perform the complete cycle during the 2010-11 season for Music on Main, Vancouver's edgiest concert presenter, and a week later, to play and re-record them all at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose, I was flattered. Nonetheless, the decision to accept both invitations was not made lightly.
At the back of my mind lay a fundamental premise that there is no point in committing to disc a second recording of anything, let alone a full Beethoven sonata cycle, unless it reflects further thought and greater insight on the part of the artist. Moreover, to pretend that an undertaking of this scope is anything other than gruelling is pointless. Let’s face it, technique and stamina do not generally improve when one is a pensioner. Neither does memory. So why did I grab at the bait?
There are technical reasons for having another go at the sonatas as well: the earlier set was made on a reproducing Boesendorfer 290SE, a technical marvel of its time, so fiendishly expensive that only 32 were made (one for each Beethoven sonata, apparently). It was situated in a large living room, which gave the sound an undeniable intimacy – far closer to the sound of a fortepiano of Beethoven's era in a large drawing room than that of a resonant, modern concert Steinway in a large concert hall.
Still, for better or worse, a resonant, modern concert Steinway in a large concert hall is what we have become accustomed to for the past century and a half. Having been a Steinway artist by choice for decades, the opportunity to re-record the Beethoven sonatas in ideal concert-hall conditions proved irresistible.
Let's go back a bit. I had studied many of the sonatas during my student years, and taught all of them over the past four decades. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, when I first played the cycle in its entirety, over two dozen sonatas were new to my fingers, if not my brain. Learning them all took two years. I performed the cycle eight times in Washington D.C., Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto, then recorded them in 2000, using a reproducing Boesendorfer concert grand, on a now out of print set of Juno-shortlisted 10 CDs.
Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas embody the core of the piano repertoire. It is in the realm of these works that his immense expressive range, limitless powers of invention and technical mastery were first manifested, and every facet of his genius is reflected in them. As a group the sonatas seem to take on a life of their own; we are not simply hearing 32 magnificent individual pieces. Rather, we are listening to an integrated body of music. Relationships between sonatas, or even groups of sonatas, composed at different stages of his career, take the piece of thematic connections within an individual work.
We are exceedingly fortunate that Beethoven was born exactly when and where he was born. The complexity of the miraculous language known as tonality, and the sophistication of the high classical style had only melded together within the previous two decades, reaching a level that made it possible for a Beethoven to mine their treasures and infuse them with as intense a personalization, and as wide a range of dramatic narratives as Western music has witnessed. Throughout his career, he would systematically question, stretch, and challenge virtually every compositional principle his great predecessors had handed down. Nevertheless, he did so without overthrowing or discarding any of them. For all his reputation as a musical revolutionary, he was content to work within the system throughout his career.
It was fascinating to trace Beethoven's development from sonata to sonata. I saw how he continually tried new ideas, discarded some of them, stretched others in novel ways, and then moved on to different challenges and areas of concern. No small wonder that the sonatas -- from the muscle-flexing exuberance of the early ones, through the brilliance and heroic drama of his Appassionata and Waldstein, to the haunting, other-worldness of his late works -- sound as fresh and innovative as they did 200 hundred years ago!
This had undoubtedly been the musical journey of my life. No project I had ever undertaken had been remotely so exhilarating: my brain was flooded daily with insights about how Beethoven's mind worked, how his music was put together, and how his magnificent, multi-faceted thoughts might be transmogrified from notes on a page into a rich, architecturally-coherent sonic image. Delving deeply into Beethoven's creativity for over two years was exhausting but exhilarating. Richard Goode told me my life would never be the same afterward, and he was right.
In retrospect, this adventure was in no sense a culmination, but rather a rejuvenation. A dozen years later, I still find myself studying scores and practicing in ways that I had not previously done. New ideas about interpretation, technique, musical structure, and sound production constantly occur to me whenever I take a seat at the keyboard (and often when I am away from it).
Several sonatas from the earlier set still rank among my private list of favourite recordings. However, I do hear most of them differently – not necessarily better, definitely not worse, but certainly differently. In retrospect, the first set constitutes a fairly objective record of how I thought they should be played at the time. I intended that the forthcoming set represent a more personal interpretation of the sonatas.
Initially, I experimented with self-conscious interpretive changes: stretching tempos here, pushing them elsewhere, deliberately bringing out voices that Beethoven himself may not have realized were present, playing lyrical themes more “romantically” than I might have done previously, and so forth. In other words, I found myself doing things that my teachers never would have allowed me to do; things I had never previously done as an adult myself, and things that I never permitted my students to do.
Only a couple of hours' effort was necessary to recognize the futility of this approach. Some performers like Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould could successfully impose their will on a composer’s score, but I cannot. I soon realized that whatever changes would occur this time around would have to reflect harder work, deeper thought, and modifications in my own way of thinking about the music – and the world – during the intervening decade. I am, after all, 15 years older than I was when I first approached many of these works. I set myself a goal of ensuring that at each practice session, every melodic strand in Beethoven’s canvas, and every sound I created would be re-evaluated, and strengthened.Read less ...
In retrospect, this shift in my musical outlook is due primarily to an enhanced ability to step back from the score and view its larger dimensions. Great composers think vast thoughts, and my task is to explore that vastness. The work is exhilarating most of the time, and goes well. It never ceases to amaze me that our minds can store absolutely everything in some deep recess of our memory, and that as far as piano playing is concerned, we seemingly practice every piece we’ve learned, unconsciously, non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Why else are passages that scared the bejeezus out of me 15 years ago, now more comfortable in a 72-year-old’s hands than they were in his late 50s? Why else do solutions to problems of interpretation in a given work now appear far more easily and quickly solved than they did then? Most puzzling of all is that the sonatas that have changed the most are those that I have performed more than all the others combined over the past four decades.
(The editing of this cycle is now well underway, and a final release date will be posted as soon as it is available)
Once and for all, what is a sonata?
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a Sonata and a Sinatra? Read Robert's take on this crucially important musical form Read More ...
What Exactly is a Piano Sonata?
For about two hundred years (approx. 1760-1960), piano sonatas have remained at core of the keyboard repertoire. And no wonder! Many magnificent pieces in other genres have been composed, but as a body of music, the sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and about two dozen others by their 19th- and 20th-century successors provide instrumentalists with a repertoire of unsurpassed originality, structural rigor, and an extraordinary richness and range of expression. No other form has allowed the greatest of composers such a panoply of means to manipulate and exploit tensions between conflicting tonalities and themes, while simultaneously offering opportunities to create such variety within a basic unity. So strong a structure is it that even lesser composers can use its template to create a large-scale work that, provided its melodic content is sufficiently interesting, will not collapse under its own weight.
So, what is a sonata?
This is not a theory essay, but I trust that two principles will not cause many readers undue grief. 1) Every piece of music dating from the 18th and 19th centuries has a home key (musicians call it the tonic). 2) Almost every composition of this period moves (or modulates) to other keys over the course of the work, most often to a key five notes higher than the tonic (or dominant), before returning to the tonic.
I should also note that the term Sonata Form could refer to the architecture of an entire sonata or only to the structure of the first movement of a sonata—or for that matter, any multi-movement composition such as a trio, quartet, octet, concerto or symphony. Some musicians try to clear up the confusion by referring to the second definition as Sonata-Allegro form, because most first movements are indeed marked Allegro. That is the convention followed here.
Major instrumental forms began to be composed in large numbers in the 1760s, and quickly became a common musical currency that remained in use until well in the 20th century. By the late 18th century, a sonata would already have been recognized as a composition almost invariably containing three autonomous sections or movements. The quick opening movement was usually the most highly organized, as well as the weightiest. The second was usually slow and lyrical. The final movement was fast, and typically lightweight in comparison to the other two.
Any musician or educated listener of the time would also have known that the first movement could have as many as five sections, but only the three central ones were mandatory. If an Introduction were present, its function would be to set the stage for the musical drama about to unfold. In the first important section (now known as an Exposition) an opening theme established the key, as well as the mood. The music then modulated to a new key, which almost invariably was the dominant when the piece was in a major key, as about 80% of them were. One or more themes would be heard in that new key; they could be totally different from, very similar to, or subtly related to the opening theme. The final new theme was devised so as to impart a strong sense of closure to the exposition. This entire section was then generally repeated.
Pause for a moment. What has really happened here? Picture the following scene: I walk onto the stage and bow to the audience, but instead of sitting at the keyboard, I lift the piano over my head. A lot of tension is introduced in the room. My quivering muscles are tense. The audience is scared that I will drop it on my head. The impresario is afraid that the piano and the stage will be irreparably damaged. “Put it down, you idiot,” someone yells. But being the seasoned circus pro that I am, instead of doing as I am told, I toss it in the air, catch it on the tip of my finger, twirl it around at bit, and pass it from hand to hand. When I finally set it down, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Still, it takes a while for the excitement in the room to dissipate, and for everyone in the audience to settle down
The same dynamics occur when a piece modulates from the tonic to the dominant, as in the exposition of a sonata-allegro form. The music is forcibly being lifted—contrary to the laws of gravity—to an elevation where it doesn’t really belong. Tension has thereby been created, and it can only be relieved when the music again touches down in the tonic key.
So how does it get back down? In the simplest sonata forms, composers wrote a fairly simple bridge section following the exposition so as to return us to the tonic and thereby release the tension. However, it was almost inevitable that more creative composers would try to extend this section so as to prolong our anxiety. Moreover, they quickly discovered that manipulating and developing material we have already heard evoked more suspense than writing new material. That explains why this section—the equivalent of my aforementioned pirouettes—has since been referred to as the Development.
Inevitably, audiences tired of being teased, no matter how exquisitely, so the Development ultimately led to a return of the tonic key, now known as the Recapitulation. In this section the composer’s task was, figuratively speaking, to set the piano back down, ensure that all three legs were solidly on the ground, and allow the tension in the room to play itself out. He did this by quoting in the tonic most—or frequently all—the themes we first heard in the Exposition, especially those that were initially heard in the dominant key. Lesser composers just restated everything pretty much as they were in the opening section, making only those changes necessary for the movement to remain in the tonic throughout. However, more talented composers often strove for much more fluidity in the way the original material was presented the second time around.
Finally, the movement could end with an optional Coda, a brief section that provided a stronger sense of conclusion than otherwise would have been possible.
Haydn and Mozart composed about eighty sonatas between them. Most are wonderful, some are truly great, but as a genre their piano sonatas are not representative of their very best work, nor were they meant to be. It remained for Beethoven to treat the sonata as substantial a form as the symphony, concerto or quartet. That explains Beethoven’s frequent appearance in the discussion below.
Movement 1: Introduction
Some composers of the period routinely included introductions in their sonatas in order to let the audience settle down and “set the mood.” Haydn and Mozart never did so, and Beethoven used an introduction solely on those four occasions when he felt that the thematic arguments in the movement required it.
Movement 1: Exposition: 1st Theme
Traditionally, the first theme not only was in the tonic key, but also was often based on the tonic chord. Composers wanted to establish the home key as quickly as strongly as possible so as to fix it in our minds. Beethoven adhered to this long-standing procedure in his first fourteen sonatas. However, from that point on, he sometimes alluded to the tonic rather than stating it outright. This is tantamount to starting a story in the middle of an ongoing conversation, or beginning a movie (like Pulp Fiction) with a scene that is not chronologically the earliest.
According to the definition provided earlier, one might be justified in concluding that no manipulation of the theme takes place until the Development section proper, but the greatest composers began developing their themes very early in the work. Another original technique developed by the classical masters early on was to present two sharply contrasting ideas at the outset of a work. Conventional wisdom has it that these two ideas are reconciled as the movement progresses, but a far simpler explanation might be that this strategy gave the composer greater opportunity for subsequent thematic development.
After stating the opening theme (or themes) once, composers often made a further allusion to that material without repeating it outright. This, usually in conjunction with new material, served as the transition to the next section of the Exposition. It is here that the modulation to the new key also occurred. The route there could be highly involved but was usually quite direct, and, especially in Mozart’s case, could even consist of a single jump.
Movement 1: Exposition: 2nd Theme
With the new key now fully prepared, an equally new, often lyrical theme in the dominant key is introduced. Beethoven began to veer away from that pattern, but even in his case this procedure was an exception to the rule, not a trend. Only three of his major-key sonatas modulate to a key other than the dominant.
The careful reader will undoubtedly note that thus far, I have cagily avoided discussing sonatas in minor keys. This is because they are in the distinct minority (pun definitely intended), even if some of Beethoven’s are very famous. The laws of musical “gravity” in minor keys are such that the tension to which I referred earlier doesn’t really exist. Returning briefly to the analogy used earlier, it would be as if I had lifted an obvious Styrofoam model of a piano rather than an actual instrument. The generalization usually given in a music appreciation talk is that in a minor key, the piece modulates to the relative major. It was true in the case of Mozart and Haydn, but beginning with Beethoven, less than half of his nine minor-key sonatas follow that so-called rule.
One would expect the second theme to appear only after the modulation takes place. However, Beethoven began spreading out the modulation over much of the exposition, so that some of the new themes are heard in an intermediary key, and further modulation to the dominant must still take place.
In all the Mozart and Haydn sonatas, as well as Beethoven’s earlier ones, the Exposition always comes to a full close and is invariably repeated, but beginning with Beethoven’s Appassionata the repeat is only intermittently called for. In some sonatas, he even avoids a strong close to the exposition, and instead glides seamlessly into the Development.
Movement 1: Development
Techniques composers employ to develop their themes are many and varied. Books have been written on this vast subject, which lies well beyond the scope of this essay. Briefly stated, most developmental techniques involve repetition (exact and varied) of themes and motifs that, at least in theory, should be fairly recognizable by this time in a movement’s progress. Two or more themes can also be combined in various ways. Often, short motifs are extracted from longer, themes, and themselves subjected to the above methods of elaboration.
The introduction of new material in this section was such a rarity by the time Beethoven commenced his career that music appreciation texts often mention, as one of the Eroica Symphony’s salient features, the unorthodox introduction of a new theme in this section. Such occurrences remain uncommon in his output, however a similar event occurs even earlier in his piano music.
Frequently, the classical composers simply set up the return to the main theme so that it was awaited, expected, and provided in an obvious but deeply satisfying manner. However, on other occasions, they treated the return far differently. In his famous C major “Easy” Sonata Mozart sneaks in the main theme by bringing it back in the wrong key. Beethoven in particular used the Development for different purposes, even to the point of doing his best to make us forget the home key’s existence. In his third sonata, for instance, he interrupts the Development with a statement of the theme in a totally unexpected key. Elsewhere he delights in devising original ways to return to the opening theme, such as starting the Recapitulation in the wrong key, or “overshooting the mark,” i.e., making the return occur without our being aware of it.
Movement 1: Recapitulation
Contrary to “textbook” rules, the Recapitulation need not simply be a restatement of the exposition, altered just enough so that all the themes remain in the tonic. In the hands of great composers it could be, and often was, a much more fluid entity in which the material in the exposition was resolved and reinterpreted. Haydn often fully re-composed the material he’d presented earlier. Mozart often found many ways to extend his recapitulations while keeping them recognizable. Interestingly, Beethoven was more conservative than either Haydn or Mozart. From the second theme until the start of the coda, the music generally remains virtually identical to that found in the parallel passage in the exposition.
Still, Beethoven usually could be counted upon to devise ingenious ways of proceeding from the return of the main theme to the point where the second theme begins. Often this passage diverges so far from that in the parallel section of the Exposition that the eminent scholar-pianist Charles Rosen suggests that it be called a “Secondary Development.”
After devoting much of my creative life over the past decade to works in this form, I now believe there is justification in considering the Development and Recapitulation a single section, rather than two. The return of the opening theme in the tonic, although overwhelmingly frequent, is not quite as essential to the structure, because we have already heard it at the work's opening. The sonatas of Scarlatti never feature the opening theme again--only those that were quoted earlier in another key. Similarly with the two mature sonatas of Chopin.
Movement 1: Coda
Originally, a coda just consisted of a few measures that would provide the movement with a more effective conclusion. In their sonatas, Haydn and Mozart seldom employed them. However, in Beethoven’s hands, the coda could be, and often was, extended to the point where it virtually functioned as another development section. He carried this process to extreme lengths in such works as the Appassionata and Waldstein sonatas. Also, he occasionally disguised the coda by making it sound as though he were starting another section afresh, so that the end of the movement would come as a complete surprise.
Movement 2 (slow)
All three classical masters consistently wrote great slow movements. Many of their Adagios are things of ravishing beauty. Some are like poignant songs; others start that way but acquire more sinister overtones as they progress, as if to remind us that these moments are transitory, and that darkness always lurks beneath the surface. Still others portray scenes of vastness. Sometimes, even in their earliest works these composers could amaze us with a sense of the tragic that belied their years. That of the teen-aged Mozart in his second sonata is one such example, and the Largo of Beethoven’s 10th, with its desolate opening, anguished climaxes, and devastating ending, gives us an unremitting and unforgettable glimpse of a mind that has fallen prey to melancholia.
Beginning with the Waldstein, however, Beethoven avoided lengthy slow movements. In that sonata, he discarded the protracted movement he had originally composed (and which he subsequently published separately as Andante Favori), in favor of a much shorter creation. The relatively brief slow movements of his middle years seemed to serve primarily as a respite between the weightier outer movements. It was only in the later works that extensive slow movements again made their appearance, and these provide a portrait of the composer at his most spiritual state.
There is much less formal standardization in Adagios (and indeed in all the succeeding movements) than in the opening movement. Some are in a full-fledged Sonata-allegro form. Sometimes, Sonata-allegro forms appear with the Development section omitted. Occasionally the slow movement can be a set of variations. A simple three-part form, in which the middle section contrasts with the outer ones, is also a possibility. Mozart frequently called for much embellishment the second time a theme is heard. Beethoven’s reputation as a keyboard extemporizer was legendary, and quasi-improvisational passages occur every now and then in his piano sonatas.
Originally, the second movement of a sonata was the slow one, but toward the end of his career, Beethoven increasingly began moving the slow movement to third position. This probably had to do with providing the most effective preparation for the final movement, whose role was changing radically, as we will shortly see.
Traditionally, the third movement of a 4-movement composition was a minuet. Even in the 1760s, however, the Minuet was an anachronism—a courtly dance that somehow or other managed to be held over from the Baroque era long after the other ones had fallen out of fashion. Haydn and Mozart wrote reams of minuets throughout their careers. However, in his quartets, Haydn now and then replaced the Minuet with a movement that was structured similarly, but was faster and less danceable. He called such pieces Scherzi, or jokes. His sonatas often conclude with minuet-type movements, and Mozart occasionally used minuets in place of a slow movement/
Beethoven used both forms, but his early sonatas demonstrate so much ambivalence that one is reminded of that famous scene in Hamlet, when the traveling players offer to perform whatever suits the taste of Elsinore’s courtiers: comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy, comic-tragedy, etc. Of the early sonatas that have 4 movements: one contains a minuet; another has a movement entitled scherzo, but which really is a quick minuet; yet another also contains a fast minuet, but without a title; still another has a minuet-like scherzo; the Moonlight’s, again unnamed, lies halfway in feeling between the two genres and yet another contains a movement entitled Tempo di Menutto. His eighteenth sonata even has a minuet and a scherzo. After that extravagance, he finally seems to have made up his mind: henceforth in his sonatas, he composed only scherzos.
Most often, the third movement is set in an A-B-A (Ternary) pattern, with the B section, or Trio, contrasting with the outer sections. However, as time went on, Beethoven felt free to alter the Scherzo, casting it a couple of times in a Sonata-allegro form, and even abandoning the traditional ¾ time in two instances.
Movement 4: Finale
The finale started life as a composition’s ‘dessert.’ In Haydn’s, Mozart’s and the young Beethoven’s hands, it could be dramatic, sparkling, congenial, ominous or humorous. However, it seldom sounded like the kind of important statement that often had been uttered earlier in the work.
From a formal standpoint, almost any structure would suffice for a finale. It could be our old friend, Sonata-allegro form. Sets of variations occasionally appear as final movements of his sonatas. Some are simple rondos, in which a refrain alternates with a series of episodes. Several finales adhere to a hybrid form (invented by Haydn) containing both sonata and rondo elements.
Beethoven was never a stranger to Baroque style counterpoint, and in the last five of his sonatas, fugues play a more prominent role than in any other great compositions composed since the death of Bach. Sometimes they appear as sections within a larger movement, but in the Hammerklavier, the entire finale is one gigantic fugue.
More important than what form the finale takes is a question that plagued Beethoven as it would so many of his successors: What is the function of the finale? As music continued to acquire more extra-musical “content” throughout the 19th century, the frothy dessert model seemed increasingly less satisfactory. What then? Should it serve some higher purpose? Should it be the culmination of the entire work? Should it exist on its own, or should it be joined to what went before?
Occasionally in the latter part of Beethoven’s career, froth still reared its head, as in the trilogy of short sonatas. Overall, however, Beethoven increasingly strove to fashion his sonatas into a single, unified work, with the finale taking on far greater weight and importance. At times in his career, Beethoven was so caught up with this problem that he felt compelled to devise ingenious ways of writing a justification of his solution into the music itself. Most readers will know that in the Ninth Symphony, he auditions and rejects themes from the previous movements before hitting upon the chorale theme. In the earlier Hammerklavier he operates similarly, but instead of quoting previous material he tries out brand new themes before deciding on the course the movement must take.
One legitimately may question whether such a procedure verges on an overdose of self-consciousness. However, in the last three sonatas, Beethoven’s earlier efforts to combine and relate individual movements now reach fruition in organically-unified compositions, in which movements often lead into each other, often with scarcely a pause. All three finales, in particular, contain their respective sonatas’ most sublime moments, and achieve a sense of spirituality (a word I will not try to define) that no composer for the keyboard has since equaled, let alone surpassed.
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Robert on Mozart
A provocative discussion of Mozart's contributions to the piano sonata genre. Read More ...
Mozart and the Piano
Mozart’s piano sonatas are not commonly believed to be representative of his finest work. I disagree. Admittedly, they are not as central to his oeuvre as Beethoven's. Beethoven's sonatas provide a unique view into his development from work to work, whereas Mozart's offer snapshots of possibly the greatest musical talent of all time, taken from his teen-aged years until 1789, two years before his death.
We must not forget that even he had to undergo an extended learning curve. He started composing at the age of five, but with a few notable exceptions, the greatest of his works all bear a Köchel number above 350, when he was in his early-to-mid twenties, and it was only during the last seven or eight years of his life that he turned out masterpieces one after another. In other words, even a prodigious talent like Mozart required a 15-year "apprenticeship" in order to begin hitting his stride.
A full third of his piano sonatas (those he performed on his tours, and referred to as his "difficult" ones) were written during that period. A glance at Köchel reveals that, far from being relatively weak, they are remarkably representative of his best efforts at the time of their composition
. Nor is this observation confined to the earlier sonatas: it remained true until about 1785. Even the final four sonatas, composed at the pinnacle of his powers, are superb, if no longer at his cutting edge.
He had another obstacle to overcome: like Josef Haydn, he began writing piano sonatas at a time when both the mature classical language and the instrument itself were so new that, although many sonatas had already been published, and those by Bach’s sons Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian would serve as particularly useful models, no composer had thus far created a solo piano masterpiece. Inevitably, the two greatest composers of the era had to figure out for themselves how to write for the piano, and they did so in diametrically opposed ways. Haydn experimented far more with the keyboard's possibilities—unusual pedal effects, placing the hands at the keyboard’s extremities, etc.—but often did not achieve results comparable to the quality found in his ground-breaking quartets and symphonies. In contrast, Mozart, by treating the instrument conservatively and thinning out his textures, was more able to apply his masterful, recognizable hand to his piano music. Moreover, it is fascinating to witness how those achievements would subsequently make their way into his symphonic and chamber works, and even his operas.
The score of a Mozart sonata is often analogous to the tip of an iceberg. What is not written down is as important as the notes that are present. Whenever I hear or play a Mozart sonata, I always find myself filling in other, unwritten parts in my head. When teaching these pieces, I sit at a second piano, and play what I can of those "un-composed" parts, so that my students can comprehend the totality of the piece. Interestingly, Grieg used to employ that practice with his own students (albeit in an ultra-romantic manner) and even published some of those accompaniments.
There was another problem: the fortepiano itself. This transitional instrument for which Mozart wrote was changing from year to year throughout his lifetime. He had only known the inferior pianos that preceded his discovery of Stein's instrument, so of course he would have sung of its delights, as he did in his famous letter. Moreover, differences among products from various piano makers at any given moment were enormous.
It is undeniably enlightening to hear Mozart sonatas performed on instruments that he would have recognized, and there are—finally—some fortepianists around with enough chops and musicality to give us a fair picture of what artistic performances may have sounded like in the late 18th century. That said, demanding, as some polemicists still do, that one perform Mozart solely on the fortepiano is tantamount to insisting that one use a Commodore 64 to perform those tasks that home computers of twenty-five years ago could accomplish, and reserve the latest PC or Mac solely for video editing and internet browsing.
I suspect he would have killed to have a modern piano at his disposal. Its tonal and dynamic ranges are so much wider, with far more possibilities for subtlety. Fortunately, many pianists today have no problem performing Mozart on a contemporary instrument. However, a major reconfiguring of technique is in order for any traditionally trained player wishing to seriously explore that repertoire. Such issues as expressivity, touch, inflection, and dynamics, even the basic hand position, require special thought and study. The late nineteenth century "competition" pianism so favored by today's younger keyboard athletes and their coaches runs absolutely contrary to what is required for this music.
Mozart was consistently praised for his even technique and musical taste (not to mention his improvisatory powers and his phenomenal memory). He complains in one of his letters about a pianist who lacked a cultivated legato, so he obviously considered that aspect of keyboard performance to be important. In another letter he praises those qualities in Rosa Cannabich, a pianist for whom he wrote his seventh sonata. Nonetheless, legato was a special effect for Mozart, not his standard modus operandi: even during his lifetime, his style of detached playing was fast becoming old-fashioned. Beethoven, who heard Mozart perform in 1787, later referred to his pianism as “finger-dancing,” although he also defended Mozart by saying “of course, he always had terrible pianos to deal with in those days.” In other words, some proponents of authenticity make a fetish of performing Mozart today on an instrument that Beethoven had already found outdated.
Equally importantly, the legitimate (and unanswerable) question remains: was Mozart's detached style truly his ideal way of playing, or was it a reflection of the sluggish action of most pianos he'd come across in his career? In the well-documented contest between Mozart and Clementi in 1781, the outcome was decidedly mixed, and may even have been in Clementi's favour. According to some reports, Mozart was the more tasteful player, but Clementi used his impressive virtuosity and pervasive legato touch to great effect. In any case, his style undeniably pointed to the direction pianism was headed in the near future. Mozart spoke disrespectfully of Clementi's playing, and might not have thought much of Beethoven's either, had he lived to hear it.
Although Mozart used performing directions relatively sparingly, enough of them exist to give us a fair idea of what he may or may not have approved. Those pervasive staccatos and inflective phrase-markings over two or three notes are an important element of the classical style, and must be observed. However, these were never intended by the composer as a substitute for larger-scale harmonic and melodic organization, which also must be delineated with clarity. Observing only the former results in the musical equivalent of a bird picking erratically at its food; similarly, eliminating them and introducing long legato phrases lasting for measures results in a style that in the hands of a fine pianist may be quite beautiful, but is nonetheless seriously outmoded.
With a handful of exceptions, forte and piano are the sole dynamic markings Mozart employed; only a handful of fortissimi, pianissimi, or gradational markings can be found in all the sonatas. Furthermore, the openings of virtually all fifty-five movements are either marked piano, or alternately, there is no indication whatsoever, in which case the first subsequent marking is invariably a piano. In other words, a relatively loud opening is clearly implied where no indication is given, but how loud is loud? Does the delicate 4th sonata begin at the same dynamic level as the stormy 8th? Hardly. There is probably no other composer for whom forte and piano are as relative as for Mozart. The slavish observance of such markings or the lack of them, without regard to musical context is no key to authenticity in performance; more than minimal intelligence and insight are required to determine how loud and soft the music should be at any given time and how to effect the change from one to another.
Above all, anyone performing Mozart on any instrument must remember that Mozart was fundamentally an opera composer, even when he was not composing operas. Drama was in his blood. And what a gripping sense of drama he had! In the past 200 years we have come to know the operas of Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Berg, and so on, but none of that repertoire existed, or was even dreamt about when Mozart’s stage works first appeared. His operas were not considered elegant, or charming. They were not intended to “go down easy,” as opera director Peter Sellars has stated.
In order to perceive Mozart as he must have appeared to his contemporaries, you have to forget all music written since, from Beethoven onward. So it is with the sonatas: Each has its own story to tell. Dialogue, aria, and ensembles abound. His stage must at all times be populated with dynamic characters that interact with each other, often fiercely. His piano must sing; it must speak; it must shout at times. And if that were not enough of a task for the performer, it must also dance.
Sonatas 1 – 6 (1775)
Unbelievable as it may seem, Mozart was a relative latecomer to piano sonata composition in 1775, when at the age of nineteen he set down his first six essays in that form. By then, he had already explored virtually every other genre: eight theater works, about as many masses, a dozen string quartets, and over fifty orchestral compositions.
Since the piano was his first instrument, one must wonder why. Simply, there was no need for the young Mozart to write out a solo sonata, for if called upon to perform one, he could easily do so extemporaneously. His previous sonata output was limited to a few that were composed during his childhood travels in Paris and London, but these were invariably for piano plus violin or flute, whose primary function would be to double the melody line. (There is evidence that he also composed four solo keyboard sonatas around this time, but these apparently have been lost.
The first six “official” sonatas date from 1775, while he was in Munich for premiere of his opera La Finta Gardiniera
. He composed five in short order, and added a sixth a few weeks later. (These are referred to in the Mozart family correspondence as the “difficult” ones.) The numbering was by Mozart himself, and probably has more to do with the ordering of their keys than with chronology. He undoubtedly meant them to be published as a set of six—a fairly standard practice at the time—because there are far more performing indications here than in the later sonatas. (Like so many of his projects, this plan came to naught.)
Sonatas 7 - 9 (1777-78)
In the mid-18th century, the city of Mannheim enjoyed a rich musical life and could boast of having Europe’s finest orchestra. Resident composers turned out well-crafted works that took advantage of the court orchestra’s virtuosity and dynamic energy. Mozart was 21 when he and his mother sojourned there for several months in yet another fruitless effort to secure Wolfgang a European court position, and he was mightily impressed with the Mannheim style of music making.
Then it was onto Paris. Again, the same dreary story: high hopes, local musicians and authorities making a fuss over him, public success, universal praise for his immense gifts, but in the end, niente. As Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm wrote Leopold from the French capital:
“He [Wolfgang] is too sincere, not active enough, too susceptible to illusions, too little aware of the means of achieving success. Here, in order to succeed, one must be artful, enterprising and bold; for the sake of his fortunes, I wish he had half as much talent and twice as much of the qualities I have described . . . You see, my dear sir, in a country where all the mediocre and detestable musicians have made immense fortunes, your son could not manage at all.”
A little more than two years had passed since Mozart had composed the Durnitz Sonata. During this hiatus he produced about sixty compositions, and being Mozart, the quality of his output benefited from the activity. The four sonatas dating from this brief period are fully mature works that give lie to the conventional wisdom that Mozart’s sonatas are minor pieces. On the contrary, they are as harmonically rich, structurally strong, and as melodically inspired as anything he had composed to date. Furthermore, the variety of moods these twelve movements convey—from the tragic to the joyful, from the profound to the simple—must have left his listeners shaking their heads in wonderment.
Sonatas 10 - 14 (1783-84)
After a break of about five years, Mozart again returned to piano sonata production. Originally, it was believed that the sonatas, K. 330 – 332 were written, like K. 310, during the 1778 Paris visit, but scholars are now quite certain they were composed in 1783, either in Vienna, where he had resided since 1781, or in Salzburg during a visit home that year to introduce his new wife to his family. The fourteenth sonata in C minor dates from about a year later, in the fall of 1784.
Mozart was now in far better circumstances, enjoying his early rush of success in Vienna as pianist and teacher, and of course, as a composer who turned out masterpieces on a regular basis. In other words, by 1783 his compositions for other media had become as fine as the ones he had been writing for solo piano since 1777. As a consequence, the difference in quality between the previous four sonatas and these five is not huge; the hand of the master is evident from first note to last. Still, one might argue that in Sonatas 12 – 14 he achieved an artistic level even richer than that of its predecessors, and just perhaps – pace – even its successors.
Sonatas 15 - 18 (1788-89)
If one defines the oft-used word “canon” as a collection of works generally considered to be representative, as well as the best of a particular form, and in which one can detect a coherent development (not necessarily improvement) from work to work, there indeed exists a canon of Mozart’s piano sonatas. However, that canon concludes with the Sonata No. 14. The following four are, in a sense, post-canonic.
By 1788, Mozart was fully at the peak of his artistry, creating one masterwork after another. The “Prague” Symphony No. 38, Figaro, Giovanni, the six quartets dedicated to Haydn, the two piano quartets, and the piano concertos Nos. 20 through 25, were now all behind him, as they had not been when he wrote the preceding C minor sonata. Moreover, considering what was to come—Cosi, Die Zauberflöte, the final three symphonies, the last piano concerto, the two great clarinet works, and the Requiem—even the most unapologetic admirer of his solo piano music must admit that the assertion that the sonatas do not represent his very best work had more validity in 1788 than in 1784. Henceforth, piano sonatas would no longer be in the forefront of his artistry as they had been. Nevertheless, the final sonatas are hardly minor works: they exemplify a great composer at the height of his mastery and maturity.
Coda (1791 - present)
Mozart did not live to compose another piano sonata. There probably has never been a music lover who has not contemplated what wonders may have been created if Mozart had been granted the opportunity to acquaint himself with Haydn’s late works, as well as the earlier ones of Beethoven and Schubert, and to interact with all three composers, as he surely would have done. One can only dream, while remaining forever grateful for the miracles we do have…
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The Apple Computer as a High-End Audio Component
Anyone who knows Robert Silverman knows of his long-standing interest in high-end audio. Below is some advice for those who wish to get the best possible sound out of their Macs. Read More ...
Each of these suggestions will help you get better sound from any Mac, which at its heart is an high-end audio component. (If you are Mac-less, you have my sympathies, but it is possible to get similar quality sound.)
A. For an office environment:
Simply connecting a pair of computer speakers through the headphone jack will make a huge difference. The better speakers you buy, the better the sound. Some are remarkable for the price.
If you import CDs into iTunes, set up iTunes Preferences so that the imported files are "lossless." The sound will be much closer to the original, although the files will use more space on your Hard Drive than mp3 files. However, if you ever run out of space, which you probably won't, external drives are dirt cheap these days. I bought a 1.5 TB drive that I dedicate solely to my music files.
B. At home, one can do a lot more.
Instead of using computer speakers, connect the computer from the headphone output to an auxiliary input of your amplifier. Of course, as always, the better the quality of the cables, not to mention the rest of your system, the better the sound.
When importing files into iTunes, make sure they come in as AIFF files, which are identical to CD-quality. Easy to do by adjusting iTunes Preferences.
To get better sound than that, you have to bypass the computer's built-in Digital to Audio (D/A) conversion circuitry. This involves purchasing a separate D/A converter and getting the digital signal out of your computer one of two ways. The easiest is to get a converter that has a USB input. You simply connect it to your computer via a USB jack. There are loads of them on the market; some are not too expensive. Some new amplifiers actually come with a USB input, which means that they already have a built-in D/A converter. They may be better than the Apple's, or they may not, depending on the quality of the amp in question.
C: But wait, there's more!! Once you have gotten this far, you can get much better than CD-quality sound with a bit of effort, but without any further significant expense.
Make sure the D/A converter you get has a digital "Toslink" input (digital info travels via a light signal through a glass fibre cable). Most made in the last couple of years do have it (as do many modern home-theater amplifiers, although again, the quality of the conversion varies). Few Mac owners know that the headphone output on their machine is also a Toslink output. You just have to buy a mini-toslink-to-toslink cable from an Apple store, and connect the computer to the D/A converter. Cables come in various qualities. Pure glass is the best, but for distances up to about 6-8 feet, fibreglass will do just about as well, and is a lot cheaper and easier to come by.
Neither do most Mac owners know that, hidden away in the Utilities sub-folder in Applications, is a powerful application entitled Audio MIDI setup. Click on it and navigate to the Audio Devices window. On the left-hand side is the Built-in-Output frame. Click on it. Now, on the right, you will see under Output, two Format options. Leave 44,100 Hz alone, but change the right-hand box to 2ch-24bit, rather than 2ch-16bit. (The USB connection described earlier doesn't allow such high resolution.)
Finally, before going to a CD store or logging on to iTunes or Amazon to download recorded music, go to one of several sites that sell CD-quality and higher-resolution audio files. HDtracks.com
is my favorite, but there are others. A good list of sites can be found at The State of Audiophile Music Downloads | Computer Audiophile.
The files will be in FLAC format. You can't listen to them in iTunes, but you can with other similar programs obtainable for free. VLC plays anything audio or video you can throw at it, but Bluebird allows you to set up playlists and looks very nice.
Good listening.Read less ...