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Practice Journal: "Pathétique Sonata" - Beethoven - Part One

Updated: May 16, 2023

Last year I undertook the challenge of learning Beethoven's incredible Piano Sonata in C Minor (a.k.a 'Pathétique'), and whilst it is true that I can play fairly fluidly from beginning to end, it is true that much of it still demands attention.

This is for two reasons;

  • Until about one month ago, I hadn't looked at any of this music since last year as I was focusing on other pieces, and...

  • Even then it wasn't quite perfect as there are some technical points that I need to perfect.

In Beethoven's iconic first movement; 'Grave' / 'Allegro Molto e Con Brio', he spectacularly contrasts between the feel of the sections in keeping with what their tempo markings suggest. 'Grave', for the most part, is straightforward to play with accuracy, although it is one that requires control to create a pleasing performance both dynamically and rhythmically (it doesn't want to be too dictated and wants to appear quite 'loose').

The 'Allegro Molto e Con Brio', on the other hand, is another story.

I have chosen as my area of focus this week, the second mention of this marking (bar 137 onwards) - and have taken this to bar 221. Sadly, my metronome is still broken and as I don't wish the volume to interfere with the recording from my phone, I have played without;

So, how have I gotten it to this stage?

Slow Practice

In keeping with the tempo marking, this passage should be fast. The translation of the full term 'Allegro Molto e Con Brio', in fact, is quite literally 'lively with brightness'.

In both this passage and the preceding passage of the same marking, the left hand is working a lot. In fact, it is notated as rapid tremolo notes, however if this were taken too literally then its rhythm would not stand out. It is rapid quavers alternating octave notes (using fingers 5 and 1, predictably). In itself, this is fairly standard, but the speed of it against some less than usual fingering in the right hand to create its delightful harmonies is somewhat of a challenge.

Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that I practice slowly so as to not get my fingers in a tangle! Only when I am more comfortable playing it slowly will I start to increase the speed gradually, incorporating below methods too to ensure the most confident (and comfortable) performance possible.

Power Ball

One thing that struck me immediately with this piece was that if I were to attempt to do it at a suitably fast speed in its entirety, it would cause me quite a lot of pain. For a few years now I have owned a power ball - a lovely device that takes a little getting used to but exercises the wrist and finger strength by creating kinetic weight. They do still cause me pain, of course, so I will not use one at this moment for longer than a minute at a time in one hand. But overall because you are exercising lesser used muscles and strengthening your overall hand and wrist you really can feel the difference. You can read more about them here.

Controlled Trills

As with my Scarlatti Sonata, there are trills in this piece. Because I am practicing quite slowly still, this isn't the end of the world, but I just needed to ensure that I was appropriately treating the four trills the same. Especially important because it appears once in a group of two bars which, just a few bars later, is repeated three times exactly.

For some reason my right hand wished that finger 1 (the thumb) hold a long note on underneath the trill and its preceding bar - even though this wasn't notated! I did, however, recognise my error and rectify for the repeats in the video above!

Relax the Wrist

There are three main issues with tensing the wrist up - even though this is the natural thing to do when playing so many rapid quavers in the less dominant hand (left) :

  • It takes concentration away from the right hand, rather than treating both hands with equal importance. Bearing in mind how I said that some of the progressions in the right hand had some unusual fingerings of their own, it hasn't been at all unusual for me to completely hesitate, mess up or even give up as a result of my left hand using all my brainpower! (NB whilst fingering is often open to interpretation, the ones in 'Grave' and 'Allegro Molto e Con Brio' are extremely effective, and I genuinely can't consider other ways around them myself - believe me, I tried!)

  • Dynamic control is 100% better with a relaxed wrist. When tensing up, it is extremely difficult to get notes out that are not - at best - mezzo forte. In this passage, the crescendos are a large part of what makes it so dramatic. Sure, the right hand can still maintain an OK control whatever the left hand does, but at the same time the left hand doesn't want to dominate! They both want to compliment each other and rise (crescendo) together.

  • It causes pain! Fair enough, I'm using my Power Ball now, but that shouldn't be an answer to a potentially avoidable solution. Because I'm starting slowly, I can get into the habit of not tensing my wrist up now and still be able to play through the whole piece with minimal pain by the end of it. If I persist like that, I should be able to build on that and gradually build up the tempo without demanding too much more physical exertion from my wrist.


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