Quasi Una Fantasia

By Drabkin, William | Musical Times, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Quasi Una Fantasia


Drabkin, William, Musical Times


WILLIAM DRABKIN Beethoven: The 'Moonlight' and other sonatas, op.27 and op.31 Timothy Jones Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1999); xii, 146pp; L27.50 / L9.95 pbk. ISBN 0 521 59136 8 / 0 521 59859 1.

In the beginning was the historical background: the state of the Viennese piano sonata, Beethoven's so-called crisis years at the dawn of the new century, the composition and reception of five sonatas completed in 1802, and - hardly a surprise - a discourse on the signifier `quasi una fantasia'. This is the stuff that Cambridge Music Handbooks are made of, and Timothy Jones's on opp.27 and 31 will not disappoint. His first four chapters contain much that is relevant to the instrumental music commonly held to provide a transition from early to middle-period Beethoven; and, hearteningly, there are substantial analyses of each sonata to follow.

The introductory chapter, on `keyboard culture', is particularly well judged; it explains the effect of Beethoven's musical personality on the manufacture of pianos at the turn of the century, and also how the composer was largely spared the drudgery of churning out technically easy, popular works during his early years in Vienna. (The folksong arrangements, festive overtures and other occasional music were to come later.) Particularly useful is Jones's placing of the transitional sonatas in the context of Nageli's Repertoire des clavecinistes, a publishing project designed to encourage the composition of difficult works on a grand scale that avoided bravura passagework for its own sake. From the standpoint of the Classical canon, op.31 fits Nageli's call for works containing `many departures from the usual form of the sonata' less well than op.27; but Jones's account of the later set, the one Beethoven actually wrote for the Zurich publisher, demonstrates convincingly how elements of fantasia are present in these three works, too.

Quite why Jones has chosen the sonatas of opp.27 and 31, and no others, from among Beethoven's first twenty might have been better explained. Like two of its chronological neighbours, the intervening op.28 gained an apocryphal nickname. But the work is cast in an older-style four-movement form and is more `sonata' than `fantasia'. The exclusion of the `Waldstein' is also justified, not only because of the grander scale of Beethoven's musical architecture but also because of its more intricate composition history, embracing sketches, substantial autograph corrections, and a discarded slow movement. Indeed, the `Waldstein' merits a handbook to itself.

There seems, however, little justification for omitting op.26 from a book that purports to discuss works having a fantasy element and heralding a new creative period. Beginning with a theme and variations, it is directly related to a work listed in a table of `Unconventional formal patterns in Mozart Sonatas'. …

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