A Difficult Beethoven Measure

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John Ruggero
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A Difficult Beethoven Measure

Post by John Ruggero »

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no. 3 is an amusing piece with so many comic moments that it sounds at times like a stand-up comic delivering a series of one-liners.

One of the strangest moments occurs in the first movement. After a series of strange starts, hestitations, and other quirky events, the piece finally achieves prolonged energetic motion. Then it breaks off yet again, tries to take off, crashes, before achieving an unusually prolonged take off:
op 31 no 3.1 1st ed.jpeg
op 31 no 3.1 1st ed.jpeg (133.28 KiB) Viewed 870 times
The “crash” presents an almost unsurmountable technical hurdle for the player. Beethoven’s student Czerny says that this measure should stay in time. He also specifies the metronome marking for the movement at quarter note = 144, which is brisk, but within the range in which the faster sections of the piece are played today.

A 12-tuplet at quarter =144 is 12 x 144 = 1728 notes/minute or 28.8 notes/second. I googled “How fast can a pianist play?” and came up with a range of 15-19.5 per second maximum, 19.5 being a virtuoso achievement. So 28.8 notes/sec. may be impossible.

So we are left with several possibilities to perform the measure convincingly:

1. Slow down the tempo enough to play the third beat. But the momentum generated before the measure and the fact that it must lead smoothly into the following measures makes this surprisingly difficult to pull off at a slow enough tempo.

2. Convert the 32nds to 16ths and add an extra beat to the measure. This works better, but the “crash” is lost, and there is no hint of such a solution in Beethoven’s notation, such as fermatas over the left hand rests.

3. Reinterpret the notation in some other way. Maybe Beethoven was trying to notate something special that was very difficult with the tools at hand. This is the possibility that I am considering most seriously.

If the measure indeed were to stay in time, all 21 notes of the measure must be playable at 48 to the dotted half note. This amounts to 16.5 notes per second and thus, in the performable range.

The solution that I will suggest in my edition is based on the theory that Beethoven was trying to notate what today would be notated with feathered beaming:
op 31 no 3.1 m. 53B.jpeg
op 31 no 3.1 m. 53B.jpeg (48.84 KiB) Viewed 870 times
The acceleration might be approximated in standard note values as:
op 31 no 3.1 m. 53A.jpeg
op 31 no 3.1 m. 53A.jpeg (56.42 KiB) Viewed 870 times
And Beethoven’s notation might be regarded as a simplification of that to avoid the rhythmic complication.

While this would require the ability to play 21.6 notes per second for the second beat if one adhered to 144, it is manageable at tempi a little less than that, which would be acceptable for the piece as a whole or even for the one measure.
Last edited by John Ruggero on 04 Aug 2020, 14:21, edited 3 times in total.
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OCTO
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Re: A Difficult Beethoven Measure

Post by OCTO »

That is indeed interesting.
I would suggest to notate it as Beethoven did, and to make an ossia staff for your version.
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John Ruggero
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Re: A Difficult Beethoven Measure

Post by John Ruggero »

Thanks, OCTO. The examples will appear in a footnote.

What is also interesting is that fact that most editions with which I am familiar completely ignore the issue.

For example, Arrau gives quarter = 144 for the movement but is silent about this measure. Schnabel, who discusses many aspects of the interpretation in lengthy footnotes gives quarter = 138, for this section, but is also silent. Tovey has a lengthy preface and discussion of many other places in the piece, but ignores this one. Schenker makes no comment.

The two editions that do comment leave one scratching one's head:

von Bulow gives quarter = 112 (!) for the movement and does provide a comment for the measure:

"...the execution of this graceful ornament, without haste and without disturbing the rhythm by unduly prolonging the measure..."

Then he suggests a facilitation by distributing some of the notes to the left hand.

At quarter = 112 the player must play the third beat at a "graceful" 22.4 notes per second!

Casella gives quarter = 128 for the faster sections and writes the direction "dolce e senza fretta" (sweetly and without hurrying) in the music. That's at a "unhurried" 25.6 notes per second!

It may be that pianists have been faking this measure for over two centuries, but no one wants to admit it!
And who knows, maybe Beethoven was just fine with that.
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David Ward
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Re: A Difficult Beethoven Measure

Post by David Ward »

As a result of reading your original post this morning, I listened to the 1978(?) Brendel CD (originally LP I think) of this sonata. It really set me up for the day: such humour, such vigour, such - everything!

I wouldn't like to specify exactly what it is Brendel does with this bar.
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John Ruggero
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Re: A Difficult Beethoven Measure

Post by John Ruggero »

I am glad the post added something nice to your morning, David.

I like Friedrich Gulda's performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0IxQf_BYKw He gets Beethoven's humor.

Gulda plays the faster sections of the first movement at about 144. And the other movements are wonderful, particularly the Scherzo. I guess Gulda is my favorite Beethoven pianist. We already discussed his live performance of the Concerto no. 5 as soloist and conductor.

Brendel gets close, but a few others I listened to seem to miss the fun completely.

They all approximate the rhythm of the measure under discussion along the lines of the feathered beaming in the OP. Most slow down, at least a little. Gulda doesn't.
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