Beethoven as pianist: a view through the early chamber music
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Our inability to reconstruct what Ludwig van Beethoven must have sounded like as a pianist is one of the more vexing questions of music history. Unreliable sources and his short performing career, in addition to a lack of virtuoso public pieces, have contributed to this situation. However, we can approach the question of how Beethoven played the piano by examining four relatively neglected chamber works: the two Cello Sonatas, op. 5, the Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments, op. 16, and the Horn Sonata, op. 17. These scores were chosen because we know that Beethoven wrote them for himself to perform, and we know that he did, in fact, perform them. The presumption is that any music Beethoven wrote for himself to play in concert would have been written to highlight the strengths of his playing. This study seeks to add to our knowledge of Beethoven’s technique by focusing on the piano part in these chamber music scores. Chapter One examines the observations of those who heard Beethoven play and how some witnesses actually created barriers to knowledge, contributing more to myth than to understanding. The main portion of this document, Chapters Two through Four, explores the individual works with regard to their explication of Beethoven as a pianist through the use of the scores as authority. Chapter Two will focus on piano technique in the op. 5 Sonatas and the significance of Beethoven’s performance of the Sonatas in Berlin with the cellist Jean-Louis Duport. Chapter Three explores op. 16 with a continued discussion of technique and consideration of improvisation, pedaling, and the interaction of the piano with winds. Chapter Four’s treatment of op. 17 emphasizes its placement in a transitional period which began around 1801. A gradual shift from virtuoso performer to an almost exclusive focus on composition was underway. While it is not possible to say with absolute certainty how Beethoven played, this study attempts to elucidate the major characteristics of his playing, getting us perhaps closer to how he may have sounded.