Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Walking Tour through Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata

If you’ve heard any Beethoven piano sonatas – and there are 32 of them, all together – you’ve no doubt heard at least the 1st movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata. The sonata Michael Brown will be opening his Market Square Concerts recital with this Saturday - 8pm at Whitaker Center - may not be as famous but it was written right after the “Moonlight” and right before another well-known one, the “Tempest.”

Now, this sonata became known as the “Pastoral” (not to be confused with his 6th Symphony he’d write a few years later), one of many nicknames that did not originate with Beethoven. In fact, it was a critic who later christened the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “The Moonlight” because the first movement reminded him of a moonlit night on a boat on a lake, but he could have listened to the last movement and heard a terrific storm and called it “The Tempest” except there already was a “Tempest” Sonata. And supposedly that one was inspired by Beethoven reading Shakespeare’s play though since the last movement of the “Tempest” Sonata was actually inspired by watching a man ride by on a horse (Beethoven immediately transcribed into a galloping rhythm that permeates the movement), that could have earned this sonata the alternate nickname, the “Rider.”

Well, whatever…

But the “Pastoral” Sonata’s nickname seems to be deserved. The whole sonata is more relaxed if not outright bucolic. But underneath that simple exterior, the work is very cleverly crafted as any abstract work earning the title “Sonata.”

If you’re wondering what a “sonata” is – even if you weren’t – it originated in the days of Mozart and Haydn and is usually a three-movement work for solo piano or an instrument plus piano with an opening movement in “sonata form,” a contrasting slow movement that could maybe be a set of variations, and a final, usually lively movement to conlcude. Four-movement sonatas became more typical in the 19th Century, adding a scherzo or some faster contrast between the slow 2nd Movement and the finale. In the 18th Century, the weight of this multi-movement piece was in the first movement, but this began to shift with Beethoven, particularly in his later works, so that very often the last movement became more significant.

(Incidentally, a symphony is basically a “sonata for orchestra” and follows the same general evolution as the sonata.)

Now, the fact that a sonata opens with a movement in “sonata form” can sound confusing – I tell my students the study of music is called “musicology” but musicologically speaking, it can often seem “music-illogical.”

The Sonata Form is basically a three-part form.

There’s a 1st Theme in the tonic key (let’s say, D Major), then a modulation to the 2nd Theme which is usually (but not always) in the dominant key (A Major). (Sonatas in minor tonic keys could have a 2nd Theme in the “relative major” – D Minor to F Major.) This is called the “Exposition” where the themes are presented (exposed). It isn’t really the Themes that define the form – it’s the keys, the tonal conflict of presenting the tonic and then moving away from it which is then resolved by returning to the initial tonic key.

(My apologies if your eyes glazed over while you were reading that paragraph. I have to admit to a sense of Geek's Revenge after having to deal with people talking about computers or cars or sports without ever feeling the need to explain their own jargon to me, but I digress...)

In the middle is the “Development” Section where the themes are taken apart, varied, changed, “developed” and the key area is very unsettled. The point is, it’s not supposed to be in the Tonic Key at all. The whole point is, having taken everything apart, to put it all back together so the third section, the “Recapitulation,” arrives back in the home tonic (D Major, in this case).

As the themes are “recapped,” everything is now (basically) in the home key – no modulations to the Dominant or whatever the Exposition did. The idea is to stress this dramatic return to Tonic. Of course, the more complicated these movements became, the more complex the key structure became with it, but that’s the generic principal. What a composer does with it may not always agree with what the textbook says it should. Any composer worth his salt knows that rules are made to be broken: it’s how you break them that counts.

So, let’s go back and listen to that performance by Daniel Barenboim as we walk our way through the sonata and listen to how it's put together:

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CLIP ONE – 1st Movement (Part 1) --- --- --- ---

Normally, textbooks tell you music should move by four-bar phrase units but this sonata, rather than being “four-square” with 4+4+4+4 bar phrases, begins [0:15] with a 1-bar intro as if it’s played on the timpani (reminds me of the Violin Concerto’s opening, written 5 years later) + 9 bars (repeated), then [0:38] 8-bars repeated and expanded to 11 bars; [1:00] 4-bars repeated and expanded) which gives it a sense of forward motion – like playing long notes followed by increasingly shorter notes (if that is “rhythm,” this use of shorter and shorter phrases in a kind of “macro-rhythm,” rhythm on a higher structural level).

Also notice how the very first chord [0:17] wants to pull us away from the tonic D Major – that C-natural wants to resolve to a G Major chord which it does but which, as it continues, stays in the D Major tonality. It gives us a feeling of harmonic “fluidity,” chords wafting on nature’s breeze, if you want to think pastorally.

At [1:58], the 2nd Theme (in the outer voices, with “whispering forest” texture in the middle) begins as expected in the dominant key of A Major, but it gets there after a build-up that began at [1:42], moving from the very unexpected key of C-sharp Minor to where it belongs!

Speaking of shortening, notice how these sustained chords at [2:12] followed by a scale-like flourish are telescoped at [2:17] rather than repeated verbatim.

The closing section of the Exposition [2:49] is almost bird-like with “hunting horns” in the left hand – notice the falling octaves in the right hand – which then quietly leads back to the quiet opening timpani introduction [3:20]. The exposition is always marked to be repeated so you can familiarize yourself with everything you’ve heard the first time – the themes, the keys, the tension that will continue to build – on the assumption you can always hear something new the second time around. But not every performer always does.

Having repeated the Exposition, we’re now at the “2nd Ending” [6:21] then, starts the Development section by lifting the main theme up into the key of G Major [6:26] (remember what that 1st chord wanted to do at the very opening? Well, here it actually goes to that implied key) but then he takes just the tail-end of the theme and turns it into an ‘almost fugue’ [6:43] with moving 8th notes in the left hand (4+4), switching registers (another 4+4) [6:50] then alternating (2+2) [6:58] then using a phrase that’s only the end “particle” [7:05] of the end of the main theme – the theme is getting shorter and shorter – building up the harmonic tension with accents and louder dynamics, repeating that “particle” in the process 33 consecutive bars – ! – before slowing down and growing quieter, but sounding likes it’s going to resolve not to D Major, not even B Minor but to B Major [7:57] – very serious!

Then, the closing theme (with its falling octave) [7:57] intrudes cautiously, hesitantly, but working itself into the proper chord so it finally does resolve to the expected D Major [8:24]. This is the Recapitulation, the return of the Exposition’s material.

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CLIP TWO – End of 1st/ 2nd Mvmt begins at 2:44 --- --- --- ---

Here, the 1st Theme (in D Major) continues through what had once modulated through C-sharp Major to A Major but here, actually sort of putters around until the 2nd Theme comes in in D Major [Clip #2, 0:49], the tonal conflict resolved! After a third repetition of a little scale-like flourish [1:31-1:34] as if crowing “Back in D Major!”, the closing theme with its falling octave [1:40] reinforces D Major as the 1st Theme makes one more appearance [2:08] with four repetitions of that last little “particle” [2:21-2:30] before ending quietly on a standard dominant-to-tonic cadence, V – I. Resolved. The end.

The slow movement, beginning at 2:44, marked Andante (which really means “walking” so it’s not that slow) – opens with the left hand marked staccato (short articulation on the notes) – like pizzicato (or plucked) strings, accompanying a smoothly phrased chorale in D Minor in the right hand.

The 2nd Section [5:26] switches to D Major and returns us to a kind of pastoral sound-image – in this case, as Andras Schiff describes it, horns answered by twittering birds. This then returns [6:56] to the D Minor chorale with the “walking bass” (not to be too jazzy about it, but still…), which Beethoven now varies with a more elaborate right-hand figuration [7:26]. However, before it finally ends (with a straight-forward chorale version, 9:27 or at 0:01 of the 3rd clip, see below], the horns and birds of the 2nd Section return briefly [0:22], now in D Minor – not as bright, giving it a more melancholy tinge – as the left-hand sinks lower into the earth and the bird-call rises quietly higher and higher.
--- --- --- ---
CLIP THREE – End of 2nd Movement; complete 3rd & 4th Movements
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The simplicity of this scherzo, beginning at 1:20 of the 3rd clip, is delightful with its very simple 4-bar units. Remember the falling octave in the closing theme from the 1st Movement’s Exposition [Clip #1, 2:49]? Well, that’s where this little movement grows from – four bars, relatively long notes, answered by four bars of shorter, sprightly notes. Whimsical and certainly Beethoven with a smile. A bit of a surprise are the loud chords, just a reminder he did, after all, study with Haydn not too long ago (and Haydn was still the Grand Old Man of Vienna – his oratorio “The Creation” had been written in 1799, two years earlier, and “The Seasons” premiered in April of 1801, just months before Beethoven completed this sonata).

For some reason, the middle section of dances like minuets or the scherzo movement which grew out of them is always called “the trio” even though it has nothing to do with threes (it’s the 2nd of 3 parts, after all, and it isn’t intended to be played by three players). Anyway, this trio [2:45] consists of a 4-bar bit in B minor answered by a similar 4-bar bit that moves to D Major which then, for its second half [2:54], does the reverse. But Beethoven coyly shifts the accompaniment around to reharmonize each bit slightly differently, giving a subtle hint of variety to the expected repetition. Then it goes back and re-does the A Section again [3:07], ending on those very loud chords after such a gentle, sparkling but understated and very brief interlude.

Even though it was the publisher who came up with the title, “Pastoral,” Beethoven must have had this in mind: the last movement returns to an even more rustic sound-image of the countryside – in the left-hand: bagpipes! Not the big honking skirling Scottish bagpipes of military pageantry, but the more subtle, much smaller musettes of the peasants and shepherds. The simple theme he builds over this moves off into a series of ripples [4:27] to a 2nd Theme in A Major [4:44] that sounds like an inversion of the 1st with a hint of drama at the end before the opening returns [5:20].

This lilting or swinging rhythm of the 6/8 meter permeates the whole movement, even in the Development section [6:07] where it becomes almost Bach-like with its chromatic imitation which then increases in tension – harmonic and dynamic – until, again, we reach a storm-like fortissimo [6:33-7:01] – which then clears out with the quiet return of the opening bag-pipes in the bass [7:01], shortened and ornamented (more birds?), then bringing back the ripples [7:30] and finally the 2nd Theme now back in D Major [7:52] then doing the bag-pipe drone one more time in G Major [8:31] (remember what I’d said about the opening chord of the 1st Movement?) before we reach “the coda” [9:08].

Now, “coda” literally means “tail” as in “tail-end” and in this case, it’s a kind of rush to the last measure which pianist Charles Rosen described as being there “just to annoy the amateurs.” This sonata is not technically difficult – which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to play – but this little coda whips along at a pace few amateurs could do cleanly. It ends with a rousing affirmation of D Major: V – I in harmony-speak, “sol – do” in solfeggio-speak, “so – there!” with a wink from Beethoven.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Beethoven in 1803
Beethoven had recently completed his first six string quartets (written between 1798 and 1800), his 1st Symphony (premiered in 1800), the 3rd Piano Concerto, the Septet Op. 20 (which actually became a big hit), and in 1801, he completed the ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, two violin sonatas including the “Spring” Sonata, as well as four piano sonatas including the “Moonlight” and the “Pastoral.” The following year, he finished three more violin sonatas, three more piano sonatas including the “Tempest,” and his 2nd Symphony.

Now, after you’ve listened to this piano sonata and if you know any of the music I just mentioned, you might be surprised to realize Beethoven was suffering from early symptoms of deafness and at times so severely that, in October of 1802 while staying in the rural suburb of Heiligenstadt, he could write a heart-searing letter that reads sometimes as Last Will and Testament and at other times as a possible suicide note. 

“But what a humiliation for me,” he wrote, “when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back.”

It should make us appreciate not only the music he left us – especially considering the rustic beauties of this pastoral sojourn – but also what we ourselves, in our world today, can hear and so often take for granted.

– Dick Strawser


  1. Thanks for this! Just needed this little bit of extra info for my analytical podcast I have to do on the first movement :)

  2. The second movement is NOT a CHORALE, it's a march. Andante AMBULANDO.

    1. I'm not sure if you're using some edition that uses "Andante ambulando" as the tempo indication or you're defining the idea of "andante" as a "walking tempo" (Beethoven marked it, simply, "Andante"), I didn't call the *movement* a chorale: I described the texture of the right-hand at the opening as "a smoothly[-]phrased chorale," referring to that element of the theme again when it recurs and again when a variation of that occurs (at the opening of the 3rd clip). It's a tad slow and unlike anything most listeners would associate with a "March" as far as the spirit of the march goes -- one could walk or march to anything in 2/4 but that doesn't make it a "March." If anything, this passage would've reminded a listener in 1801 to the famous passage in Mozart's "Magic Flute" with the two guards (Act 2, scene 7) who sing a chorale theme accompanied by a "walking bass" (c.1 minute into, a work premiered only a decade earlier.