Beethoven, Improvisation & Playing By Ear

At the time Beethoven was playing the piano, all pianists were expected to be able to improvise, and for the public it was often the most enjoyable part of the concert. One student wrote that the “caprices to which Beethoven surrendered himself, the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible.” No one equaled him in rapidity of scale passages, trills, and leaps. Apparently, Beethoven demolished a number of pianists who had come through Vienna to play by ear.

Contemporary Ignaz von Seyfried wrote, “In his improvisations, Beethoven was transported above all earthly things – his spirit had burst all restraining bonds triumphing over transitory sufferings.” His grand style of playing, and especially his bold improvisation, had an extraordinary effect on his audience.

No one knew better than Beethoven that proper ear-training leads to great improvisational technique. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, with his hearing deserting him, Beethoven still continued to perform in public. One reason for his ability to continue improvising in performance was the ear-training he had received early in his career. His deep arpeggios are cavernous, the hammer beats minatory, the thickly syncopated chords shattering, the arpeggios lacerating.

The sonatas, variations and concerti of which Beethoven was a master form one of the great creative piano genres of the ages. As the pianist’s hearing loss grew, his playing was often incoherent. In 1815 violinist Ludwig Spohr said, “Of the former so admired excellence of the virtuoso scarcely anything was left as a result of his deafness. Entire groups of notes were inaudible. I felt moved with deep sorrow at such a destiny.” Yet, despite his hearing loss, the pianist was able to continue composing magnificent pieces due to his mastery of technique, composition and ear training. There is reason to believe that Beethoven approximated the idealities of music in his head closely to the sound of the instrument. Noted a contemporary musician, “Beethoven, in addition to his execution, has greater clearness and weight of ideas and more expression. In short, he is more for the heart.”

Recommended reading: The Art of the Piano, D. Dubal.

Following are reviews of selected Beethoven sonatas.

  1. Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3: The D major sonata is in four movements, the climax of the piece being the slow movement, Largo e mesto, in D minor. Its tragic content and emotional power make it one of the great movements in early Beethoven.

  2. Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, Moonlight Sonata: One of the most popular of Beethoven’s sonatas. The first movement was new; the emotions expressed had nothing in common with anything written previously. Ernest Hutcheson sums up perfectly, “The least-disciplined fingers can easily play the notes, but only profoundest feeling can give expression to its yearning anguish.” The second movement is an Allegretto, has elements of a minuet and a scherzo. “It is a perfect resting place for the demons waiting to appear in the third movement,” writes Eric Blom, “The wildest music of the time.”

  3. Sonata No. 17 in D minor, op. 31, No. 2, the Tempest Sonata: The slow introductory passages of the first movement are the calm before the storm, filled with foreboding tensions. The Adagio is a sonata movement with an exposition and recapitulation, but no development section. The finale in 3/8 meter is an Allegretto and again in a sonata structure. The movement is based on unbroken sixteenth notes which pass to a heart-piercing mordent.

  4. Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, Waldstein Sonata: For the performer, this piece requires technical brilliance and rhythmic control of the large structure. The sonata is composed in two movement form with a twenty-eight bar Adagio occupying the placement of the slow movement. The Rondo theme is radiant.

  5. Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op 111: This is the last of his thirty-two sonatas and is composed in two movements. Beethoven seems to have exhausted the possibilities of the sonata form, and the second movement, a set of variations, has been described as a suprastate of consciousness. Louis Kentner writes, “The contrast between the two movements could not be more pronounced. The first, somber, chaotic, passionate, the second all tranquility, peace with a crystalline ending of trills suggesting the starry firmament. This contrast is so striking that one well-known musician went so far as to say that there are two kinds of pianists: those who can play the first movement of Opus 111, and those who can play the second; none can play both.”