‘Der Große Mogul’: ‘Big shot’, that’s what Haydn called Beethoven, not entirely as a compliment. Beethoven had conquered the musical scene in Vienna in the 1790s, thanks in large part to his jaw-dropping abilities as an improviser on the piano, as well as his bold new composing style.
Listening to other people play his own piano sonatas made Beethoven wince and ‘left the poorest impression’ (Diary 1805). They were so very personal to him, the closest reflection of his musical identity. He composed at the keyboard even when he was profoundly deaf, hammering the keys for inspiration.
He wrote 32 sonatas for piano (35 if we’re being pedantic, but let’s not be) and they soon became an essential part of any pianist’s core repertoire, the ‘New Testament’ of the canon. Bach’s mighty ’48 Preludes and Fugues’ were the Old Testament, so this is a big accolade indeed.
Beethoven’s creative life is grouped into three phases, as is often the case with the great composers: early, middle and late. The piano sonatas give a great overview of this development, ranging from courtly entertainment that could be played on a harpsichord (or similar) through to heavy-weight, philosophical treatises for the grand piano.
So here’s a taster of those three periods, as seen from the piano:
The first track is from his very first sonata, which he would have played to impress the Viennese public and win patronage in his early years. Plenty of fast passagework there to show off his virtuoso skills, with trademark strong chords, a 1-2-3 sequence of punches – but also dainty refinement in the middle.
The ‘Grande Sonate Pathétique’ looks ahead to his middle, ‘Heroic’ phase. This is Beethoven having found his voice, full of pathos and drama. You can imagine the swooning at the time. Great music to brood to.
The ‘Waldstein’ is a listener favourite, not least because of this wonderfully expansive, grand finale. This is for a bigger piano and everything about it testifies to the ambitions of his middle, ‘Heroic’ phase. After a reflective opening, it’s full of drive, with long trills and sweeping scales. A stallion of a sonata.
To the ‘Late’ period to finish. The formidable ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata was written in 1818 and is Beethoven’s favourite, the perfect balance of head and heart, rigour and freedom. You can hear how difficult it is for the instrument with its massive leaps and complex, busy texture. Late Beethoven can be gnarly and uncompromising at times, not least because he wasn’t always composing with the listener in mind. But sticking with it always reaps rewards.
[The ‘Cathy Lists’ were created for my sister-in-law, Cathy, who wanted some help getting into classical music. You can follow the complete playlist here on Spotify.]