Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Sonata no. 14 in C-sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia) “Moonlight” Sonata: Adagio sostenuto; Allegretto; Presto
Why has the first movement of the so-called “Moonlight” sonata become so notorious? It is one of Beethoven’s most abstract creations, gathering force from its texture and its subtle yet powerful harmonic processes — hardly the sort of music one would expect to become a popular favourite.
Perhaps its success is partly attributable to the excellent public relations promoted by its spurious title. None the less, it is one of Beethoven’s most original and inspired creations, spanning a wide range of emotions from the hypnotic, solemn lament of the first movement to the tragic and overpowering passion of the last.
However, its very fame and its vandalization by people like Mantovani has wrought permanent damage. Even Beethoven was annoyed with its popularity and is reported to have said “Everyone always talks about my C-sharp minor sonata. I have truly written better things.” This, of course, may just reflect a composer’s natural preference for his latest creations! The second movement is the shortest possible Menuetto, gracious and fragile. Positioned between two powerful outer movements, its effect is thereby magnified — Liszt called it “a flower between two abysses.” The finale is one of Beethoven’s most intense outbursts, full of merciless shocks, roaring sonorities and pleading melodies. Though it begins with the identical three notes which initiated the first movement, there is no other similarity between the two. The breathless second theme dominates the development, its effect magnified and darkened when transferred from treble to bass. Wafting throughout is the unrelieved odor of minor, except for one moment in the development when the second theme briefly touches the major. A bitter and spectacular cadenza is introduced in the coda, crystallizing the desperate character of the entire piece.
Sonata no. 29 in B-flat major, op. 106 “Hammerklavier”: Allegro; Scherzo: Assai vivace; Adagio sostenuto; Largo: Allegro risoluto
The “Hammerklavier” is the longest, the most magnificent, and perhaps the greatest of the 32 sonatas. No other sonata contains such a bold variety of intense and colorful emotions; none matches the heroic ecstasy of the opening movement, the profundity and sorrow of the Adagio or the contrapuntal complexity of the last movement fugue. With harmonic clashes and tensions whose audacity was not equalled for more than fifty years, it thrusts us to the frontiers of music, where the genial borders upon the deranged. The triumphant thundering of the opening summons forth all available forces to start this heroic epic. Its main feature is a daring upward leap of a tenth (plus an octave), followed by a strongly proclamatory rhythm.
The leap is immediately repeated with an increased interval, raising the pitch of excitement even further. There is no arguing with this proclamation, little possibility of amplifying it, and certainly no point in repeating it, so some time will pass before it is heard again. Instead, it is followed by gentler material which becomes ever richer in its subtle but powerful harmonic colorations. Highly contrapuntal, the chromatic nature of the lines makes them devastatingly expressive. The second subject’s fresh and songful upward motion leads into a highly colored passage whose nearly Chopinesque arabesques leap up and flow back with such a vivid juxtaposition of neighboring chromatic notes that it brings beauty to the borderline of cruelty, where it hurts and heals at the same time. Following the repeat of the exposition, the development is dominated by a fugal treatment of the work’s opening motive. Few pages of music equal the ecstatic fervor of the polyphonic feast displayed here, each voice strongly independent and propelled by surges of great expressiveness.
In the recapitulation, the most significant change is in the transition to the second subject — a bold excursion to the distant key of G-flat major. This marvellous episode makes the final return to the tonic sound fresh and vital again for the second subject. A short coda surrealistically echoes the main subject. It is curious that in Beethoven’s longest sonata, he inserts his shortest Scherzo. In its Trio, the music suddenly takes on a frightening and supernatural hue. In the midst of this unsettling episode one can perceive a canon between the bass and the top notes of the right hand. A frantic cadenza leads back to a slightly altered version of the main part of the Scherzo, whose nervous good nature seems to be an attempt to deny the evil rumors spread in the Trio.
The coda is unsettling, and after an excited controversy between B flat and B natural, the movement simply condenses and vanishes.
The Adagio is one of the longest movements ever written for piano, but its length feels moderate due to its extraordinarily moving contents and because it seems to suspend time. Its main subject roams the field of F-sharp minor with a sorrow so profound and desolate that it seems frozen, almost tangible. In the midst of this desolation there shines one tiny ray of sweetness, as the music twice slides up to a brief but celestial strain in G major.
We are brought back to life by one of the most powerful contrasts in Beethoven’s piano works: a transition in which the sound becomes radiant, the rhythm begins to flow, and the regular, measured accompaniment relieves the motionless character of the main theme. Above it all, the melody starts to soar and pulsate with a highly affecting spontaneity. The second theme is utterly peaceful, deriving much of its character from its flowing accompaniment. The closing theme, based mainly on a triad, seems to observe the various emotions of the movement from a distance. Compared to the Adagio’s massive proportions, the development is suprisingly short. The recapitulation of the main subject is so richly ornamented by an improvisatory type of embroidery that it seems to serve as both a continuation of the development and the beginning of the recapitulation — a device which is both genial and irreplaceable at this point. Everything in the recapitulation is profoundly altered. The way the amplified first subject dies out is unprecedented: it is the longest ritardando and decrescendo I know of — the music just sinks slowly out of sight. The transition theme, still passionate, loses its plaintive quality entirely, and gradually builds to a climax which brings us to F-sharp major. The recapitulation of the second theme in major alters the meaning of the whole movement as the frozen quality of F-sharp minor starts to melt away. Just as a serene conclusion appears to have been reached, Beethoven seems to say, “Wait, let me put all this to you again in a different way.” It is difficult to stifle a momentary sigh of impatience, for the plot could only be prolonged at this juncture if the addendum were of compelling urgency and depth — which it is. The composer now infuses the tranquil second theme with turmoil, and leads it to a painful climax on a diminished seventh chord. He then reviews the main subject briefly, slowing down and fading out in a manner reminiscent of the corresponding passage in the recapitulation. When the theme has finally breathed its last, Beethoven comes up with one more genial stroke: seven measures unrelated to anything else in the work, but whose character and effect is such that they seem to sum up, seal and take leave of the entire movement with infinite nobility — perhaps the greatest moment of the entire sonata.
The extraordinary experience of the Adagio needs to be followed by something exceptional. It also requires a gentle shift of mood, for its depth and intensity leave such a lasting impression that the listener needs a few minutes to catch his breath and return from wherever this music may have transported him. It would be crude to shatter this soulful moment by immediately launching the dizzying combat of the fugue. Beethoven therefore presents one of his most breathtaking improvisations, starting distantly and tactfully with isolated notes and chords, all on weak beats or between beats, thus allowing us to remain suspended a little longer in the timeless world of the slow movement. Various exotic keys are tried, only to be rejected. After a contemplative interlude in A major, a new pattern emerges, mysterious and eccentric, like the ticking of a time bomb. It soon explodes in a tantrum, releasing all its suppressed energies and launching us into the fugue. One of the most complex and dissonant pieces written prior to the 20th century, this fugue has been called diabolic, the work of a madman. It is indeed demonically possessed, and its unmitigated persecution of certain motivic fragments demonstrates Beethoven’s tendency toward obsession.
But for the greatest goals the strongest means are required, and these fit the colossal task of propelling the most Herculean keyboard fugue ever created and making it unnerve, overwhelm and move the listener. Such violent tactics alone would be intolerable and useless; what makes them so phenomenal is the stirring way in which they are combined with the expressive warmth of the highly chromatic counterpoint. During the fugue, Beethoven presents us with an inventory of all extant contrapuntal techniques.
The first device is to state the subject in “augmentation,” meaning all note lengths are doubled (it is the first point where the running sixteenth notes stop). The effect is angular and heavy, the accents on each beat sounding as though something were being forged on an anvil. The next contrapuntal device is “retrograde,” meaning that, as it supposedly is in heaven, the first notes shall be last and the last shall be first. While this may be possible in other worlds, in music there is no logical way to reverse time. Logical or not, it works well here as it brings a few moments of calm and quiet, as well as a new countersubject.
The next device is a simple inversion of the subject, easily recognized as it leaps down to the trill rather than up. We now reach one of the most thunderous and agitated parts of the work; for a whole page almost every measure has a trill, leading to an apocalyptic battle of leaps and trills hurled like bolts of lightening, followed by a grandiose cadence in A major. Here we stumble onto the most touching part of the fugue, a soft and tender oasis (itself a small fugue), which retreats from the harsh din and controversy, as though observing the world’s turmoil from another planet. The last device we encounter is called “stretto,” which means that two entries of the subject overlap. This greatly heightens the tension and pace of the activity, and we sense that the end is approaching. The strettos here are noteworthy in that one voice is “recto” (normal version) and the other is inverted. Two more recto entries bring us to an excited and precipitous cadence, much too sudden and brief to close this mammoth work.
A fantasy-like coda follows, in which arpeggios, leaps and trills seem to flurry about in an intoxicated, dazed state; even the trills lose the concentrated energy which has animated them, and they sag and slow down as though expiring. A trickle of notes from the main theme succeeds in reviving the dying colossus, and with superhuman effort it regains its tempestuous energy, repeating the opening leap and trill obsessively until it becomes unbearable and crashes defiantly to its end.
© 1990 by Anton Kuerti