One of the first things to consider when you are studying Beethoven’s piano music is that the instruments he used to play on and compose for were quite different from the pianos we have available to us today. Beethoven had a number of pianos during his brief life, including the famous Broadwood piano. These instruments were considerably more fragile than today’s instrument. Consider the fact that the frame of the piano is nowadays made from iron, whereas most of Beethoven’s pianos it would have been made of wood. It was Stein who patented the iron frame piano in 1859 marking a significant change in piano manufacturing, durability and tone.
How to Play Beethoven
The range of the piano only developed to six octaves towards the end of Beethoven’s life. Pianos today are seven and a quarter octaves. In addition, we should remember that the pedalling system we currently enjoy on modern pianos was not fully established in Beethoven’s time. In particular, Beethoven found that the una corda pedal rarely met his expectations. Beethoven’s Erard piano, delivered to him in 1803, was the first with which he felt satisfied with the development.
Beethoven’s list of compositions for piano are impressive and include, five Piano Concertos, 32 Piano Sonatas. 32 Variations in C Minor, the Diabelli Variations and many other equally wonderful works. We can not expect to cover the fine details of every composition for piano in such an article, but we will take a brief look at some of the key aspects of approaching Beethoven’s piano works.
The Piano Sonatas are very much unlike the work of any other composer in that they closely document the developments of Beethoven. One problem we run into here is in finding a reliable edition of these sonatas with which to begin an earnest study of the works. Beethoven, it is thought, often sold his work to more than a single publisher, the result being each publisher could and often did print their own edition of Beethoven’s works. As urtext edition is as close as we can come to Beethoven’s original intentions and all serious students of his works are encouraged to obtain a copy.
Another key consideration when approaching the piano works of Beethoven is that the origins of each of the compositions were in lengthy improvisations. Beethoven was reported to have dazzled and amazed the aristocracy of the time with his seemingly endless facility for invention. Beethoven had the extraordinary ability to evoke emotions in his audience as he improvised, blending virtuosity with great feeling. From these improvisations, Beethoven would develop his sonatas, concertos and symphonies and I feel that this is an important fact when learning to play his music.
There has been much speculation surrounding Beethoven’s metronome markings over the years. Some claimed that the composer, whose eyesight was weak, misread the numbers, often writing down the one at the bottom of the metronome rather than the correct on at the top. Czerny (1791-1857), Beethoven’s pupil is the source of much insight into how to approach Beethoven’s music; not only in terms of the piano works. Czerny was a close friend to Beethoven which is important if we are to gather insight into performing his works. Czerny’s comment was said to be that the metronome markings were right and even those works with a seemingly unplayable fast tempo, are in fact correct. This is something to keep in mind when approaching Beethoven’s piano works, although it is not a suggestion to simply play quickly at the expense of fine details and clarity.
Notational expectations in Beethoven’s time were not the same as our own today. Even though Beethoven would frequently oversee the publication of his works, the notation today can present challenges. Slurs, for example, Beethoven did not always write in a consistent manner over similar passages, nor did he always slur an entire phrase as we would today. Ensuring that the edition you use is what Beethoven intended is key. We also find that sometimes Beethoven uses both dots and dashes to indicate staccato playing. The issue has provoked hot academic debate however the broadly accepted opinion seems to be that there is not really a distinction between them.
Given the periods of musical history that Beethoven spanned, the conventions surrounding trills raise questions too. Earlier practices that Mozart would have known required the performer to begin the trill on the upper note, but as practices changed the trill started more often on the note itself. It is then up to the careful discretion of the performer to decide what musically fits best in each piece.
One further aspect to think about is Beethoven’s fingering. Accurate editions of Beethoven’s Piano works include the composer’s fingerings as he marked them; others do not. My feeling is that if there is a fingering added to the music then it should be carefully noted and attempted this way at first. In most cases, it makes good sense, after all, Beethoven was a consummate pianist, although his methods may not suit every player. As such, if you are able to find an alternative that still holds true to the composer’s intentions, then go ahead.
Pay particular attention to the structure of each movement of the sonatas and concertos. Try to be able to know where the music is going both harmonically and melodically so you can bring out the architecture of the piece. Even though significant portions of Beethoven’s music is motivically based, to ignore the macro in favour of the micro is an oversight even though motivic development is important too.
Try to develop a keen balance between the hands so that there is a clarity of texture. Often Beethoven writes melodies that flow between the hands and there need to be equal dexterity, fluency and independence with left and right hand to achieve this. Remember Beethoven held the works of CPE Bach in high esteem and beginning to learn his keyboard works is a good place to begin before Beethoven.
Finally, practice passages slowly and without the pedal initially. Use the pedal for colour not to smudge weak technique. Beethoven was a virtuoso pianist and a composer of immense ability and foresight. Taking the time to learn about the man alongside the rigorous study of each of his works, through recordings and scores, is the key to success.