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  Beethoven in context

Ella Sevskaya


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Performance styles on the fortepiano c. 1790-1815

A mixture of styles is to be expected from a composer whose piano style has so much in common with the London school, yet who preferred to play on Viennese pianos throughout his life. David Rowland on Beethoven

Nineteenth-century critics identified two European schools of pianoforte performance. The 'London school' was associated with such pianist-composers as Clementi, J.B. Cramer, J.L. Dussek and John Field. It was distinguished, according to Czerny, by its 'beautiful cantabile and fine legato combined with the use of the pedals'. This was due in part to the style of English pianos, which were known for their relatively heavy touch and rounded sonority.

By contrast, the pianists of the Viennese school were, as Kalkbrenner wrote, 'especially noted for the precision, clarity and rapidity of their execution'. He continued, moreover, 'the instruments made in that city are extremely easy to play, and, in order to avoid the sounds becoming confused, they are fitted with dampers right up to the highest note; as a result they have a marked dry quality, even in sostenuto passages, since one sound does not get mixed with the next.'

This description is clearly applicable to the piano on which the present recording is played. Built in Vienna in about 1800 by Johann Schantz (1762-1828), this instrument is preserved in virtually original condition at the Accademia Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence, Italy, and was restored in 1991 by Donatella Degiampietro. Instead of pedals it has two knee-levers, the left one for raising the dampers, the right one for bringing the moderator-a strip of cloth-between the hammers and the strings in order to mute the sound. This was a standard arrangement on Viennese pianos of the period. (This particular instrument also has a 'bassoon stop' consisting of a roll of parchment fitted to a wooden bar: when the bass strings are played with the parchment touching them, a buzzing effect is produced. This stop is not, however, used in the present recording: Czerny describes it as a childish toy which a serious player would disdain to use.) Like many other fortepianos of its period, it is very lightly constructed and has much smaller hammers and thinner strings than a modern piano. The listener should remember that the dynamic range is relatively small, and, when listening to this recording, should not turn the volume up too high!

Beethoven (1770-1827) had a high opinion of the instruments of Johann Schantz: he described them as 'good and durable', and recommended them to his friends Therese Malfatti and Joseph von Varena. We also know from one of his letters, however, that he had a Schantz that he did not like-but then Beethoven was rarely satisfied with his pianos: in a letter to the maker Johann Andreas Streicher, dated 19 November 1796, Beethoven even complained of an instrument being too good:

The day before yesterday I received your forte piano, which has really turned out to be superb. Anyone else would do everything to hang on to it, and-here you can have a good laugh-I would be telling a lie if I didn't say that it is too good for me. Why? Because it robs me of the freedom to create my own sound. But that should not stop you from making all your forte pianos in this way; I'd say you will find few who have such crazy ideas. Beethoven, Briefwechsel I, Letter 23

Beethoven clearly liked a light action, although he owned and played different types of piano. While his performance was described as incredibly virtuosic, he was also reportedly a master of the soft and legato touch. Czerny, Beethoven's pupil, writes of his 'tremendous power, unequalled bravura and dexterity', while Mähler tells us that his hands were very still, his touch quiet and smooth. Baron de Tremont wrote: 'But how could you judge how he played? His musical ideas simply overwhelmed you.' Although Vienna was full of pianists when Beethoven arrived in 1792 to study with Haydn, he soon established himself as a composer and as a virtuoso. His style was characterised by its singing legato, an effect largely regarded as impossible on the instruments of the day: even after Mozart's death, the short, choppy, detached manner of playing was still the fashion.

According to Czerny, Beethoven used the damper pedal more frequently than the indications in his published compositions would lead one to believe: sometimes he applied the pedal throughout a whole movement! In 1842, Czerny wrote that when Beethoven continued to hold the pedal throughout a whole passage in the slow movement of the third piano concerto, it 'sounded well on the less resonant instruments of the day, especially when the shifting pedal [i.e. una corda] was used as well'. On the other hand Beethoven's rivals, Hummel and his supporters, accused him of maltreating the piano by the way in which used the pedal, 'creating nothing but confused noise'.

French and English pianists were also noted for their extensive use of the pedal. Kalkbrenner, who had studied in Paris with Adam, was irritated by the ultra-effective damping mechanism of the Viennese piano. Finding it quite impossible to execute a cantabile passage, he decided to take action: 'I suddenly had the idea of putting a piece of cork under the bar of the upper dampers so that the last two octaves hardly damped at all; in this way I succeeded in conquering the dryness that separated the sound of one note from the next.'

In some of the earliest pianos the dampers were raised by means of handstops. Obviously the player could not operate these while both his hands were busy playing: it is therefore probable that pianists sometimes played whole movements or sections with the dampers raised. Instruments also existed in which the raised position of the dampers was normal, the player lowering them onto the strings for special effect.

Beethoven is known to have been very keen on the shifting pedal (the key action was shifted to the right so that the hammers would strike one of two, or two of three strings only, i.e. una corda). Although the idea goes back to Cristofori-in his 1726 gravicembalo col piano e forte the action can be moved by hand-it was late in arriving in Vienna. The first una corda instrument to be heard there was almost certainly the Longman and Broderip which Haydn brought back from London in 1795. (Una corda pianos had appeared in England as early as the Americus Backers piano of 1771.) The first Viennese instrument known to have the device was a piano made by Walter in 1802, and the earliest una corda markings in Beethoven's music appeared in 1806. It is therefore appropriate to play his earlier music, such as the Pathétique published in 1799, on an instrument which does not have this device.

Beethoven's technique retained many traditional elements. He used arpeggiated chords, which were still in use in the first half of the nineteenth century, and which Czerny considered could be applied in slow movements. Another old-fashioned feature was his use of 'rhythmic accent' which, as Schindler reports, Beethoven employed quite forcefully much of the time. H.C. Koch defines this kind of accent in his Musiklexicon of 1802, 'as if holding back for a moment on such an accented note.'

In 1803 Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) wrote to the Bonn publisher Simrock:

Beethoven is taking more trouble over me than I would ever have believed. I have a lesson three times a week, usually lasting from one o'clock until half past two. I will soon be able to play his Sonate Pathétique in such a way that you will enjoy it, for the precision that he demands is hard to imagine. Beethoven, Briefwechsel I, Letter 136

Beethoven established his own particular style in Vienna, such that Czerny regarded him and Ries (his pupil, secretary and copyist) as a 'school' quite distinct from those of Dussek, Clementi or even Mozart and Hummel. Ries studied the piano with Beethoven from 1801 to 1805, but went to Albrechtsberger to learn composition. He was unjustly accused by his contemporaries of imitating Beethoven too much in his compositions, though at the same time, his playing was praised in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (1807, No.10) for its originality:

Ries always played with conscientious bravura…precise, secure and well-prepared, even if he did not share our Hummel's immaculate perfection and neatness; in Adagio movements (and indeed any cantabile passages) he had little more to offer than any player can learn to do-in that respect he was more like Hummel.

The teacher-pupil relationship became a long friendship, though it was not without its difficulties. Ferdinand Ries' father was a prominent Bonn violinist and had been Beethoven's violin teacher. He had supported Beethoven just after the death of his mother when his family was in difficulties. Beethoven did not forget this, and his support of Ries was partly conditioned by his gratitude. Ries made his debut at an Augarten Concert in 1804, playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with his own cadenza. In 1808 relations were strained when Ries showed an interest in a position in Kassel which had previously been offered to Beethoven, who had refused it. They did not correspond until Beethoven wrote to him in London in September 1814: 'I am in my heart truly happy to hear that things are going well for you.' (Briefwechsel III, Letter 742)

It was around this time that Ries composed his Twelve Trifles. After many years of travelling in the hope of getting a secure position, Ries enjoyed much success in London, becoming a fashionable teacher among wealthy merchants and bankers, many of them of German origin. Not only was his originality as a composer recognised, he was also celebrated as one of the finest performers of the day.

The London music journal Harmonicon wrote in 1824:

His hand is powerful and his execution is certain and often surprising. But his playing is most distinguished from that of all others by its romantic wildness...He produces an effect upon those who enter his style, which can only be compared to that arising from the most unexpected combinations and transitions of the Aeolian harp.

We find this popular effect in the Trifle in C major, when Ries requires the pedal to be held down for several bars which are marked pp. These bars are reminiscent of the fashionable contemporary excesses of the time which Beethoven himself had criticised in 1796 in a letter to the Viennese piano-maker Johann Andreas Streicher:

The manner in which people play the piano is surely the most uncultivated way in which any instrument was ever yet played. You'd often think you were listening to a harp, and I am delighted…that you are one of the few people who feel and understand that someone can make the piano sing as long as they have a sense of feeling. I hope the time will come when the harp and the piano are seen as two completely different instruments. Beethoven, Briefwechsel I, Letter 22

During his first visit to London to take part in Solomon's concerts in 1791, Beethoven's teacher Haydn met Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), one of the earliest touring concert pianists. Dussek had already spent two years in London after fleeing the French Revolution. He appeared together with Haydn at Solomon's concerts, lent him his finest pianoforte, and was praised by Haydn for his remarkable talents. By 1790, when the Sonatas Op. 13 appeared, Dussek had become one of the most fashionable teachers of his day, his lessons commanding virtually unprecedented fees. Haydn wrote to Dussek's father on 26 February, 1792, 'You have one of the most upright, moral and, in music, most eminent of men for a son. I love him just as you do.' Dussek was born in Caslav in Bohemia. His father was a music teacher and, according to Burney, a fine organist. Burney also described the school where Dussek's father taught: 'The organist and cantor, Mr Johann Dulsik…had 4 clavichords with little boys practising on them all: his son of 9 years old was a very good performer.' After 1778, J.L. Dussek travelled: he worked in Mecheln as a piano-teacher; he went to Hamburg where he played a recital on an English fortepiano and probably studied with C.P.E. Bach; he travelled to Russia, Paris and London and became well acquainted with contemporary pianos. He was known as 'le beau Dussek'; a review of one of his Paris concerts in 1808 speaks of 'a magic quality in his performance and charm of expression, that made them truly irresistible.' The composer Giacomo Gotifredo Ferrari recorded in his anecdotes (published in London in 1830): 'He never appeared to be distressed by anything. He was a great player and a naturally gifted composer.'

Like Beethoven, Dussek was one of the earliest masters of pedalling. Kalkbrenner claimed that Dussek invariably used the pedal while the harmony remained unchanged, and kept the dampers almost constantly lifted when he played in public. In the title of Dussek's Sonata Op. 13 No. 2 we read, 'avec Accompagnement d'un Violon ad libitum'. The notion of the ad libitum accompaniment originated in French harpsichord music of the period 1730-60. Louis-Gabriel Guillemain wrote in 1745 that such sonatas can be performed with or without violin, as 'they will lose none of their melody, for all that is in the harpsichord part; thus it will be convenient for those who do not have a violin always at hand when they want to play some of these pieces.' The real vogue for accompanied keyboard music, however, arrived with the first generation of fortepiano/harpsichord players and composers who lived in Paris in the 1760s and 1770s. Dussek probably encountered this style during the years 1786-89 which he spent in Paris. For private music-making, accompanied keyboard sonatas were the favourite form. The accompanying violin part normally contained little independent material. This is also the case in Dussek's Sonata Op. 13 No. 2, although it does contain useful information for the keyboard player, such as slurs and articulation marks which are absent in the piano part.

The Rondo in Beethoven, Dussek and Ries

The simple tuneful rondo, though disdained by serious critics and composers like Forkel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart and J. Cramer, was very popular. In this form composers used popular song or dance melodies and even borrowed arias from opera buffa. Rondos were written both as independent pieces and as movements within sonatas or symphonies. The third movement of the Dussek sonata recorded here seems to combine opera buffa elements with those of the virtuoso bravura piece. For this reason the 'popular' effect on the fortepiano of using the moderator and simultaneously raising the dampers seemed particularly appropriate: this style was advocated by Milchmeier in his tutor, published in Dresden in 1797.

The Pathétique sounds more intimate, if less full of pathos, with the subtle sound of this piano than on a modern grand. The Rondo takes on a light character, and it is possible to do justice to the description, 'not stormy but with the expression of a lament' which Czerny claims is how Beethoven envisaged this movement. It is true that Beethoven never indicated in his music that the moderator should be used, though he was one of the first German composers to put any pedal marks in his music, but it is of particular interest that he indicates that the moderator should not be used when he writes senza sordino at the beginning of the First movement of the Moonlight Sonata - he knew that the average musician would use this popular effect unless asked not to. The use of the moderator in this Rondo is therefore justified, even if it lends the movement a slightly 'folky' flavour. This brings it a little closer in line with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century vogue for rondos of a light and cheerful character. Ferdinand Ries' Trifle in D major, also in rondo form, uses a syncopated Scottish-type rhythm, reminiscent of some of Beethoven's arrangements of Scottish Songs. Ries' pedal indications are also 'popular': in the Trifle in C-major he suggests taking off the dampers for several bars in succession where it is also marked pp.

Ella Sevskaya



Ludwig van Beethoven: Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe (ed. S. Brandenburg) I & III (Munich 1996). English translations of quotations here by Christopher Stembridge

Howard Craw: A Biography and Thematic Catalog of the Works of J. L. Dussek (1760-1812) (diss. University of South California, 1964)

Michael Cole: The Pianoforte in the Classical Era (Oxford, 1998)

Carl Czerny: Über den richtigen Vortrag der sämtlichen Beethoven'schen Klavierwerke, ed. P. Badura-Skoda (Vienna, 1963)

Cecil Hill: The Music of Ferdinand Ries: a Thematic Catalogue (Armidale, NSW, 1977)

Glynn Jenkins: The Legato Touch and the 'ordinary' manner of keyboard playing from 1750-1850 (Ph. D., Cambridge, 1976)

Hans Kann: Introduction to: J.B. Cramer, 21 Etüden für Klavier nebst Fingerübungen von Beethoven (Vienna, 1974)

Katalin Komlós: Fortepianos and their music (Oxford, 1995).

Richard Maunder: Keyboard Instruments in Eighteenth-Century Vienna (Oxford, 1998)

David Rowland: A History of Pianoforte Pedalling (Cambridge, 1993)




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