The “Szymanowska” Klavierstück: Beethoven in a nutshell?

The Wiener Urtext edition of selected piano pieces by Beethoven (not sonatas or variations), edited by Alfred Brendel, contains an eclectic mixture of the known and the unknown. The Andante Favori and the three sets of bagatelles, opuses 33, 119, and 126, are the most important masterpieces in the collection, interspersed with eccentric and lovable works such as the two rondos, the C major Polonaise and the G minor Fantasia, and also some smaller works that let’s just say… aren’t the jewels in the crown that is Beethoven’s piano output. I learned the Op. 33 set of bagatelles from this edition, and it so happened that I often opened the volume on the page of the Op. 119 bagatelles rather than the Op. 33 set. What caught my eye every time was not the beginning of the Op. 119 set which I knew, but the one-page Klavierstück that appears before, which I didn’t know. Judging by its size, this little piece could have belonged to the “lesser” category of works, but after I decided to read through it, I quickly realized that its size and insignificance are highly misleading. Having played through it, I became increasingly intrigued by its charm and quirkiness, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Only recently did it become evident to me. 

Beethoven wrote this miniature in 1818, at the same time, and in the same key of B-flat major as his most massive piano sonata, the Hammerklavier. According to one of his biographers, the piece was written for the renowned and well-traveled Polish pianist, Maria Szymanowska (who had Jewish roots, most probably making her unrelated to Karol Szymanowski). Published first in 1824, it was republished in 1825 with the title “Impromptu Composed at the Dinner Table,” a title not given by Beethoven, but which nevertheless encapsulates the lightheartedness of the work. But however flippant Beethoven might have been in composing this miniature, I think he managed to encase almost all of his musical attributes into this one page. A crash-course in Beethoven, if you will. 

The first phrase of the piece is a quintessential expression of Beethoven’s unique sense of humor. Yes, the Klavierstück is in B-flat major, but Beethoven niftily avoids it by circumventing the root position of the tonic and ending up instead in… D-flat major, where he stays for a while (bars 7 to 17). Amidst the humorous confusion, Beethoven still manages to “clench his fist” simultaneously, by injecting some middle-Beethovian passionate determination in the three consecutive sforzando markings. The diversion in D-flat major is rounded off with four bars of the most exquisitely beautiful four-part writing (bars 14-17), where we get a prime combination of two of Beethoven’s most important attributes: his “learned style” and his melodic sensitivity. In this section, Beethoven is being a conformist rather than a revolutionary, hence the phrases are all symmetrical and in four bars. That allows him to glide from the sublime into the ridiculous, by way of the awkward enharmonic transition in bar 21 from D-flat major to another unlikely key, D major. And what do we find in this new tonal center? A near-exact repeat of bars 14-17, which leads right back to… the beginning of the piece (bar 26). This time, Beethoven amplifies the ambiguity of the theme by replacing the rests heard at the beginning with jocular imitations of the melody in the lower register (bars 27 and 29). Just as we felt a sense of completion with the return of the “A” section in an A-B-A-formed piece, the composer cuts our sense of equilibrium short. 

One of Beethoven’s most striking qualities is his ability to use the same style of writing in the same piece and place it in entirely different emotional and expressive contexts. This is exactly what he does in the coda, as he reverts to learned style, but this time, the earnestness and elegance of bars 14-17, reminiscent of, say, the theme of the last movement of the Op. 109 sonata is supplanted by the humorous implacability of the theme from the finale of the Op. 10/2 sonata. Just like Beethoven cut short our sense of closure in bar 26: he truncates the developing imitative polyphony in bars 33 and 34 with the return of the sforzandi from the beginning of the piece. Having reached this point, we, as listeners, are wondering—how will the composer draw the short piece to a close, and with what style of writing from his wide palette? What ensues is truly an instance of Beethoven at his pinnacle: in just five bars, he manages to combine all the different strands of thought he developed over the course of this short piece. The closing phrase being five bars and not four tells us that he is ending the work, so to say, “on the wrong foot”. Why would he need a fifth bar? Keep this question in mind. He starts by reverting to learned style—but not quite (bars 35-36). These two bars invoke the theme in both appearances, in the beginning (the figure in the left hand) and in the recapitulation (the lack of long rests). Next, Beethoven is ready to cadence in B-flat major and to finish the piece… except that he doesn’t. He just needed to throw us listeners off balance one more time with another little episode of quasi-imitation before properly cadencing in B-flat major with a familiar sforzando in the very last bar. This is why he needed five bars instead of four. He wouldn’t have been able to use his sense of gentle slapstick humor with a four-bar ending. 

In just one page, Beethoven gave us a panorama of his musical language. It is all painted on the wide canvas of his astonishing sense of humor, but on that canvas we have passion, sophistication, simplicity, confusion, equilibrium, among so many other things.  The decision (which I guess was Brendel’s) to place this Klavierstück before the Op. 119 bagatelles (written shortly afterwards, between 1820 and 1822) was clever and fastidious, as the sixth bagatelle from that set has exactly the same opening figure, which fittingly appears in imitation. But besides this empirical connection, the Klavierstück sounds surprisingly good when played right before the first Op. 119 bagatelle, perhaps as a “no. 0” bagatelle. Just as it also sounds soothing and mellow if played as a preamble before the volcanic opening chords of the Hammerklavier… 


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