This week’s guest post is by pianist and captain of The Piano Boat, Masayuki Tayama with whom we’re delighted to have embarked upon a project creating detailed walk-throughs of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first set of videos features Beethoven’s first piano sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, which Masa introduces and shares some thoughts on in this post.
Much has been written about the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven, a man who had a defining impact on the direction of music in and beyond the Classical period as well as the development of the piano itself. Most well-known for his symphonies, concertos and piano sonatas, it is a delight, and at the same time a fearsome undertaking to embark on exploring his Sonata Cycle. Each of these 32 (or nowadays, 35) monumental works introduces something new. However, it’s easy to forget that at the point of writing his very first catalogued sonata, Op.2 No.1, Beethoven would not have known that he would go on to write another thirty one, spanning all the way to Op. 111.
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor
This work bears an overly simple dedication to his then-teacher, Joseph Haydn, from whom Beethoven claimed to have learnt nothing. There may well be an element of truth in this given that Haydn was probably too busy with his own compositions to devote much time to his student. However, there is no doubt Beethoven would have been greatly influenced by Haydn’s works themselves, including their Sturm und Drang elements.
Beethoven’s choice of key for this work, F minor, is unusual as most keyboard compositions at the time were aimed at the keen, privileged amateur pianists and more accessible keys were preferred. Additionally, as contemporary keyboard instruments were not tuned to the ‘well-tempered’ standards of today, the key of F minor may well have sounded slightly bizarre.
It is folly to believe that he would have chosen this key just to be different for the sake of it. In fact this key, already used by Beethoven in one of his three early sonatas which demonstrates his dramatic characteristics, eventually leads to the great Appassionata Sonata. The temperament and immensely dramatic opening of No.1 does indeed, for the right reasons, stamp his mark in the world of great composers.
Whilst adhering to the more traditional ‘sonata form’ from the Classical period, he does add an extra movement across the set of Op.2. This would normally have been reserved for larger scale works such as symphonies or chamber music and is therefore unique in itself.
1st Mvt – Allegro
Beethoven didn’t hesitate to borrow material previously explored and at this stage, influence from the Classical period is seen throughout. However, the way he turned the ‘Mannheim Rocket’ theme in Mozart’s G minor symphony into something even more dramatic on a single instrument is uncanny. There are many of his own temperamental traits already displayed in every corner of the music.
2nd Mvt – Adagio
Here, we find Beethoven adhering more to the Mozartian approach to writing a slow movement. I started playing the piano at a young age, attracted to Mozart’s music, and treasured a yellow-labelled – so it must have been Deutsch Gramophone – cassette tape of Mozart’s last piano concerto No.27. I would attempt to play by ear some of the themes, following which I was then sent to piano lessons. My feelings about Mozart’s music are aptly put in the quote from the film Amadeus, where Salieri describes Mozart’s music as ‘filled with unfulfillable longing’. This really does feel most appropriate in articulating the serene yet almost painful second movement.
3rd Mvt – Menuetto & Trio
Whilst the other Scherzo third movements in the set of Op. 2 are more light-hearted and jovial, Beethoven adds an enigmatic, almost haunting opening to this brief movement with a more peaceful, contrasting Trio section. There is much to explore in this additional movement with a sense of innovation prevailing.
4th Mvt – Prestissimo
It is intriguing to imagine what the audience at the time felt when first hearing this incredibly dramatic movement. A foresight of his later work, the third movement of Moonlight Sonata, this movement stands on its own merits, serving as a precursor of what was to come. Whilst Haydn in particular wrote hugely contrasting piano sonatas, none compare to the intensity and relentless and temperamental pursuit of drama of this movement which builds to a fiery conclusion.
Having studied many of the 32 sonatas with some of the world’s greatest pedagogues and performed them extensively, along with Beethoven’s concertos, and subsequently works by Schubert, Brahms and Rachmaninov, revisiting this F minor sonata brought a fresh perspective to my view of the pure genius of Beethoven.
His early works tend to be relegated to ‘study pieces’ at conservatoires, and not often included in concert programmes. They pose unique technical difficulties, some almost impossible to execute as written and performers are much more exposed due to the relatively simple harmonic progressions and melodic writing. This may contribute to the reluctance of pianists to perform them on stage.
It was fascinating to look at practice strategies with knowledge and experience I did not possess as a student, to overcome some of these challenges, and explore the musical detail and depth with which these works can be performed. The 32 sonatas span Beethoven’s lifetime, exhibiting the bridge between the elegant, style gallante of the Classical period and the more direct, personal and emotional output of the Romantic period. They cannot be explored enough and I am thrilled to be embarking on this adventure!
The full set of eighteen videos in which Masa explores background, style, interpretation, technical challenges and practice methods for each of the four movements of this work is now available on the Online Academy. Click here to view or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. Information on further videos featuring the second sonata in A Major is available here.
Beethoven on Board
Our Beethoven on Board series will ultimately feature all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and is being filmed on board The Piano Boat. The Piano Boat is a new way of bringing classical music to audiences in and around London, surrounded by the intrigue and beauty of the canals.
The boat, Rachmaninov, is designed for and dedicated to musical events, carrying a beautiful Steinway Model A grand piano in the concert saloon. Seating 12 in an exclusive, intimate setting, it offers an experience where spectacular music is at the forefront of your experience on the canals. Click here to find out more.