Learning to Listen: Pianist Richard Goode and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
June 23, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Pianist Richard Goode is one of the world's foremost interpreters of Ludwig van Beethoven's piano music.

Goode was in town in May to perform a recital at Macalester College for the Chopin Society. While he was here in the Cities, I spoke with him about three of the most important pieces of piano music — the final three piano sonatas by Beethoven.

On today's Learning to Listen, we'll talk about the first of those three: Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109.

Written by Beethoven between the years 1820 and 1822, Goode feels the three sonatas share characteristics:

"They certainly have certain things in common. And the range of emotions, and the meditative qualities, and the contrapuntal interests so many ways, sort of bind them together. And I can't help but feeling also, in the way they combine in themselves, the great formal power of Beethoven, and the new sort of, I would almost say, romantic freedom. A kind of taking of emotional chances, even beyond what perhaps the earlier sonatas did.

"I think what's fascinating about these pieces, is their extraordinary diversity of surface, and immense range, emotionally, musically, in every way, and also the fact that almost as a natural result of this, consequently, the formal ideas have to be that much more powerful."

What are those "formal ideas" Richard Goode referred to?

When composers like Haydn and Mozart wrote piano sonatas, they followed a fairly strict formula, much like a blueprint for a house.

This is not to say that Haydn and Mozart weren't inventive — they were both master composers who expressed their own individual styles.

However, when Beethoven started writing Piano Sonatas, he began to toy with that formula in unique ways — making the Piano Sonatas longer, shorter, adding movements, subtracting movements, re-imagining the harmonic rules of what a Piano Sonata is supposed to be, and so on.

As a result, musicians tend to consider Beethoven a master of "form" — a master of the way a piece is constructed and held together.

Goode says this wasn't necessarily the case during Beethoven's life:

"We forget, at his time, critics and listeners thought of him as a bizarre inventor, a bizarre, kind of experimenter. It was the surprisingness, the adventurousness, and the flamboyant difference of his writing that was commented on, more than his formal mastery.

"Always a question, with these pieces, whether Beethoven intended the relationships between them. And there are some very relations between them. My feeling is that each one definitely stands on its own. When you play them together, hear them together, you'll hear these relations. But, in my opinion, it doesn't really change the way that you feel about each individual sonata. But since Beethoven is working on them together, it would be a little surprising if there weren't such relationships somehow."

I asked Goode to dig into each of the three movements of the Piano Sonata No. 30, referred to as Opus. 109.

In the first movement, he refers to the main melodies within the piece as the "subject".

"The very opening, which turned out to be the first subject, and takes about 7 seconds before it is suddenly interrupted by what turns out to be the second subject.

"These two subjects are important because of their diversity. The first subject is kind of fast — it's called a Vivace — and the second subject is slow and embellished — it almost sounds like the pianist is improvising.

"To do this to a sonata is to do something even more radical than he had done before. And, in fact, I think the guiding principle, I think, was to have two such profoundly different ideas united in one short exposition, and also, not only that, but the first subject is a flowing, simple kind of texture. And the second subject is a rhapsodic, sort of improvisatory piece, which is then varied immensely.

"And the whole, the whole thing that is remarkable about it, I think it's a piece that really foreshadows Romanticism in a profound way. And it's over in what seems like a flash. A lot has happened, and it's only three minutes long."

Compared to the calm first movement, the second movement of the Sonata No. 30 is an almost violent outburst of notes

A fairly new musical concept pops up in the second movement of this sonata — something called the "una corda", which means "one string".

When a chord on a piano plays, there are normally three strings for each note that make the sound. If a composer writes "una corda" in piano music, the pianist presses a pedal that makes only one of the three strings sound, resulting in a muted sound.

"In these sonatas, the second movement has the first use of the una corda — the soft pedal as we call it now, and when it … one string, which —"

Emily Reese: "Because normally there's three …"

Goode "Normally three, but in Beethoven's piano, it was possible to move the action over by the, with pedal, that would make a curious muted sound. It's a gentling device, but Beethoven's piano, it made a different sound. One of the frustrations for the modern pianist is to try to make the una corda sound. It's not just soft, it should sound veiled; it should sound hidden. And Beethoven sort of wrote whole movements on them. And whole sections of movements. And that is... here he writes it in the middle of a rather violent song."

Beethoven wrote some instructions at the beginning of the final movement of Piano Sonata 30. These notes are in written in German, although composers usually wrote instructions in Italian. I asked Goode to explain what the German words mean:
"Songfully, and with the most inward feeling, deepest, inward. Innigster is hard to translate. I guess you'd have to use a few more words. Beethoven, at this time, well he had started his, I believe, already with the Lebewohl sonata (NB: He's referring to the Les Adieux Sonata), but the nationalistic reaction to Napoleon … I think he started writing, sometimes as well as the Italian tempos, German markings, which are interesting, because they say, sometimes they're rather surprising. But here, he felt, I think, he probably felt that besides being nationalistic, he also felt like he could express himself more clearly. After all, Allegro is not necessarily cheerful, you know?"
There are unifying elements to the three final piano sonatas. In all three sonatas, the final movement is the longest by far compared to the other movements.

In Piano Sonata No. 30, the final movement is a theme and variations. Composers rarely wrote a theme and variations for a piano sonata, making Beethoven's choice all the more significant.

This movement is more than 13 minutes long, much longer than the first movement which is just over three minutes, and movement no. 2 which is a little more than two minutes long.

"Interestingly, the first variation, which is marked espressivo, is this piece was written, the sonatas were conceived at about the same time that Beethoven was composing his Missa Solemnis, which was a long-term enterprise, and the first variation, marked as espressivo, is a solo underneath some very quiet, full chords. And this is very much the, this was on the same page as sketches from Missa Solemnis particularly the "Benedictus" which it resembles, including the soft chords, which in Missa Solemnis, the chorus sings 'ben-e-dic-tus' on these chords, and apparently the first variation comes after that.

"And the second variation, I think, shows Beethoven's sort of interest in early music, because it it's a kind of hocketing that he does, a trading between two voices."

Goode just used the term "hocketing" — referring to a type of composition called a "hocket" from medieval music.

In a hocket, singers trade notes or words back and forth. Goode compares that medieval technique to what Beethoven wrote in the second variation in the final movement of Piano Sonata 30.

"He takes the theme and subjects it to a kind of atomization, so each voice is doing a two, two note figure, and the interchange is a very special kind of texture.

"And then the most, one of the most adventurous sort of the next variation, which is marked — you have a figure of, a kind of garland of 16th notes. Which Beethoven marked 'pleasingly', and it develops into a sort of a ladder, of beautiful figures going up without crescendos, just quietly sort of floating upward. That's the first part of the variation, which is again, quite contrapuntal.

"And the second variation is chromatic and mysterious, probably the most mysterious thing in the whole piece, and harks back, I think it has a mysterious effect on us, too, because maybe you think I've heard that before. Why is that? It actually harks back to the first movement, I think, to the chromatic second subject."

Another variation in this final movement of the sonata No. 30 reminds Goode of George Frederic Handel:
"Then comes a quasi-Handelian fugue, very vigorous, and a kind of foil for what's come before and what's going to come after."
And the next variation:
"It starts with also a persistent B, the dominant note, which starts as a quarter note, then becomes progressively 8th note, triplet, and so forth, and getting smaller and smaller value so that finally it turns into a tremendous trill on the bass. And then you have this kind of peroration, which one of my teachers compared to meteors going through the sky. That kind of fantastic conflagration of the last, part of the last variation."
The movement concludes with a restatement of the opening theme, much like Johann Sebastian Bach does with his famous Goldberg Variations.

Goode will be back to speak about Piano Sonatas 31 and 32 on Learning to Listen throughout the summer.

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