BEETHOVEN AND THE PIANO
Broadly speaking, Beethoven and the piano arrived in the world together. The piano is firmly on the earth, being basically a mechanical invention to be overcome and transformed by man. Stringed instruments are more extensions to man's breathing and limb movements: the piano is at first an obstacle to flowing musicality. It is self-sufficient, though, and its player has to be a considerable egoist. It is dynamic (piano-forte!) and, even more exciting when newly invented, could simulate legato, and thus be deeply expressive. It can also suggest things far beyond its own nature, and can therefore be visionary. Take these descriptions of the piano - firmly on the earth, self-sufficient, egoist, dynamic, deeply expressive and visionary - and you have a fair description of Beethoven himself. His orchestral music is pianistic, and his piano music is orchestral, and his creative processes seem to be very much wedded to the soul of the piano, even though the rather frail instruments of his time could not always stand up to his mighty inspirations. Only in his last years did he come to regard it as inadequate, having stretched it to its limits, and his expression goes even further into the very special world of the last string quartets; but the thirty-two piano sonatas give an almost complete spectrum of his creative activity.
To follow through Beethoven's development from Op. 2 (1795) to Op. 111 (1822) can be a thrilling experience for performer and listener alike, and, as in all great works of art, they never fail to astonish anew. We all know what wonderful depths there are in the mature sonatas, but hear the slow movements of Op. 2 No. 2, Op. 7 and Op. 10 No. 3, and be amazed again at what experience was already being expressed by a young genius in his twenties! A more subtle process through the series is the gradual transformation of the usual sonata form, so that the composer's expression can become ever more direct. Compare for instance any of the three Op. 2 sonatas (with the usual four contrasting movements) with Op. 110, which has seven thematically linked sections, which grow out of each other with a quite extraordinary expressive logic. One goes through death and resurrection in this piece. To put the contrast more strongly: the Sonata develops out of the Suite, or Divertissement, into being a transforming way of life. This is perhaps the most wonderful thing that can happen to us through an ever deepening awareness of what goes on in Beethoven's greatest music: that it is transforming. Nobody was more fervent about the relationship between Man and his God than Beethoven, and we can, with the help of a piano and these sonatas, identify ourselves completely with his energy, depth, suffering and transforming power, so that we can become visionaries ourselves. © 1996 Bernard Roberts