Beethoven can’t get this tune out of his head

Welcome to the 82nd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Piano sonata no 24, A Thérèse, opus 78 (1809)

The second movement of this short sonata, written for one of his pupils, bears an uncanny similarity to ‘Rule, Britannia!’ on which Beethoven had written an entertaining set of variations. Why it should pop into his mind at this juncture, when he may have been in love with his pupil Therese Countess von Brunsvik (or, more likely, her sister Josephine) is one of those unfathomable mysteries that are not worth pursuing.

The phenomenal pianist and composer Ferrucio Busoni wrote somewhere that it’s the duty of an interpreter to rescue a work of Beethoven’s when it falls from ‘sublime heights’.  Making this seven-minute sonata sound smarter than it really is represents a challenge to all pianists who have ever attempted it. Worth the effort? Always.

Busoni has another insight into the composer he admired above all others, albeit with a composer’s objective distance. Beethoven,’ he writes, ‘is a master only of psychological tragedy; the tragedy of a situation [involoving two persons] is quite dull within him, whereas psychological tragedy unfolds itself within a single person.’ This is serious and profound: Beethoven might dedicate a sonata to a love-object, but the struggle of the work is raging only within himself. Busoni went on to say elsewhere: ‘In the most tragic situation, (Beeethoven) is ready with a joke—in the most hilarious, he is capable of a learned frown.’ How I wish Busoni would have composed variations on Beethoven themes in the way that he did for Bach.

Many pianists have theorised about Beethoven’s state of mind from the intimate perspective of assimilating his 32 sonatas into their own hands and minds. Arthur Schnabel, who plays this sonata as if he can’t wait to be rid of it, was prone to floating theories about Beethoven while Alfred Brendel, who published his own theories about Schnabel and Beethoven, treats this sonata as a bit of fluff, not one that reveals much about Beethoven’s mind. There are now books and essays being published about Brendel’s thoughts on Schnabel, Busoni and Beethoven. It just goes round and round, with very little relevance for the listener who would like to find feeling and meaning in a sonata.

The one pianist who communicates with clarity about Beethoven is the Canadian Glenn Gould, in a 1967 pre-concert talk:

Beethoven is a kind of living metaphor for the creative condition. In part he is the man who respects the past, who honours the traditions [from] which art develops, and while never other than intense and constantly gesticulating with those rather violent gestures which are so peculiarly his own, this side of his character leads him to smooth off the edges of his structure sometimes, to be watchful and even painstaking on occasion about the grammar of his musical syntax.

And then there’s this other side, the fantastical romantic side of Beethoven, which draws from him those unapologetically wrongheaded gestures, those proud, nose-thumbing anti-grammatical moments which, in the context of tradition [and] against the smooth and polished edges of classical architecture, make him unique among composers for the sheer devil-may-careness of his manner. But in the end this sort of amalgam exists for every artist, really; within every creative person there is an inventor at odds with a museum-curator.

Absolutely nailed it. So does Gould’s interpretation (1975) of the 24th sonata live up to his dazzling conclusions? In part (as Gould might have said) it fulfils Beethoven’s vision and then some. Gould, with his quirky genius for internalising everything he plays, makes the opening movement sound like a George Martin arpeggio to a Beatles pop song and the second half like a stretch of crazy paving. After you’ve heard Gould’s Theresian adumbrations, you won’t listen to another Beethoven interpreter all week. He’s in a class of his own, like it or not.

The closest any pianist came to Gould was the Austrian Friedrich Gulda (1958), but his mind was so quicksilver he starts to sound bored halfway through the opening movement and the listener never really recovers from the insult. Among other great minds that addressed this sonata, Rudolf Serkin (1948) falls asleep in the opening movement, recovers with a jerk and gets through the finale in a world record time of under two and a half minutes. Wilhelm Kempff (1965) is, as you’d expect, punctual, immaculate and inoffensive. One modern interpreter has a way of his own with the work – the Turkish pianist Fazil Say (2019), an artist who spent must of the past decade under threat of arrest for blasphemy by a fundamentalist Moslem regime in a former European democracy. Beethoven seems to have special meaning for Fazil Say.

For reasons known only to himself, and probably no more than convenience, Beethoven wrote piano sonatas in clusters. The 24th (opus 78) is followed in rapid succession by the 25th (‘Cuckoo’ opus 79) and the 26th (‘Les Adieux’, opus 81a). At this point in his life, he has got the art of sonata making down to a piece of craftsmanship, even a chore. Each is top-drawer Beethoven. We cannot yet see how he advances from these estimable productions to the astonishing heights of the five last sonatas.

I suppose that is why we keep going back to these middling sonatas, to see if the composer leaves any clues to his next leap. I am not going to draw any giant Brendelian inferences of interpretation, but before you leave this post take a listen to Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964), pupil of Scriabin and teacher of the two greatest Russian Beethoven pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Neuhaus exists in a detached time frame and sound world, making us listen not so much to Beethoven as to what Beethoven might mean at the moment we are listening. He actually requires the listener, like a psychoanalytic patient, to put in some work on him or herself and then ask whether this composer and this work might possibly change our lives. Neuhaus knows.

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  • Beethoven’s Sonata #24, Op. 78, is an ingenious creation: the entire piece is based on material found in the first 4 measures! There is no finer example of how Beethoven’s mind worked – this sonata demonstrates how he took a small seed and could grow it into a luxuriant plant.

  • “…he may have been in love with his pupil Therese Countess von Brunsvik (or, more likely, her sister Josephine)….

    Or her brother. Come on. Beethoven was gay. He lusted after his nephew.

  • Ermm…isn’t op 80 the Choral Fantasy?

    And op. 78 just a lovely sonata that explores some fascinating, spacey places. I’ve loved it since my conservatory days. The last movement really has the potential to rock and roll, but is rarely played well enough to do so.

  • Very interesting. Everything form Beethoven is interesting, to say the least.

    Gould: “……… within every creative person there is an inventor at odds with a museum-curator.”

    That is a saying from a typical 20C modernist mindset. Tradition is in itself NOT a museum; tradition happened thousands of years before any idea of a ‘museum’ emerged. The museum is a 19C invention by the then ruling bourgeoisie, to make the private art collections of nobility and monarchies accessible to the whole of society. Tradition is the availability of expressive and technical means for artists, to be used freely, and not as an orthodoxy – that is a 20C modernist distortion.

    And then, even in the 19th century the museum was an organic part of a developing tradition: in the exhibition halls, art apprentices were copying the master works as part of their education, and artists aspired to eventually become absorbed by the great collections, even the impressionists.

    The unconventional way in which Beethoven handled tradition is something very different from 20C ideas both about invention and tradition.

  • We know that Beethoven thought more of his op. 78 than he did of the “Moonlight” Sonata, and he was frustrated that the latter was what everyone seemingly wanted to hear of his piano works in those days. I believe this was related to us by Czerny in his “On the Proper Performance of all Beethoven’s Works for the Piano” (edited by Paul Badura-Skoda). (Unfortunately, I don’t have this work at hand right now, so I can’t quote it verbatim.)

  • I always found Pollini’s versions (studio and live) to be delightful – like eavesdropping on Pollini playing for his own pleasure. Much tasteful use of the sustain pedal, as is his wont.

  • “Arthur Schnabel, who plays this sonata as if he can’t wait to be rid of it…”

    …the way he played everything.

  • It’s one of those pieces that will sound silly if you play it like it’s a silly piece.

    I remember someone (Brendel?) saying that Liszt is like that: what you bring to the piece is what comes out. That would explain why the same piece by Liszt can like a masterpiece when played by Arrau or Bolet, but a showy piece of trash when played by Lang Lang.

    I suppose that could be an argument for why this is not among Beethoven’s greatest works, where, if you give them a shallow performance, it’s you, not the piece, that looks bad.

  • Op. 78 is one of the most beautiful and most perfect of all 32 sonatas. And Schnabel’s performance is one of the very greatest. To say that he plays it as if he can’t be rid of it soon enough, is… well I just have to disagree

  • As long as the jump-off point for discussing LVB op. 78 is Busoni, I’d call attention to Egon Petri — his disciple’s classic quicksilver recording of that very work. It’s likely he played it for Busoni.

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