Its real name is the slightly less evocative “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2,” and its Italian subtitle is translated as “almost a fantasy.”
In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, a German critic compared the sonata to the effect of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne, and the interpretation became so popular that, by the end of the century, the piece was universally known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” Beethoven himself had attributed the emotion of the piece to sitting at the bedside of a friend who had suffered an untimely death.
Meet the soulful singer and keyboardist of the alternative/punk/indie band Tigers Jaw, Brianna Collins. The second we heard her sultry voice and beautiful piano melodies, we were instantly hooked and had to know more about her. We met up with the Pennsylvania native and roamed the streets of Long Beach, CA in our Old Skools, scoping out vintage thrift finds and rare records while chatting about tour, writing, and her band’s new record.
Beethoven - Piano Sonata no. 29 in Bb Major, “Hammerklavier”
I try to keep my blog varied, and not post music by the same composer twice in a row, but I had listened to Beethoven’s 6th symphony the other day and held off that blog post until today, and today I had a very, very strong itch to wipe the digital dust off of the titan that is the Hammerklavier sonata. I remember in high school, when I was getting more and more into classical music, I was excited to listen to this sonata, because everything I read about it spoke about its epic length and scope. But I also remember being disappointed, because to me, “Epic” Beethoven was something like his 5th piano concerto. This sonata was…weird. It turned me off. It seemed incomprehensible, especially the last movement, a fugue that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. As the years passed and my musical tastes ‘matured’ a bit more, I came back to the Hammerklavier and was able to follow along with a new mindset. Beethoven published the work as “Große Sonata für das Hammerklavier”, and indeed he puts a lot of emphasis on “Große”. You’re immediately grabbed by the strength and energy of the first five bars, the main theme that introduces Beethoven’s obsession with the interval of the 3rd [musicologists could go on forever about the different examples of Beethoven building all of the sonata’s musical ideas out of this interval, if you wanted to deconstruct it to the extreme]. And the movement goes on through deceptive “pretty” moments, to jittery octaves, to arpeggios of a single note across the keyboard to “cleanse the palate”, and overall a huge emphasis on counterpoint. The movement is pretty heavy, loud, and, under the surface, complicated. It’s contrasted with the super short scherzo, a playful movement cutting between lighthearted and dramatic music for comedic effect. As if improvising, we get a sudden glide from the bass of the keyboard all the way to the highest note, and then go right back to the lighthearted skipping theme. The short and playful is then contrasted by the long and deeply emotional adagio. It is played anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes [the recording I have with Christopher Eschenbach stretches to nearly half an hour!], and the opening chorale gets expanded through subtle variation as the music goes on, reaching operatic heights, and it sticks out with its relative thinness and solemnity, in compared to the opening extroverted toccata. Despite the pain, we are brought into a major key resolution and coda, a nod of acceptance that things will get better. The last movement, I’m going to argue, is almost…Postmodern. What I mean is that, in a meta-musical gesture, it sounds like Beethoven thinking aloud “I want to end this sonata with a fugue, how will I write it?”, the “cleansing the palate” single note arpeggio comes back, he plays with two different contrapuntal exercises, both sounding Baroque, as if Beethoven is looking through Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier for guidance. But he stops short each time, shakes his head, and tries something else. After a few “restarts”, he finally gets to The Fugue. And how insane it is. He uses a long, complicated melody, that modulates and uses chromatic runs, and writes it into a sprawling ocean of sound, using fugue writing conventions and a sewing-machine type Baroque mentality to create something dense, nearly atonal, robotic. But it isn’t a strict fugue, and breaks the rules here and there [it wouldn’t be True Beethoven without rule breaking]. There is so much conflict, a constant drive forward that is difficult to follow along, but its mesmerizing, until the inevitable slap of the last chords. Throughout his music, Beethoven consistently tries to push the boundaries of convention. Almost like William Blake, a contemporary English poet, Beethoven takes what came before, destroys it, and builds something new with the remains. At the end of the day, we have one of the greatest piano sonatas ever written, by one of the greatest composers of all time. But I’m concerned that all this hype, all this discussion about Beethoven and his music, makes it seem like something on a far off pedestal that only a few “gifted” listeners can enjoy. That’s not true at all. Despite the flowery language, the myth making, the academic and analytical writing, Beethoven is human, and his music is humanist. You don’t need theory to appreciate it, because he always writes from within.
Just in case someone is looking for a German penpal with the least German-sounding name, here I am.
My life is everything but boring(usually). I enjoy sharing stories about
it and hearing about yours, whatever your stories are about.
Here’s a few things I like: dogs, pizza, movie nights(horror movies,
anyone?), Overwatch (or videogames in general), being spontaneous and
talking to strangers, a lot.
I have a serious case of wanderlust, or in other words, I love traveling
and want to do it as much as possible, which is why I’m doing it a lot
(while still trying to look like a responsible adult :D ) and I enjoy
learning languages too! One day I want to buy a camper van and just go
on a really big adventure. What’s your dream?
Oh and when I’m not out and about I usually like to practice guitar/piano or drawing.
Apart from being a bit of a weirdo(the good kind), I’ve also been told
to be a good listener so if you ever struggle with anything I’m happy to
hear about it!
Preferences: Nah, just be yourself. I usually want to
skip all the small talk and go straight to more.. “meaningful”
conversation haha, so bear with me >_<
Beethoven - Piano Sonata no.8 in c minor, “Pathétique”, op.13
And now we come to the most popular and beloved of Beethoven’s early sonatas. I’d argue, this is the only piece in his early period that is often featured in pop culture. It was featured in the Seinfeld episode “The Pez Dispenser” [where Jerry made Elaine laugh during the piano recital to everyone’s annoyance] and also in the music video for Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night. What is it about this sonata that has made it rise in recognition beyond the other works around this time? I’d say because it is the most outwardly “Beethoven like” Beethoven sonata of the early period. It opens with loud and thick chords, a very dramatic gesture, with a lighter string quartet like passage after each chord. This had to be shocking to the aristocrat audience at the time. After a lengthy introduction that works off of the pattern [loud chords in the bass against a softer melody in the right hand], it plummets into an energetic rush of tremolos. With hand crossings, arpeggios, and extreme toccata like passages, the movement swirls around in its strum and drang, until the introduction returns, like a plea, a gasp, before the final slap ends it all. The emotional and musical weight of this movement is contrasted by a lovely middle movement. This is going to be really cheesy, but this Adagio makes me want to write a story where two lovers have parked their car somewhere with a great view of the stars, and one of them reads a poem to the other. Glittering stars over the lover’s touch. This movement also seems like a reference to Mozart, because a similar melody can be heard in the slow movement of the latter’s fourteenth sonata. The last movement is a conventional rondo, though the main theme seems to branch out of one of the main themes of the first movement [reusing material to thread connections is an idea Beethoven will explore more in depth very soon]. And the melody is a rising four note pattern, it’s a cell, a fabric of a melody. Again, Beethoven shows how he likes to deconstruct musical ideas to their most basic elements.