Beethoven composed this GCSE Music Set Work between 1797-1799. That means the end of the 18th Century. It is a Piano Sonata from the Late Classical period. It is an example of a piano piece that has started to move away from the Classical period style despite still being firmly grounded in that tradition.
I start with these statements because they are all crucial to the understanding of this piece and its application to the exam. When you go into the exam you need to be ready to discuss the fact that it is played on this instrument we call the Piano and that it bridged the gap between the Classical and the Early Romantic Period. You need to be ready to compare it to piano works that may have been composed 20 or so years earlier but yet differ to this piece.
Whats the difference between the Piano & Harpsichord?
I think it is important to understand that these two instruments are both different in nature and also different in how they are used. The Harpsichord was most commonly found in the centre of the Baroque orchestra, providing harmonies from the realisation of a figured bass. The Harpsichord would also have been used as a solo instrument or in an operatic setting to provide the continuo for the recitative parts. It is an instrument where the strings are plucked, differing to the piano where the strings are hammered (making the piano technically a percussion instrument).
A harpsichord therefore didn’t have the same level of sustain or indeed dynamic control/variety as the piano. Adding a long trill, or even a short trill, to a note, was the only way to “string” the note out and add sustain. Ornaments were very much part of the baroque sound in a general.
The Piano was therefore potentially more versatile and could handle more dynamic variety and provide more of an emotional control potentially. The piano itself developed and as it moved into the Romantic period it become structurally more robust, allowing for a bit more of a hammering from Chopin or Liszt.
One of the key elements of this set work is the use of Sonata Form. Understanding this structure is far from simply knowing when sections start and finish but more about considering the function of music at the time. Beethoven wanted audiences to leave his concerts having been on a journey with his melodies. Sonata Form allows for themes to be exposed and developed but yet audiences leave with those themes firmly in their minds. The dramatic introduction for this piece was a hall-mark of Beethovens work and an addition to the Classical Sonata Form. The introduction is a wonderful example of the development of the Sonata Form for a new century. Remembering the bar numbers for each section isn’t as important as explaining the impact that each section has and the music that is behind that.
Back to Beethoven
When listening to this piece it is therefore important to keep in mind the instrument it was composed for, the Piano. The piece is full of more dynamic variety than may have existed in the Classical Period and certainly therefore has more emotional content.
But we must avoid sweeping statements like – “Piano music from the classical period wasn’t expressive or full of emotion”. It wouldn’t take you long to find emotion in a Mozart opera or a Haydn symphony. Beethoven is certainly showing signs of the changes in music, but we mustn’t suggest that we hadn’t seen some of this already. It’s the same as describing the harmony of Bach as “simple” just because he sticks to primary triads at times – it is obviously far from simple.
But Beethoven certainly did draw more emotion out and used the piano, dynamics and that powerful introduction to do that. He gave both hands lots to do and created a piece that started to signal an era where the piano would be used more and more and pushed to its limits. One feature is the way hands need to cross in order to play the piece and it is good to watch a video of the piece being played to really see this in action.
In the exam you are going to be asked a number of short answer questions. In the opening few pages this is the general way it works. You need to go in to the exam knowing the key facts that are all covered in the Pearson notes. I won’t repeat all of that here. But remember that the more you listen to the piece and read those notes the more you will know. You can go into the exam with the answers, it all comes down to hard work in the two years leading up to the exam!
If however, Beethoven comes up in the 12 mark essay, then you need to be able to do one key thing according the top level of the mark scheme. You are going to need to show awareness of style and be able to compare and contrast the piece to an unfamiliar piece. Awareness of style means – what are the features of the music that show it was composed around 1800? What makes it a piano sonata? How is Beethoven approaching dynamics and melody in a different way. It is about key facts and key terms, but you have to apply these to context, style and discussion. Listen to music from that period as much as you can and always think about what makes it sound the way it sounds.
This is a fantastic video to help with the Beethoven Set work. I love that it is a visual representation of the piece and it really shows the way texture is used.