The pianist’s toolbox, Moonlight Sonata a Funeral March?

Published by Paul on

May I ask you to join me in a piano lesson?

When a student starts practising a new piece of music, it usually doesn’t take long before the question arises not only how we would like this music to sound, but also how to achieve this. What techniques, what tools do we use for our performance? How well-filled is our toolbox for performing actually?

What do we do to make the music sound the way we want it, the way we think the composer wanted it?

How we build a concept of a performance is a very interesting aspect of musicianship which I will love to talk about in a future post. Here I would like to focus on what happens when we’ve made up our minds an created a concept.

In other words: how do we get from thinking to doing? From the mind to the physical?

I’d like to compare it with the carpenter or plumber choosing the right tools from his toolbox for the job at hand. Where in our case the tools involve the skills to execute the chosen tempo, phrasing, dynamics, touch etc.
Obviously, the more tools we have and the more refined they are the more refined our performance of the piece will be. A brilliantly thought concept is useless without a the required technical skills to perform it.

Needless to say the ideal situation is the one where the level of creativity of our concept is in balance with our technical skills to perform.

So we have: concept – tools/skills – performance.

When thinking of a working piece to demonstrate this toolbox process I was reminded of a Barenboim video on the Moonlight Sonata. Let’s make a small detour, please watch and listen:

In this video Barenboim discusses the hypothesis Beethoven may have based the rhythmic structure of the famous first movement on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the scene where Don Giovanni stabs the Commendatore. At that point the music plays in triplets, voices sing in dotted rhythms. Both dotted1/4- 1/8 and dotted 1/8 – 1/16 notes rhythms (pay attention to Leporello, the one with the cap hiding down under).

Watch and listen the original scene in Don Giovanni here, the link starts at the mentioned scene.

Don Giovanni, live Zürich 2001. Harnoncourt.

So could it be that thinking of this music Beethoven wrote a funeral march? In the strict sense? Not as a deeply moving romantic and emotional piece of music which indeed is sometimes played at funerals. But an actual funeral march, where one can even visualize the bearers carrying the coffin?

You know, however imaginative and interesting this idea may be, it doesn’t matter really: this blog is not about whether the hypothesis is correct or not. I simply use it as an interesting example to work with, just so because it is not the most common view on playing this piece. So we have to think for ourselves.

How to play the Moonlight as a funeral march?

I came up with this list of tools:

  • Strictly keep the slow (march) tempo, no rubato
  • Think/feel not in triplets but go with the quarter notes, to evoke the steps of the bearers marching.
  • Only small dynamic changes, not too much passion but silent mourning
  • Sometimes bring out the lower voice when melody in playing in octaves to make the sound more dark.
  • Emphasize the dissonant, “painful” intervals (b9).
Please listen and decide whether:
  • My list is correct? Do you agree? Can you think of any other tools?
  • My performance meets the list?

Then we arrive at the final verdict: is the result what we hoped for, expected it to be?
What if not? Was our list of tools not correct or powerful enough? Or maybe our concept didn’t fit the music after all? But maybe we didn’t perform well enough according to the chosen tools.

I would like to invite you to write your views in a comment below. So we can discuss it and learn from each other’s views. I will then also tell you my findings 😉 .Thanks!

PS

Readers who know me may be surprised on my emphasis here on the toolbox process, a rather calculating attitude.
Let me make it quite clear: As a teacher I think the toolbox process is very important and quite necessary. As a pianist and music lover, I am convinced that after all that hard work, we should leave room for spontaneous creativity and making music “on the spur of the moment”. In my opinion, that is where the real “blessing” of music lies, but at the same time, I think that it cannot flourish without the effort beforehand.

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Arjen Bezemer
11 months ago

Thanks Paul. The way you played it, I can clearly see the bearers picking up the coffin and walking away with slow careful steps.

August
11 months ago

Tyhanks for re-booting the Bechstein Tapes. Much missed during the dark days of Covid. A very interesting “Moonlight” – enjoyed it a lot listening. Talking about a “Toolbox”, I feel it often is there when people (like myself 😉 play a piano piece. But it not alwaysis the result of a conscious process, which you make it. That in itself I take as a good lesson. On your Q if I can think of other tools, I would answer “what can one do to make the harmonics structure in the piece get more attention – without damaging the other tools”.… Read more »

Peter Bremers
11 months ago

Interesting thoughts Paul ! Both interpretations are by the way capturing. A pity there isn’t a “Get Back” Archive and (beautiful Peter Jackson) documentary on Beethoven !