Which of Beethoven's piano sonatas can be played by a skilled amateur?
January 17, 2010 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Which of Beethoven's piano sonatas can be played by a skilled amateur?

Background: In E.M. Forster's A Room With A View, Lucy Honeychurch, a talented amateur pianist, expresses her longings for passion through her performances of Beethoven's sonatas. However, it's not clear which of them she might be playing.

In chapter 3, the author writes:

his composure was disturbed by the opening bars of Opus III

But this makes no sense as Op. 3 is the first String Trio.

The Merchant-Ivory film adaptation has a scene of Helena Bonham-Carter [or her soundtrack stand-in] thumping away in the parlor. However, the IMDb soundtrack listing does not identify a Beethoven work. Googling found someone who said it was Op. 53, the "Waldstein". However, a sonata that...

replaces the polite, private, amateur world of previous sonatas with dramatic, public, virtuosic music of symphonic scope*

... would seem to exceed Miss Honeychurch's chops.

* What Makes It Great?© with Rob Kapilow

So the question is: Which of the 32 might lay within the compass of a dedicated amateur?
posted by Joe Beese to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Moonlight Sonata
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:02 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suspect the popularity of no 14 (the Moonlight Sonata) is due to its accessibility to the amateur pianist; the first movement, at any rate.
posted by emilyw at 10:07 AM on January 17, 2010


I also had some luck (as a very mediocre amateur) with the funeral march from no. 12, although it doesn't exactly reflect "longings for passion".
posted by emilyw at 10:12 AM on January 17, 2010

Piano Sonatas 19 and 20.

"These sonatas are referred to as the Leichte Sonaten ("Easy Sonatas") and were most likely composed by Beethoven as pedagogical pieces meant to be given to his friends and students. It is said that these pieces were accidentally published by his accountant during a period of financial distress."

Note: I've never played them or tried to play them, I just knew the story quoted above.
posted by agropyron at 10:24 AM on January 17, 2010

Moonlight Sonata

They'd have to be a really skilled amateur to play this.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:36 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

They'd have to be a really skilled amateur to play this.

I'm told that this piece is played so often by piano students that few play it for competitions, at any level. I would take from this that it can be played by a reasonably skilled amateur.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:46 AM on January 17, 2010

Hell, I can play movements 1 and 2 of Moonlight Sonata, and I'm a barely skilled amateur. I agree with Blazecock Pileon - it's easy enough to play that it's suffered from over-play aversion. (It's fascinatingly fun to play though.) 3rd movement, not a chance.

That said, movement 1 is one of those pieces you can play all the notes in order relatively easily, but to really GET the phrasing and dynamics just the way you want them takes LOTS and lots of practice, or a level of skill that most amateurs won't have.

In the given scenario, though, it could be any of them, really. I have a couple of pieces I can play that are way above my normal skill level (Chopin) that I just like so much that I stubbornly practiced them one note at a time until I can play them just from muscle memory.
posted by ctmf at 11:00 AM on January 17, 2010

Which of the 32 might lay within the compass of a dedicated amateur?

...and has a '3' in its opus number, while its opening 'disturbs composures'? Obviously Op. 13 "Pathetique". The first movement is slightly too difficult for most amateurs, but everyone has tried to play it nevertheless, as amply documented, since it's first publication (1799. For example the not yet ten-year-old Carl Czerny says he [attempted to] play it even before he met Beethoven in the winter of 1800/1801). The slow movement is a pain to play really well, but a breeze when one uses a lot of pedal and cares little about balance of voices and those irregular phrase slurs. The final Rondo is easier to play than many other of Beethoven's finales.

The "Waldstein" is out of range for many (especially the rondo), while most people only play the first movement of the "Moonlight" (which might be able to 'disturb compositions' when played even worse than usual but otherwise doesn't). The various 'easy sonatas' are unlikely meant in this case, since the setting clearly needs a billboard piece (sad that it all ended so badly. Beethoven opus numbers are never given in Roman numerals either).
posted by Namlit at 11:05 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, I don't think some of the movements of Sonata #15 are totally out of my league. It's plausible that someone could walk up and interrupt me practicing an easier part of that and get the (wrong) impression that I could play the whole thing.
posted by ctmf at 11:05 AM on January 17, 2010

I played opus 14, no. 1, as a mediocre high-schooler.

I don't really understand your question, and how it relates to the film, though.
posted by not that girl at 11:08 AM on January 17, 2010

I've played all three movements of op. 79, no. 25, and I'm terrible.
posted by zixyer at 11:23 AM on January 17, 2010

Depending on your definition, a "talented amateur" could play almost any of Beethoven's sonatas. (The Hammerklavier is probably out of range, for example.) In fact, that's kind of my personal definition of talented amateur pianist. Many of the sonatas, though, are playable by a student on her way to being a talented amateur; as noted above, nos. 19 and 20 were explicitly intended to fall into this category.
posted by dfan at 11:47 AM on January 17, 2010

It's unfortunate that many people understand the word "amateur" to mean "not REALLY good" when, really, the word literally means only "to do something for the love of it" (generally as opposed to doing something for pay.) There are many amateurs who are better at what they do than people who do, in fact, get paid for it. So... the answer to your question really just depends on talent. Period. And has nothing to do with amateur status.
posted by rhartong at 12:03 PM on January 17, 2010

They certainly aren't easy to play, but the first three sonaten (Op. 2) would definitely be accessible to an accomplished amateur. I played the first 3 movements of 1 and the scherzo of 3 in college.
posted by chicago2penn at 12:28 PM on January 17, 2010

They'd have to be a really skilled amateur to play this.

I can play that, and I'm not so great. Fast fingers and memorization can get a mediocre pianist pretty far. But there's a world of difference between the way I play it and the way a great pianist plays it. Apples and oranges.

I know skilled amateurs who can masterfully play stuff much harder than Beethoven sonatas. "Skilled amateur" is a pretty broad category.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:10 PM on January 17, 2010

The 1st and 2nd movements of Sonata Pathetique (no. 8 in C minor, op 13) are definitely accessible to an amateur.
posted by baxter_ilion at 7:45 PM on August 9, 2010

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