For the past 500 years, all music has ended in basically the same way. Whether it’s a symphony or a pop song, the final harmony is a move from dominant to tonic — that is, from the fifth note of the scale to the first. In Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One,” the chord on “only” is the dominant, the chord on “one” is the tonic. This basic cadence is the most popular move in music.
If you string a bunch of downward-moving fifths together, the result is a progression that appears all over the place, from Bach to “I Will Survive.” And this brings us to Beethoven, who has a habit of doing things in an unusual way.
In 1800 in Vienna, Beethoven was challenged to a musical duel by a pianist named Steibelt. Steibelt was famous and a bit full of himself — his entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes him matter-of-factly as “extraordinarily vain, arrogant, discourteous, recklessly extravagant and even dishonest.” On this occasion, he made a crucial mistake — he tried to show off by improvising on one of Beethoven’s own pieces. When he had finished, Beethoven “lunged” at the piano, grabbed a single page out of Steibelt’s latest composition, and improvised from that — after turning it upside-down. Steibelt was so decisively humiliated that he would refuse to be in the same room with Beethoven for the rest of his life. (They took these things seriously in those days.)
You can also turn the pattern of descending fifths upside-down, which transforms it from one of the most popular progressions in music to one of the rarest. A confident, inevitable-sounding cascade is replaced by a tremendous struggle to climb, step after step, and each chord is hard-fought. The payoff comes at the top, precisely because of the effort required. It’s like bursting through the clouds in a zooming airliner.
This unusual ascending progression is at the center of one of Beethoven’s most important achievements, the “Waldstein” Sonata, op. 53. The last movement is so technically complex that there is a lasting debate on how to perform certain passages — a batch of lightening parallel octaves near the end requires either extraordinary strength or dexterity or a simple surrender to the impossibility of performing the music as written. Even a professional pianist may knuckle under with a simplified version, and Schnabel’s edition expounds on it at such length that his footnotes take up more space than the music.
He has famously delicate touch, and even now (Ax is 68) there are few pianists who can equal his control when notes are struck so softly that they barely sound.
The ascending fifths appear in the simplest and quietest part of the piece. They grow out of nothing, and the surprise Beethoven hands us is one of the greatest in all of music. But, as Leonard Bernstein put it in a masterly lecture on the “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven makes something truly unexpected happen, and then he makes it seem like the only thing that possibly could have happened.
Emanuel Ax gave a tremendous performance of the “Waldstein” Sonata at Carnegie Hall last week. He has famously delicate touch, and even now (Ax is 68) there are few pianists who can equal his control when notes are struck so softly that they barely sound. This can have its disadvantages, depending on the composer. Ax plays Bach as though he’s baking a pastry, and during his performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533, the most exciting thing that happened was when someone fell off his chair in a first-tier box.
But Beethoven demands force and energy — without it, the piece won’t be played at all. Ax brought the force, and this gave him an unusual and brilliant emotional range. Beethoven’s ascending-fifths figure is repeated again and again, each time faster and more compressed. Each appearance produces a burst of energy, a small explosion, which is followed by a moment of contemplation. The final and most astonishing such moment is the fearsome set of parallel octaves, which Ax performed with bravado in the most difficult and best manner. The result was as uplifting as Beethoven intended it to be. It is rarely played so well.
The “Waldstein” Sonata was the crux of Beethoven’s middle period. He subsequently began a long transition into his darkest and most resplendent work, in which the greatest treasure is to be found shimmering at the greatest depth. He had already lost most of his hearing, and within a few years, the loss would become total. Like the “Hammerklavier” Sonata of Beethoven’s late period, the “Waldstein” represents the ultimate tuning of an idea — a concept worked to its finest point. But unlike the late sonata, Beethoven could perform the “Waldstein” and hear it played. So it is worth coming to grips with, provided you can find a good performance. Emanuel Ax has given us one.