Listening to Beethoven #15 – 2 Preludes through all the major keys


Portrait statue of Beethoven along the balustrade. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. (photo: Carol Highsmith)

2 Preludes in C major Op.39 (through all the major keys) for keyboard (1789, Beethoven aged 18)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

As Jan Swafford notes, Beethoven’s mid to late teens were spent perfecting his art as a pianist, and so his attention was fully focused on performance at the expense of composing. In this period he was playing Mozart piano concertos in Bonn, as well as playing viola in the court orchestra.

There were a few exceptions however, notably this intriguing pair of preludes, published later in his life as Op.39. There is very little written about the pieces but Barry Cooper, writing in the Decca / DG complete Beethoven notes, says how they ‘attempt to outdo Bach’s famous sets of preludes in every key, by modulating rapidly through every major key within the space of about 100 bars’. Keith Anderson, writing for Naxos’ release from Jenő Jandó, notes how the first prelude proceeds ‘through all the major sharp keys, making use of a repeated formula’, then makes its way ‘back, through the flat keys, to its original starting point of C major’. The second prelude, he notes, does this with greater economy.

Thoughts

The first prelude has a distinctive theme but it never settles, always moving on to the next chord. The piece feels more fluid when heard played on the organ. There is some restless experimentation and some quite jaunty moves, with Beethoven using daring harmonies to move through the keys at speed. Some of those harmonies feel bound for future compositions.

Ultimately though the two pieces feel like an attempt to emulate Bach in the shortest amount of time possible. An affectionate tribute, perhaps, but you can almost hear the boxes being ticked in the composer’s mind as he negotiates each key. Because of that it is hard to love either piece, but you can’t fail to be impressed by their execution – and perhaps in proving he could do it, Beethoven showed himself a bit more of what he was capable of!

The second prelude feels more comfortable, and its movements are more subtle until it comes to a distinctly clunky false stop on A flat before the end – which would I’m sure be deliberate. Having done this, Beethoven shows how easy it is for him to resolve into the ‘home’ key, back in C major.

Recordings used

Jenő Jandó (Naxos); Simon Preston (DG)

Jenő Jandó plays both preludes really nicely, with a line in clarity that makes it easy to follow Beethoven’s workings. However Simon Preston’s version for organ is more effective, as he uses some lovely registration choices – especially in the low but very sonorous chord at the end of the first prelude.

Spotify links

Jenő Jandó

Simon Preston

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1789 Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major K581

Next up Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II

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