About this Recording
8.572519-20 - Beethoven and His Teachers (Bryant, Rachmanov)

Beethoven and his Teachers: Music for Piano, Four Hands


One area of intense scrutiny in Beethoven scholarship concerns the composer’s education and its impact on his identity as an artist. In the twentieth century the scholar Alfred Mann helped disseminate studies of counterpoint made by Ludwig van Beethoven with his principal teachers in Vienna, Franz Josef Haydn (1732–1809) and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1809). On an early journey to Vienna, Beethoven played and improvised for W.A. Mozart, but no formal pedagogical relationship ensued. Beethoven also undertook secretive lessons with Johann Schenk and informal sessions with Antonio Salieri. Mann, however, emphasizes Beethoven’s strict training in species counterpoint, rule-based exercises in which melodies are composed against a given line.

Early performance training certainly influenced Beethoven’s instinct for instrumental composition. In Bonn he received violin and keyboard instruction from his strict if not severe father, Johann, a tenor whose local contacts intermittently continued the lessons. But Beethoven’s first significant composition instructor was the organist and composer Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748–1798). In the 1780s Neefe taught him thoroughbass, the improvised realisation of a bass line into a larger musical entity, and introduced him to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. In a letter fragment Beethoven affirms that if he were ever to achieve greatness, Neefe would share in his success.

Haydn spent three decades employed by the Esterházy family in relative security. Aware of his own struggles, he reached out to his younger colleague. He regarded teaching from financial necessity as onerous to composers, and in 1793 urged the Elector Maximilian Franz of Cologne to increase payments to Beethoven. Though Haydn worked affably with Beethoven, he recommended his student continue with the prolific Albrechtsberger who had recently published a comprehensive text on composition and soon after became Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral (1792). In spite of two years of serious study with Albrechtsberger, Beethoven expressed scepticism about his broader musical education.

In 1802 Beethoven requested a piano made out of mahogany with the innovative una corda pedal for increased control over softer dynamics. Even though he accumulated cutting edge Érard, Graf, and Broadwood pianos, he continued to explore new models. He may have critically welcomed the rare and beautiful pianos played on this recording, a Caspar Katholnig (ca. 1805–1810) from Vienna and a Johann Nepomuk Tröndlin (ca. 1830) from Leipzig, both from the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. These highly esteemed instruments produce distinctive sonorities and a wide range of dynamics due to their action and pedal mechanisms. All of the pieces except the Drei Märsche and the Grosse Fuge are performed on the Caspar Katholnig, an instrument on which Beethoven’s friend and colleague Johann Nepomuk Hummel most likely played, according to Edmund Michael Frederick.

Many trends overlap from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century: among them, the pre-classical Empfindsamerstil, Weimar classicism and the romantic Sturm und Drang. The prelude and fugue, a remnant of the baroque, receded as a predominant keyboard genre, while chamber works that flourished included sonatas and variations, genres suitable for one or two keyboards. Four-hand music on a single piano forged an especially close physical and social relationship between its participants – composers, performers, teachers and students – and their audiences. It also served as a vehicle for transmitting traditions of operatic, symphonic, and chamber repertoire from one expert to another, or to an apprentice, and grew into an idealised art form deeply connected to performance practice.

The possible didactic purposes of Beethoven’s Sonata in D major (1797) do not preclude artistic results. In the first movement, repeated proclamations yield to a good-natured conversation between primo and secondo parts. A brief development and expanded recapitulation complete a typically classical first movement form. The rondo features contrasting variants wedged between returns of a playful and charismatic theme. With structural allusions to Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 321a, and nods toward Haydn’s jocularity, this sonata is informed by the most significant composers overlapping Beethoven’s lifetime.

Neefe undoubtedly played a rôle in exposing Beethoven to Mozart. He prepared piano-vocal scores of Mozart’s important operas except The Magic Flute from which The Six Easy Pieces (1793) for four hands are selected and arranged. Each aria, duet, trio and excerpt from both Finales sympathetically realizes Mozart’s elegance and simplicity. The setting of Papageno’s famous “birdcatcher” aria interpolates a full-fledged variation for each repeated stanza. Embellishment in the five other excerpts reflects an idiomatic rendering of eighteenth-century performance practices and the opera’s dramatic colours and form.

In a cheeky and contradictory letter to Simrock (1794), Beethoven accuses the publisher of engraving the Eight Variations without consulting him, yet hesitates to assume that any steps have actually taken place. The composer then demands Simrock withhold the Variations because more important works would soon appear. Made melancholy by chromatic inflections, the C major variations are based on an unassuming theme by Beethoven’s benefactor Count Waldstein. Each variation features some prevailing rhythm or character: for example, triplets in the first and sixth variations, or the irresistible humour of the fourth variation. The last variation juxtaposes a mournful march with a gigue-like dance, suddenly increasing in tempo until once distinct motives dissolve into trills.

Albrechtsberger’s Prelude and Fugue in B flat (1796) suits the piano particularly well. A prelude darts between a meditation and a recitative with a cadenza, and prepares the four-voice fugue. The joyful imitations of subject and answer reveal an unencumbered exposition with episodes modulating to darker returns of the subject. Albrechtsberger masterfully handles baroque devices such as the stretto (a close overlapping of the subject and its answer). Though the fantasia-like prelude suggests pre-classical contact with C.P.E. Bach, and the fugue a debt to J.S. Bach, Albrechtsberger expresses his distinct compositional identity.

In correspondence with Breitkopf and Härtel the year prior to publication, Beethoven calls the Three Marches (1804) light, but not insignificant: “the last…is so great it can be called the March of the three Marches.” Their publication the year before the first Napoleonic invasion of Vienna is extremely timely. The performers convey the appropriate atmosphere on the Tröndlin piano, imitating a military band with full winds and brass, and a range of percussion. The piccolos and oboes, the fanfares and beating of field and bass drums are easily imagined.

Beethoven began his Six Variations (1805) at lessons for Countesses Josephine Deym and Therese Brunsvik, composing four variations in 1799 and adding two in 1803. Among four-handed works this presentation of the first stanza of Goethe’s Nähe des Geliebten (“Ich denke dein”) as an accompanied vocal theme is perhaps unique and certainly rarely performed. The transformations that follow express a range of associations, including a loquacious first pair of variations, the third peaceful and contemplative, emphatic reiterations in the fourth, a bittersweet fifth variation, and the joyous triumph of the sixth.

Haydn’s Divertimento: Il maestro e lo scolare in F major (1766/67) consists of two movements, a theme and variations based on the air from Handel’s E major Suite, The Harmonious Blacksmith, and a minuet. The first movement satirizes the master-pupil keyboard relationship, and perhaps pokes fun at the stereotypical dialogue found in Fux’s Gradus ad Parnussum, the counterpoint studies he shared with Beethoven. Each variation becomes progressively embellished until the pleading teacher and the imitating student return to the starting theme. The sincerity and grace of the minuet contrast gently with the tongue-in-cheek humour of the first movement.

Beethoven never composed the “great” four-handed sonata he promised to Diabelli in 1824, in spite of reassurances and promises of substantial payment. Although he had little financial incentive to do so, Beethoven completed a four-hand arrangement of the Grosse Fuge, Op. 134 (1827), originally the last movement of the String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130. As documented in the Forbes revision of Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, he rejected Anton Halm’s version on account of its literal approach to the transcription. Beethoven’s own version risks allowing the performers’ four hands to become dangerously close and even overlap rather than kept safely apart.

Every aspect of the “great fugue” poses significant challenges, from defining its forbidding dimensions to its virtuosic realization. While an overture often introduces an opera or a dramatic work, here it substitutes for a prelude and contains all the thematic material for the fugue. The fugue, a chorale fugue of the type that Beethoven had studied with Albrechtsberger, reframes the boundaries of form by converging with the theme and variations.

Originating in the overture, the stark and probing melody that accompanies the fugue subject repeatedly returns transformed. The first section of the fugue begins with the relentless persistence and fortissimo of a mechanical engine. In the second section, the momentum dissipates into a murmuring pianissimo. Returning to the main key, the third section abruptly returns fortissimo, and its energetic iambic rhythm dominates the remainder of the work. Evocations of frivolity and evanescence are interrupted by recollections of the second section, the overture and the opening subject. Marshalling the resources of his training and intuition, and reflecting a lifetime of challenges, Beethoven communicates urgency, resilience and self-realization in his final transcription, a monument to mankind.

© 2009 Joshua Gilinsky

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