Various Topics in Classical Music

(in no particular order)


Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Lesson number 1 and of course starts with Beethoven. It's hard to convey the importance of Beethoven to music, especially classical music. Beethoven was a revolutionary, as is almost all musicians of this caliber, but Beethoven remained a revolutionary throughout his life, unless just about everyone else who starts in the future and ends up in the past. Beethoven was a bridge from the 18th century dominated by Bach at the beginning and Mozart at the end, when pianos were invented and nothing like what they became, and mainly because of how hard he pushed the instrument to reach new heights.

Beethoven was an incredibly unhappy person. He never married, and as far as anyone knows only had 1 love affair, and that one was a secret. He was cranky, hard to get along with, and probably unbearable. And by the time he died in 1827 at the age of 56, he was stone deaf. And even while deaf he wrote some of the most incredibly beautiful and complex and amazing music of all time. They say that genius is fueled by emotion, and there's no emotion as intense as pain maybe, and he had plenty of pain. Did you know he wrote the 9th symphony while being totally deaf? He just wrote it down over time, and could read it and "hear" it in his head. And that symphony is one of the most astoundingly great things any human has ever created. He was almost entirely deaf when he composed his famous 5th piano concerto (aka Emperor, an exquisite piece of music).

Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas over a period of 27 years starting when he was just 25 years old. These sonatas are gems. The one I'm going to recommend you listen (and watch!) is the "Appassionata" sonata, composed in 1805. It marked what people call his "heroic period", when he became a political enemy of Napoleon once the little Frenchman crowned himself emperor. In this heriod period he revolutionized the piano sonata, completely broke ground and left everyone behind. His music was the bridge from the old feudal world to one dominated by the industrial revolution, very much like what the French revolution did for politics and government. Things were never the same after Beethoven, which is a good thing because his music and the music after him was very much richer than before.

So, what the hell is a "sonata"? It has a very well defined meaning, tied up in music structure. A sonata typically has 3 parts, or movements: an opening, with the theme, and a very upbeat fast tempo (allegro), followed by a slower more beautiful and melodic 2nd movement (andante), followed by a closing movement that goes back to the theme, and is fast and lively and ends in a dramatic wallop! Inside each movement , you have structure as well. For instance, in the opening movement, you can have a theme, an "exposition" (exposing the full theme), a "development" which can be variations, changes in key, etc, followed by a "recapitulation", a return to the main theme. But there are a million ways that people vary things, but that's the basic idea. A piano sonata is entirely piano. A cello sonata is cello and piano together, a violin sonata is a violin and piano together. Nice eh? It's all about the piano! Why? Because the piano is really unique among all instruments - it's a percussion instrument, yet there are 88 keys and each finger can play a different one. So a piano sonata is in some real sense like and entire orchestra distributed around all the fingers.

Below are 3 youtube links to a performance of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, sonata number 23, opus 57, in F minor if you want the details. It is an incredible piece of music. I can't come near to playing it, although I can play a lot of the middle movement (you'll see why when you watch it). The performer is Valentina Lisitsa, a Russian virtuoso who is sometimes criticized for her flashy technique. But I love her passion, her technique is flawless, her interpretation is wonderful but that's just my opinion and if you ask 10 fans of this sonata you will get 12 answers to the question about who does it the best. I'm not sure if Valentina is the best, but in my mind she's close, but the great thing here is that you can watch her play it and get an appreciation for how difficult a piece of music this really is.

The links are for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd movements in that order, Sonata Number 23, Opus 57, F minor:

  1. Allegro assai
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Allegro ma no troppo - Presto
Note that if you click on the 1st, you will see youtube links to the 2nd and 3rd.

One thing about this sonata - typically, piano sonata movements all have a beginning, and an end, where the pianist can take a breather. But this one has no breather between the 2nd and 3rd movements. Too bad that youtube splits it up. But you will see when you get to the last note in the 2nd, click right away on the 3rd, there is no break.

I could probably talk your ear off about Beethoven! After this, I can write about the 5th piano concerto, the Emperor Concerto. A piano concerto has a piano as solo instrument, and an orchestra accompanying. It is also in sonata form, typically. And typically, the orchestra starts the 1st movement and presents the exposition, and then the piano jumps in. Not this one - the piano opens it with thunder! Also, in a concerto, just before the end of the 1st and 3rd movements, the solo instrument has a true solo, no orchestra, they sit quietly and watch. This is when the composer really shows their stuff, and Beethoven's stuff was incredible. Anyway, more on that later. Enjoy Appassionata!


Mozart Piano Concertos

I'm going to skip over to Mozart now. He was born in Austria 1756, 14 years older than Beethoven, and he died in 1791 at the tender age of 36. Note that Beethoven died in 1827, so he was 57 when he died. Beethoven was 36 in 1806, and by that time he had published 3 symphonies (including Eroica, one of his best), his first 4 (of 5) piano concertos, a few piano trios (piano, violin, cello), some early string quartets (6 of them), some chamber music (a chamber orchestra is a small orchestra), all of his important violin sonatas, his cello sonata opus 5, and some wonderful piano sonatas including Appassionata, Waldstein, Tempest, Moonlight, and Pathetique (which are all incredible). It's a strong collection of work for sure. But after 1806, he published the 4th through 9th symphony (the 5th and 9th are arguably the best symphonies anyone ever wrote), the last piano concerto (number 5, called "Emperor", which is exquisite), most of his operas, most of his most amazing string quartets, more cello sonatas, 9 more piano sonatas including Hammerklavier in 1819 (an unbelievable piece and very hard to listen to and understand), most of his famous "Bagatelle's" (like etudes, beautiful short pieces), most of his choral music and operas, most of his songs (he had to make a living!).

Mozart? By the time he died at 36, he had published 13 symphonies and written another 10, "Divertimenti" which were really symphonies (16 of them) and other "late symphonies" (maybe as many as 11). He also published 27 piano concertos (more on that below), 3 violin concertos, 6 horn concertos, woodwind concertos (7), and a few other concertos for things like cello, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, etc. Then there were the 10 piano works for 4 hands (2 instruments), his 36 violin sonatas, 23 string quartets, 6 string quintets, and 7 piano trios. Then there were 18 piano sonatas, 2 dozen "variations", 28 piano concertos, and an uncountable other pieces just for fun and profit. And his 23 operas! I'm not big fan of opera, I think the stories are almost always the same: love, frustration, misunderstanding, death, suicide, etc. Music is great but stories are kind of boring. But not Mozart! For instance, take "Cosi fan tutte", which translates into "Women are like that", or "Thus do all women" something like that. So it's about these two guys who are happily married and someone argues that his wives are not so virtuous as they think. So they concoct an elaborate theme to try to attempt them into having an affair with 2 other guys who are the 2 husbands in disguise. There are tricks, disguises, etc, a real soap opera! In the end all is well. Then there's "The Magic Flute" which takes place in Egypt and has sorcerers and talking birds and magic and all kinds of shenanigans. And so on. Not traditional tragic opera, much more lively and fun.

So Mozart's productivity: wow! This is not to compare Beethoven to Mozart (Beethoven comes up short in sheer numbers of compositions) but to say that if Mozart had lived as long as Beethoven, which is another 20 years, it is just unimaginable what he could have accomplished.

Mozart was one of those child prodigies that comes around very seldom. No idea how seldom, but we are talking once a century maybe? As a child he could do amazing things, like compose, and listen to music and play it back by memory, forward and backwards, no practicing. His father used to take him on tour as a child and made lots of money doing this. It's a famous story, how hard his father pushed him, his father being a frustrated musician himself who never really amounted to much. Mozart had a sister Nannerl who people think was as good as he was, although that's hard to believe, as he was from another planet. He was arguably the best pianist and at the same time the best violinist in Europe, and he lived in a time when the only way musicians could make a living was to be paid by some wealthy nobleman, which might account for the huge productivity (gotta keep the hits coming). He was married, had a good time, a good life, and set the direction for music. In his time the piano was developed as a legitimate instrument, and he took advantage of it as one of the very first to write for the new piano ( Bach wrote for organ and harpsichord, and his music sounds amazing on the piano only because Bach was incredible). Here's a good story for you: when Beethoven was 16, and quite a virtuoso prodigy himself, he had his dream come true, to go to Vienna and meet and become a student of Mozart. Mozart was 30 or 31, in bad health, and not very patient but agreed to interview Beethoven anyway. The story goes that he asked Beethoven to play something so he played some of his own stuff, and Mozart was supposedly very impressed and said something like "the world will someday hear from that boy". He agreed to teach Beethoven, but then was called back to Bonn, Germany, right away when his mother was dying. By the time Beethoven actually got to Vienna at age 22, Mozart was already dead. Beethoven then went on to be a student of Haydn and used to poke fun of his master all the time (behind his back of course). So maybe it would not have worked out with Mozart, but I sure would love to have been a fly on the wall and watched it. Hard to imagine.

Back to Mozart's work. He wrote 28 piano concertos, some of the most exquisitely beautiful things ever. So what's a piano concerto? It is a piece of music, like a sonata (same sonata form: opening/fast movement, 2nd slower (andante), and 3rd faster (rondo, which means repeat, or scherzo, which means dance). And, the piano in the piano concerto plays as the solo instrument with the orchestra. (Violin concerto = violin + orchestra, same thing).

One of the important things that happens in the 1st and 3rd movements of the piano concerto (or any concerto) is that there's a solo towards the end of the movement. Same as a modern (or 60s/70s/80s rock music song, which has a guitar solo or base solo etc towards the end of the piece. And so you have this solo, then a few seconds later the piece ends. The solo in a classical music piece is called the "cadenza", and it's a chance for the soloist to really soar and show their talents. Mozart, being quite a virtuoso pianist, would also play the soloist in his piano concertos, and he would sometimes improvise the cadenza. This was more braggadocio! I could only imagine what it would have been like to be at such a concert! Anyway, like all musicians, Mozart published his music so other people could buy it and play it, and Mozart could make money. But sometimes, Mozart would NOT write out the cadenza, because he never composed it, but improvised instead. One important point: Mozart thought his piano concertos were the most important things he did, so he was really serious about them. And of the ones he didn't write cadenzas for, 3 of them are the best ones he did.

So the piano concerto that I'm talking about now is his D-minor concerto, number 20. It is a sensational piece, and Mozart is not known for writing in a minor key (I think he only wrote 2 of his 27 piano concerto in minor keys). D-minor is that proverbial "dark and stormy night" key, and this concerto opens like that. An ill wind, a dark and stormy night, ominous things are going to happen, etc.

Click here for the first movement of Mozart's D-minor 20th piano concerto. This piece is "allegro", which means that it should be played lively and fast. The soloist is Evgeny Kissin, another Russian prodigy. He's probably a teenager when he recorded this. It's beautiful. At around 10:35 in this piece (about 3.40 from the end) the orchestra prepares to go into the cadenza by a rising set of chords, and at 10:51 the cadenza beings. When you listen to this cadenza, you will hear something that is "Mozartian" and with the same phrasing as is common in the movement. But the cadenza was written by Beethoven! So you are listening to Beethoven playing the piano part of a Mozart concerto. It does not get any better than this! The contrast is wonderful. Mozart, brilliant and energetic and extroverted. Beethoven, dark and complex and scarey. It's fantastic!

The 2nd movement is, as usual, slower, more emotional and beautiful, denoted as "romanze". Click here to listen. It's completely different than the 1st, as expected. It's just beautiful and delicate and perfect, with a stormy interior part, and beginning and ends that are just lovely. Full chords, wonderful woodwinds, well balanced, like gentle breezes blowing. And the last 30 seconds, some of the most delicately beautiful music ever written. The 3rd movement is here. Still in a minor key, "allegro assai", which means very fast, and not as dark as the opening movement. And it's shorter, maybe 7 and 1/2 minutes. The cadenza starts at around 5:00 into the piece, and is also written by Beethoven. It is really amazingly complex, merges Mozart and Beethoven, but to my taste not as outrageous as the 1st cadenza. The piece ends with a flourish, as it should!

Now for something completely different! Here's a version of the 20th piano concerto recorded by a symphony from somewhere in eastern Europe. The soloist is a guy named Breiner, who also wrote the cadenza himself. The links to the 3 movements are: 1st  2nd  3rd 

Now check out the cadenza in the first movement, it starts at around 9:44 into the piece, and see if you agree or not whether Breiner is channeling George Gershwin! It's an amazing thing, I just love it. And I am sure Wolfgang Amadeus would have loved it!

You should also listen to Mozart's 21st piano concerto, written in C major. It's gorgeous, and is light an airy as his 20th is dark and gloomy. The following are performed by solist Vladimir Ashkenazy (yes, another Russian!). In these, he wrote his own cadenzas for the 1st and 3rd movements. They are really nice, he really channels Mozart, you can imagine him picturing Mozart when he was playing these. Just beautiful. The middle movement is often called the "Elvira Madigan" movement, and sometimes the entire concerto is the "Elvira Madigan" concerto. Elvira Madigan refers to a movie and they used the 2nd movement in the score. It's written in 3/4 time (3 beats to a measure, quarter note gets a beat) and is like a waltz. It's so lyrical. Listen to it with your eyes closed and headphones on and with a glass of wine. You will float away, I promise!

1st  2nd  3rd 

Ok my dear friends, hope you enjoy these! And take your time doing so.