Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, Luigi!

Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven!

In years past, I have highlighted pieces such as the Appassionata Sonata and his Wellingtons’ Victory, which show both the passionate side of Beethoven as well as his tongue-in-cheek humorous one. This year I thought I’d help round out the picture by trying something different – I want to attempt to explore more about Beethoven as a pianist rather than a composer. It’s something I, as a pianist, have wondered about but never actually researched.

You see, most classical composers were trained, and often prodigal, on the piano. They even made much of their living performing concerts of theirs and each others’ music. Beethoven was no exception. But what kind of pianist was he? What were his strengths and weaknesses?

We have to start by noting a fundamental point, and that is that Beethoven could play his own music. Only based on that can we truly deduce his talent as a pianist.

Schooled in classical keyboard technique, he no doubt was very skilled in many of the basic piano techniques, such as scales, arpeggios, trills, and finger dexterity and velocity. Call that the bar of entry for any performing pianist, and we see this on display in his earlier works, noting his first three piano sonata or bagatelles as examples.

It’s as we move to his later compositions that we really start to see signs of who he might have been uniquely as a pianist. First off, why the change? Well, I can venture to guess that:
- He was quite simply maturing as an artist and more confident in his own musical voice (i.e., more willing to show off his playing skills)
- The piano itself was an ever-evolving instrument, and he had to continue to change his compositional style to match the latest instruments, instruments which allowed for more display of skill perhaps
- He was becoming more “romantic” in his compositions and attitude on life and it allowed him to step out of traditional piano playing “boundaries” (i.e., throw the rules out the window)
- His hearing was deteriorating which, quite simply, caused him to have to play louder!

Regardless of the cause, in close examination of these later works, we can perhaps truly gather some clues in his compositions that might reveal who he might’ve been as a pianist (again, noting that he could play his own works):
- Chords rather than arpeggios: When you take a piece like the Appassionata, you can see that Beethoven had no fear of inserting bombastic chords into his writing. More evidence of this comes in works such as the Emperor Piano Concerto and Hammerklavier Sonata as well. That tells us that not only could newer pianos take the pounding, but that Beethoven must have had great finger strength and pianistic force to pull this off as a performer. Previous composers such as Mozart and Haydn rarely delved that deeply into powerful chords, opting more often to break up the chords.
- Broken octaves: another element we often see in his piano music is the use of broken octaves, rolling up and down scales. What I mean by this is rather than playing a C octave to a D octave to an E octave and onwards, what Beethoven will often do is break the C octave into first the low note and then the high note, do the same for the D, the E, and so on. It’s another skill that modern pianists have to learn – how to roll the wrists to achieve this but also how to constantly position your fingers so that each note is adequately prepared for. And when Beethoven used this technique, it often came at great velocity, which makes it even more difficult. A great example of this technique is in the 3rd movement of the Tempest Sonata (0:30 in and 1:00 in).
- Speed: Anyone who plays piano knows that sometimes it’s easy to get the notes under your fingers but you can’t seem to get them to move as fast as you need to. Beethoven clearly did not have this problem, and wrote music at presto tempos with little regard whether anyone else could ever play them. All he cared was that he could! A great example of this is the final stretch of the Pastoral sonata – a presto section with flying octaves in the left hand and arpeggios and rapid fire in the right. A short section, but a terribly treacherous one nonetheless. Clearly audiences would’ve been wowed by his ability to play this. A second example would be the final movement of the Appassionata sonata – a fury of intensity emerging from incredibly fast piano work!
- Repeated chords: I first heard Emanuel Ax discuss this point and it certainly got me thinking. The intro to the Waldstein Sonata features very rapid repetition of chords, and it is one of the trickier sections of piano music to master as a pianist. The technique was not often seen, certainly at this speed, in music previous to Beethoven’s, so it is logical for us to conclude that Beethoven himself could pull it off, perhaps uniquely so.
- Trills: another technique demonstrated in the Waldstein sonata, but this time in the third movement (1:00 in). In this movement, we hear the right hand playing double duty. The pinky is busy reprising the melody while simulataneously the thumb and first finger of the right hand plays a trill. This is an incredibly difficult technique, and though we don’t see it often in his music, to play this would’ve been another clear example of the skill he must’ve had as a pianist, far and above most others.
- Hand-over-hand: I remember as a student of the piano the first time I was introduced to the concept of having to take my left hand and cross it over my right hand. It was a totally foreign concept and caused my body to have to contort in all sorts of ways to get right! Beethoven had certainly mastered the technique, and wrote it into many sections of his works. I’ll reference the section about 0:30 in to the 3rd movement of the Appassionata (seen very clearly in the video below).
- Lack of staccato: I once read an interview with Beethoven’s friend (and awful biographer) Anton Schindler in which Anton suggested that Beethoven despised the use of staccato (very punctuated and sharp notes rather than smooth and flowing ones). That also got me thinking – you don’t often see staccato in his writing anywhere! Ok, occasionally it’s there (2nd movement of Pastoral sonata for example), but, in general, he stayed away. Perhaps this truly was a weakness of his. Perhaps his finger positioning did not allow him the “bounce” necessary to effectively play staccato, and thus he simply wrote more legato.

Well, that’s all I could come up with for now. Not an exhaustive list by any means, and I know others have devoted chapters and chapters to the subject, but I found it an interesting little research project for me to attempt and a nice way to celebrate his birthday this year. Whatever the case, by all accounts, Beethoven was one of the preeminent and most gifted pianists of his time (until he went deaf and all chaos broke loose)!

Some YouTube links to view the pieces I’ve cited (I tried to pick great versions, too!):
- Hammerklavier Sonata: (Brendel)
- Emperor Concerto (first movement): (Zimerman)
- Emperor Concerto (third movement): (Zimerman)
- Appassionata Sonata (first movement): (Barenboim)
- Appassionata Sonata (third movement): (Arrau)
- Tempest Sonata (third movement): (Kempff)
- Waldstein Sonata (first movement): (Gilels)
- Waldstein Sonata (third movement): (Brendel)
- Pastoral Sonata (second movement): (Brendel)
- Pastoral Sonata (fourth movement): (Brendel)

Hope you enjoyed the read, and I hope you can take a few minutes to listen to some of Beethoven’s music today in celebration and honor of the great musical titan that he was!