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

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

Scandalously, since my last post where I promised that if I were to move on with this sonata it would be to a different movement, here I am revisiting the same old. Because it's the hardest movement by far for reasons covered in previous blog posts.

So much so that whilst looking for wrist exercises to help strengthen my wrist, I unwittingly stumbled across a YouTube channel called 'Piano Insights', in which the piano extraordinaire Clive breaks down well known pieces and really makes you stop and think about what you are playing!

And lo and behold, if the entire Pathétique Sonata isn't one of them!

So I watched an entire 20 minute video which focused entirely on the first page of notation (I said he got involved), but I did so with such enthusiasm and admiration as it got me excited to try his technique in the chromatic. And then I watched the first few minutes of the dreaded 'Allegro Molto e Con Brio' - the passage that really requires strength developing in my left hand.

And the video below is the result so far, and whilst it is still littered with imperfection (bear in mind I was focusing mainly on the left hand), I was impressed at myself for how much more fluid it sounded when I attempted playing the passages I was focusing on all the way through (jump to 3:40 to hear this).

So...what advice am I taking on board from Clive?

Grave - Pauses and Silences

I was already quite pleased with the progress I was making on this particular passage. Because it is extremely slow (grave being the slowest tempo marking, in fact), it left a lot of leeway for pausing, and also made me reconsider rests. For example, when the rests are allowed to play out for their proper length, you find that you get a very dramatic pause within the music.

In addition, the demisemiquavers at the end of several bars have been, in my past interpretations, been treated more like grace notes / acciaccatura than full notes in their own right. This is just because in my mind, such a note value (demisemiquavers being a 1/32 note!) is associated with speed, yet in the grave tempo they are actually counted more similarly to how we would count a quaver or - at a push - a semiquaver. This allows for it to ring out more and create a much more dramatic statement when transitioning into the following bar.

Chromatic Scale - Re-finger

The main reason I wanted to see what was said about the Grave passage was due to the descending chromatic scale. Although the score does suggest fingers, I wasn't entirely convinced. Yet now a new fingering has been suggested and I believe I can get on board with it.

The problem is what - whilst I was rising up to the Eb on finger 5 as the music suggests - I was then descending not dissimilarly to an actual chromatic scale (i.e. a technical exercise). This would be acceptable for one that didn't need such impressive, rapid approach, but the new fingering allowed me to develop. I think I can get it much more even - especially as I approach the bottom of the scale - but it is getting there.

Basically it relies on using all 5 fingers descending from Eb, then finger 4 over and use all 4 fingers descending (4 over on the Bb), then finger 3 over to the Gb and finish off with 3 fingers. Repeat this (finger 5 over to the Eb) and then repeat just the first group again so that you can finish on the B natural.

The advise to practice each individual group separately and not too rapidly before joining them up was also inspired!

Give the Left Hand a Workout

My main reason for watching this group of videos on Pathétique was, of course, to try and find out how I can strengthen my left hand.

My technique for the tremolando was not too bad, but the initial encouragement was the just do the left hand and focus on putting emphasis onto every group of four or eight notes. This way it was establishing strict rhythm in the left hand, which is especially important for this piece. Particularly as my left hand would tire, so would my strict tempo and I would be off beat and the whole thing would fall apart!

But in addition to this - as can be seen in the video - was the encouragement of giving the left hand more of a workout when practising. Effectively meaning that if and when you come to play the piece properly then you're actually using less effort than a practice run. The way to do this was to effectively half speed only the right hand so that you were playing twice as many tremolandos as needed.

And what a workout it was!

Despite the fact that my hand was still very much tired after performing this passage - especially after a few times - it has to be said that I felt so much more confident in giving it a go. And, as can be seen from the video (3:4o onwards) I was very happy with arguably my greatest progress on the piece so far, save for actually learning it.

Once I have improved on this more, I can re-insert the dynamic that I had so carefully put into my learning but got forgotten when trying out this new technique.



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