For many lovers and exponents of Classical music, Beethoven stands astride the bridge between Classical and Romantic.
Just picture that stern face, score in hand spanning some colossal abyss, where so many before him failed the great leap across to passion and angst. His work is packed tight with examples of his vision and courage; courage to move away from the bonds of patronage and strike out as a musician in his own right.
This all mirrors the true romantic and heroic notions Beethoven himself was pushing towards. But if we were to take a closer look, we may find this grand image deflated a little by some of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors.
I’m not going to go into details but the great abyss I alluded to was actually little more than a narrow meander twisting across and back between the two genres. The whole business has more subtlety and nuance than you could shake a conductor’s baton at. (Common time, obviously with little bursts of frantic scherzo.) Apart from the obvious signs of Beethoven’s progressive style; five movement symphonies, quasi fantasia sonatas, the reflection and self analysis within the string quartets etc etc, it is the texture of his piano music which really spells it out. Look at the first page of the Sonata Pathetique:
It’s so thick isn’t it? There are great handfuls of chords, it covers over four octaves and the melody is in octaves.
For the piano itself, it is genuinely demanding. The dynamic markings give a licence to push the bounds of an instrument still in its infancy. Yes, Haydn and Mozart’s piano music is full of turbulent passion but they still carry a sense of the style brise, necessitated by the lack of a sustained sound-characteristic of the harpsichord.
This takes us from the idea of the keyboard in its generic sense to the pianoforte as a vehicle capable of orchestral and vocal expression. The rest of the sonata, whilst being as turbulent as its introduction, settles down to a more conventional arpeggiated texture. Here we can make direct comparison to Mozart’s wonderful C minor piano sonata.
But of all of Beethoven’s piano compositions, I’m drawn to a modest late bagatelle. Many times I have languished in the tortures of the late sonatas and marvelled at the genius of harmonic creativity.
By this time, the piano had itself grown in size and strength. Yet it’s this simple little piece which leaves me spellbound. Here is the opening page:
It’s hardly the Pathetique is it? But look at the left hand. From the start, it’s in thirds below a single melody line; a sure indicator of a piano’s (and performer’s) capability of balancing sounds. At one stage the hands are also quite well apart. There is also a sly key change from G to C.
In fact I could find so many discreet little signals which mirror the many advances of this great composer. But the real reason for showing this piece does not need any great clever tricks of musical analysis.
For me it is the embodiment of the Romantic notion. It has romanticism oozing from every bar. At the time of writing this, Beethoven had spent many years trapped within his own tortured cell of deafness. I have no idea what he heard between his ears but it is not reflected in what he heard in his head. In some respect, the deafness had freed him from the shackles of pleasantries; the melodic harmonious nature of which still attracts many listeners to Classic FM. “Whatever!” I loudly exclaim.
The bagatelle opus 126 in G leaves me with a combination of admiration, sorrow, excitement and pure heartbreak because in amongst the turmoil of his later years, it is a snapshot of genuine love. It is tempting for many people with life affecting conditions to hate the world and to rave against their fortune. But here Beethoven is saying:
“It’s all right, I still know what joy is. Here is a little piece of my heart. I cannot hear it with my ears but you can so I’m happy to share it with you.”
Thank-you for reading.