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Beethoven’s Musical Characters

An exception to this pattern may be found in the two-movement sonatas whose movements suggest opposites. In the case of op. 111, we have turmoil and peace, or the real and mystical worlds. In the Sonata op. 90, we have the comment attributed to Beethoven himself about a “Conflict Between Head and Heart” that is followed by a lyrical “Conversation with the Beloved.”17

The idea of “character” can also be understood in a broader, less personal sense. Rather than “human attitudes and passions,” some sonatas appear to reflect elements from nature surrounding us—nature seen through a temperament. In the “Waldstein” Sonata, op. 53, the impression of space and three-dimensional depth is produced by several factors: the extended harmonic perspective, which now incorporates the mediants as a matter of course; the extraordinary ambit of the principal themes, which incorporate distinctive and unusual intervallic leaps; the broad, liberal use of repeated notes, resonances, and sequences; the new manner of handling a timbre that suggests the qualities of being near and far, high and low, clear and obscure; and finally the extended panorama of dynamics. Exceptionally, a motivic idea also contributes to this impression: the leap of twenty diatonic tones in the opening theme. The performer should present this gigantic interval as the ascent of one single voice; in this manner, our perspective as listeners will be expanded from the very beginning.

The external movements of the “Waldstein” Sonata seem to me like landscapes that unfold before the musical eye. Perceiving this, I would like to let my fantasy run free and imagine for myself how, in the first movement, the horizon lies low with a great deal of sky above it, whereas in the rondo, we find ourselves high in the mountains, listening to a mountaineer’s song, a chant montagnard. In the valleys, there is dancing: both episodes of the rondo are imbued with the character of a Russian dance, like the kind we know from the “Rasumovsky” Quartets, op. 59, and from the coda of the “Appassionata” Sonata, op. 57. The outer movements of the “Waldstein” reach out into brightness; we step outside of ourselves in these movements, whereas the Adagio turns us inward, into the darkness of our natures.

The “Waldstein” Sonata is often perceived as a bravura work. Here, I would like to suggest that a more careful reading of Beethoven’s notation can help lead us to a better understanding of the composition’s psychological elements. The “Waldstein” is the only one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in which all of the movements begin pianissimo. And perhaps there is no other sonata prior to those of Schubert in which the cumulative span of pianissimo sections plays such an important part. Granted, Beethoven’s pp is not Schubert’s pianissimo espressivo, but rather almost always a pianissimo misterioso (to borrow formulations from Rudolf Kolisch), and only occasionally a pianissimo dolce, as we have in the opening theme of the “Waldstein” finale.

The pedaling Beethoven specifies for this rondo, which has precisely the effect that was forbidden during children’s piano lessons—a lack of harmonic clarity—is all too happily ignored by grown-ups. Without it, the rondo theme takes on a banality worthy of a music box. I am now convinced that the point of this heavily pedaled pedal-point is not primarily the audible maintenance of the bass note, but rather those delicately confused harmonic contours that create an atmosphere of tonic and dominant flowing in and out of one another. To be sure, the result of this should not be opaqueness, but transparent opalescence.

The Sonata in D Major, op. 28 (which not coincidentally has come to be called “Pastoral”), points in two different directions. An introverted Andante in D Minor interrupts the listener’s affectionate enjoyment of country life, which in turn incorporates two thunderstorms. The three-part psychological layout of this Andante deserves closer consideration. The first and third parts (the latter of which is an embellished repeat of the first) alternate between stern composure and sighing lamentations. The middle part, by contrast, surprises us with a bucolic scene in the major mode; in this section, the quality of innocence remains wholly untouched by melancholy or fear.

It is therefore all the more disturbing that such naiveté is turned into anxiety and horror in the coda. What does Beethoven do to lead us into the daylight after the bitter resignation of this movement’s conclusion? Gradually, cautiously, and humorously, he opens our eyes. The entire Scherzo is devoted to the restoration of the major third: it persists with the note F-sharp, which had been the object of near fixation throughout forty measures of the introductory Allegro movement’s development section.

In the Sonatas op. 28 and op. 53, the performer and the listener are invited to share in the composer’s musical communion with nature. But there are also pieces that confront us like a superior power—more elemental than personal, more angelic than human. Both are to be found in the D Minor Sonata op. 31, no. 2. The outer movements are for the most part elemental, while the Adagio is angelic. Czerny, who clearly knew this sonata better than most of the others, speaks of the “tragic character” of the work but also notes “the romantic-picturesque quality of the entire tone-painting.”18 To me, Czerny’s own story about the finale having been inspired by riders galloping past Beethoven’s window seems more revealing than Schindler’s notion of its affinity with Shakespeare’s Tempest, an idea that Czerny ignores. For a performer of the piece, nothing could be more suggestive about matters of rhythm and tempo than the “continuously passionate motion”—as Czerny puts it—of horse and rider.19

Czerny’s indication of the “picturesque quality of the tone-painting,” the painterly and painted effect of op. 31, no. 2, is also useful. Of op. 31, no. 3, Czerny claimed that “this sonata is more declamatory [sprechend] than picturesque.”20 In this work, in fact, only the minuet is lyrical, in its second half even sighing a bit.

What about the first sonata of this group of three? When Beethoven gathers three sonatas under a single opus number, he always wants to show just how different sonatas written within the latest phase of his style can be. Alongside the al fresco, painterly D Minor Sonata and its eloquent, indeed wittily garrulous sister in E-flat Major, the G Major Sonata, op. 31, no. 1, strikes me as dancing, as an expression of bodily movement by dancers or mimes with a distinct tendency toward the grotesquely comic.

The connection between character and structure in this sonata is particularly significant. In and of itself, the structure might appear to be full of inexplicable shortcomings. Only when we take into account the comic character of this work does all the apparent structural nonsense make sense. If one were to grasp merely the character, however, then the formal and structural expectations that the piece violates would remain incomprehensible. Whoever denies the ability of “absolute music” to incorporate comic intentions and effects must necessarily give a poor grade to this piece (an evaluation that has in fact been made repeatedly in critical commentaries). There are plenty of indicators of a comic character in the first two movements. The unique designation of the slow movement—“Adagio grazioso,” almost a contradiction in itself—gives some indication of Beethoven’s ironic treatment of the kind of galant style found in the two early Rondos, op. 51, or in the Violin Romances, op. 40 and op. 50.

Assigning qualities like “speaking,” “painting,” or “dancing” can be helpful in understanding other sonatas as well. To these we should add a fourth possibility, “singing.” This is applicable to those pieces in which singing outweighs speaking, or in which speech is entirely absorbed by song.

Basically, the performer should welcome anything that supports our understanding of the musical characters or characteristics in a given work. One useful concept is that of the four natural elements. The finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 2, can easily be related to fire, as can the finale of his Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 31, no. 3, marked “Allegro con fuoco.” The Rondo of op. 2, no. 2, and the second movement of op. 54 could be perceived as flowing. The first movement of the Sonata op. 109 hovers a few inches above the earth: the bass line follows the upper voices as weightlessly as possible. In contrast to this, the bass line of the second movement scrapes into the earth, as it were. The third movement, then, unites earth and air: it both hovers and rests at the same time. Every good performance of a work, incidentally, needs its breath of fresh air, so that the music does not suffocate as if under a bell jar.

Combinations of natural elements are entirely possible in music. In the fugue theme of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, we can discover other elements alongside the flaming, darting, flickering: the impetus of the stream, the stormy air, and the rootedness of the bass. In a sense, this finale is the most elemental movement that Beethoven ever wrote. It unleashes the elements and yet holds them under strict structural control. This is just one example of how structure and character need not necessarily conform but can rather relate to each other as contrasting features. Not only the fugue, but also the first two movements of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata are manic, the great Adagio by contrast singularly depressive, with ecstatic outbursts.

In attempting to grasp at least a few expressions of a work’s characteristics, its mood, its atmosphere, it helps to be alert to the nuances of language. A great deal—including perhaps the most essential—must remain unspoken. And yet language can stimulate perception and support psychological memory. An awareness of contrasting pairs can clarify a good deal. Opposites like calm/agitated, stiff/flexible, opaque/translucent, active/passive, real/unreal, public/private, resisting/conceding, pious/witty, or sublime/profane help to sharpen our discrimination. In the Sonata op. 110, for example, the sublime third movement grows out of the profane second. It is always the goal of such exercises in consciousness to go beyond similarities and analogies and perceive the peculiar and unusual elements of any given work.

In this regard, let us return to Schoenberg once again. In the chapter “Character and Mood” in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition, we read the following: “It is fallacious to think that the tempo indications determine character. In classical music, at least, this is not true. There is not one adagio character, but hundreds; not one scherzo character, but thousands.”21

This is a highly judicious criticism of what Schoenberg’s friend, son-in-law, and interpreter Rudolf Kolisch tried to demonstrate twenty-four years earlier in his controversial essay “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music.” In that music, according to Kolisch, there are “typical categories of tempo, corresponding to categories of expression.”22 Kolisch, as is well known, associated Beethoven’s surviving metronome indications, along with indications of meter and tempo, with such expressive “types.” Kolisch maintained that the “Allegro ma non troppo 6/8” category, for instance, has a “sombre, passionate character. Motives in 16th-notes alternate with trochaic formations.” Among the examples he gives for this are the finale of op. 28 and the fugue of op. 110.23

To perceive these movements as “sombre and passionate,” however, would scarcely be acceptable even for Kolisch’s most unreserved admirers. I count myself among those who cherish his quartet recordings of 1929; but his comments on tempo and character must be approached with a degree of skepticism. When I visited Kolisch in his old age, he himself seemed not altogether free from doubt on this point. Already on November 16, 1943, Theodor W. Adorno had written to him: “I believe that it is not possible to construct Beethovenian ‘types’ on the basis of an isolated aspect such as tempo, and that this often brings together heterogeneous elements….”24 Kolisch’s pupil and longtime assistant David Satz would later point out that “for Kolisch, as for any other serious musician, tempo was only one aspect of performance; no element of performance was to be neglected at the expense of another.”25 Thus no matter how important tempo might be as an element of character, one cannot determine the character of a given work without carefully taking into account all the other aspects of that work. In Beethoven’s music (as, incidentally, in Schoenberg’s), the metronome indications are not infrequently to be adjusted according to these other “elements of performance.”

Structure and character relate to each other: they may work hand-in-hand, or they may have a relationship of fruitful tension. But interpreters should never assume that understanding the structure of a work might automatically give them insight into the work’s character, atmosphere, or spiritual state. The interpreter would do well to concern himself with structure and character as two functions that emanate, as it were, from different sides of the same work, in the hope that he might one day unite the two at a point where the pain of interpretation can be transformed into the relief of a satisfying experience. That the character of music (or at least of Beethoven’s music) incorporates psychological and moral components, as contemporary writers on aesthetics maintained, is an idea that confirms itself for the performer today. One can talk or argue about the psychological components; about the moral ones, it is better to remain silent. At most, one can attempt to demonstrate them.

Translated from the German by Mark Evan Bonds and the author

  1. 17

    According to Schindler, Beethoven made this comment to Count Lichnowsky, to whom the sonata is dedicated (Beethoven as I Knew Him, p. 210). Again, even if the attribution to Beethoven is inaccurate, the comment nevertheless reflects the aesthetics of Schindler’s time.

  2. 18

    Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag, p. 47; On the Proper Performance, p. 43 (translation modified).

  3. 19

    Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag, p. 48; On the Proper Performance, p. 44 (translation modified).

  4. 20

    Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag, p. 49: “Diese Sonate ist mehr sprechend als malend”; On the Proper Performance, p. 45 (translation modified).

  5. 21

    Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, p. 93.

  6. 22

    Rudolf Kolisch, “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music,” Musical Quarterly, Vol. 29 (1943), p. 176; revised German version in Rudolf Kolisch, Tempo und Charakter in Beethovens Musik (Munich: text + kritik, 1992) (Musik-Konzepte 76/77), p. 9.

  7. 23

    Kolisch, “Tempo and Character,” p. 291; Tempo und Charakter, p. 42.

  8. 24

    Theodor Adorno to Rudolf Kolisch, November 16, 1943, in Adorno, Beethoven: Philosophie der Musik, edited by Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993), p. 256; translation from Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 180.

  9. 25

    David Satz, “Nachwort” to Kolisch, Tempo und Charakter, p. 168.

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