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Moonlight Trapped in the Sonata Form?

Sonatas come in many shapes throughout the history of music. The name Sonata is derived from the Italian word “sounare” (to sound) as opposed to “Cantata” (to sing). Although we find many single movement pieces from the Baroque period and mid-18th century named sonatas, it is not until Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven develop a 3 (or 4) movement disposition that we can talk about the term ”sonata form”. They all added extra movements in order to create what Leonard Bernstein later explained: “… perfect three-part balance, and second, the excitement of its contrasting elements. Balance and contrast — in these two words we have the main secrets of the sonata form.”

The popular classical form

For both Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven it is still the first movement in the sonata which stands paramount in the construction. Additionally a slow movement and a fast movement could be added, each having a specific function in the musical argument of the complete piece. Beethoven eventually develops the form and strengthens each movement’s own specific character and even re-disposes the number of movements and alters the fast-slow-fast disposition of the Classial era.

How can we explain this immense popularity of the sonata for over two hundred years? What makes it so satisfying, so complete?
In Beethoven’s hands the piano sonata underwent a drastic development from his early works inspired by Haydn and Mozart until his late experimental and bold works with a much freer concept of form and drama. The term “sonata form” appears in the mid-19th century and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were the basis for the analysis.

The Moonlight Sonata is different

There are no specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia (”sonata in the manner of a fantasy”), but the layout of no. 2 (the Moonlight Sonata) does not follow the traditional fast–slow–fast. Instead, the sonata proposes an end-weighted journey, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. The sonata consists of three movements:
Adagio sostenuto-Allegretto-Presto agitato
The name “Moonlight Sonata” comes from the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, five years after Beethoven’s death.

Beethoven: Sonata Sonata Op. 27 no. 2, piano sheet music:
Moonlight Sonata piano sheet music

Two distinctly different interpretations

Here we listen to a recent performance of the Moonlight Sonata by pianist Yundi Li from a popular TV-show in Japan. His interpetation is quite traditional with a slow and beautiful rendition of the first movement while his last movement is very clean and polished – indeed not one of the more wild and stormy versions we have heard. But that is perhaps what to expect by Yundi Li, who is a former International Chopin Competition winner (2000).

On the other hand we have Andras Schiff who, in recent years, has proposed a completely different interpretation of the first movement for three resons:
1. The nickname “Monlight Sonata” is nonsense.
2. Since the meter is “Alla breve” we should count two beats (half notes) per bar, calling for a quite light and quick tempo.
3. Beethoven writes in the beginning of the piece “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” which means “This whole movement must be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers. (i.e. with right pedal down). If that means that we should keep the right pedal constantly down throughout the piece or to change pedal in a traditional way when harmony changes is the big question for debate.
Listen to Schiff’s lecture below for a more detailed description.

Yundi Li plays Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 no. 2 (from Japanese TV 2014)
1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Andras Schiff:
Lecture about the Moonlight Sonata (Wigmore hall, London)


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/patrick

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The Women Behind Chopin’s Music

Chopin revolutionised the nature of piano music composed both technically and emotionally but the actual musical instrument that provided his greatest source of inspiration was the female voice.
Other important parts of Chopin’s inspiration came from the women in his life. For 10 years, George Sand exerted her powerful influence on him, and he also gleaned much from listening to such great singers as Jeanne-Anais Castellan, Pauline Viardot and even the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Their exquisite tones and musicianship coalesced inside his mind’s eye, and he applied what he had heard to his compositions.

A documentary about Chopin’s unique piano style

In this documentary marking the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, pianist and trailblazer James Rhodes explores not only the Polish master’s music but also his complex relationships with women.

Rhodes’s film takes him from Paris to London and Warsaw as he delves, through exacting research, into the lives of the women who orbited Chopin’s star. Along with piano guru Jeremy Siepmann, Chopin specialists Adam Zamoyski, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson lend their expertise to the film, and they comment on Rhodes’s playing and Chopin’s history. Opera singer Natalya Romaniw performs some of the arias that inspired Chopin and explores his cantabile piano writings by singing the melody of Nocturne opus 9, no 1.


/nilsjohan

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Simplicity Meets Complexity in Denk’s Piano Boot Camp

When NPR invaded Jeremy Denk’s home he was seriously practicing the piano etudes of György Ligeti. His music is “continuous madness,” Denk says. “Wonderful, joyful madness.” Denk has a great talent for making you fall in love with the most complex music, letting it sound completely natural. He admits, “I’m atuned to the weirdnesses. I guess that’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself.”

In 2012, Denk made his debut as a Nonesuch Records artist with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final piano sonata and selected Ligeti Etudes. The disc was named one of the best discs of 2012 by The New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post. Denk says:

“But the most significant connection for me is between Beethoven’s vast timeless canvas and Ligeti’s bite-sized bits of infinity. Almost every étude visits the infinite; Ligeti uses it almost as a kind of cadence, a reference point. From simplicity, he ranges into unimaginable complexity; he wanders to the quietest and loudest extremes; he veers off the top and bottom of the keyboard. Always the infinite is lurking around, reminding you that it’s not impossible, that it exists. I think of the way, among other things, Beethoven drifts off at the end of the Arietta, the way he indicates ending without ending, implies an infinite space of silence surrounding the work? “


/patrick

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Stephen Kovacevich Plays an Allemande

A highly regarded pianist featured in the Philips label’s Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, Stephen Kovacevich is particularly known for his thoughtfulness, re-creative intensity and original artistic approach. In 1959, Kovacevich went to London, where he studied with Dame Myra Hess. A highly influential teacher, Hess recognized and encouraged Kovacevich’s affinity with Beethoven’s music. His numerous and acclaimed interpretations of the core classical repertoire has won unsurpassed admiration over the years.


Simplistic beauty as a result of extensive experience


Let’s hear Stephen Kovacevich perform the Allemande from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 4 from the Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2009. We are all very happy that Kovacevich decided not to quit playing the piano at the age of 32!


Bach’s Keyboard Suites


Suites of popular dance movements like the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, etc. were common and very popular in instrumental Baroque music. Bach wrote 18 keyboard suites; English and French Suites and Partitas. Although each of the six Partitas was published separately, they were collected into a single volume (1731), known as the Clavier-Übung I (Keyboard Practice), which Bach himself chose to label his Opus 1.


Allemande – a calm dance expressing satisfaction

The Allemande originated in the 16th century as a dance of moderate tempo, derived from dances supposed to be favoured in Germany at the time. It was traditionally regarded as a rather serious dance or as Johann Mattheson described it: “a serious and well-composed harmoniousness in arpeggiated style, expressing satisfaction or amusement, and delighting in order and calm”.

Translation here


/patrick

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The Creative Dance of Imagination – Tango for Two

“I still can’t believe that some pseudo-critics continue to accuse me of having murdered Tango. They have it backward. They should look at me as the saviour of Tango. I performed plastic surgery on it.” – Astor Piazzolla

Sometimes melancholic and always sensual, Astor Piazzolla’s works found a magnificent balance between genres, styles and eras. Preoccupied with seeing things in a new, fresh light, breaking through different genres, Piazzolla established a unique balance between genres such as jazz, contemporary music and vocal music. Thus Piazzolla left a very distinctive music evoking laughter and tears, dance and contemplation.

The pianist sisters Khatia and Gvantsa Buniatishvili were introduced to the piano and to literature at an early age by their mother. Using imagination as their primary source of inspiration, they believe that music and literature are intertwined and have a commonality. Kathia has further explored the possibilities of filmed musical drama and her Liszt Sonata in b minor was shot in a forest near Hamburg in 2011. Hear Khatia and Gavantsa Buniatishvili play Piazzolla’s Libertango from a forest recital with a Concert Grand in plain nature. As Groucho Marx said: “It takes two to Tango”.

If you feel tempted to play some Piazzolla, we recommend these sheet music albums available from amazon.com to start with:
El Viaje: 14 Tangos And Other Pieces
Hal Leonard Astor Piazzolla 28 Tangos Arranged for Piano

Or try free sample pages at musicnotes.com:
Adios Nonino
Buenos Aires Hora Cero

On the topic of Khatia playing piano in the forest and the impact the film medium has on our impression of music, take the survey:

Do We Judge Music by Sight More Than Sound?


/patrick

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