Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion
by Charles Rosen
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $29.95
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Piano Music
a recording by Charles Rosen
The thirty-two Beethoven sonatas, composed between 1795 and 1822, are the most prestigious works in the solo piano literature. They are, as Charles Rosen says in his new book about them, “the great representative of Western culture in the upper middle-class household from 1850 almost to our day, as much a part of civilized life as entertaining guests and family dinners.”
As he says, almost to our day. Until radio and gramophone came along, while the piano was still a necessary domestic piece of furniture for a cultured family in Europe and America, middle-class children and especially girls were taught to play as part of their basic preparation for society. And for marriage: the piano became a tool of courtship, women demonstrating their refined sensibilities to suitors, who would occasionally share the keyboard for four-hand arrangements, a variety of which were written during the Victorian era specifically to involve cross-hand passages that necessitated physical contact. Fears of too much hanky-panky were behind such popular songs as “Keep Your Foot on the Soft Pedal.”
Learning the Beethoven sonatas, or at least learning the easier ones, was a particular sign of musical and moral aspiration. Attached to learning the piano was always what could be called the therapeutic ideal of cultural immersion, linked to the old notion that culture must be morally and spiritually uplifting. Arthur Loesser, in his indispensable book Men, Women, and Pianos, wrote amusingly about how emotions like lust were channeled and, in a sense, elevated through piano music into acceptable bourgeois forms of public expression; and no music was more emotionally exercising or spiritually elevating than Beethoven’s sonatas.
Their prestige assumed a certain obligation, however. I recall once seeing Rosen in a television interview half-jokingly admit that the prospect of hearing, not to mention playing, Beethoven sonatas, even for the most dedicated and austere music lover like himself, can sometimes be a little exhausting. The music, as much as any art ever made, declares itself to be serious and expects you to be serious listening to it. Beethoven could be witty, ecstatic, and raucous, even at his most sublime—as he is, for instance, in the last piano sonata, in C minor, Op. 111—but the sonatas were conceived as high art and this presumes a certain burden, however edifying, on audience as well as player.
Aside from being mentally taxing, some of the sonatas are nearly impossible physically for anybody to play properly except professionals, Beethoven having written the works mostly as private or semiprivate endeavors for amateurs but at the same time introducing technical difficulties that could be mastered only by the concert pianist, a relatively new profession in his day. The “Hammerklavier,” Op. 106, is the famous example, a piece of symphonic proportions and technical challenges that alarm even the most accomplished player. But some of the earliest sonatas, like the C Major, Op. 2, No. 3, and the E-flat Major, Op. 7, one of the longest of the thirty-two, with wide skips, exhausting …