From the Performer
In November 1796, Beethoven borrowed a piano from the Geschwister Stein piano firm for an Akademie in Pressburg (modern-day Bratislava). Operated by siblings Nanette and Matthäus Andreas Stein, the firm kept closely to their father Johann Andreas Stein’s design, which notably—and in contrast with the majority of Viennese makers of the time—does not have a checking mechanism to catch the hammer after striking the strings. On November 19, Beethoven wrote to Andreas Streicher (husband of Nanette): “I received your fortepiano the day before yesterday. It is really marvelous, anybody else would like to have it for his own, and I—you may laugh, but I would have to lie if I didn’t tell you that it is too good for me, and why?—because it deprives me of the freedom to create my own tone (emphasis mine). Besides, this shall not hinder you from making all your fortepianos in the same way; there will not be many others found with the same idiosyncrasies.”
This event follows upon Tom Beghin’s footsteps in exploring a piano technology known to have been strongly associated with Beethoven, but that has traditionally been overlooked in Beethoven performance practice. In his 2010 book Beethoven the Pianist, Tilman Skowroneck brings to light the centrality of the Stein piano in shaping Beethoven’s earliest developments as a pianist-composer. Yet to date there have been no recorded performances of any of his large-scale early works on the Stein. Beethoven’s criticism of the Stein-type instrument—that it deprived him of his ability to “make” his own tone—is often viewed as evidence of his rejection of an antiquated design principle embodied by the check-less pianos of Stein and his followers.
The CCHK’s McCobb-Stein is a hybrid instrument in that it is a Stein in almost every sense, but with a “Walter-esque” brass capsule and checking mechanism. It is therefore an ideal vehicle to explore and question conventional notions of Beethoven’s pivot towards the later Walter-type instruments with checks that lend greater control and security for the player especially in forte and repeated note passages. The Op. 7 “Grande Sonate,” which was drafted around the time of the Pressburg Akademie, similarly offers an ideal testing ground to explore the nuances of Beethoven’s complex relationship with instruments. Alongside passages that are amenable to pianos with checks (such as fast repeated notes, “tremolos,” and fortissimo chords) exist passages that demand mastery of the lower end of the dynamic range in both virtuosic and non-virtuosic contexts.
Beethoven's Sonata in E flat, Op. 7 (1796-97): A Performance on CCHK's McCobb-Stein
In Conversation with Tilman Skowroneck
Author of Beethoven the Pianist (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Program notes by Cheryl Tan
History & Introduction
The last decade of the 18th century marked the beginning of the era of the traveling piano virtuoso(1), a phenomenon that was not entirely unprecedented, having been a hallmark of the career of singers as early as the birth of opera at the turn of the 17th century. By the end of 1795, Beethoven’s reputation in Vienna as a leading young composer and pianist was firmly established, as evidenced by an entry by Schönfeld in the Jahrbuch der Tonkunst von Wien und Prag, which identified Beethoven as being a “genius” who had “entered deeper into the inner sanctum of music”(2). That the contemporary programming practices of Vienna reflected the reception of Beethoven as what Tia De Nora describes as the “Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven trinity” would have seen him not only capable of, but also suited to, partaking in such concert tours(3).
Beethoven went on two tours in 1796. The first covered an extensive “Northern” itinerary spanning Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin between February and July; the similarity of Beethoven’s itinerary to that undertaken by W. A. Mozart—also in conjunction with the same patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky—has invited scholars such as Barry Cooper to interpret this trip as a symbol of Beethoven’s inheritance of “Mozart’s mantle” at a time when Mozart’s loss was keenly felt in the city(4). By comparison, the second trip to Preßburg (modern-day Bratislava) in November 1796 was much less well-documented. The most pertinent source that survives from this trip is a letter from Beethoven, dated November 19, 1796, to the Streichers, which offers insight both into this trip—during which he performed in a concert on the 23rd of November—as well as to Beethoven’s view on pianos (the latter point will be discussed in the final section of this program note).
Slovak scholar Luba Ballová has attributed the general neglect of Beethoven’s music and his compositions during this trip to the lack of proper archival work and the scattered nature of many contemporaneous Slovak music-historical sources(5). An aspect of this trip that has been discussed, however, is that of the relationships Beethoven forged with people, and the Keglevich family in particular, at whose palace he stayed at and performed.
The Keglevich family was well-acquainted with the music-loving, aristocratic circles in Bratislava; not only did they frequently take part in musical events, they also had close contacts with the musical scene in Vienna(6). The musical atmosphere promoted by the Keglevich family had a profound influence on the young Countess Anna Luise Barbara Keglevich (Babette), who was only 16 years old when she first met Beethoven. Despite her tender age, she was known to have been a highly gifted pianist who impressed Beethoven greatly; the fact that Beethoven took her in as his student despite his general aversion to teaching(7) and his dedication of Op. 7—a “grand” sonata of unprecedented scale and significant difficulty—attests to the skills of the young pianist.
Like many other works from a similar time period, however, the dedication of Op. 7 to Babette Keglevich was by no means a unique gesture; a letter by Carl Beethoven suggests that the first 34 of Ludwig’s published opuses numbers were commissioned by various music-lovers (this would have included all the piano sonatas between 1796 and 1802)(8). At its point of composition, Op. 7 was likely to have been commissioned by Babette’s family to help her develop her pianistic skills under the direction of Beethoven, with whom she studied in Vienna. She grew to become a close acquaintance of his; he went on to dedicate the Variations on “La stessa, la stessissima” from Salieri’s opera Falstaff (1799), the First Piano Concerto, Op. 15, at her wedding to Prince Innocenz Odescalchi in 1801, and the Variations in F major, Op. 34 (1803), to her.
While much is known about the dedicatee of Op. 7, many elements of its composition remain ambiguous. Like many of Beethoven’s other early sonatas composed between 1796 and 1798, the autograph score to the work does not survive. Sketches of the third movement do survive, however, and the work of Douglas Johnson effectively determines a chronology of these sonatas based on a detailed investigation of handwriting, types of manuscript paper used, and the likely sources—and therefore dates—of these sheets of manuscript(9). His suggestion that its first two movements were composed at the end of 1796—shortly after, or during, his meeting with the Keglevichs in Preßburg—with the latter two movements composed at the beginning of 1797 upon his return to Vienna has been widely accepted and adopted by scholars. In the late 1700s, the sponsor of a work could retain exclusive use for six months from its point of completion, after which it could be published for consumption by the wider public; the publication of this work in October 1797 by Artaria & Co. therefore further corroborates with Johnson’s proposed chronology.
The “grand” sonata is the longest of Beethoven’s early piano sonatas. Barry Cooper draws parallels between later works—namely the Eroica Symphony (1803) and Emperor Concerto (1811)—and Op. 7, most noticeably through relations of key. While writers in the late 19th century such as Ernst Pauer (1826–1905) identified the use of E♭ major as boasting “the greatest variety of expression,” “at once serious and solemn,” being the “exponent of courage and determination” that “gives the piece a brilliant, firm and dignified character”(10), the anachronism of such analyses raise questions about whether this description was influenced by, more than they inform on, these very works. The more contemporaneous writing of Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739–1791) offers, by comparison, a more objective insight into Beethoven’s choice of key. In his identification of E♭ major as “the key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God; expressing, through its three flats, the holy Trinity”(11), Beethoven’s choice of key would seem appropriate for this “grand” sonata.
Unlike other contemporaneous sonatas whose publication preceded and followed Op. 7 (compare Op. 2 nos. 1–3 and Op. 10 nos. 1–3), Op. 7 was published as a standalone work: a contextual testament to the significance of this “grand” sonata in Beethoven’s oeuvre at the time that it was published. E♭ remains the tonal center throughout the work, with the exception of the slow, introspective, second movement.
I: Allegro molto e con brio [E♭ major]
II: Largo, con gran espressione [C major]
III: Allegro & Trio [E♭ major & E♭ minor]
IV: Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso [E♭ major]
Cast in the traditional first-movement sonata-allegro form, sharp contrasts in character constitute a central feature of the first movement, achieved by rapid shifts in dynamics, articulation, texture, and tessitura. Antithetical musical ideas are frequently juxtaposed: dynamic, pulsing eighth notes are pitted against more rhythmically static lines, and contrast is created by means of articulatory detail between staccatos and longer slurred lines or sustained chords.
Rapid shifts in tessitura occur not only across successive phrases, but also within single melodic lines through large intervallic leaps. These leaps pose a technical challenge to the performer and disrupt the regularity of the strong-weak pattern established at the outset of the movement; the move from a strong (piano) beat to a sforzando on a weak, syncopated eighth note disrupts the natural sense of the beat as the music unfolds temporally, generating musical interest and rhythmic drive.
In her analysis of Beethoven’s Op. 132 String Quartet, Susan McClary explores the submediant as being a frequent choice of substitution for the “too-conventional, too-rational” secondary key area of the dominant(12). The assertion that the submediant had to be synthesized within the larger tonal structure of the first movement draws on the prevailing tonic-dominant hierarchies that had characterized 18th-century musical ideals. McClary argues that these polarities were related to ideologies of the Enlightenment, which were gradually being deconstructed in the advent of the emerging Romanticism. Yet her observation is not limited to the later works of Beethoven and Schubert; as early as 1797, Beethoven departed from (late) 18th-century conventions, with the second movement of Op. 7 set in the key of C major—the submediant to E♭ major. This deeply introspective movement is constructed in ternary form and features a middle section that explores yet another submediant relation—the flattened submediant to its local key (C major), A♭ major.
Substantial sketches of the third movement survive and they offer an insight to the many revisions and rejections the movement underwent before its final, published version. Where an early draft showed the potential for a modulation to D♭ major in the Trio section, the final version remained within close proximity to its tonal center of E♭, shifting to the tonic minor instead.
The Minuet (marked only “Allegro”) exhibits what Donald Francis Tovey terms “a suggestion of sonata-form with differentiated themes”(13). Its primarily homophonic texture sees a brief contrapuntal, canonic exploration of a sustained diminished 7th chord; while the texture reverts quickly back to homophony, the harmony remains unstable, lingering on an implied F minor. The “double recapitulation” of both key and opening theme provides a sense of brief stability after this dissonant excursion. The coloration of a flattened third eventually leads the music into the brief localization of yet another submediant area—C♭ major (♭VI)—in a mysterious pianissimo. On its final return to home key, the music opens up to a fortissimo by the end of the music—a sharp move away from the original piano and pianissimo climate it was set in.
This fortissimo presents a stark contrast to the rumbling pianissimo triplets in the Trio section, which is set in the dark key of E♭ minor(14). Yet its presence at the end of the Minuet serves to somewhat normalize the frequent ffp interjections that would permeate this otherwise pianissimo section—a gesture that supports the harmonic changes of the otherwise rhythmically and texturally homogeneous Trio, and gives the musical surface an added layer of tension. The whole movement, performed with repeats—as would have been customary during Beethoven’s time—totals 450 bars, exhibiting “symphonic proportions” befitting of its “grand” nature(15).
The opening of the final movement recalls the repeated note motif that had characterized the opening of the first movement; while it also occurs in the left hand as part of the accompanying texture, the figuration does not drive the music forward with the same intensity that it had embodied previously. Rivaling the rhythmic impetus brought on by the repeated note motif in the first movement is, however, the 32nd-note figuration that characterizes the developmental section in C minor (submediant minor). This section disrupts the grazioso set up at the beginning of the movement; the musical material is set in fortissimo, punctuated by sforzandi, and has the Affekt of the Sturm und Drang.
This figuration is not in fact new, but rather recycled and transformed from its initial appearance as an ornamental, melodic figuration. The movement ends with the texture of the developmental section, albeit with a reconciliation of various elements of the Rondo. Where it was once in an agitated forte, this section is now in piano. Despite having the same figuration in the bass, the Sturm und Drang of the developmental section is lost, and the initial grazioso is conveyed through the rhythmic poise in the right-hand part and the juxtaposition of direct references to melodic fragments from the opening. The transformation of this figuration from an ornamental device, through to its rhythmic and affective significance in the development, worthy of synthesis and recapitulation in the coda, foreshadows the organicism that would later form a defining feature of Beethoven’s later works.
Barry Cooper, “Wider Horizons (1796–98),” in Beethoven (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 67.
Quoted in Barry Cooper, “The Sonatas of 1796–97,” in The Creation of Beethoven’s 35 Piano Sonatas (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), p. 42.
Tia de Nora, “Beethoven and Social Identity,” in Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (University of California Press, 1995), pp. 1–10.
Cooper, “Wider Horizons,” pp. 67–74.
Luba Ballová, “Einige Dokumente über Beethovens Musik in Preßburg,” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 15, Fasc. 1/4 (1973): 321–333.
Zdenĕk Nováček, “Die Schülerin Babette aus Slowakei und ihre Familie,” Bericht über den internationalen musikwissenschaftlichen Kongress, Bonn (1970): 526–528.
Wegeler, quoted in Barry Cooper, “First Quartets and First Symphony (1799–1800),” in Beethoven, p. 86.
Cited in Cooper, “The Sonatas of 1796–97,” p. 42.
Douglas Porter Johnson, “Beethoven’s Early Sketches in the ‘Fischhof Miscellany’: Berlin Autograph 28. (Volumes I and II),” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1978.
Ernst Pauer, The Elements of the Beautiful in Music (London: Novello, 1877).
Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart and Ted DuBois, “On the Human Voice and the Characteristics of the Musical Keys,” New England Review 25, no. 1/2, Translation: Double Issue (Winter–Spring, 2004): 166–171.
Susan McClary, “The Refuge of Counterconvention,” in Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 123.
Donald Francis Tovey, A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas (London: The Associated Board of the R.A.M. and the R.C.M., 1931), pp. 43–44.
Cooper, in “The Sonatas of 1796–97,” observes that these triplets were not present in any of the extant sketches.