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Beethoven: 'Pathétique' Sonata, Opus 13
Seven Bagatelles, Opus 33
'Moonlight' Sonata, Opus 27, Number 2

Pianist James Boyk's program notes for his album
(Performance Recordings® pr9cd)

[Note: The program on this CD is a complete record of a 1985 all-Beethoven program. The Lp record released at that time carried only the 'Pathétique' Sonata and the Bagatelles. References in curly brackets identify places on the compact disc. Thus {13; 1:45} means the place 1 minute, 45 seconds into track 13. {1, 2, 3} means tracks 1, 2, and 3.]

Beethoven was one of my first musical loves, and I first played the "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" when I was 12 or 13 years old, that is, at a time when love itself acquires new meaning, a turbulent time of life well-suited to Beethoven, the most turbulent of composers.

The overt passion of the third movement of the "Moonlight" attracted me then as now. The first singable melody {13; 0:30}, with its urgent syncopations {13; 0:37}, is positively sexy, especially when the left-hand (a so-called "Alberti bass") is played in a dry way. Beethoven's Alberti, like Mozart's, accomplishes more than it has any right to. Conventional figuration, one thinks; but in Beethoven's hands, it sounds custom-made.

The first movement of the "Moonlight" is the famous one, and there is a story of someone's overhearing César Franck practicing it while muttering "Je t'aime, je t'aime." ("I love you, I love you.")

This movement reminds one of pianist Artur Schnabel's remark about Mozart: "Too easy for beginners, too difficult for virtuosi." Technically, the movement is a study in playing melody plus accompaniment in one hand: the right hand has both the famous melody and the upward-moving groups of three notes that prepare the way for it and accompany it. {11; 0:24} I mined this familiar movement for examples in writing an essay for Scientific American about the musical importance of having a good piano tuner/technician.

The "Pathétique" Sonata is passionate also, in its outer movements {1, 3}, but passionate about courage, not love. These movements are both based on the same musical idea which expresses courage, three upward-moving notes of a minor scale. We hear them at the beginning of the Sonata {1; 0:02}, then again later in the first movement {1; 1:53}; and finally, they drive the main theme of the last movement {3; 0:01}.

The question of what a piece of music means—love, courage, and so on—and how it means it, is difficult; but it seems obvious that music does have meaning. It's not just beautiful sound, it's sound communicating emotion. The subject is beyond our scope here, but I urge those interested to read The Language of Music, by Deryck Cooke, which provides a brilliant, insightful, and subtle discussion of how music can mean not just single emotions but whole arguments.

The middle movement of the "Pathétique" {2} is tender as tender can be, but not erotic. Some people used to say that Beethoven was a great composer but he couldn't write a melody. They must never have heard this movement, which opens with a gorgeous melody of relaxed, long breaths {2; 0:00 - 0:32}.

The first movement of the "Moonlight" {11} is so famous that many people think it's the whole sonata, while the three movements of the "Pathétique" {1-3} are each well known. The Bagatelles {4-10}, by contrast, are unknown to most people.

Discovering the Bagatelles when you know only Beethoven's large worksthe sonatas, the symphonies, the string quartets—is a delightful surprise, something like finding out that a favorite novelist also writes wonderful short stories. We're so spoiled by the greatest masters—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven—that we expect this versatility. We must turn to lesser composers to see how unusual it really is.

In the Bagatelles, we meet Beethoven the magician: Listen to the ending of the sixth one {9; 2:31}, where a simple descending scale in the right hand is played against off-beat repeated notes in the left. It couldn't be simpler, yet it suspends time. "Nothing up my sleeve, ladies and gentlemen, no fancy musical material. Yet I, Beethoven, will enchant you."

In Nos. 2 and 5 {5, 8}, we hear Beethoven's unbuttoned humor, country humor, out-of-doors humor, rising to a leonine roar at the end of No. 7 {10; 1:37}. To be earthy, to be willful, to be boisterous; or rather, to give the impression of these things without ripping the esthetic fabric: This is mastery!

At the concert recorded here, the audience rewarded the last Bagatelle with a ripple of amusement. You can hear it on the recording {10; 1:50} as the applause begins: the performer's dream response!

—James Boyk


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