A case for history and theory in the practice room
Music instructors the world over face a common challenge: to convince performance students that music scholarship— whether it be theory, history, or both— is relevant to their more practical endeavors. It is far too easy to dismiss music theory as an end unto itself; as a mechanical act of labeling chords and formal sections, which, at best, has some tangential use as a memory aid. And it is far too common to present music history as a bland and clear-cut exercise in categorization: was Beethoven a "classical" composer or a "romantic" one?
We thus find ourselves in a lamentable situation: while both areas of study have profound implications for performance practice, too often we stop short of explaining just what those implications are. This short essay ventures beyond the vapid plea that "students should know these things, because this knowledge will enhance their understanding of music," by casting empty generalizations aside and offering some insight into how one can transform seemingly dispensable information into directly applicable strategies for performance.
In this spirit, Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, serves as a lens through which to explore how an acute awareness of historical context can alter one's conception of a musical work in profound and meaningful ways.
Early Beethoven and the Classical style
Beethoven's early work is often discussed in terms of its indebtedness to the music of Haydn and Mozart. One such narrative, as presented by musicologist Lewis Lockwood, sees Beethoven "[working] his way through the Mozartean landscape to find his own voice."1 This version of Beethoven's artistic struggle has much truth to it, as ample evidence in the form of personal notes and letters demonstrates, but the significance of this purported anxiety of influence is overstated.
When Beethoven published the Op. 2 sonatas, his style was already unlike anything the Viennese music world had ever heard. Unfortunately, however, it is all too easy to paint the composer's early work with a derivative quality— one that places his first professional efforts in a more "classical" vein—when we judge Op. 2, No. 1, in relation to his entire output.
There is little question, for instance, that the expressive range of the early sonatas pales in comparison to the profound musical poetry of Op. 109, 110, and 111, or that the forms of Op. 2 are closer to those sculpted by Beethoven's forbearers than those of his own later invention. But by treating Op. 2 as a vestige of the composer's classical heritage rather than a unique triumph in its own right, we risk emphasizing the unremarkable aspects of his music over those that are highly original. How many times have we heard a dainty performance of this "classical" F-minor sonata, in which caution, clarity, and delicacy of touch reign in lieu of the sheer fire and near schizophrenic panache that the piece demands?
By considering the work in its proper historical context—neither as a classical work nor as a full embodiment of the Kantian sublime—we dispel any temptation to perform it as an entrenchment of tradition. Rather, we come to appreciate the unusual characteristics of Op. 2, No. 1, that made it groundbreaking at the time of publication. What follows is but a selection of these characteristics with commentary on their relevance to performance.
Beethoven's penchant for modular themes is apparent from the outset of Op. 2, No. 1. As nearly every essay on the sonata notes, the main theme (see Excerpt 1) is constructed using two motives: a rocket theme (a) and a turn figure (b). Beethoven, of course, was not the first composer to make extensive use of small motives to construct musical phrases, but the angularity of his compositional cells—his building blocks—and the way in which he strings them together into sweeping chains of surprising melodic interest is unprecedented.
By constructing a theme out of two distinct motivic ideas, Beethoven is able to create a powerful sense of forward motion with ease, simply by breaking apart the separate, but linked, pieces. This process, known as fragmentation,2 follows logically from the way in which Beethoven constructs his musical ideas and forms a defining aspect of his style. Because of this process, there is a certain energy and breathlessness built directly into the main theme, whose constituent parts become shorter and shorter as the music approaches its cadence. This energy can be reinforced by the performer, but it should not be counteracted.
To slow down into the rest at the end of the main theme, for example, is to misunderstand this fundamental component of Beethoven's style. Through the process of fragmentation, the composer has fashioned the music so that the rest appears abruptly, much in keeping with the jagged character of the theme. By inserting a ritardando before the rest, the effect of the fragmentation is lost, as is the wonderfully unnerving sense of potential energy harnessed in the fermata when it is approached a tempo.
In a sense, Beethoven has already accounted for the amount of energy that is to be dissipated leading into the fermata: by lengthening the last module of the theme from half of a measure to two measures and eliminating most of the characteristic motivic material (a process termed liquidation by Arnold Schoenberg),3 he injects the theme with an inherent sense of broadening and imminent closure. Nothing but an awareness of this artistry is required on the part of the pianist.
A highly unusual subordinate theme
Beethoven's choice to begin Op. 2 with a work in minor was a bold one—a fact that is often lost on modern audiences. Perhaps even bolder, however, is the composer's treatment of the minor mode within the work's opening movement. If Beethoven were to follow convention, the subordinate theme would sit comfortably in the key of A-flat major, with an initial emphasis on the tonic chord. What he gives us, however, is completely unorthodox.
In dramatic fashion, Beethoven begins the subordinate theme over a dominant pedal, which lends the music a hesitant quality (see Excerpt 2). This reticence is dramatized by the inclusion of accidentals from the minor mode (F-flat, for example) and sforzandi to highlight the already jarring effect. As pianist Charles Rosen notes, "Beethoven clearly tries to reduce the space of the major mode in this work [...] and emphasizes the pathetic minor mode in the movement."4
A historically aware pianist will recognize these two unusual traits, which contribute to the revolutionary sound of the work and distance it from its classical predecessors. There is good reason why musicologists James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, in their influential study of sonata form, note that "the entire exposition of this much-cited piece is decidedly non-normative."5 The specific choices made by the performer to bring attention to these abnormalities (pejorative connotations aside) are a matter of personal taste, but to pass them over unnoticed is to surrender valuable expressive potential.
Virtuosity and the limitations of Beethoven's piano
The term virtuosic hardly seems appropriate to describe Op. 2, No. 1, when considered in the context of early nineteenth-century piano repertoire. At the time of its publication, however, Beethoven's first piano sonata exceeded the instrumental capabilities of its day and sent a clear message that his music was not meant for amateurs or dilettantes. An understanding of how Beethoven was pushing beyond the established technical limits of his day significantly alters one's mindset when approaching this work.
To begin, the sonata's dynamic range (pianissimo to fortissimo) could not be supported by the pianoforte for which it was written. It is a good exercise for any student to perform the thunderous finale, which is filled with heavily hammered chords and extreme contrasts of expression, on a historical instrument. Such tactile engagement is sure to dispel any notions that Op. 2, No. 1, was conceived as a light work set in the classical style of Mozart or Haydn. This is revolutionary music, quite literally bursting at the seams; pianists tremble in its presence, and keyboards buckle under its weight.
Measure 33 of the opening movement and mm. 16–20 of the finale provide specific examples of how a knowledge of period instruments can influence performance. Both cases see Beethoven reaching the upper limit—the absolute highest note—of his instrument: F6/f'''.
In the case of the Allegro movement (see Excerpt 3), theory tells us that the climax (m. 37) is strategically placed at the onset of the cadential progression that will ultimately close the exposition. Beethoven also prepares this note with great care, sounding its minor-mode version, F-flat, just three measures before. The effect is at once both tense and resolute—the satisfying conclusion of a continual reaching for the sky—but it is easily lost on the modern piano, where one is left with an octave and a half of space above this once-extreme note. As an exercise to restore this feeling, transpose the passage beginning at m. 33 to E-flat major, moving the left hand down a fourth and the right hand up an octave plus a fifth (see Excerpt 4).
In the finale (see Excerpt 5), the same climactic F brings about a feeling of stasis rather than one of resolution. After reaching the dominant of C major at m. 13, Beethoven writes consecutive transpositions of the dominant-seventh chord in the right hand, eventually reaching the keyboard's limit in m. 16 when he introduces the chordal seventh. Having reached the very top of the keyboard, the music hammers away incessantly in a highly dramatic fashion until the energy is dissipated by a descending scale in m. 20.
Given that our cultural upbringing has exposed us to some 185 years of post-Beethoven music, it helps to be reminded of what exactly about Beethoven's music was revolutionary at the time of its publication. As we have seen through the example of Op. 2, No. 1, an appreciation of historical context at the level of the individual work can have a significant influence on the way we perform. This essay has but scratched the surface of the potential enrichment brought about by a thorough grasp of theory and history as they relate to performance. It is my sincere hope that the foregoing discussion inspires performers and scholars alike to learn from each other in order to better appreciate all that our rich musical heritage has to offer.p
1 Lockwood, Lewis. (2003). Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: Norton, p. 59.
2 Caplin, William. (1998). Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 41.
3 Schoenberg, Arnold. (1967). Fundamentals of Musical Composition, ed. Gerald Strang. London: Faber & Faber, p. 58.
4 Rosen, Charles. (2002). Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 123.
5 Hepokoski, James and Darcy, Warren. (2006). Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 108.