Other Writing

On ‘Difficult’ Music

Is ‘difficult’ just another word for ‘bad’?

“Let’s move to a completely different world. Same period, but the Op.14 sonatas. They are considered, again, lighter sonatas; easier sonatas… And here I really have to disagree, because they are frightfully difficult to play. And to interpret.”

This is famed Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, kicking off an informative lecture on Beethoven’s neglected Ninth Piano Sonata (E major, Op.14 No.1), part of a longer series in which he dissects all 32 of the sonatas in order of publication.

I wonder whether the (relative) neglect of this piece is not justified: is Beethoven’s E major Sonata a fine piece music that simply wants for persuasive advocacy, or is it just not very good? Schiff leaves no doubt that he is of the former view. Sadly, the examples he provides probably won’t alter the opinion of those who feel otherwise, further proving Arthur Schnabel’s maxim that Beethoven’s Sonatas really are better than they can be played.

When Schiff insists that this sonata is ‘difficult to play’, he isn’t referring to the basic task of playing the right notes in the right order. This piece does not tax the technique of any moderately skilled pianist. What he really means is that it is difficult to play well, such that those hearing it might one day consent to hearing it again. It is by no means a bad sonata — especially compared to the efforts of Beethoven’s contemporaries — but it is no small task to convince an audience that it is a good one.

For those who are unfamiliar with the sonata, there is little to be said that won’t be amply clear from listening to it, which won’t take very long. There are three movements, kicking off with a fairly unremarkable sonata-form opening, followed by a fine dance-like Allegretto in place of a slow movement. The concluding Rondo manages the rare trick of being both quirky and dull. This juxtaposition is established immediately by the main theme, a quasi-gavotte that quickly forsakes charm in favour of a sequences of hammered ‘A’ octaves, neither consonant enough to be satisfying nor dissonant enough to be interesting, over a crescendo ending in subito piano whose novelty quickly wears itself out, and is all but impossible to pull off in resonant acoustics.

There are several tricky bars of exposed semiquaver hand-crossing at the beginning of the exposition and recapitulation of the first moment — Schiff insists these should be expressive rather than metronomic, though there’s something to be said for a more rhythmic execution — but that’s about it, at least for the first two movements. The difficulty of the Rondo’s central triplet section depends on whether you pay more heed to the tempo marking (Allegro commodo) or the time signature (alla breve). Richter almost alone takes it at a two-in-a-bar vivace. Most pianists opt for commodo, probably correctly, though one wonders why Beethoven makes us choose at all. Schiff would no doubt point to this as another interpretative challenge, though it’s hard not to see it as mere inconsistency. The question is whether pianists should be made to work so hard for such a meagre pay-off.

Beethoven’s gifts were incomparable, but even fervent admirers must admit that as a melodist he was no more than middling, and hardly in the league of Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Chopin, or a host of others. I won’t imply that he couldn’t write a nice tune (and without thinking very hard we can think of plenty). However, for the most part his melodies are interesting for their motivic components, which he would isolate and develop with unsurpassed skill. The Eroica theme is typical.

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