Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen: Beethoven’s piano sonatas

Carl Schlösser: Beethoven in his home (ca. 1811)

The 32 piano sonatas that Ludwig van Beethoven published between 1796 and 1823 occupied him for almost the whole of his time in Vienna. Even in Bonn, while still little more than a child, he published three strikingly original sonatas without opus numbers. No other genre in his creative output provides such a comprehensive survey of his artistic development, or such deep glimpses into his workshop. Not a single weak or insignificant work is to be found among them. It thus comes as no surprise that his sonatas have formed the indispensable bedrock of every music-historical education, every solo recital and every pianist's training. It was with sonatas that Beethoven, having arrived in Vienna as a young man and completed his training with Haydn and Albrechtsberger, launched his public career and proclaimed, as it were, his compositional creed. Being one of the finest and most interesting pianists of his day, he could literally tailor the sonatas to his own strengths and venture into an area with which he was wholly familiar. In contrast, he shied away from the string quartet and the symphony, genres raised to the highest pinnacle by Haydn and Mozart. Shrewdly weighing his options, it was not until years later that he tried his hand at them, only to bring them with equal swiftness into virtually paradigmatic form.

In sum, Beethoven cultivated no other genre as soon, as constantly, as protractedly and as diversely as the piano sonata. Their towering position both in his oeuvre and in piano music as a whole prompted the great pianist Hans von Bülow, with his penchant for bons mots, to call them, with jocular earnestness, the “New Testament of pianoforte players”. Only Bach's “Well-Tempered Clavier”, he continued, deserve to stand alongside them as the “Old Testament”. It was with piano music, and above all the sonatas, that the youthful composer quickly gained an enthusiastic following among Vienna's wealthy young aristocrats. They numbered among his most important patrons, and their salon gatherings profited in turn from the young genius's renown. Here Beethoven was able to probe his aesthetic and stylistic limits with full rigour. As his evolution proceeded, it was in the piano sonata that his much-debated stylistic transformations first reared their head, from the rebellious gestures of the young genius to the towering demeanour of the “heroic style” to the enigmatic complexities of his late works. Only then did they pass into other genres. It is thus no overstatement to call the piano sonata Beethoven's experimental laboratory in the exploration of ever-new possibilities, and thus the defining medium of his musical thought altogether.

From the very outset Beethoven's piano sonatas were conceived as a challenging genre for the cultivated aristocratic salon. Later, as his circle of friends and acquaintances expanded into the middle classes, the sonatas remained exclusive music for small coteries of connoisseurs. Today we are hardly aware of this, for they are capable of filling gigantic concert halls in conjunction with the names of great pianists. Yet this is not where they belong: although they have effortlessly survived transplantation from the intimate salons from which they sprung, they cry out for meticulous, precise and patient study. Those willing to invest such a study are rewarded with ever-new and ever-expanding insights that never cease to surprise.

One of those insights will surely be that the most famous Beethoven sonatas - those that soon formed a core favoured by music-lovers to the present day (we know them by their popular nicknames: “Pathétique”, “Moonlight”, “Appassionata”, “Waldstein” and the legendary “final five”) - have led to a certain lopsidedness. They focus attention on an image of Beethoven dominated by idealistic passion, tragic moral earnestness and heroic perseverance. This image is by no means wholly unwarranted. But a further glance at the less well-known (yet no less important) sonatas will add to this image such traits as intimacy, tenderness, profundity, roguishness and whimsy, to name only a few. Taken as a whole, then, Beethoven's piano sonatas offer a rich panoply of themes, feelings, moods, images, problems and ideas that stand eye to eye, so to speak, with the poetry and philosophy of their age. Yet they invariably remain pure music rather than representing theories in notes. As such, it is imperative that they be taken seriously. And as such, they have inspired efforts toward their proper understanding to the present day, and will no doubt continue to do so well into the future. At least for those with a capacity to hear, think, feel and read.