Rolling over Beethoven

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TIM Horton embarks on a four-year journey through the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven when he opens Music in the Round’s autumn series of concerts at the Crucible Studio next Thursday.

It will be his first trip in public playing the cycle, an exercise central to most pianists’ dreams at some stage in their career, and he is eminently equipped for the task based on his pianistic exploits with Ensemble 360 in Sheffield over the last six years.

Unfortunately, the Brighton-born pianist is not available to explain why he has chosen now and discuss the challenges faced when tackling the complete cycle.

The demands will not be as intensely focused as playing the whole thing over two, four or eight weeks because he is giving himself time, performing the cycle at eight concerts over four years, but pressure will be there with heavy, ongoing Ensemble 360 commitments, not to mention elsewhere.

Most people see the Beethoven piano sonatas as the greatest corpus of works in piano literature and they are central to his vast output of music in that they chart his development as a composer.

Similar to Mozart using his piano concertos as vehicles for ideas for his operas, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, penned between 1796 and 1822, were in effect blueprints for his string quartets, symphonies and other works.

For instance, the first ten appeared (actually, first 12, as the Op 49 sonatas date from 1792) before his six Op 18 quartets and First Symphony in 1800 and a further eight before his Second Symphony in 1803 – roughly the beginning of so-called middle period Beethoven.

The same year, the ‘Waldstein’ sonata (No 21 Op 53) saw the light of day and, in 1804, No 22 Op 54, after which came a spate of masterpieces with the ‘Appassionata’ sonata (No 23 Op 57) among them

Beginning with the ‘Eroica’ Symphony in 1805, they also took in the Triple Concerto (an under-exposed masterpiece), Fourth Piano Concerto, Fourth Symphony, the three ‘Rasumovsky’ string quartets, Violin Concerto, Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

Piano Sonatas 24 (Op 78), 25 (Op 79) and 26 (Op 81a), ‘Les Adieux’ – a reworking of an earlier sextet for horns and string quartet, Op 81b (1795) – date from 1809, the same year as the ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Tenth String Quartet.

It was the best part of four years, after the Eleventh String Quartet and Seventh and Eighth symphonies, before Piano Sonata No 27 (Op 90) and No 28 (Op 101) surfaced, respectively in 1814 and 1816 – the beginnings of so-called late period Beethoven. The mighty ‘Hammerklavier’ No 29 Op 106 appeared in 1818, while the last three piano sonatas Op 109, 110 and 111 followed in successive years from 1820, after which came the Missa Solemnis (1823), Choral Symphony (1824) and late string quartets.

Effectively, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas fall into three groups, which in essence have nothing to do with posterity’s pigeon holing of his works as early, middle and late. Compositional periods in a composer’s career are neither nor there, the great ones simply developed and expanded their art.

Liszt, for example, saw Beethoven’s career in the two phases, the first where he built on the models of his predecessors and the second where is inventive genius needed to find new ways of expression.

On this footing, and it’s a viable one, the ‘Eroica’ Symphony was Beethoven’s watershed work – but, back to the piano sonatas.

Broadly, the general trend in No’s 1 to 11 and two Op 49 (No’s 19 and 20) sonatas finds Beethoven shaking off the shackles of Haydn and Mozart. Most are in four movements instead of the established three and there is greater expression and dynamic effects as he pushes Classical modes to the limit.

No 8, the ‘Pathetique’, stands out as a forerunner of what happens when the composer gets to No’s 12 to 18 in which he starts diverting from and breaking down Classical form. In the process, the sonatas begin taking on a wider diversity of expression and improvisatory elements and pave the way for No 21, the ‘Waldstein’.

After which, the boundaries of formal structure are continually stretched and dismantled by Beethoven in a revolutionary manner from which there was no turning back, the last five sonatas (spread over seven years) foreshadowing the transcendental, spiritual characteristics of ‘late’ string quartets.

Going by the four sonatas, No’s 1, 2, 3 and 23, the ‘Appassionata’, that make up Tim Horton’s first concert, he will not to be performing the cycle in strict chronological order.