The Grumpy Pianist

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) can be considered as the first Romantic Pianist (1770 – 1850), and he broke all the rules in the name of expression. In the nineteenth century the word ‘expression’ was the replacement of the eighteenth century word ‘taste’. He thought of music orchestrally and achieved the effect of orchestra using the piano.

Some of the sonatas are frightfully difficult and not ‘pianistic’ at all. Beethoven was in many respects a self-taught pianist. His instructor was not professional pianists. Like Mozart, Beethoven turned out to be the same as, musician first and pianist second.

Christian Gottlob Neefe, court organist at Bonn was the best teacher Beethoven ever had. He gave Beethoven divine progress. He put Beethoven on the Well-Tempered Clavier and instructed him on the organ, theory and composition. The young Ludwig made giant strides. He was a formidable improviser and sight-reader. At twelve, he was a cembalist and violinist in the Bonn orchestra.

By 1792, Beethoven exploded over Vienna. He was reputable as a pianist, not a composer. His exposure as a pianist made an overwhelming initial impact . His playing had an ocean like surge and depth that made others’ playing sound like the trickle of a rivulet. Certainly, Vienna had heard pianists with more polished delivery like Mozart, Clementi and Cramer. Beethoven’s playing was rough in comparison to them.

Vienna realized that it was up against something new, something elemental, an impolite force with harmonic audacity and disrespect of niceties. Beethovenswarmed all over the piano with complete confidence and freedom, storming the most distant keys, swinging through the most abstruse modulations.

Carl Ludwig Junker, German music and art writer and composer in 1791 pointed out that Beethoven’s playing ‘differs greatly from the usual method of treating the piano, that it seems as if he had struck out an entirely new path for himself.’ Critics wrote that everyone was struck out by Beethoven’s ‘fiery’ expression.

Beethoven especially shone with his improvisations. His improvisations were indeed better than his performances of published pieces, for after he arrived in Vienna he had very little time to practice. Most pianists did prepare for their improvisations for knowing that they will be called upon to supply an improvisation but it was unknown how much time Beethoven prepared for his improvisations. Most who heard Beethoven’s improvisation claimed that he was on his idea pouring one after another, were carried away and pound on the piano till the delicate Viennese piano would pop or hammers would break. No piano was ‘safe’ in the hands of Beethoven. He broke more pianos than anybody in Vienna did. A quiet player does not snap the strings and break hammers. The pianists of the day kept their hands close to the keys, but Beethoven dominated the piano just as his figure was on a podium. John Baptist Cramer (1771 – 1858) told his pupils that no one who had heard improvisations could say that they had not heard Beethoven.

Ignaz von Seyfried (1776 – 1841), Austrian musician, conductor and composer told Louis Sphor (1784 – 1859), a German violinist, that once at public, Beethoven got into a rage about something and broke half a dozen strings. Anton Reicha (1770 – 1836), a Bavarian education music theorist reported that at one evening, Beethoven was performing Mozart’s concerto at court, he was asked to turn pages for Beethoven. In the meantime, Reicha was occupied with wrenching the strings of the pianoforte, which snapped. While hammers struck among the broken strings Beethoven insisted on finishing the concerto, and so Reicha leaped back and forth, jerking out the strings and disentangling the hammers, while turning pages. He worked harder than Beethoven.

Carl Czerny (1791 – 1857), a pupil of Beethoven, commented that Beethoven demanded far too much from the pianos then being made. His improvisation was so brilliant that often filled listeners with tears, while some members of the audience would sob loudly. Czerny also described that Beethoven’s fingers were densely covered with hair, that his fingers, especially the tips, were very broad; his hand stretches were not large and were hardly capable of a tenth. Those hands may have wrenched tears from many eyes, but some conservatives were of opinion that Beethoven’s harmonies were uncontrolled. Tomaschek, an admirer of Beethoven never could get used to his ‘frequent daring deviation from one motive to another….Evils of this nature frequently weaken his greatest compositions.’ To Ignaz von Seyfried, his improvisations were ‘a cataract, elemental, and a force of nature.’

Carl Czerny, student of Beethoven
(1791 – 1857)

Beethoven broke the rules entirely, using an extraordinarily wide dynamic palette and was highly expressive in his playing. He was a direct influence to romantic period pianists (circa 1770 to 1850). Mozart and Clementi were highly disciplined pianists, but Beethoven played as he felt, unclassical wrong notes and all. Even before his deafness set in, his work at times was sloppy. All music performed by his hand, underwent new creation. Nobody seemed to mind Beethoven’s technical roughness except purist like Mocheles.

Czerny pointed that nobody equaled to Beethoven in the rapidity of his scales, double trills, skips and such with technical passages. He made far greater use of the pedal than was customary. Czerny said that in 1803, when Beethoven could still hear, and was in practice, he held the pedal through the entire slow movement of his C minor Concerto. It sounded like an incredible statement given that he was using a light Viennese piano in which the sustaining tone dissipated rapidly. Questions even arouse that Beethoven had forgotten that he had his foot on the pedal. Czerny said that Beethoven used the pedal ‘far more than is indicated in his work.’

Another student of Beethoven, Ferdinand Ries had some fascinating thing to say about Beethoven’s style at the piano:

In general he played his own composition in a very capricious manner, but he nevertheless kept strictly accurate time, occasionally, but very seldom accelerating the tempo. On the other hand, in the performance of a crescendo passage he would introduce a ritard, which produced a beautiful and highly striking effect. Sometimes, in the performance of specific passages, he would infuse into them an exquisite but altogether inimitable expression. He seldom introduced notes or ornaments not set down in the composition.’

Beethoven tried hard to train his pupils according to the Classical masters like Clementi who stated ‘’Placed the hands over the keyboard in such a position that the fingers need not to be raised more than necessary. That is the only method by which the player can learn to generate tone’’. He did follow Clementi by insisting on legato playing. One student that Beethoven did not accept was Carl, his nephew. He referred Carl to Czerny but kept close watch on his progress. He constantly told Czerny how to teach his nephew: ‘Carl should be taught fingerings; then rhythms; then the notes with tolerable correctness’. Beethoven insisted that ‘do not stop his playing on account of minor little mistakes, but only point them out at the end of a piece’.

Beethoven even wrote out a series of suggested exercises for his nephew. In his early years, Beethoven constantly recommended CPE Bach’s piano instruction books and later turned to Clementi. Most of the time, he was particular about correct hand position, working on scales in all the keys, especially the use of the thumb.  As Beethoven grew older, he told Tomascheck in 1814 that ‘it has been known that the greatest piano players were the greatest composers; unlike many pianists of today, who only run up and down the keyboard with long-practiced passagework, push, push, push’!

For most of his life, Beethoven used Viennese pianos, initially with a five-plus octave range. Starting with the Waldstein Sonanta, composed in 1804, a six-octave instrument became available. Nonetheless, he was still unsatisfied with them and kept requesting the manufacturer to build more rugged, sonorous products. He wrote a bitter letter in 1796 to Johann Streicher, a piano manufacturer:

‘As far as the manner of playing is concerned, the pianoforte is still the least studied and least developed of all instruments often one thinks that one is merely listening to a harp. I am delighted that you are one of the few who realizes and perceives that, providing one can feel the music, one can also make the pianoforte sings. I hope there will come the day where the harp and the pianoforte will be treated as entirely different instruments.

That day never did come soon enough for Beethoven to take advantage of it. In 1818, John Broadwood, an English piano manufacturer, sent Beethoven a magnificent grand piano, with range of over six octaves – a sonorous giant, as un-harplike as any piano at the time could be. Beethoven was ecstatic and kept the instrument for the rest of his life.

Some scholars nevertheless doubted Beethoven’s attachment to Broadwood considering his allegiance with Viennese type of piano with which he had grown up. Indeed, none of the pianos gave Beethoven the sonority and range he was looking for up until as late as 1826, the year before his death, he said that the piano ‘is and remains an inadequate instrument.’ By the time he received the Broadwood, his hearing was about gone as he was quite deaf by 1810. The deafness left the composer frustrated who would sit on the piano with a wild look and banging out wrong notes that he could not hear. Ries, a pupil of Beethoven said he seldom laid his hand on upon anything without breaking it.

Johann Andreas Stumpff, another instrument manufacturer recollected Beethoven as:

‘Quite a sight confronted me, the upper registers were mute, and the broken strings in a tangle, like a thorn bush whipped by a storm.’

If Beethoven was still alive today and not deaf, one could imagine what how would he approach the piano and his compositions that he could not otherwise achieved in his days.

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