Listening to Beethoven #6 – Piano Sonata in F minor (‘Electoral’ no.2)


Portrait of Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne. Artist unknown

Piano Sonata in F minor WoO 47/2 ‘Electoral’ for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne
Duration 11’20

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Background and Critical Reception

The three Electoral sonatas divide opinion among Beethoven scholars. While you can read largely complimentary thoughts in the background to no.1 – as appraised yesterday – Lewis Lockwood‘s biography decides that the three works are ‘short, undeveloped and crowded with stereotyped figures. He does however go on to concede that ‘still, these three little works show that the barely adolescent Beethoven could spin coherent phrases and short paragraphs as capably as many an adult professional.’

Charles Rosen‘s observation that Beethoven’s three Electoral Sonatas ‘start clearly from Haydn’s work of the late 1760s’ appears to have greatest traction with the second work in F minor. This key was important to Beethoven’s contemporary, and accounts for two of his most profound works – the Symphony no.49 (‘La Passione’) and the Variations in F minor for piano.

Beethoven too made use of F minor for important works, and it was a relatively brave choice to use it early on in his career as here. For Barry Cooper, writing in the complete edition as released on Deutsche Grammophon, this second sonata is ‘the most strongly emotional in the set, with powerful gestures that anticipate some of Beethoven’s later minor-key sonatas such as the Pathétique and the Moonlight.’

Thoughts

The first movement starts deep in thought, but Beethoven snaps out of that mood with a flash the music suddenly tearing forward. However it doesn’t completely throw off the mood of the sombre opening, which leaves its striking mark and brings to mind the writing of C.P.E. Bach in the process – not to mention the aforementioned La passione symphony from Haydn.

In spite of this the slow movement is the emotional heart of this sonata – and it is probably the most meaningful music we have heard so far. Time really does slow as Beethoven’s thoughts unfurl, a method with which we will become increasingly familiar as time moves on. Here it feels like we have a private audience with him as the music becomes more freeform.

The third movement, marked Presto, throws off the shackles, with a heavily ornamented melody which must be tricky to play. It means the music retains some tension despite its much quicker delivery.

Recordings used

There is a terrific account of this piece from Emil Gilels, whose playing gets to the heart of the emotion in the second movement but also catches the devil-may-care freedom of the third. Jenő Jandó also gives a fine performance, if slightly trailing in the wake of the Russian.

Spotify links

The playlist below is for all three Electoral Sonatas, and includes the two recordings discussed above – Emil Gilels and Jenő Jandó:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1W1r89tTztAA360Ph8pt7P?si=rM1d3FxfQLWTDQXPHnZPnA

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

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1783 Mozart Mass in C minor, K427 (the Great Mass) .

Next up Piano Sonata in D major, ‘Electoral’

Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.

Routes to Beethoven – J.S. Bach

by Ben Hogwood

As we plot a course towards listening to the complete works of Beethoven, I thought a good way to start would be by listening to composers who have helped shape his output.

While I am sure we will ultimately find Beethoven out to be one of the most original composers of all, every artist will have had their grounding somewhere, which is bound to have had a say in their eventual direction. The first composer to appear under the microscope is J.S. Bach.

There are some fascinating and very different viewpoints among Beethoven scholars on the extent of Bach’s influence. In his famous book The Classical Style, dissecting the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Charles Rosen is not convinced of much common ground. “It is worth noting, in this respect”, he says, “the extremely limited influence of the music of Bach in Beethoven’s works, in spite of the fact that his knowledge of Bach was considerable.”

Rosen goes on to note the facts – that Beethoven played both volumes of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in their entirety as a child, continuing to play it all his life, and that he copied out passages of Bach when approaching composition for the Hammerklavier Sonata. He had a copy of the Inventions for keyboard, two copies of The Art of Fugue, and was familiar with the Goldberg Variations. For Rosen, though, “…except for an obvious and touching reference to the Goldberg in the conception of the final variations of the Diabelli set, the use he (Beethoven) made of all his familiarity is very small, almost negligible in comparison to the continuous reference to Bach in the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. The classical style had already absorbed all that it could of Bach as seen through the eyes of Mozart in the early 1780s, and as Beethoven continued to work within these limits, his love for Bach remained always in the margin of his creative activity.”

Lewis Lockwood’s book Beethoven: The Music and the Life sees things very differently. On several occasions Lockwood highlights Beethoven’s desire to seek out the music of Bach for himself, specifically the Mass in B minor, as he approached the period of composition for the Missa Solemnis. He also focuses on Beethoven’s use of fugue throughout his later period. For in this ‘late’ period (with Beethoven still in his 40s!) it would appear he looked back at Bach for further inspiration, writing complicated but incredibly expressive fugues at key points in his music. The Grosse Fuge (the finale of his Op.130 string quartet), the Hammerklavier and several other piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony – these are all works where we will no doubt come back to this article and consider its implications.

To build up a basic impression of Bach, I listened to the pieces referenced above and some well-worn favourites of my own. Listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier, then The Art of Fugue, it is possible to marvel at the sheer inevitability of Bach’s music, its structure and lines – but also its profound emotion and moments of humour, joy and even despair. Despite his rigorous working methods Bach pours his heart into this music, including the Goldberg Variations, which are simply sublime – and as Rosen says point towards Beethoven’s massive, late Diabelli Variations, not to mention many other works in the variation form.

Bach’s music has an incredibly sure direction, its workings are so logical and secure, each note and melodic figure seems very closely related, and the end goal – when reached – is unbelievably satisfying. Listen to the Prelude no.1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier (the first item of music on this broadcast) and see if a single note is out of place or could be changed:

By contrast the forward thrust of the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor for organ is especially notable. Although Beethoven wrote virtually nothing for the organ, he surely will have picked up the discipline, application and adventure of J.S. Bach’s keyboard works. That sense of adventure can be heard in a work like the joyous Fugue in E flat major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, or even more in the standalone Toccata in C minor, below:

This shows how Bach can be unpredictable. His music is so sure of its own destiny, but that doesn’t stop it having a few emotional wobbles and flights of fancy along the way.

A work like the Brandenburg Concerto no.1 is a great example of this, where the beautifully argued lines of the first movement (above) are thrown into doubt by the extremely emotional second (below), the oboe floating above chords that are riddled with anxiety:

Moving to the larger scale works, Bach’s dramatic impetus becomes clearer. Whether Beethoven encountered the Mass in B minor is not known, but had he done so the contrasting solemnity of the Kyrie and outright exultation of the Gloria would surely have made a strong impression. Within the Credo section, when Bach reaches the moment of the Crucifixus, there is almost inaudible contemplation – after which the resurrection itself (Et resurrexit) literally bursts from the grave! The splendour of the Dona nobis pacem would seem to anticipate Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, also in the same key of D major.

It is interesting to note Beethoven did not take up Bach’s lead in writing for solo instruments, with no sonatas for solo violin or cello in his output. Nor did he write extensively for the church as Bach did – no realms of cantatas here. Yet that is perhaps a sign of where the commissioned work now originated in music, and Beethoven’s beliefs too, which remain largely unknown. But the two composers have much in common, being innovators and inventors in so many different musical disciplines. We look forward to spending much more time with their music!

Listen

Follow our route to Beethoven by listening along with this Spotify playlist, including the works by Bach discussed in the feature above. Please do follow Arcana here for further playlists in the series!

Next up

Routes to Beethoven moves swiftly on to the music of the ‘next generation’ Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel – Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son. Expect some fireworks!