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Lecture 1: How Things Were

Key points from the lectures, by Jonathan Biss
2015 Jonathan Biss

Note about terms: To find definitions of musical terms, visit a resource such as On Music Dictionary (
For more detailed definitions, visit your local library to check Oxford Music Online ( or Grove's
Dictionary of Music and Musicians. To listen to the complete sonatas, go to
Note: Whenever a composer is not mentioned, the work is by Beethoven . Curtis Teaching Staff


Music in the Time of Bach
A huge part of the way we respond to music has to do
with the way it fulfills or confounds our expectations.
And these expectations are based on many things: the
culture we come from, the culture the music itself
comes from, and the psychological effect that musical
structureharmony, in particularhas on us.

Beethoven really has only three predecessors who are

connected to him in any meaningful way: Johann
Sebastian Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart.

Music in the time of Bach had a private function in the

home, a political function, and perhaps above all a
religious function. The closest Bachs music came to
concert performance in his lifetime was as the
accompaniment to coffee-drinking.

Appreciation for a musician in Bachs time didnt look

anything like it does nowor even like it did in
Beethovens heyday, 50 to 60 years after Bachs death
in 1750.

Additional References
String Quartet Op. 18, No. 5; Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16


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Music in the Time of Haydn and Mozart
Haydn is the father of so many of the forms that came
to dominate the classical era. No one, to this point, had
considered creative fulfillment to be a significant
reason for Haydns writing music, to say nothing of

Whereas Haydn accepted his lot as a musical servant,

albeit a well-treated one, for most of his career Mozart
was instantly unhappy under similar circumstances.

With Mozart, it is the first time, on record, that a

composer of note refused to be treated as a servant, the
first time a composer ever left permanent employment
without first achieving financial security.

Haydn wrote no fewer than 30 string quartets in the

late 1780s; these are among his finest and most
influential achievements.

When Haydn was old and ill, he was carried into the
hall on an armchair to listen a performance of his
Creation, and at home he was attended to by servants.
This world was very far away from the one Bach

In Haydn and Mozart we have examples of composers

who struck out on their own, and despite vastly
different practical outcomes, managed to produce
timeless work without the supportand the
shacklesof their early years.

By the time Beethoven reached his maturity, the court

system was disappearing as the model for the great

Additional References
Mozarts Jeunehomme concerto, K. 271; Haydns Six String Quartets, Op. 33

Haydn worked for the Esterhazys, one of the wealthiest and most prominent Austro-Hungarian families.
Mozarts employer was Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg.

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Enter Beethoven
Beethoven, perhaps because he was so fixated on
innovation, and because he first sketched and then
revised his music so much more extensively than
Mozart did, wrote at a much more deliberate pace.

Beethoven could develop at a less frenzied rate (than

Haydn or Mozart), and only published his first works
at the age of 25. Beethoven really was the first
professional composer. However, ONLY one of the 32
piano sonatas was performed publicly in Beethovens

Beethovens imagination could be fully engaged in the

sonatas in a way that it probably couldnt with
symphonic music.

There is simply an inherent difference between

playing alone, and playing with a large group.

Beethoven was the first composer to write piano

sonatas of the same proportions as his largest chamber

Additional References
Three Piano Trios Op. 1; 9th Symphony; Sonata Op. 101

Liszt started playing piano recitals in the 1830s; he was the first to do so.
Beethovens sponsors: Count Razumovsky, the Elector of Vienna, Princes Lobkowitz and Lichnowsky,
Archduke Rudolph


Sonata Form in Theory

While form is indeed about rules, and about the
grammar and construction of music, it is ultimately all
about psychologyabout not just the way the music is
put together, or works, but the way it works on the
listener. To study musical structure is to create a map
of the emotional content of a piece of music.

Many people feel that the classical era, aka the heyday
of sonata formis THE pinnacle of western music.
Sonata form was perpetually in a state of evolution.
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The sonata form does not refer to the shape of an
entire sonata, but of a single movementusually the
first movement. It is the story of two oppositions: the
opposition of two themes, and the opposition of the
tonic and the dominant. It is the central fact of tonal
music that a dominant ALWAYS wants to resolve to a


Sonata Form in Practice

The sonata form is three-part: exposition,
development, and recapitulation.

Whatever happens in the development, the return of

the tonic is always preceded immediately by the
dominant. The opposition of the two is once again

You will know instinctively when you hear the end of

the exposition that the piece cannot be over. It is
simply unresolved. Really the fundamental
psychological essence of how we hear a sonata is
contained in that tonic-dominant relationship.

And this stripped-down version of sonata form also

implies a stripped-down story: we are home, then we
are lost. Finally, we return home again.

Harmony is colorby taking us so far away from the

tonic, or even dominant area, composers introduce not
just the element of surprise, but a drastically different
sonority. Harmony is the main currency of feeling in
all music, at least prior to the 20th century.

Additional References
Mozarts Sonata K. 331, the so-called Alla Turca; C major String Quintet, K 515
Sonata Op. 13, the Pathtique

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and the Form of the Sonata

There is no traditional model with as much built-in
tension as the sonata form.

In the time of Haydn and Mozart, the center of gravity

of not just the sonata, but the string quartet, the
symphony, the piano trio, is ALWAYS in the first half
of the work.

Mozart, like Haydn, did not feel that his works needed
to build, inexorably, towards a conclusion.

But Beethoven, from the very beginning of his sonata-

writing career, clearly perceived this as, if not a
shortcoming, then at least a limitation. And the story
of the 32 Beethoven sonatas is, to a great extent, the
story of him addressing this question, in a variety of
imaginative, and finally, astonishing ways.

Beethoven internalized the classical model, perfected

it in his early works, then bit by bit throughout his life,
rebelled against it, chafed against its strictures, no
matter how inspiring they could be, and then
ultimately destroyed it. By the time Beethoven was
finished, he left music a permanently altered art form;
the innovations he introduced were probably the single
most significant factor in shaping the remainder of the
music of the 19th century.

Really, music is, above all other things, a language.

Additional References
Mozarts String Quintet in G minor, K516; Don Giovanni; Sonata in F major, K533


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Sonata: A term used to denote a piece of instrumental music that usually consists of several movements, most
commonly for a solo instrument or an instrument with piano. The solo and duet sonatas of the Classical period
generally incorporate a movement (or movements) that are written in sonata form (also called first-movement

Sonata Form: This refers to the actual form of a particular movement, not a sonata as a whole. This form is
almost always present in the first movement of a Classical-period sonata. A typical sonata-form movement
consists of three main sections: Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.

Opus: Latin, meaning a work. Abbreviated as "Op." A musical composition. Beethovens opus numbers
were assigned by his publishers, and follow the order in which his works were published, rather than the order
in which they were written.

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Tonic: In tonal music, the tonic is the primary pitch and the first note of the scale. For example, if we are in
the key of E major, the tonic note is E. This serves as home base in the context of sonata form.
Dominant: The dominant is the 5th note of the scale. To follow our previous example, if we are in the key of
E major, the dominant note is B. Chords built on this scale degree are called dominant chords, and typically
resolve to the tonic. This tonic-dominant relationship is essential to sonata form.

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Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750)

J.S. Bach was a German composer and organist of the Baroque period. Music written in this time served either
a religious, political or private function, as the idea of a public concert hall did not yet exist. Employed as a
church musician, Bach wrote more than 200 cantatas, many of which were straightforwardly religious works,
with biblical texts; most of the others are special-occasion works written for noblemen. He is regarded as one
of the greatest composers of keyboard music, notably for his Well-Tempered Clavier, the partitas, the English
and French Suites, the Goldberg Variations, and the Italian Concerto. His partitas, Goldberg Variations, and
Italian Concerto were all published as bungen, meaning studies, reinforcing the idea of music with a
private purpose, as opposed to a concern for public performances.

Learn more about Bachs life and work at Classical Net.

Joseph Haydn (17321809)

Haydn's life circumstances and the many genres he invented make him a crucial pivot point in the history of
classical music. His primary employment was the position of Kappellmeister for the Esterhazy, one of the
wealthiest and most prominent Austro-Hungarian families. A Kappellmeister had many responsibilities and
ran the musical life of the court. Still considered a servant, like Bach, Haydn wrote what he was told to write
and performed when he was told to perform. Haydn left Esterhazy in 1790after 30 years, nearly the entire
duration of Mozarts life. He spent much of the next five years in London, where his work was already known,
and where he became extremely popular.

Learn more about Haydns life and work at Classical Net.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (175691)

Mozart, like Haydn, was an Austrian composer who began his career working in the court, however he didnt
remain confined by the system for long. His earliest years were spent as an exploited prodigy, with public
performances as early as age 6. At 16 years old he was employed by the Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg,
although the position did not last for very long, as he eventually rejected the constraints and limitations placed
on him by his employer and resigned in 1777, thus becoming the first freelance composer. Mozart was, for a
time, financially secure in this path, however he and his wife overspent their income. Mozarts final years were
an unhappy mix of part-time employment, poverty, ill-health, and general humiliation.

Learn more about Mozarts life and work at Classical Net.

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Further Research
Recommended Listening

Mozart, Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333 (recordings by Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida)
Mozart, Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493
Haydn, Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:50 (recording by Alfred Brendel)

Suggested Reading

Beethoven's letters: Project Gutenberg,, also published by Dover Publications

Mozart's letters: Project Gutenberg,, also published by W.W. Norton & Company

Charles Rosen, The Classical Style

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