July 2011

July 2011

Thursday, 10 May 2012


Sonata no. 8 Opus 13 
aka Pathetique

According to Beethoven's letters he did not think this was his best work. Written in Beethoven's revolutionary spirit of the time he would later somewhat distance himself from that spirit. That  distance though may have been caused more by his disappointment in Napoleon than his compositions of the time as such:

Do you mean to go post-haste to the devil, gentlemen, by proposing that I should write such a sonata? During the revolutionary fever, a thing of the kind might have been appropriate, but now, when everything is falling again into the beaten track, and Bonaparte has concluded a Concordat with the Pope--such a sonata as this? If it were a missa pro Sancta Maria à tre voci, or a vesper, &c., then I would at once take up my pen and write a Credo in unum, in gigantic semibreves. But, good heavens! such a sonata, in this fresh dawning Christian epoch. No, no!--it won't do, and I will have none of it.

The name Pathetique was not given by Beethoven himself. As usual the names to his Sonatas were given by the public. An affectionate tribute by his public that is. 

This is a work, which every aspiring piano student would like at least to give a try. A slightly more difficult aspiration as 'Fuer Elise', which still tops this Sonata.

When I walked into a piano shop the other day there was a note attached to the grand piano there saying: 

"If you try to play Fuer Elise on this piano and don't play it until the end, you will be shot!"

There are several approaches to piano teaching. 

One is the idea that all your piano students are little concert pianists to be raised to perfection and accepting many will get stuck in the process. The other is that everything people achieve has to be dreamt about first and imperfect realisation of that dream should not be discouraged by destroying the thought itself.

Did Serge Prokoviev not laugh about his own composition efforts as an 8 year old? But he still had to do it...

Then you will see something as the following, which still is a big achievement for someone who has been learning piano for 1.5 years!

The first movement opens with the famous slow grave. The intention is serious, by no means pathetic! 

Opening Pathetique
Typical for Beethoven is the f - p sequence in the opening chord. There is an interesting way of doing this: 

Play the chord strongly with your sustained pedal pressed. While you release the keys halfway clear your pedal and press the keys again (without the hammer hitting the string) and the sound will change from loud to soft! And then of course continue softly! By all means do count the semiquavers instead of just guessing the length of the notes!

And now the real deal! The opening C stands on its own. You will save yourselves a lot of hassle if you start the E and Bb with fingers 5 and 2 with wrist staccato throwing up your hand taking over finger 4 on F. Then continue with 3-1 and 4-2 followed by 5-1,5-2 and 5-1. And same fingering afterwards. While you practise this there is no need to exhaust your left hand by playing the tremolos, but if you do keep the little finger and thumb close to the keys and involve the wrist. 

Interesting to note is also the dynamic marking. We are still soft here and the temptation is always to give everything away right from the start leaving nothing to build afterwards. 

It is also good to realise this is classical music, so do go for the contrast. The second theme with all the grace notes is one of the most beautiful parts of piano literature and in full contrast with the first theme. 

As many of Beethoven's early/middle period sonatas there are only 3 movements. The second movement is very well-known also. 

I don't like the term 'famous' and always make fun when a student tells me he wants to play something 'famous'. 

'YOU make something famous, there is beautiful music enough to chose from!'.

We live in a time where the powers that be assume they can make anything famous, if only they set the right environment and 'tell' people to accept it. It doesn't quite always work like that, but in the meantime the classical pianist unfortunately is in a disadvantage. 

But not so in China!

Then the third movement. A real rondo for a change and a very catching one at that. We have already in a previous instalment  pointed out that Beethoven keeps developing his material and see whether you notice the connection of the following example from this rondo and the example from the first movement above!

You see?

For further listening you may want to try this version played by Glenn Gould. Not because it is such a good example, rather an example of which pitfalls to avoid! 

Glenn Gould playing Pathetique first movement

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