Remarkable Octave Signs in the “Appassionata”

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John Ruggero
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Remarkable Octave Signs in the “Appassionata”

Post by John Ruggero »

Beethoven did not like octave signs, perhaps because he felt they obscured the view of the correct register and hampered continuity. So when he used them in the autographs of his later piano sonatas, it was caused by crowding or to clarify something for the engravers. Such passages were generally engraved at pitch in the first editions.

It is interesting then, that (what I think is) Beethoven’s very first use of octave signs in his piano sonatas: in the last movement of the piano sonata op. 57, may be the most unusual use of octave signs in the standard piano repertoire. Leave it to Mr. Ludwig van Imagination:
op 57.3 Octave signs A.jpeg
op 57.3 Octave signs A.jpeg (79.86 KiB) Viewed 935 times
op 57.3 Octave signs B.jpeg
op 57.3 Octave signs B.jpeg (177.16 KiB) Viewed 935 times
As one can see from the manuscript, he first wrote the right hand at A at pitch, changed his mind, and then took the great trouble to cross it out and write it again below the staves (at B) an octave lower, with the direction to use an octave sign. Since the next two measures repeat exactly (at C), he had the opportunity to demonstrate what he wanted.

Then at D he wrote the next four measures, which is a HIGHER version of the same passage, at pitch!

A beer break? A moment of madness?

Well, maybe not, because he does the same thing when the passage repeats in the recapitulation:
op 57.3 Octave signs C.jpeg
op 57.3 Octave signs C.jpeg (170.1 KiB) Viewed 935 times
I am guessing that Beethoven was trying to distinguish these measures from those around them, and that these might therefore be called “expressive” octave signs. Note that the measures at A-C do have a different feeling from those around them. They express a dominant seventh chord rather than a pure triad and the left hand has an ominous inner voice moving G-A-flat-G that is enhanced by the swell.

So here is what might have happened: Beethoven writes out the four measures at pitch, but there is something wrong. They look so much higher and more brilliant than the previous four measures. But A-C should actually be played more softly, with a rather ominous and introverted tone. Therefore they should look “lower” than the previous four measures, while the following more extravert four measures at D should appear higher and brighter.

"Ach, du lieber! Finally a good use for those pesky octave signs!”

And the octave signs appear in the first edition just as he wanted them.
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