In my previous Music GCSE Set Work blog I focussed on Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by Bach. We now move on a few years and find ourselves with Beethoven in 1796. Sonata no. 8 in C minor was composed in the period 1796 to 1799 and marks the period towards the end of the Classical era. Some would describe it therefore as a Late-Classical Piano Sonata that is beginning to show signs of the Romantic style.
I start this blog in this way because it is so crucial to set the scene and understand the context behind this piece. When answering Long Answer Questions in an exam, context is crucial. We are required to know why Beethoven composed in the way he composed. What was his unique style and how did he use the musical elements to his advantage. So at the start of this study of Beethoven it is important to establish some key points:
- Late Classical, Early Romantic Style – we will need to work out what that means through listening, wider listening & study.
- This is a Piano Sonata – what does this mean for our studies and how can we approach understanding sonatas in general.
- It was composed by a German Virtuoso Pianist who was born in 1770.
If not already, then make sure you have downloaded the Edexcel set work notes from the Pearson website. If you are not studying with Edexcel then these notes may still be useful for study & wider listening.
A full recording of the Piano Sonata No. 8 can be found on Youtube:
Beethoven was a German composer who was born in 1770. What relevance does this have to our studies of his set work. The fact that he started composing it when he was 26 is fascinating, but we need to think further. What influences would Beethoven have had and what would have impacted him as a composer? How would society in Germany at the time have affected what he was doing as a composer?
- What was the “German sound” at the time?
- Did Beethoven have any particular stylistic features in his music?
- What makes him a Late Classical composer other than the date of composition?
- What other music did he compose and what is he most famous for?
Focus on these questions and get to know Beethoven a little more. We are celebrating 250 years since he was born in 2020. Therefore you will find lots of great information, performances and recordings to support your studies
So what exactly do we have here? What is a Piano Sonata? Simply put it is a piece of music for a solo instrument often with 3 or 4 movements. The movements will each have different tempo and the 1st movement is likely to be in Sonata Form.
The “What” features that we need to look out for are those features that help to explain the composer and the context. I know that students need to know all that is going on, but it is good to spot Late Classical, Germanic features along the way.
What makes this Late Classical, Beethoven & a Piano Sonata? Bringing together these points will help will the full analysis and understanding of this piece.
The “Why” will lead on and link with the what very closely. Approaching the WHY means taking key features to assess WHY the composer did as they did. I think a great place to start is – Why use a Piano? there is a lot that can be discussed with this point. Beethoven was using an instrument that had basically replaced the Harpsichord. It was a relatively recent invention and gave him more scope than the harpsichord.
Investigating this transition from Harpsichord to what was then the Pianoforte might be an interesting piece of research. Why composers did as they did is crucial for our understanding of music. As culture and society changed, music changed. The more aware we are of key events, innovations and developments, the more aware we are of how music evolved.
It might be good to start our Wider Listening journey where we just left off – a short history of Keyboard instruments. Listening to some early music for Piano might help to set the scene, but then go beyond Beethoven. How did Mozart use the piano, but then what did Liszt & Rachmaninoff do with it. The more we listen the better, but deliberately listening is great. What I mean by this is, have a plan that you are going o study the Piano over the years from 1750 – 2020.
Here is some additainol Wider Listening that you might like to use in your studies:
- Scarlatti Keyboard Sonata in E-flat K. 474
- Haydn Piano Sonata in D Major No. 37
- Haydn Piano Sonata in E-flat Major No. 62
- Jan Ladislav Dussek – Piano Sonata No.18
And remember that is always good to listen to music by the same composer and music composed in the same year 1796.
We then come to our final piece of analysis where we Weigh up this piece against others. What we are doing is looking at what Beethoven does that is unique to him. But we are also considering what features are common for the time or the style. This approach of weighing up or comparing is a useful one.
In a previous blog I have mentioned my Match of the Day Approach. Have a read, but in essence, think about Gary Lineker presenting MOTD. If during his analysis he compares a goal, match or player to another goal, match or player, we get a more full analysis. Knowing how one player compares to another helps us understanding their strengths and weaknesses. We also learn why one player may have scored whilst another didn’t see the back of the net.
It is always good to compare pieces of music when we are analysing them.
GCSE Music Set Work analysis can be approached & presented in different ways. Every school, student & teacher will have different ideas and methods. Here are some ideas for how you might pull together this analysis of Beethoven:
- Complete a Long Answer Question that compares Beethoven Sonata No. 8 with another piece.
- Create an overview document that contains the 5 W’s considered above.
- Record a Podcast or make a video about the piece.
- Compose a piece of music in Sonata Form or go for it and compose a whole Piano Sonata.
- Use your Edexcel Anthology and lots of coloured pens to analyse and annotate the score. Make notes on the score as you go.
- Download some more Piano Sonatas and see how other composers approached the style. Sometimes seeing the music in front of us can really unlock understanding. Don’t forget to use www.imslp.org.
At the end of this Music GCSE Set Work analysis you will be able to explain who Beethoven was as a composer. You will understand his style and be able to point to key features in his music that exemplify this style. You will understand more about the Piano, the Piano Sonata and the transition from the Classical to Romantic era. And you will start to see how Instrumental music has changed since Bach and have undertaken lots of valuable Wider Listening. Enjoy Beethoven!
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