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Artur Pizarro - The Beethoven Sonata Cycle
Artur Pizarro
Introduction to the Sonatas
Three principal media run through Beethoven's compositional life like parallel time-lines. While his contribution to opera was singular if significant, and his espousal of the concerto impressive, there is nothing as telling as the way the symphony, the string quartet and the piano sonata remained constants through a career lasting over 30 years. For in these three forms he found the true outlet for his revolutionary genius, bringing about a sea-change in the realisation of what abstract music could express.

His 32 piano sonatas span 28 of those years (if one ignores a handful of posthumously published student works), gradually transforming a medium that Mozart and Haydn had already turned into a staple of Classical expression to a vehicle for personal utterance that takes us to the cusp of 19th-century Romanticism. The works of those distinguished forebears (though in chronological terms Haydn's last three coincide with Beethoven's first three) were very much intended for home entertainment, and Beethoven initially continued that tradition by writing a number of works for his pupils to play. But as he began to be affected by deafness, playing the piano became his only tangible means of, as it were, 'hearing' music, so it comes as no surprise to find him making it an increasingly personal conduit for his emotions. Although the final three sonatas come close, there's nothing in the cycle quite as intimate or other-worldly as the late string quartets, but there's no denying Beethoven's capacity for communing with the soul through his keyboard. The adventures in form and musical working-out of ideas were all part of this need to say things in music that had never been said before.

A more prosaic trend to be seen through the cycle is evidence of the development of the instruments for which he was writing. These ranged from a typical five-octave Viennese pianoforte of the 1790s, via the introduction of sustaining and una corda pedals in the first decade of the new century and his receipt of a five-and-a-half-octave Érard piano from Paris, to the six-octave Broadwood he was given in 1818. Yet rather than embracing each improvement as it came along, Beethoven was constantly striving for more, particularly in range and dynamic capability. As an example, he composed the 'Hammerklavier' Sonata some seven years before he had a piano that could cope with its demands of register. As he had written in 1802, 'The whole tribe of pianoforte manufacturers has been swarming around me in their anxiety to serve me - and all for nothing.' Just one more example of the way Beethoven in his sonatas was always ahead of the game.
Return to list of sonatas

Artur Pizarro
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