The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus:

op. 79 example

With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition:

Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence.

The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance.

My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan:

op 79 process

This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands together end version immediately, it is so much better to return to the beginning of this so you can gradually build up step by step. Repeat each stage as many times as you wish, or play only once. Whatever you do, hold onto the pulse and really feel it.

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As an aside, if you haven’t discovered András Schiff’s lecture series on the Beethoven Sonatas, here is an audio clip of him discussing op. 79. One thing I had never noticed before is the similarity between the opening of the last movement of this and the opening of the Sonata, op. 109:

Op. 79 last movement (opening)

Op. 79 last movement (opening)

Op. 109 first movement (opening)

Op. 109 first movement (opening)

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