Beethoven And The Sonata
( Originally Published 1905 )
Bach and Beethoven Contrasted.—We now consider the exact nature of the work which Beethoven did, in distinction from that of Haydn and Mozart. It has been said that Bach gave the Old Testament in music, while Beethoven gave the New; that is, that Bach consummated the old polyphom school, while Beethoven did an equal work for the new harmonic school. Yet this is only a half truth ; for Bach, besides perfecting former styles, gave glimpses of modern chromatic modulation and free expression; while Beethoven, a student of the old masters, employed poly-phonic forms as well as harmonic, making all work together to translate his thought, and so moulding them into a means of portraying every emotion as to open the door forever to the untrammelled presentment of thought, through the medium of music.
Beethoven's Gradual Development. But Beethoven did not arrive at this result in an instant. It is true that, even in his early works, a distinction of style is shown which removes them from a mere imitation, but, as has been shown, he began practically at the point where Haydn and Mozart left off, with compositions which can hardly be placed on a higher level than theirs ; and, in the course of a life full of strenuous experiences, he gradually unfolded the resources which he had received from his predecessors, until he made them adequate to give vent to the mighty ideas which welled from his soul. Thus we find in his works a period in which form is rigidly observed; and we pass thence through an era of expansion, during which form becomes more elastic, through the added requirements placed upon it, until the thought and emotion become so paramount that the formal lines have entirely disappeared, and are only to be traced by careful analysis.
Beethoven and the Orchestra.—As the great exponent of instrumental music, Beethoven found the orchestra his best and fullest vehicle of expression. So his massive mind, grasping with ease the effects of manifold combinations of instruments, was able to mould his thoughts into terms of tone color in which each instrument should be employed to bring out the exact shade of feeling required. So the orchestra becomes with him a great individual instrument, responding to the slightest change of mood.
Use of the Piano.—But as a preparation for such orchestral work, Beethoven realized the value of the pianoforte. Attaining a marvelous degree of virtuosity in the use of the keyboard at an early age, he later found this of the greatest advantage in working out his ideas, and, further, in actually trying their effects upon auditors. Thus we find in his first pianoforte sonatas effects which appeared much later in the greater elaboration of his symphonies ; thus also is shown the necessary imperfection of any division of his works into distinct periods, since his pianoforte style was so greatly in advance of his orchestral.
Improvement in the Piano.--In this connection, it is important to note that Beethoven's resources were greatly in-creased by the improvements which had been made in piano manufacture. The demand for instruments, created by the growing popularity of the pianoforte, stimulated manufacturers to redoubled energy in perfecting them ; and, conversely, the added resources thus developed were an instigation to composers to test their abilities in the invention of new effects. Thus Beethoven was placed in command of a piano of much greater power than Mozart's; and the work of technicians, like Clementi, for whom he had great respect, was already hinting at new and marvelous possibilities.
Added Sonority and Sustaining Power.—This strength of construction resulted in greater sonority. Hence we find full chord progressions and rich floods of tone in Beethoven's works, in place of the dainty harmonic accompaniment of former writers. Moreover, the increase in sustaining force, enhanced by the use of the pedal, made possible a sustained legato tone for singing passages, which had formerly to be merely hinted at through shakes and other embellishments. A consequent tone variety made it possible to emphasize a single voice in this way, while the accompanying harmonies could be kept well in the back-ground. Again, this range of tone proved an incentive for long crescendos, from the softest suspicion of sound to an overwhelming tonal climax.
Increased Compass.—The added range which the keyboard developed also enhanced such effects, by the chance for brilliancy in the treble, and for profundity in the bass; moreover, Beethoven was quick to make use of the variety of effects caused by playing in the different registers; some-times suggesting in this way the contrast in the orchestra between different groups of instruments, such as the strings and woodwind.
Structure of Beethoven's Sonatas.—With such resources at his command, Beethoven was able to give a fuller scope to the Sonata than was formerly possible, filling out each movement, and perfecting it for the expression of an integral part of the general idea, and finally placing it in its proper relationship to the whole. The Sonata Form, as settled by Haydn, was made the point of departure, serving almost invariably as the basis of the first movement, and frequently, in shortened form, for the second, generally slow, movement. For the third movement, Beethoven at first employed the Minuet, following the custom in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart; but later this was generally omitted in the pianoforte sonatas, while in the symphonies its time was quickened into that of the dainty, sparkling Scherzo. For 'he finale, the Rondo form was most frequent; though, in o, der to give a fuller compass to the thought, a combination of the Rondo and Sonata forms was invented by Beethoven, and used even in his first sonatas. The Rondo form also appeared occasionally in the slow movement. Add that other forms, notably that of the Variation, sometimes supplanted one or the other of these, and we have the structure generally followed by Beethovcn.
Unity of Conception.—All these movements were associated in an organic unity of conception which made one grow out of another with perfect naturalness. Sometimes, indeed, as in opus 27, a continuity of performance was indicated; always, however, the feeling of dependence of one movement upon another is present; so that the criticism made upon Haydn's symphonies, that a movement of one could be interchanged with a similar movement of any other without perceptible difference, could never be made with regard to Beethoven's works.
Key Relationship.—In key relationship, Beethoven struck out from stereotyped paths, frequently using contrasting keys related to the third of the initial chord; thus a movement or passage in C major might be followed by any key related to E, the third of the chord of C, such as E or A major or minor. The original key was most widely de-parted from in the slow movement, where the beauty of contrast was exceptionally noticeable.
Number of Movements. — The number of movements which he adopted was at first four, but this afterwards varied considerably, two or three movements prevailing; while in the fantasie-sonatas, and especially in the last five sonatas, an indefinite number of movements, some of them very short, appeared. He explained this discrepancy on the ground that he adapted the number of movements to his thought; and when he felt that he had given complete expression to this, the sonata was brought to a close.
Development of First Movement Form.—Of Beethoven's first movements, it may be said that no one has ever spoken with the perfect freedom and naturalness which he displays. Each part of the movement he strengthened and developed ; the first section announced two themes, contrasting, but still closely identified; sometimes with a slow introduction to usher them in; the Development was given a contrapuntal treatment, solidified by rich harmonies ; the third section was varied by rhythmic or tonal devices, tending to broaden its effect ; and, finally, the Coda was some-times developed to the length of a fourth section, in which reminiscences of material used previously were worked up to a fitting climax.
Devices for Giving Unity.—But the most evident characteristic which Beethoven put into this form was that of Unity, or Continuity of idea. This he accomplished by several means. Of these, the first was by separating the most striking parts of his subjects into short, definite phrases or motives, and by introducing these in every variety of manner throughout the movement, sometimes in a sequence on different degrees of the scale, sometimes by imitation in different voices, again by varying the length of the component notes, and finally by dropping off portions, while the portions remaining keep the idea still before the auditor. Or, some casual phrase, in an unimportant section, will strike his fancy and he will develop it with a wealth of imagery astonishing in its inventiveness.
Continuity of Various Parts.—This constant presentment of a thematic idea also serves to bind passages closely together which, in the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart, were separated by definite pauses. Indeed, Beethoven sedulously avoids a complete cadence, seeking, by leading the listener eagerly on from one connecting phrase to another, to retain the interest and make it mount up higher and higher, as the effects grow in intensity. So phrases are made to overlap one another, with their boundaries practically eliminated. It has been said that Beethoven tore down the fences which Haydn and Mozart had erected between the various parts of the Sonata Form; and this is proven by the fact that, in the Beethoven sonatas, authorities frequently differ as to where one part ends and another begins, so close and continuous is the bond between them.
Dramatic Effects in Climaxes.—This close connection is made a ready element toward the dramatic expression which finds vent in the climaxes, made from culminating tonal effects, where the thematic phrase mounts up step by step, higher and higher, growing breathless by shortened rhythm, until the hearer is brought to the summit of dramatic in-tensity; and here thunderous arpeggios, mingled together by the use of the pedal, hold him spellbound with their sonorous waves of sound. The supreme passion which Beethoven does not wholly conceal even in his quieter moods appears frequently in strange, agitated rhythms and startling accents thrown upon unexpected notes or in unexpected places. He also used many more marks of expression than his predecessors.
Freedom in Modulations.—The boldness of his modulations has already been mentioned; and these appear with the most freedom in the development sections, where tonalities pile upon one another, until the auditor is apparently inextricably involved in a maze of harmonies; from which, naturally as the awakening from a dream, he finds himself transported back to the original key, in which the first theme is taking its course. Beethoven's sense of proportion, however, sees to it that this intricacy of keys is well prepared by the definite tonality of his original subjects, and by the final complete restatement of the original key. His harmonies frequently shocked his contemporaries by their violations of conventional rules; but they have long since been justified by succeeding musicians, who have de-parted from them to much bolder flights.
Program Music.—It has been said that Beethoven furnishes examples of the program style--that is, the depicting of definite ideas through music. We have already found a tendency of this sort among the early French clavier composers-Rameau, the Couperins and others of their school; also in some of the German writers, like Pachelbel and Kuhnau. Viewed in relation to these early composers, Beethoven's work seems to have little in common, since his nearest approach to program music was in attaching to some of his works certain moods, inspired by events or scenes. Thus he gives the name "Pathétique" to the sonata, opus 13, "Appassionata to opus 57, "Les Adieux" to opus 8i; while we have the "Pastoral" symphony, depicting the mood inspired by country scenes, and the "Eroica," showing the mood arising from the contemplation of a hero's career.
Pianoforte Concertos.—The same characteristics which are noted in his pianoforte sonatas appeared, developed still further, in his larger works, such as his symphonies and piano concertos. The latter, five in number, display the resources of the virtuosity of Beethoven's day, and yet keep this always subordinated to the inspired musical sentiment, with which the orchestra nobly accords. The last two of these, belonging to the maturity of his genius, amply display the powers of genuine expression.
Variations.—Of numerous other piano compositions, the sets of Variations are prominent. He was fond of taking some short and simply constructed musical thought, some-times from some song or opera, and treating it in every variety of manner that his fertile genius could suggest. Such compositions, while generally playful in mood, have the finish which Beethoven never failed to give to his work.
Beethoven's Accuracy in Writing.—It is this seriousness toward his art which most fully accentuates the real underlying drift of his nature. In the midst of his untidy ménage, when confusion of material goods reigned about him, Beethoven nevertheless treated each work which flowed from his pen with the most careful and critical revision, never allowing it to go out until he had absolutely fixed each note in its proper place. Where his art was involved, his usually irritable nature acquired a fund of patience; so that sometimes whole scores were rewritten, until he arrived at accurate expression ; and, when that point was reached, his fiat was irrevocable. It is thus a satisfaction to note that he has not left us the erratic wanderings of an eccentric mind; but the completed and matured product of a genius, speaking with authority and precision.
Weitzmann.—History of Pianoforte Playing.
Parry.—Evolution of the Art of Music, Chapter XII.
Shedlock.—The Pianoforte Sonata, Chapter VII.
Naumann.—History of Music, Vol. II, Chapter XXXII
Schindler.—Life of Beethoven.