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Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

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Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

So much has been written of this masterpiece that it seems difficult to say anything new of real importance in its regard. I must join many other commentators in despising the traditional nick name. Beethoven knew when he wanted to give a work of his a name and chose it carefully. Just as in the case of the so-called "Moonlight" sonata, there is nothing here but bad taste and commercial thinking. Both sonatas, as has been often said, rank among the most tragic works of Beethoven and of the whole classical repertoire. It is true that Beethoven insisted even in the "Pastorale" symphony on his intention to express human feelings, but when he speaks in a tragic voice, human passions have little to do with his discourse, and landscape nothing at all.

I will now limit myself to two frequently recurring questions in the last movement: 

The repeat of the second half of this finale is indicated by Beethoven very clearly in the manuscript, but ignored by most pianists, entangled as usual in the 19th century tradition which retrospectively eliminated all repeats in classical movements (apart from dance like movements). An interesting and conscientious discussion of repeats in classical music can be found in Alfred Brendel's writings on the piano sonatas of Schubert (1) . Discussing the last movement of Beethoven's op. 57, Charles Rosen points out that "the return gives the form some of the character of a rondo" (2). I always play it, unless either the public or I are completely exhausted. When one knows the sonata this way it seems absolutely impossible to eliminate it. I find that the whole movement comes out very different with the repeat and once you know it by experience, going directly to the coda feels like an offence to your sense of form. Curiously, the point where I have the strongest sense of this very special architecture, is the beginning of the development at its first appearance. It feels as if one were entering a new dimension where one will be staying for a long time.

Another question is the C leading to the recapitulation which is tied to a dotted eighth. The question always rises, should one repeat the C and get the tam-pa-pam rhythm, or play only one sixteenth note as an upbeat to what follows. I am convinced the C should not be repeated. After the long mysterious suspension which precedes the recapitulation, it should be only the dramatic sixteenth upbeat which brings us back to reality. I will now attempt at explaining why.

My way of confronting this kind of dilemmas is to look for some inner logic in the composition. Obviously it can not always work and one should be able to understand with which composer or piece this kind of attitude makes sense. There is no doubt about that in the case of Beethoven's op. 57.

If one examines the bass line at the first appearance of the main theme, the sixteenth – quarter rhythm is very prominent. It adds to the ghost haunted perpetuum mobile of the right hand a dramatic accent and a sense of fatality. A second variant of the theme has the same rhythm as an answer in the treble, assuming a restless, pleading character. Finally a totally new theme is generated by this very rhythm. This time it seems to express the very character of the whole sonata: grand, eloquent and of tragic pathos.

In the recapitulation Beethoven starts immediately with the second variant, due to the fact that he is to introduce yet a third one, where the left hand takes the theme and the right hand plays a counterpoint. The sixteenth upbeat, in its original dramatic form in the bass, is thus totally absent from the recapitulation. But Beethoven does introduce it, and since it is to appear only once, he exposes it in the vast space lit by the shadows of the chords preceding the recapitulation. There, where suspension seems eternal and fatality has been replaced by uncertainty, the inexorable rhythm makes it clear there is no hope left.

(1) A. Brendel: Schubert's Piano Sonatas, 1822-1828 in Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts, Robson Books 1976, p .60
(2) C. Rosen: Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, Yale University Press 2002, p. 197

Read on Tovey's Edition of the complete Beethoven sonatas in My Library


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