Robert Silverman. Pianist.
Robert Silverman. Pianist.

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Chopin and the Piano

The complete program notes accompanying the forthcoming Isomike release (vinyl and high-res download) of Silverman's recording of late Chopin works entitled Chopin's Last Waltz. Along with descriptions of the works recording, Silverman discusses Chopin's development as a composer, and vividly illustrates the extent of his originality
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Early in my career, at a social occasion I had been invited to as a guest, I was asked to sit down at the piano and play something. As I had not yet acquired the art of declining such requests graciously (or otherwise when unduly pressed), I acquiesced. At the conclusion of the performance, my host mentioned that although he'd enjoyed my playing, he preferred "semi-classical music," especially by that popular French composer whose name he had forgotten. "Michel Legrand?" I asked helpfully. "No, no, someone more famous."You don't mean Chopin?" "Yes, that's the one." "I just played something by Chopin," I responded. Since he had a limited knowledge of music, his gaffe could be easily forgiven, even if mine could not. Still, the time has long passed since it apparently was a truth universally acknowledged that aside from his ability to write beautiful melodies, Chopin possessed only elementary skill at composition, and certainly was not remotely in the league of the three Bs or many others.

Nowadays, it is commonly agreed that Chopin was a musical genius of the highest order. Still, old misunderstandings persist: Chopin's music operates on so many visceral levels that even from the onset of his career, audiences who may not have appreciated its inherent skill and finesse, invariably have loved the sound his music makes. Some cognoscenti have never forgiven him this sin. I recall a well-known scholar stating, upon hearing a performance of a late Nocturne, that he thought it was a students mediocre imitation of Chopin. At least he got the composer right.

The young Chopin was fortunate to have teachers who, recognizing the immensity of his talent, willingly served as mentors rather than strict martinets, thus allowing him the opportunity to develop on his own. As a result, Chopin was basically self-taught both as a pianist and a composer. He developed quickly, and public recognition in both areas was virtually instantaneous. He was only 17 when he composed the set of variations, Op. 2, about which Robert Schumann famously wrote "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius."

While still in his late teens, he began composing what would become the Op. 10 Etudes, the first half of an indispensable compendium of piano studies that have since challenged and fascinated students and professionals alike. Several short, familiar waltzes, published posthumously, date from this period as well. In 1830, at the age of twenty, his career began in earnest with the publication of the Op. 6 Mazurkas and the E minor piano concerto. Henceforth, with only a handful of stumbles along the way, a stream of well-received works would flow regularly from his pen. His output seriously slowed down only in 1846 with the onset of the later stage of his illness, and ceased a year later. His final two years were virtually silent.

His works are all generically entitled; he had no use for the fashionable quasi-literary titles that Schumann and Liszt favored. His compositions took the form of either Polish national folk dances, like Mazurkas and Polonaises, or absolute music such as Etudes, Waltzes, Nocturnes, Preludes in all the keys, and Impromptus. From the start, these masterful, original works easily surpassed similar pieces by his contemporaries and predecessors.

As he matured, his music exhibited an unsurpassed understanding of the piano's sonic and technical capabilities, an ever-increasing mastery of counterpoint second only to J. S. Bach, and an avant-garde harmonic language that foreshadowed Wagner. Toward the end of the decade, following an unsuccessful effort at writing a piano sonata, he produced his masterful Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. Of greater importance were his large single-movement works like the Ballades and Scherzos. He also began to blend genres within individual pieces: Mazurkas, for instance, can be found in his C#-minor Nocturne and his F#-minor Polonaise, a light Valse Brillante appears within the first Ballade, while the middle section of his 4th Scherzo takes on the character of a melancholy Barcarolle.

In the 1840s, his music continued to increase in its complexity, and often was rife with foreboding tragic overtones, causing some of his admirers to fear he was in danger of losing his audience. In addition to working in all the above-mentioned forms, he composed his finest one-off masterpieces: the Barcarolle, Berceuse, and the two Fantasies. It is from this period that the repertoire on this album is drawn.

The 1841 Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49 is one of the landmarks of the 19th- century piano literature. Although countless composers churned out virtuoso-like, formulaic "Fantasies" based on themes from then-popular operas, this large work follows in a more serious tradition set forth by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. A sombre march is followed by a lengthy section consisting of several brief episodes of extraordinary passion, sweep, and power, concluding with a quick march that foreshadows Elgar. This being perhaps too much material to absorb in one hearing, Chopin wisely repeats most of it again in a new key, but interrupts the proceedings in midstream with a peaceful Adagio. After a sudden outburst of three fortissimo octaves, we are once again led into the breach. The Fantaisie concludes with an echo of the Adagio and a final pianissimo flourish.

Chopin published Nocturnes throughout his life. However it was only the title and external characteristics -- Bellini-like melodies accompanied by broken chords in the left hand -- that he borrowed from the sentimental salon pieces by his Irish contemporary John Field. (The closest Chopin came to Field's conception was his syrupy Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major.) The others usually begin similarly, but before they conclude, Chopin's dreams often assume the character of nightmares.

The final Nocturne in E major, Op. 62/2 (1846) begins with a glowing theme, giving way to a more poignant melody. This in turn leads to a restless, thickly textured passage in which one hand imitates the other, while melody and accompaniment are intertwined. Chopin understood that there was no need to repeat the opening section in its entirety. He restates just enough of it to remind us where we are in the piece, and then moves on, returning to the poignant second theme, but now altered so as to convey a sense of peaceful finality.

The brooding Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 dates from 1841. It is more of an unanswered question than a statement, featuring one of Chopin's favorite devices: a rolling bass accompaniment sweeping upward until it takes over the next phrase of the melody. The most remarkable passage in this brief work is a chromatic cadenza toward the conclusion. (And yes, there is a striking similarity between one phrase in this piece and the climax of the well-known Irish tune, Danny Boy. It is best not to focus on it.)

It has been said that the Mazurkas are Chopin's most authentically Polish works, hearkening back to national folk dances of the medieval era. However, as Bartok would do almost a century later, Chopin managed to infuse his artistic being with the spirit of those idioms to the point that he could create authentic-sounding pieces without having to rely on pre-existing melodies. He wrote fifty-seven Mazurkas, but published only forty-one. As a group, they comprise his most original, inventive compositions, in which unorthodox scales and astonishing voice leading play an important role. This music belongs more in his private domain, the antithesis of, say, the showier, deliberately appealing Waltzes.

At first his Mazurkas were true miniatures, usually in standard tripartite form. As they evolved, though, they often became longer and formally more complex. Their moods, ranged from the ecstatic to deep melancholia. The final one he published, the wistful Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63/3, (1846) additionally exemplifies his mastery of imitative counterpoint in the effective coda.

As for the feverish, unfinished Mazurka in F minor, Op. 67/4 (1849 - his "deathbed" work), only portions of the autograph are reasonably legible, and those parts were published shortly after his death. Since then, however, several musicians have attempted to decipher the rest of it, and to determine how all its parts might fit together. (I base my efforts on Michelangeli's recording of the piece.) One might be hard pressed to claim this Mazurka to be a forgotten masterpiece but it at least affords us insight into a dying composer's hallucinatory thoughts. Its Wagnerian harmonies also provide a hint of a direction he may have pursued had his health been miraculously restored.

The final piano works published in Chopin's lifetime are the three Waltzes, Op. 64. The first (the "Minute Waltz") and second (the C-sharp minor) need no introduction, but the Valse in A-flat, Op. 64/3 is one of his least-known pieces. It is everything its opus-mates are not: obscure, subtle, and almost uniquely in Chopin's output, humorous. I only learned, after the recording was fully edited, that it may have been composed in 1840, seven years earlier than the other two. Thus ironically, "Chopin's Last Waltz" turns out not to be included in this album at all, yet in its sophistication, it could easily stand as his ultimate effort in this genre. The principal melody slithers about over a traditional "oom-pah-pah" bass, wandering from key to key. As the middle section approaches, Chopin introduces a "drumbeat" motif that is at odds with the 3/4 time signature. That drumbeat becomes the springboard for most phrases in the middle section as it too meanders through several keys. Characteristically, Chopin only quotes enough of it to remind us what a return section is traditionally supposed to do. The ensuing coda accelerates increasingly, finishing suddenly with a brilliant flourish descending down the entire length of the keyboard.

Pianists automatically think only of Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Liszt when discussing composers born in the first decade of the nineteenth century. But there was another equally original genius born six years earlier: Hector Berlioz. His 1830 "Symphonie Fantastique" begins with a series of halting G's. Perhaps Chopin did not knowingly borrow the idea for the opening of his Fourth Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52, but it is indeed unusual to find two such singular works in the repertoire that begin so similarly.

Scholars have puzzled over the structure of Chopin's Ballades ever since they appeared, often attempting to shoehorn them into one variant or another of what is commonly termed Sonata Allegro form. However, they miss the point. Indeed, such works exhibit sonata principles, not to mention other traditional forms (what good pieces from 1750-1900 don't?) but fundamentally, the Ballades have no real antecedent either as a genre or a musical form. Chopin well understood the underlying principles of composition, and realized before any of his contemporaries that after a century of tonality's firm hold on European art music, it was no longer necessary to adhere closely to established structures in order to compose a highly cohesive composition lasting more than a few minutes.

It takes no great insight to state that following a brief introduction, the Fourth Ballade features three iterations of a main theme, each succeeded by episodic material, and followed by a coda that is one of the most brilliant passages in all of piano music. This is tantamount to saying that Shakespeare's Othello is a play in five acts, in which everyone dies at the end.

There's a bit more to it than that. Of the countless wonders contained in this masterpiece, allow me to point out how, about two thirds through the piece, Chopin's ingenious development and expansion of the introductory measures unperceivably blends into the final variation of the main theme. This in turn leads, again seamlessly, into a passage that repeats a lilting episode heard earlier (all the Ballades have lilting themes, incidentally), but is now transformed into what might have been one of the great operatic scenes of the 19th century, if only he had chosen to compose an opera...

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Beethoven Redux (updated 2015)

A few thoughts on recording Beethoven's 32 sonatas a second time.
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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 changes in interpretation: stretching tempos here, pushing them elsewhere, discovering and bringing out voices that Beethoven himself may not have known were present, playing lyrical themes more "romantically" and so forth. It took only a couple of hours before I realized that I was doing things that my teachers never would have allowed me to do, things I myself had never previously done, 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. Whatever changes had occurred over the previous decade would have to result from ensuring that every strand in Beethoven’s sonic tapestry be reconsidered and strengthened musically to the best of my ability.

Although I'd always had a healthy, robust sound, it was around the turn of the century that I realized that my playing could use greater tonal variety. I began work consciously toward that end, experimenting with various touches, and different ways of positioning the hand while at the piano. I also spent time listening to — and trying to emulate — orchestral balances achieved by the greatest of conductors, especially Furtwängler, Kleiber, and Levine.

 One characteristic of my early playing was a tendency to slow down at the end of too many phrases. Too many commas were inserted into the music, those commas present in the score tended to be treated as semi-colons; semi-colons became periods, and so on.  By mid-career, I’d largely eliminated those mannerisms, but when working on the sonatas this time, I was amazed at the degree to which I found myself not simply choosing to carry the music along throughout each section, but rather, BEING FORCED by the music to do so.  Events that may once have seemed structurally important to me now appeared local. Simultaneously, because of the greater continuity, other Beethovenian gestures — sudden pauses or dynamic changes, for example — now seemed rhetorically more important than they once did, and I found myself able to perform them with more conviction.  How did this happen?  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.

So, is this set (only 24 sonatas will appear) actually better than the first? That’s for each listener to decide, although I believe it is.  However, it certainly is palpably different, and for better or worse it undoubtedly reflects my current thinking about these crucially seminal works.  (The first release is due for release momentarily)

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Brahms-Handel Variations and Schumann Symphonic Etudes

Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, Op. 13, and Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Händel, Op. 24, are undoubtedly the Romantic era’s finest sets of piano variations. Yet, notwithstanding the well-documented relationship between Brahms and the Schumann family, these works are philosophical and musical opposites in virtually every respect.

In most variation sets dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, the relationship between the theme and its variations was kept clear. The theme’s melodic outline, structure and harmonies were largely retained so that the listener could trace the connection while admiring the composer’s inventiveness. However, Beethoven worked throughout his career to transform this aesthetic. In his final set of variations on a waltz by Diabelli, he composed thirty-three variations of disparate length and structure; some were strongly related to the waltz, but many others were based upon just a single element—and sometimes not even an important one—of the original theme.

The Etudes Symphoniques boldly extrapolate Beethoven’s principles even further. In the process, the work integrates two of Schumann’s early compositional preoccupations – variations and piano studies – and represents his crowning achievement in both genres. Difficult as they may be, the Etudes Symphoniques are not primarily designed to exploit the pianist’s presti-digitational abilities. Rather, they deal with technical problems arising from such artistic issues as sustaining two or more different lines or layers of music, or executing thick chords so that they do not sound rough or clattery.

In contrast, the Händel Variations and Fugue stand as one of the most retrospective works in the Romantic literature. Brahms never really “loses” Händel’s theme in any audible sense, but instead infuses each variation with as brilliantly hued an array of colors, variegated textures and late nineteenth-century harmonies as any composer has achieved on the keyboard. As none other a proponent of new music than Richard Wagner said, “they show that the older forms still have life in them, provided they are in the hands of a composer who knows what to do with them.”

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Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, Op. 13, and Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Händel, Op. 24, are undoubtedly the Romantic era’s finest sets of piano variations. Yet, notwithstanding the well-documented relationship between Brahms and the Schumann family, these works are philosophical and musical opposites in virtually every respect.

In most variation sets dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, the relationship between the theme and its variations was kept clear. The theme’s melodic outline, structure and harmonies were largely retained so that the listener could trace the connection while admiring the composer’s inventiveness. However, Beethoven worked throughout his career to transform this aesthetic. In his final set of variations on a waltz by Diabelli, he composed thirty-three variations of disparate length and structure; some were strongly related to the waltz, but many others were based upon just a single element—and sometimes not even an important one—of the original theme.

The Etudes Symphoniques boldly extrapolate Beethoven’s principles even further. In the process, the work integrates two of Schumann’s early compositional preoccupations – variations and piano studies – and represents his crowning achievement in both genres. Difficult as they may be, the Etudes Symphoniques are not primarily designed to exploit the pianist’s presti-digitational abilities. Rather, they deal with technical problems arising from such artistic issues as sustaining two or more different lines or layers of music, or executing thick chords so that they do not sound rough or clattery.

In contrast, the Händel Variations and Fugue stand as one of the most retrospective works in the Romantic literature. Brahms never really “loses” Händel’s theme in any audible sense, but instead infuses each variation with as brilliantly hued an array of colors, variegated textures and late nineteenth-century harmonies as any composer has achieved on the keyboard. As none other a proponent of new music than Richard Wagner said, “they show that the older forms still have life in them, provided they are in the hands of a composer who knows what to do with them.”


In 1834, Schumann met and fell in love with Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow student of Frederick Wieck and daughter of a nobleman, himself an amateur musician. (Clara, only 15 at the time, presumably was not yet of romantic interest.) The relationship ended when Schumann visited the von Fricken family and learned that Ernestine was the illegitimate child of the Count’s unmarried sister-in-law. Although he had adopted her and treated her well, she ultimately would not inherit. In a letter to a friend, Schumann wrote that he was “forced” to end the match not only because of her illegitimacy, but also because, had they married, he would have had to earn their daily bread “like a workman.” (No wonder Wieck had such strong objections to Clara marrying Robert: Who would not object to a money-grubbing, emotionally unstable drunkard for a son-in-law, even if he were a genius? This oft-rehearsed saga is more two-sided than we often have been led to believe.)

While his relationship with Ernestine was going strong, Schumann composed several variations on a theme for flute and piano by Count von Fricken. Its original purpose probably was to impress his prospective father-in-law, but following the romantic break-up, the work gathered dust on Schumann’ desk for three years. Like so many of Schumann’s works, his initial ideas for the Etudes Symphoniques seemed to flow unimpeded from his pen, whereas the problem of working them into their final form occupied him for a long time. During this period his greatest problems often seemed to be: a) naming his compositions (eight separate titles were considered for this work), b) deciding how much of what he had already composed should be included, and c) determining the final order of the various components.

In 1837 the first published version appeared. Entitled Etudes Symphoniques, it consisted of the theme (annotated by Schumann as being “composed by an amateur”) plus twelve etudes. The word variation does not appear anywhere in this publication, but that indeed is what most of these pieces are. Some are virtually identical to the 1834 autograph while others apparently were composed during the interim.

Seventeen years later, in 1852, Schumann revised the piece and provided a new title: Etudes en forme de Variations. At the last moment he decided to omit two of the most beautiful pieces from this version (those with the least relationship to the theme). The new setting, then, contained the theme, nine variations, and a Finale, which is a reworking of Var. 12.

Virtually no one performs that edition. Furthermore, Schumann never published the version that is most often played—the one posthumously compiled in 1861 by Frederick Wieck (of all people) in collaboration with Adolf Schubring, in which they reinstated the two omitted variations into the 1852 version in order to combine what they believed was the best of both authentic editions.

Writer/pianist Charles Rosen (as well as the imaginary Maestro Raro, a paid-up Davidsbund member who regularly inhabited Schumann’s writings) asserts that in almost every case, Schumann’s initial editions of his compositions are quirkier, more daring, more original. The revisions usually lean in the direction of making his music less idiosyncratic, with correspondingly blander results. I strongly agree with Rosen and Raro, and always perform the earliest published versions (as Robert Silverman did in his performance of the composer’s F Minor sonata, Op. 14, containing all five movements, in his Stereophile album “Concert.” Ed.)

Schumann greatly admired Bach so it is not surprising that imitative writing abounds throughout this piece. Etude 1 begins with a motif that is initially treated fugally. After all the voices have entered, the opening phrase of the theme emerges over this material.

Etude 2: Those who, like myself, believe that the treble melody is one of Schumann’s most glorious creations must not forget that underlying it in the bass is a fairly literal statement of von Fricken’s theme.

Etude 3: Violinistic figurations in the right hand accompany a broad tenor theme in the left. (This is one of the etudes Schumann omitted from the 1852 edition.)

The following three etudes feature imitation between the hands: Etude 4 consists of thick, compact chords with rests occurring between each chord. Schumann complicates matters by indicating use of the pedal. This variation leads directly to Etude 5. Many music teachers insist that their students establish a strong tempo relationship between Etudes 4 and 5. To be fair, this does the music no harm. However, the directive has nothing to do with Schumann’s intention: his metronome marks do not imply any relationship, no matter how esoteric the math. Furthermore, in the original 1834 manuscript, the two variations are not even placed side by side.  Etude 6 is the most brilliant of the set, but when much of the sound and fury is stripped away, imitation between hands again remains an important aspect. (Schumann had previously used the identical figuration in an 1833 set of variations – first published as recently as 1976 – entitled Exercices, based on the famous Andante theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Like the later Etudes Symphoniques, it fuses elements of etude and variation into one work.)

Etude 7, in E major, begins with new material; it is only in the second section that a fragment of the original theme is quoted.

Etude 8 employs melodic imitation in the dotted rhythmic style of a Baroque French Overture. However, Schumann’s quick tempo discourages such an interpretation, even adhering to the most “authenticity” orthodoxy. (This is not the sole occurrence of an incomprehensible metronome marking by Schumann.)

Etude 9 is the other item that failed to make the 1852 cut. Its relationship to the theme (the descending chord in the original becomes a descending scale here) is more tenuous than in any of the other contenders that remained in the revised edition.

Perhaps the energetic Etude 10 is a little less inspired than the others, but it surely provides an ideal foil for the haunting Etude that follows.

Etude 11, in G# minor, begins with a variation of the main theme, rising over a shimmering bass in a manner that – as Rellstab wrote concerning the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight – evokes the image of a boat in Lake Lucerne on a chilly night. Soon, a second voice enters, echoing the first. The duet that follows is surely one of Schumann’s most inspired moments.

Etude 12: The main theme of this, the most extended Etude, is a quote from Ivanhoe’s triumphant aria “Du stolzes England” from Wolfgang Marschner’s opera, Die Templar und die Juedin. Its inclusion may have been Schumann’s way of paying homage to his British friend, William Sterndale Bennett, the work’s dedicatee. A march-like dotted rhythm pervades the piece from beginning to end but every now and then, the opening motif of von Fricken’s theme sounds through. (For the record, incessantly repeating figurations are among Schumann’s most common thumbprints. This is an aspect of his style for which he has often been criticized, but not by me!)

The two editions diverge significantly in this Etude. In the better-known 1852 setting, the theme occurs verbatim on three occasions, but in the earlier version, there are important differences in the second of those iterations. Some of the earlier music is indeed excellent, but there can be no disguising the fact that ultimately, Schumann had painted himself into a corner that he could not successfully work his way out of. Still, three identical statements of an inherently repetitive tune can make for boring listening, and I believe that performing the 1837 version is the preferable of the two options.


I mentioned that Schumann did not include some of the autograph material in either published version. This miscellany includes five variations that Brahms published posthumously in 1873. Most pianists now regularly perform them, and well they should! However, some performers tend to interpolate those variations willy-nilly into the set. In spite of the music’s undeniable beauty, there is little justification for this practice. Schumann deliberately omitted those variations in both published versions. Who are we to include what the composer twice chose to exclude? And yet, and yet…the music is so great! What to do?

While exploring further unused autograph material, a possible solution occurred to me. There exist several workings by Schumann of the von Fricken theme. One of them contains significant differences from the version Schumann ultimately employed, including repeats of both sections. That setting, together with the five posthumous variations, seems to work well as an appendix to the original set. Their original ordering by Brahms was arbitrary, and I offer thanks to Erick Lichte for suggesting a sequence that gives better shape to the collection.

As if the curious history of this piece weren’t sufficiently complicated, the two autograph versions (now in libraries in Berlin and Hainault) are virtually identical regarding content and sequence. Schumann’s original vision of this work must therefore have been clear to him in 1834, even if he would change his mind by the time the music was published. In addition to all five supplementary variations, they include an unfinished variation that, to my knowledge, has never been recorded or published. Unfortunately, I only discovered this variation after the recording sessions, so it has been impossible to include it in the present album. However, enough of the music exists that the task of completing it was not difficult, even for one whose compositional skills are minimal. My performance of the complete 1834 autograph version including that extra variation is now available on my YouTube site, beginning at;=UUokPqZWQ7O8USeuR1jL5Aiw&index;=3 and following the other two links.  


The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Händel, op. 24, completed by Brahms in 1861, were presented as a 42nd birthday gift to the widowed Clara Schumann with the dedication, “Variations for a dear lady friend.” They mark a crucial point in Brahms’ output for keyboard. After commencing his career with three large-scale sonatas, an equally flamboyant Scherzo, and four shorter works collectively entitled Ballades, he turned his attention to the variation form. He produced six sets altogether, beginning with the most radical piano work he would compose, Opus 9, based on a theme of Schumann.

In time, he determined that his art could best be served by seeking inspiration in the past rather than the future. For the source of his Op. 24 set, he chose a short keyboard aria by Händel, who had himself employed this theme for his own set of doubles (decorative variations that bear an obvious one-to-one correspondence with the theme). Brahms evidently saw in this tune a rhythmic and harmonic pattern that, in combining simplicity with a complex symmetry, could lend itself to broad range of treatments.

Note the persistent rhythm in the left hand: three quarter notes, an eighth rest, and an eighth note (a rhythm that incidentally pervades Schumann’s Humoreske, Op. 20, also in the same key). Note also how the rising and falling melodic outline in the right hand in mm. 1 – 2 (Bb – C – D – Eb – D – C – D) is echoed in the bass line in mm. 3 – 4. Brahms would revisit these characteristics continually in this work. Throughout the twenty-five variations, the theme’s harmonies, structure, and even its key are seldom abandoned. The basic rhythm, for instance, is heard unaltered in Var. 12, and it also makes itself felt in Var. 5. The melodic skeleton is easily traceable in the left hand of Var. 9, whereas in Var. 18, it is divided between the two hands.

References to Baroque forms also occur throughout the work: Variations 2 and 16 are strongly canonic, Var. 19 is in the rhythm of a Siciliano, while Var. 22 is the most beautiful Musette in the entire keyboard repertoire. The piece concludes with a fugue, the quintessential Baroque instrumental form.

Still, in spite of all this backwards gazing, the piece remains pure Brahms in the kaleidoscopic variety of treatment he imparts to the theme, his handling of the piano, and the mid-nineteenth-century richness of his harmonic language.

Particular attention must be paid to his flawless sense of pacing. When writing large sets of variations, one of the major tasks composers face is to maintain musical interest throughout. Doing too much or too little with the theme over a lengthy period can and often does lead to a feeling of restlessness on the part of the listener.  One of the ways Brahms deals with this issue is to group together pairs of variations in which the second of them is not simply related to Händel’s theme, but also is a variation of the previous one. In this manner, Var. 6 proceeds naturally from Var. 5 while Var. 7’s energetic rhythm is carried over into Var. 8.  Var. 24 so resembles a Baroque double of Var. 23, that legendary pianist Egon Petri took the courageous step of combining them into one, using the music from Var. 24 for the repeat sections of its predecessor. Sometimes the grouping is less noticeable: Var. 5 stands in sharp contrast to Var. 4, but melodically, one is clearly derived from the other. The widely differing Vars. 13 and 14 share a right hand that is written almost exclusively in sixths. An even subtler grouping of four variations immediately follows: Var. 14 proceeds without a break into Var. 15. This in turn provides two elements that show up in Var. 16—a sixteenth-note pattern as well as the two-note opening bass motive. Those bass thumps are then echoed quietly in the delicate Var. 17.

Brahms also “borrowed” a few ideas from Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations.  I believe the pairing of the highly active Vars. 14 and 15 – about half-way through the entire work – recalls Beethoven’s coupling of Variations 16 and 17 midway through the Diabellis.  Also, throughout, but especially toward the conclusion of Beethoven’s opus, there are several “character” variations that evoke other musical genres, and this is equally true in the present work:

Variation 7 evokes a horn-call hunting scene, while the dramatic Var. 13 is very much in a Nordic ballade style, complete with a strumming accompaniment. Var. 19 is in a Siciliano rhythm, and Var. 20 features ripe harmonies and organ-chorale textures that Cesar Franck must have known well. Var. 22 is a heavenly evocation of a music box or musette: take your pick.

Two of my personal favorites are Vars. 10 and 21.  In Var. 10 the melody ascends as usual, but the register of each note descends dramatically down the keyboard, accompanied by a sudden decrescendo: this concept brings to mind that dizzying effect that Hitchcock used in order to illustrate Cary Grant’s vertigo in the film of the same name. And although Var. 21 is in G minor, the grace notes preceding each beat trace the theme in the original key of Bb.

The concluding Fugue, with its subject based on the first two measures of the Händel theme, resembles the heroic fugues Bach composed for organ rather than those found in the Well-Tempered Clavier. None of the “forty-eight” explores more than two or three contrapuntal techniques at most, whereas here, Brahms throws into the mix as many fugal tricks as he can: over the course of this gigantic piece, the theme is turned inside-out and upside-down, sometimes simultaneously. We hear it at full tempo in one group of voices, while at half speed in another group. And towards the end of the fugue, while all those polyphonic events continue, both hands relentlessly ring out a repeated dominant F in octaves at the keyboard’s extremes for twelve measures, signaling the triumphant conclusion of one of the monuments of 19th-century piano music.

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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
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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.

Movement 3

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.
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Mozart and the Piano
Robert Silverman

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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