The Mind of Beethoven
One of the lasting rewards of performing and recording Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, the pianist’s “New Testament” (the “Old Testament” being Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier”), is the privilege of getting to know the creator’s mind, of gleaning the ideas, values, and visions that were the catalysts for his continued productivity in this form. The challenge is to identify these recurring patterns in their vast variety and over a lifetime of artistic evolution.
Certain characteristics are so emblematic in Beethoven as to permeate his entire output. One is a pervasive sense of restless energy, manifested in many forms, such as the use of repeated notes for propulsive momentum, as in the first movements of sonatas Op. 7 and Op. 53, “Waldstein,” or the tempestuous use of perpetuum mobile sixteenth-notes in the finales of sonatas Op. 27/2, “Moonlight,” Op. 31/2, “Tempest,” and Op. 57, “Appassionata,” among others. Another general trait is a deeply felt expressivity, best exemplified by his slow movements (listen to the darkly despairing Largo e mesto of the D major Sonata, Op. 10/3). As a balance, he also displays an antic sense of humor, from “wrong-key” recapitulations (see Ex. 4), to cheerful Haydn-esque themes, as in Op. 10/2, i, to the use of rustic folk-tunes, as in the Scherzo of Op. 110 (“Unsa Kätz häd Kaz-ln g’habt”—“our cat had kittens”), used here as comic relief between the lyricism of the first movement and the dramatic unfolding of the recitative-arioso-fuga finale (see Ex. 5). A fourth characteristic is impatience with limitations, traditions, and inherited rules (including his own), manifested in a constant search for formal innovation, harmonic distillation, and aesthetic transcendence (see category 7 below).
In addition to these defining qualities, I have identified a number of specific artistic aims and techniques that are central to Beethoven’s creative process. These include (1) a desire to surprise, startle, and delight the listener; (2) the influence of other instrumental forms on pianistic colors and textures, especially string quartet and symphony, on his piano music; (3) operatic aspects, both as general artistic influences, and as specifically related to his only opera “Fidelio”; (4) nature as mystical inspiration; (5) illness and healing; (6) improvisation as compositional device; and (7) the search for transcendence. This list, while by no means exhaustive, begins to provide a window into “the mind of Beethoven.”