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The Keys to Beethoven

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Piano Music

a recording by Charles Rosen
Fonè Records


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 chains of broken octaves, and rapid scales, are best, if not exclusively, suited to the virtuoso and proportioned for the public hall or concert salon. Beethoven wrote what he wanted in the end, and who could perform it was of secondary concern to him.

Average amateurs, however, might stumble through the score at home, then hear the music skillfully done in concert. Struggling with the technical hurdles gave them “a sense of contact, however tenuous, with the professional that one could get from almost no other set of serious works,” Rosen writes in his introduction. “They were a challenge which could be taken on, an ideal to which one could aspire, even if they could not, in the end, be fully mastered.” The sonatas were thereby a crucial link between public and private music-making until roughly World War II, when middle-class people stopped learning the piano as a matter of course and lost that connection with the performers they paid to hear or listened to on recordings.

These social changes didn’t cause professional pianists to play the Beethoven sonatas differently, of course, but you might say that the changes gave pianists more leeway to interpret the music in ways that might have surprised Beethoven. Rosen spends much of his strongly argued book wrestling with the impossible problem of original tempos, a quagmire to musicians and musicologists. It’s vain simply to declare what Beethoven meant by Allegro or Adagio, not least because Beethoven wasn’t always consistent or even certain himself, and sometimes spoke of these words as emotional terms, not necessarily indications of speed. (“What can be more absurd than ‘Allegro,’ which always means merry?” he wrote.) But Rosen makes the case for reconsidering some of what are now fairly commonplace interpretations that he believes seem to exaggerate, to one extreme or the other, the intended pace of the music.

The reasons for these exaggerations we can only theorize about. They possibly include competitive pressures in an overcrowded market, combined with decreased firsthand familiarity on the part of audiences with the scores: virtuosos today want to distinguish themselves by showing how fast they can play complex music and how gravely they can play slow passages, to suggest their spiritual intensity. And listeners, no longer steeped in the scores, cannot appreciate the difference between textual distortion and legitimate reinterpretation.

Unlike Beethoven’s instrument, the modern piano, with its enhanced capacity for sustaining and projecting sound, also seems to encourage exaggerated performances, especially lugubrious tempos, as does the large modern concert hall, grand and formal compared to the circumstances of Hausmusik, or music in the home, which was the dominant condition for music-making in the Vienna of Beethoven’s day.

A peculiar situation therefore prevails. Professional musicians who would never dream of tinkering with the harmonies or melodies in the music feel free to experiment with the tempos. Sometimes the results can be excellent. A wrong tempo can be more affecting than the right one in the right hands. Sviatoslav Richter’s Schubert sonatas are famous for being almost perversely slow but they are moving and sincere. On the other hand, it is frequently just a gimmick for a musician to fool around with tempos. The easiest way for a player to make an impression on an unsophisticated audience is to play faster or slower than anybody else. Glenn Gould, his eccentric talents notwithstanding, is the obvious example.

Rosen’s book is written in clear, logical prose, suited to serious readers with basic training in music theory. It is full of his familiar intelligence and attention to detail. It is not an introduction to the Beethoven sonatas for the casual listener or record shopper. Rosen isn’t inclined toward poetic or programmatic explanations for the music, as, for example, Alfred Brendel has supplied, idiosyncratically but evocatively, for Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. At the same time, Rosen’s book has occasional passing characterizations that will be suggestive even to readers without musical knowledge. About Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110, he writes eloquently: “The first movement begins con amabilità, and never completely loses that quality. The scherzo is humorous, folksy, sometimes brutal, and even sardonic. The finale starts with a scena and recitative full of pain, continues with a lament that is, when it returns, literally choked with despair, goes through a condition close to death and ends with a triumphant return of life.”

He adds: “One might imagine that there is a programme connected with this work, and that is certainly possible. Nevertheless, one must distinguish a programme which renders a work of music more intelligible from a programme which is only an inspiration for the composer and is no help to an understanding of the music.” The first case is a work like Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother,” with its allusion to the coachman’s post horn. The second case would be the ballades by Chopin, sometimes said to be based on poems of Mieckiewicz, although Chopin refused to confirm this. A third case might be the Diabelli Variations, for which a performer like Brendel, as opposed to a composer, makes up scenarios that he finds helpful, which is not Rosen’s inclination. “There is a scenario to op. 110,” Rosen observes, and this thought applies to his approach to other sonatas, “but whether it refers to any real event or literary inspiration we do not know, and it would not help us either to play the piece or listen to it if we could find out.”

So despite evocative passages that the general reader can appreciate, this is a book by a pianist for other pianists, musicologists, and serious amateurs, about the tasks facing the player, and inevitably it casts light on Rosen’s own playing. Artists, when they talk about other artists, are talking about their own work to some degree. And in Rosen’s case, by writing about Beethoven he not only explains why he plays Beethoven as he does but, at least implicitly, justifies a general approach toward the instrument—for him, a combination of scholarship and muscularity, sometimes in interesting competition. It’s rare to find a concert pianist who can explain, or has even bothered to try to explain, in other than vague or fuzzily poetic terms what is going through his mind when he sits down at the keyboard to perform a piece of music. Rosen’s book, at least indirectly, is about one musician describing his artistry through another’s.

His authority lends assurance to his arguments, but the book is not, Rosen stresses repeatedly, an attempt to dictate how the sonatas must be played by other people. “I have emphasized, and emphasize here again,” he states on the first page of the preface, “the freedom necessary for interpretation, a freedom that Beethoven himself expected…. There are frequently good reasons for disregarding a composer’s intentions. But there is no reason for not trying to find out what they were.”

True enough. This book’s value has to do with the general common sense of its arguments combined with the sensibility that a performer, and perhaps only a performer, brings to the challenge of interpretation. Every player tries to make the best case for an interpretation, knowing that it is never the only way to play the music. True music-making is not about being correct, it is about being simultaneously true to the score and to oneself, which are not automatically the same thing.

Rosen argues, first of all, for just looking at the music, which sounds simpler than it is. Beethoven’s markings were sometimes hard to read and engravers over the years, even during his lifetime, made mistakes copying what he wrote. A tendency of players has been to normalize discrepancies: when one passage indicates a certain phrasing or length of note, all similar places are presumed to follow suit. Wrong, says Rosen. We must be careful. Much of his analysis of tempos, accents or stress marks, slurs, and other indicators of phrasing is a plea for doing what pianists too often ignore or discount. Obey the inconsistencies (at least generally: Rosen hedges), because Beethoven knew what he wanted.

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