Monday, March 18, 2019

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled piano sonata...

If there is one thing that is obvious about the music for Ludwig van Beethoven, it's that he enjoys violent contrasts between soft and loud. He makes sure that's obvious by using very pedestrian themes, or by repeating the same short gestures in the opposite dynamic.

It isn't that he can't occasionally spin long melodies, but short, silence bounded gestures are a basic feature of his musical vocabulary. Maybe he thought Mozart had taken all the good tunes.

In any case, it helps him to be able to sculpt pieces to the finest detail, and it also gives us a sense of drama. If a short phrase is answered immediately by the same gesture in another key, or at a different dynamic level, we quickly sense conflict, or at least dialectic, in the musical argument. Something tense needs to be resolved, some solution sought. Surely these motivic factions can't keep up the fracas all day. One has to emerge victorious.

Of course, if both of the contrasting pairs are really different versions of the same musical idea, then we are left with an internal conflict, which is even more explosive. And whether Beethoven is using tense silences or driving accompaniment patterns, we can't relax until it is over.

Beethoven is famous for the four-note motive the opens his Fifth Symphony. But sometimes he can acheive just as much by drumming on a single note, as he did in his First Piano Sonata. Right out of the box, those Viennese knew they were in for something.

This is the fourth movement of that sonata. Three pounded chords manage to take us on an adventure of around four minutes, with a lyrical reprieve in the middle, when a tender melody takes the floor for a while. Bonus points for you, though, if your ear notices the accompaniment pattern to that melody being made up of three pulsed chords, over and over. He just can't leave that idea alone, even for a few measures!

And the "transition" to that placid tune is just as brusque: three loud chords, again.

Oh yes, and "second theme" of the turbulent sections on both sides of that serene interlude consists of a downward scale. It's like he wasn't even trying to come up with a good theme!

All of this happens in the movement with the fastest tempo possible, "prestissimo."


[Listen to Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 1 in f minor, op. 2 #1   IV. Prestissimo]

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