About this Recording
GP615-16 - NEEFE, C.G.: 12 Keyboard Sonatas (1773) / BEETHOVEN, L. van: 9 Variations on a March by Dressler (S. Kagan)
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Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748–1798)
Twelve Sonatas for Keyboard (1773)


Christian Gottlob Neefe, born in 1748, is remembered today mainly as Beethoven’s first important teacher in Bonn. Neefe (pronounced Nay-fuh) was a respected and successful musician of his time: Court Organist and Kapellmeister of the Electoral Court Orchestra in Bonn, music director of a prominent theatre group, composer of numerous Singspiele (operettas) and other works, and music teacher. He became Beethoven’s teacher around 1780, in piano, organ, thoroughbass, and composition. A great admirer of the Bach family, he introduced Beethoven to the Well-Tempered Clavier of JS Bach, and the music and writings of Bach’s distinguished son, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. In addition, Neefe was a sympathetic and fatherly friend to the young Beethoven, who later wrote to him: “I thank you for the counsel which you gave me so often…If I ever become a great man yours shall be a share of the credit.”

Neefe composed relatively few instrumental works, and these were mostly for keyboard, principally the clavichord and fortepiano. They were composed during a time of significant stylistic change, as the Baroque period gave way to the Classical period. The Twelve Sonatas, published in 1773, are a mixture of Baroque and early Classical styles. Most of the sonatas are in three movements in the fast-slow-fast sequence common in the Classical period. The Baroque influence is seen in the binary form of each movement, similar to Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and the movements of Bach’s dance suites. But the chief musical texture of the Baroque—polyphony, or counterpoint—is virtually abandoned in favour of a homophonic texture of melody and accompaniment. Only Sonata I in D minor (perhaps the earliest of the set) uses imitation prominently in both the first and third movements. Neefe’s interest and professional association with vocal music is underscored by the emphasis in the sonatas on lyrical accompanied melodies. Several of the slow movements have unusual performance indications that reflect the emotionalism of the new Empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive” or “sensible” style) fashionable during the 1770s, such as Poco lento e languido (Somewhat slow and languid) in Sonata VI), Andante con tenerezza (Andante with tenderness) in Sonata III, Largo e mesto (Very slow and sad) in Sonata V, and Andante con gravità (Andante with gravity) in Sonata XI. Rudimentary sonata form (ABA), arising from binary form and soon to prevail as the dominant formal structure of the classical period, is used by Neefe in most of the sonata movements. As is typical of binary forms, both sections of the movements have repeat signs; but as the material from the first half is usually recapitulated in the second half, only the first section is repeated in this performance. Neefe’s indications for dynamics are sparse; generally the music is rather gentle, perhaps because of the more delicate sound of the clavichord.

The Twelve Sonatas are varied in key, tempo, and style; no two are alike, each has its individual and distinctive character. As a group, they represent some important steps along the path to the flowering Classical period.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Nine Variations for Keyboard on a March by Dressler, WoO 63

The “Dressler” Variations, Beethoven’s first published composition, appeared in print in 1782, when he was twelve years old. A bit earlier his teacher, Neefe, had assigned him a march theme in C minor by an obscure contemporary singer/composer named Ernst C. Dressler on which to compose variations. Impressed with Beethoven’s work, Neefe prevailed upon a publisher in Mannheim to issue it; the Variations appeared (with a French title page) as Variations pour le Clavecin sur une Marche de Mr Dresler Composées…par un jeune amateur Louis van Beethoven âgé de dix ans. The age of the “young amateur” was reduced by two years, no doubt to increase buyer interest (although some confusion about Beethoven’s birth date persisted throughout his life). A second edition of the variations, lightly revised (presumably by Beethoven himself), was published in 1803. This revised version is the one used in this recording.

In this work Beethoven displays the originality that informs his later great variation sets. While adhering to the basic harmonic scheme and the dotted rhythms in the accompaniment of the theme, he finds ingenious ways of varying the figuration in the upper voice. The tempo of the theme and the following eight variations is marked Maestoso, appropriate to the rhythms and funereal character of the march. In Variation 8, there is a foretaste of the final movement of the Sonata in C minor, Op 13, (“Pathétique”). A startling feature is the change in key for the final variation, from C minor to C major—a device he would use later in other works in C minor, e.g. the finale of his Fifth Symphony and his last piano sonata, Op 111. The tempo of the final variation is also changed, to a lively Allegro. In its repeated scales related to C major, it functions as a coda—a triumphant affirmation of the major mode.

Susan Kagan

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