Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine

Proust’s grandmother was a woman of extremely modest, unpretentious demeanor, who never ventured to contradict anyone’s literary judgment:

But on matters of which the rules and principles had been taught her by her mother, on the way to cook certain dishes, to play the sonatas of Beethoven, and to receive guests graciously, she was certain of having a just idea of perfection and of discerning whether others approached closely or not. For all three things, besides, the perfection was almost the same: it was a sort of simplicity of means, of sobriety and of charm. She reacted with horror at putting spices in a dish where they were not absolutely needed, playing with affectation and too much pedal, or going beyond the bounds of what was perfectly natural when “receiving” and speaking of oneself with exaggeration. From the first mouthful, the first notes, a simple letter, she claimed to know if she was dealing with a good cook, a real musician, a well-bred woman. “She might have much more technique than I do, but she lacks taste, playing so simple an andante in such a grandiloquent manner.”… “She might be a learned cook, but she does not know how to make a steak with potatoes.” Steak with potatoes! the ideal competition piece, difficult because of its simplicity, a sort of Sonata Pathétique of cuisine….*

Proust’s comedy sets the Beethoven piano sonatas in their proper place as 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. Great painting was experienced in museums; reading poetry and novels were generally individual rather than communal activities within the family; the theater and the dance existed only outside the home, like symphonies and operas. For the children of a moderately privileged class of society, however, learning to play the piano came second—even if a somewhat distant second—only to learning to read. Particularly for young women, being able to play the piano was essential to their self-respect, affirmed their place in society.

For music-making at home, the most prestigious form of serious music was the Beethoven piano sonata. Except for The Well-Tempered Clavier, the works of all other composers could seem lightweight, and Bach was too academic, too learned, to sustain the rivalry of the drama and emotion of the Beethoven sonata. Even more than the string quartet, the sonata was, with a few exceptions, the province of the amateur musician. We may profitably invert Proust’s metaphor: the Beethoven piano sonatas were the steak and potatoes of art music, the proof that one had access at home to the greatest masterpieces of music.

They were also the bridge from the music made at home to the music of the concert hall, the staple of the serious recital program, the way for the professional concert pianist to demonstrate his pretensions to the highest musical culture. There was nothing meretricious about the Beethoven so-natas: they were not used—or should nor be used, it was felt—to dazzle the listener with the performer’s technique, and they betrayed none of the deplorably morbid and effeminate character of the works of the great Romantics, Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. They had gravity as well as passion and humor. They guaranteed contact with the sublime.

They also reached into the future. For all their classic status, they retained some of the controversial character that had greeted their initial appearance before the public. Early in the twentieth century the most famous Viennese teacher of piano, Theodor Leschetizky (his pupils numbered Artur Schnabel, Ignaz Paderewski, and Ossip Gabrilovich), was still advising his students against playing the late sonatas. Of all Beethoven’s works, only the last quartets were as disconcerting to the concert audience. Paradoxically, the sonatas remained a model for the avant-garde even as they became a model for the conservative critic. In our time, they can still stimulate experiment and individuality, encourage intransigence.

The double nature—private and public—of the piano sonatas is the essence of their historical role. They not only submitted to the radical changes in the relations of music and society, they also helped to shape those changes. During Beethoven’s lifetime almost none of his piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public. The musical tradition of Vienna may have created the first viable style of pure instrumental public music in Western history, but the city of Vienna was backward in the creation of the institution of the public concert—that is, not band concerts or free performances in the open air, but concerts of instrumental music for which tickets are sold, a commercial institution crucial to the development of music as we know it today, and which replaced the patronage of court and church as a way for musicians to make a living. In the early eighteenth century, London and Paris already had a well-developed and flourishing system of public concerts before Vienna; even New York was more progressive. Just as we tend to find the most antiquated plumbing in countries which invested in plumbing very early, while less advanced countries that could not afford plumbing until much later are often able to display the most up-to-date examples, so Vienna, where the development of public concerts lagged behind other European capitals, with the arrival of Haydn produced the most efficient, effective, and modern examples of works created for the new form of making instrumental music available.


What made the Viennese achievement possible, however, was a rich tradition of private and semiprivate music-making. Hausmusik, or music in the home, was widespread, and so were private concerts of quartets and so-natas and songs for small groups of a dozen or twenty friends and guests in both aristocratic and middle-class households. (This was the nursery in which the Romantic lieder of Schubert were to grow to maturity.) The Esterhazy princesses learned to play the Haydn sonatas and piano trios, and Archduke Rudolph of Austria was one of Beethoven’s most famous pupils, but the sale of sheet music to the general public was an important and growing source of income for composers in their constant attempt, with only a limited success, to emancipate themselves from patronage and from dependence on the aristocracy.

The Beethoven piano sonatas may have been conceived as basically private or semiprivate works, but the composer himself was a virtuoso pianist with a considerable reputation. He followed the example of Mozart by introducing into what was essentially private music the difficulties and the display of public virtuosity: the Mozart piano quartets, which are sometimes like concertos for the piano, are the most splendid examples (the publisher canceled his original commission of six piano quartets because the first two were too difficult for the amateur musician and could not be sold), along with several of the piano sonatas like the one in C minor. The Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333, indeed, has a finale which takes the form of a concerto rondo, and imitates the alternation of tutti and solo passages.

Beethoven showed still less consideration for the amateur than Mozart—in fact, famously less consideration for the concerns and comfort of the professional musician as well. His “easy” sonatas, like op. 79 in G major, tend to challenge even the most accomplished performers, and in his first published mature sonatas he specifically prescribed fingering which makes the music harder to play but more effective than the one that most pianists still choose today and editors recommend (see op. 2, no. 2 in A major, first movement, bars 84–85: even his pupil Czerny advised an easier fingering).

The fitness of his piano music for the public sphere was quickly recognized. The Beethoven sonatas constituted the first body of substantial serious works for the piano adequate for performance in large concert halls seating hundreds. After Liszt created the piano recital a decade after the death of Beethoven, the sonatas gradually became the basis of the public repertoire for any pianist with pretensions to serious musicianship.

Nevertheless, the foundation of musical culture throughout the nineteenth century remained the private sphere. In his articles written in 1802 in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, “On Touring Virtuosos” (Über reisende Virtuosen), the critic Johann Karl Friederich Triest remarked that a public concert by a master performer was useful above all as a stimulus, an inspiration to the many amateurs to rise above their laziness and mediocrity. Triest was the most interesting and brilliant music critic of the time, and his observations about the difficulties experienced by the virtuoso on his travels are exactly contemporary with the composition of Beethoven’s Sonatas op. 31. They imply the preponderant importance of the amateur musicians who made up so much of the audience for a public concert. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the concert in a public hall by the professional musician was relatively rare, an exceptional manifestation of music-making, most of which normally took place in private houses or at home. Even the traveling virtuoso had, according to Triest, to be armed with a list of addresses and a set of recommendations so that he or she could be invited to perform at the matinées or soirées which counted for so much musical activity.

The pianistic repertoire supplied by the Beethoven sonatas was one of the principal causes of the shift of the balance of music-making from the private house to the public hall. Intended for the more intimate surroundings, many of the sonatas were seen to be wonderfully apt for virtuoso performance in large halls. Some of the earliest sonatas already presented difficulties resented by the average amateur, and the technical obstacles became harder to surmount with the “Waldstein,” the “Appassionata,” and “Les Adieux.” Later still, it was the “Hammerklavier,” op. 106, which appeared to shut out the amateur completely. There is a lady in Vienna, Czerny told Beethoven, who has been practicing your B-flat sonata for a month, and she still can’t play the beginning.


Nevertheless, most of the sonatas remained just within the grasp of the amateur, who could still make something of them: their difficulties, indeed, gave a sense of contact, however tenuous, with the professional that one could get from almost no other set of serious works. 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—not even, as Artur Schnabel remarked, by the consummate professional: no performance of a Beethoven sonata, he claimed, could be as great as the work itself. The piano music of the greatest Romantics—Chopin and Schumann—never attained the full glory of the serious sublime enjoyed by the Beethoven sonatas. Until the second half of the twentieth century, the average music lover became acquainted with many of the Beethoven sonatas at home, stimulated by the occasional hearing of a great (or not-so-great) public performance, as piano recitals became more and more frequent. Only when recordings finally dislodged the tradition of playing music at home did the Beethoven sonatas lose their special status in which the interests of the amateur and the professional were united.

Copyright © 2002 by Charles Rosen

This Issue

March 14, 2002