Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 27

Beethoven's career took a different turn after the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon in 1805 and 1809. The stress caused by the occupation, plus his increasing deafness put serious composing on the back burner.  In the years 1812 to 1814 after composing his 7th Symphony Beethoven did little composing except for a few pot boilers like Wellington's Victory and the revision of his only opera Fidelio.  

Beethoven finally returned to his more serious composition efforts in 1814 with his 27th piano sonata. It is a two-movement work, and at one time had a program for it written by the composer himself.  The first movement is in E minor, and has the heading Conflict between head and heart, the second movement is in E major and has the heading Conversation with the beloved. The origin of these titles stems from when his friend Count von Lichnowsky, whom Beethoven dedicated the sonata to, asked for the meaning of the music. Beethoven replied that the sonata was a representation of the Count's love life. The Count was contemplating marriage to a woman his family disapproved of, the conflict between head and heart, and a a vision of marital bliss, the conversation with the beloved. Presumably the two had a good laugh over the titles and Beethoven did not have them published with the score. But the music does have the feeling of Beethoven's descriptive headings.

Each movement is prefaced by tempo indications in German instead of Italian, Beethoven's answer to musical nationalism. Tempo indications had traditionally been given in Italian because the first large music publishers happened to be in Venice, Italy. Beethoven was serious about his music and serious about how he valued German music, hence his break with tradition for the sake of German art.

The first movement is restless, the second peaceful. Beethoven was a composer of contrasts, and these two movements contrast each other very much. And it is interesting to note that the second movement is longer than the first, almost twice as long.  Is the second movement wish-fulfillment on the part of Beethoven, a man who had many conflicts, illness and stress in his life, that he could have double the peace and calm in his life as he had stress?  Recent scholarship has shown that for much of Beethoven's life, especially the final decade, he was an ill man. Add to that his deafness, and the will to not only go on living but to grow as an artist must have taken every ounce of strength and determination he could muster.

Whether this sonata actually does follow the program Beethoven gave to the Count, or is something much more personal can never be totally figured out. That this is a sonata of contrast is certain. That it is one of Beethoven's best is also certain.

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