FL 2 3172

Reubke, Beethoven: Sonata, Waldstein, Tändeln und Scherzen

Release date October 14, 2003
Album code FL 2 3172
Periods Classical | Romantic
Genres Piano

Album information

Reubke: Piano Sonata in B-flat minor

Julius Reubke (1834-1858) died at the young age of 24, so he left only a few keyboard pieces and two major works: a sonata for organ and another for piano. Long neglected, these compositions are today considered among the most worthy accomplishments of the Romantic generation in their respective genres.

The son of an organist, Reubke was a brilliant piano student at the Berlin Conservatory and travelled to Weimar in 1856 to study with Franz Liszt. It was there that he wrote both sonatas in a single burst of creativity, using Liszt’s famous Sonata in B minor as a model.

Both works are surprisingly mature and modern; Reubke masters a harmonic language comparable to his teacher’s most daringly contemporary works. Indeed, certain passages of the Piano Sonata in B-flat minor go even further, giving a foretaste of Scriabin. In the sonata, two highly contrasting ideas—the first, intensely rhapsodic, in the style of Liszt, the second, lyrical in a fashion similar to that of Mendelssohn’s songs without words—alternate for nearly a half hour, taking on each other’s characters like chameleons in what Reubke’s main exegete, Daniel Chorzempa, calls “thematic metamorphosis.” Liszt considered Reubke his most promising student. And while premature death cut short his musical development, with this masterpiece at least, that promise had already been fulfilled.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”)

Beethoven’s first sketches of this work date from the fall of 1803, as he was finishing his third symphony. Similar to how the Eroica shook the symphonic genre, the op.53 shattered the conventions of the piano sonata. Parisian piano maker Sébastien Erard had recently given Beethoven a new piano with a wider register, fuller resonance, and cleaner attack, providing the pianist with new wonderful opportunities. And indeed, in the well-known series of chords and flight of rhapsody that open the sonata, we seem to catch a glimpse of Beethoven, the pianist, trying out his new instrument.

The harmonic structure of this first movement is just as surprising as its thematic construction. According to sonata-form convention, the exposition’s first theme in the tonic key should modulate to the dominant or one of its substitutes, the subdominant or the relative mode—in other words, to a neighbouring key. In Op.53, however, after the initial theme in C major, the second theme occurs in the distant key of E major. Beethoven had previously dared such a modulation in the humorous context of Op.31 No.1, a sonata that many viewed as the caricature of a bad salon pianist. But in Op.53, he does it in the same heroic context as his just-completed symphony. The pillars of the temple of tonality had just been shaken. And the aftershocks of that first upheaval—as measured by increasingly extreme modulations and chromaticism—would lead to its complete collapse a century later. For the sonata’s second movement, Beethoven had at first planned a grand “Andante” (known today as “Andante favori”). According to his student Ferdinand Ries, “a friend told him the sonata was too long, which earned him a rebuke. But upon further reflection, my master became convinced that his friend was correct. So he published the long andante separately and composed the attractive introduction to the rondo that exists now.” The “friend” was probably Ries himself, and the short “Introduzione” is indeed more striking. Between the two fast movements, it creates an extraordinary moment of suspension, full of questions, that are resolved only in the “Rondo.” The diaphanous melody that follows, a far cry from the usual impulsive themes, stands in perfect contrast to the hammered chords of the sonata’s opening, but it is eventually caught up in the whirlpool of an immense coda, “Prestissimo.”

Op.53 is often called the “Waldstein” sonata because Beethoven dedicated it to one of his most loyal patrons, Count von Waldstein. However, it is also known by a second title, the “Aurora,” apparently conferred by the French pianist Marie Bigot, who met Beethoven while on tour and was the first person to defend his piano music in France. This title likely refers to the dawn-like melody of the “Rondo” (Aurora being the Roman goddess of the dawn). But it becomes even more symbolic when one considers that the sonata—and the instrument that inspired it, so to speak—began a new age in the history of the piano.

Beethoven: Eight variations in F major on “Tändeln und Scherzen,” from the opera “Soliman II” by F. X. Süssmayr, WoO 76

The “Süssmayr” variations are one of three sets of theme and variations composed and published in 1799, a time when Beethoven was recognized more as a virtuoso pianist and improviser than as a composer. Indeed, following their publication, the following statement appeared in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, the country’s leading music magazine: “That Mr. van Beethoven is a capable pianist, we are well aware,” wrote an anonymous author, “and if we were not, we would guess it upon hearing these variations. But is he a good composer?

The question must be asked.” What that author did not realize was that Beethoven’s conception of the variation was quite different from that of most of his contemporaries. Not satisfied with simply taking a melody and progressively embellishing it through ornamentation and diminution, Beethoven tried to reach into the very structure of the theme he chose. In this sense, while the first variations prove to be arpeggio studies or rhythmical motives that come out of the theme, the last two variations foreshadow in striking fashion some of the most famous passages of the late sonatas. The seventh variation presents the theme in a rich ornamentation that settles into long trills bearing more than a passing resemblance to the final movement of Op.111, his last piano sonata. And the eighth takes up the theme by doubling the first notes in octave leaps in a fugue that this time foreshadows the Hammerklavier.

© 2003, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. Translation: Peter Christensen.

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