Beethoven & the Piano
From childhood to his last days, Beethoven and the piano remained inseparable. Even deafness could not keep him away: He would press his forehead to the wood above the keys and repeatedly pound chords in hopes of feeling their vibrations. The works he composed for his beloved instrument stand as some of the greatest in all music – 32 glorious solo sonatas, five unforgettable concertos, numerous chamber pieces centered around the piano. Each bears the unmistakable stamp of a virtuoso and a visionary, as we'll discover in this Active Minds program.
Beethoven arrived at just the right moment. Straddling the end of the 18th and start of the 19th Centuries, he was witness to massive changes in European life. The unquestioned place of royalty as far above the populace was crumbling, as the middle class rose in stature. More people had become literate and educated, leading to the late 18th Century's so-called Age of Enlightenment, in which art and literature and philosophy, once designed for the rich, grew in importance among non-royals. Now, music, theater, poetry and the other finer things of life were being consumed everywhere – particularly in Vienna, Europe's cultural capital. Into that exciting world bursting with energy and curiosity stepped the figure of Beethoven. Perhaps symbolic of this huge change in society, the old-fashioned harpsichord – small-sounding and politely limited in expressing emotions – was being replaced by the new, versatile, louder piano. Factories producing this new invention sprang up everywhere in Vienna, with new improvements being patented each month. Virtuosos from across the continent had been drawn to the city in the mid- to late-1700s (Haydn and Mozart most famously). But in 1792, less than a year after Mozart's tragic death, young Beethoven arrived, immediately turning heads with his remarkable keyboard skills and his unpredictable musical style. In his early piano music, we discover variations on popular opera tunes of the day – a favorite past-time for composers eager to impress – as well as the first sonatas for solo keyboard along with a handful of “sonatas with violin obligato” (in other words, violin sonatas). As he matured and became a familiar figure in Viennese musical circles, Beethoven turned repeatedly to the piano to uncover new ways of expressing previously concealed thoughts and emotions. No exaggeration to say that his music – particularly the piano compositions – heralded the start of the Romanic Era, when calm rationality was succeeded by deep, passionate thoughts. It must have been quite a shock for his listeners as the music whispered and shouted through his wildly explosive “Appassionata” Sonata. But his works should not be construed as merely untamed and volcanic. Some of Beethoven's sweetest, most intimate melodies can be heard in his works for keyboard. Any musician will tell you that the 32 Sonatas contain all that needs to be said about our feelings, our dreams and our world in ways far more profound than words.
- What were some of the most important developments in creating the grand piano?
- What is “sonata form” and how did Beethoven stretch it in new ways?
- Who was Carl Czerny and why is he remembered?
- Can you feel the changes in Beethoven's music as his deafness increased?
- Apart from his most famous Sonatas, which ones are your personal favorites?
- Had Mozart lived another 25 or so years, imagine how his music would have impacted, and be impacted by, Beethoven's piano works.
More to Explore
- Beethoven piano music podcasts Click here
Books for Further Reading
- Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven. Schirmer Books. 2001. 554 pages. Of the dozens of books on the composer, this one remains at or near the top of the list. It covers in vivid detail the life and times of Beethoven, focusing in engrossing fashion on those who were close to him (nearly 40 pages are devoted to the mystery of the Immortal Beloved). The music is examined in understandable ways, leading to important insights into the genius behind the notes.
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- Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. 1,104 pages. Yes, this is a very big book – but it's worth owning it. Swafford is one of the finest, and most readable, composer biographers (His take on Brahms is all but definitive). Even the most casual of readers will be engaged by this wonderful, well-researched book.
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