I’m now two weeks into the course on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas being run by the Curtis Institute of Music through Coursera and it is really interesting. In essence it’s spending about an hour watching a series of short videos where Jonathon Biss talks about Beethoven’s music in a engaging and insightful way.
The first week was an introduction to two things, first Beethoven’s predecessors Bach, Haydn and Mozart, then to sonata form. The predecessors were covered necessarily very rapidly but Biss raised the question of the role of composers in society. Bach was never anything but a servant, even at his peak he was required to teach singing; Haydn started as a servant, was given leave to do his own thing at times, then eventually had enough success to go it alone. Mozart on the other hand couldn’t handle being a servant and went freelance before the idea was really around. It worked for a time but his genius didn’t extend to budgeting. However, both he and Haydn showed more daring and creative exploration when freed from court duties.
When Beethoven emerged the court composer role was dying off and he never had to write what he was told, so from the beginning he was free to try new things – but he still had to make money. Which puts an interesting dynamic into his early works.
The sonata form, which is a form of a single movement not a description of a sonata – someone needs to work on that bit of nomenclature – is also very interesting. Biss explained it really well too. I won’t go into the details but in essence it’s a journey, you start with at home, being the key the piece is written in, then go to the ‘dominant’ which is a fifth above the home key (also called the tonic), from there the movement goes on a harmonic journey as it tries to get back to the tonic/home. I love how it’s a basic narrative structure – story really is fundamental to our existence.
The second week was a look at the earliest sonatas – 1-11 and 19-20, which were written before but published after 12 – with particular emphasis on Sonata No 4, Beethoven’s Opus 7. It would take too long to go into what was said now but the assignment for the week was interesting. We had to list how one of the other early sonatas conformed with and differed from No 4, which meant listening to a Sonata in an all new way for me. I picked No 1 because it has almost exactly the same movement structure. It was fascinating to actively listen to the music, ask ‘what’s he doing here?’ and notice when phrases come in and go out. I can’t pick a key change to save my life so that’s a disadvantage but the experience did give me a new appreciation for the music.
This is definitely a journey worth taking.