“Since my youth I have been fascinated by sonata form and, over a period of some forty years, all the programmes I have performed have been centred on works in that form. Therefore this book is a labour of love as much as, hopefully, a useful guide to some of the most marvellous music ever conceived.”
So writes Michael Davidson of his superb book The Classical Piano Sonata, which has since its publication in 2004 become something of a classic itself, and an indispensable guide for every serious pianist and music-lover.
Let’s take a closer look at the book, and evaluate what it is which makes it such an essential addition to the pianist’s library…
As always, a few words first about the publication itself. The book is brought to us by specialist UK-based publishers Kahn & Averill, and is a handsome 354-page paperback with a sturdy cover and spine.
The presentation is attractive, with an inviting cover which cleverly encapsulating the subtitle, from Haydn to Prokofiev:
As for the content, an initial scan reveals it to be text-dominated; elegant and attractive, but without musical examples or illustrations. Footnotes and references are detailed at the rear of the book, along with a detailed and useful index.
After the introduction, there are 15 chapters, the first of which is introductory, the remainder of which each focus on a specific key work from the repertoire:
- Playing the piano music of the Classical Viennese School: some basic misconceptions
- Haydn: Sonata in C minor, Hob XVI:20
- Haydn: Sonata in E flat major, Hob XVI:49
- Mozart: Sonata in C major, K330
- Beethoven: Sonata in C minor ”Pathétique”, Op.13
- Beethoven: Sonata in D minor ”Storm”, Op.31/2
- Beethoven: Sonata in E major, Op.109
- Beethoven: Sonata in A flat major, Op.110
- Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op.111
- Schubert: Sonata in A major, D664 (Op.120)
- Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D784 (Op.143)
- Schubert: Sonata in A major, D959 (Op.posth)
- Liszt: Sonata in B minor
- Brahms: Sonata in F minor, Op.5
- Prokofiev: Sonata in C major, No.9, Op.103
In his introduction, Davidson notes,
“It was not easy to choose which sonatas would be included in this study. Ultimately I selected works I have experienced most intensely. I have taught, and sometimes studied, the sonatas of Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin, Janáček, etc, but I never felt compelled to perform them. Therefore I do not feel close enough to those works to write in detail about them. It must be clearly understood that this is no judgment regarding these pieces, but merely a personal taste.”
While I would certainly have welcomed the inclusion of Berg and Bartók (and perhaps Tippett, Boulez and Carter…), Davidson’s honesty in presenting such an authentic personal selection must I think be commended; I have written elsewhere that too often academia and experience are mistakenly divorced, and it is to all our benefit that Davidson has focused on producing a work which so effectively marries both.
In the event, the shape of the book provides a very clear focus on the preeminent composers of Viennese Classicism, with 12 of the 15 sonatas composed by the four most important figures of the classical epoch, within the space of just a few decades. The worthy inclusion of Liszt, Brahms and Prokofiev serves to show how the legacy of those earlier forbears influenced future generations and developments.
Davidson further mentions that he chose not to write more about Mozart here as it would needlessly duplicate his previous book, Mozart and the Pianist (which is thus a natural companion to The Classical Piano Sonata, to which I hope to return in a future review).
If by this point you have assumed that the book is essentially just a forensic analysis of the 14 listed sonatas, I am pleased to be able to disabuse you of that thought.
The real joy of this book, which lifts it above many a textbook, is that the selected sonatas, though discussed in depth, illustrate the staging posts and landmarks on a much broader and more valuable journey through the development of the sonata itself.
Thus, when we turn to the chapter dealing with Haydn’s C minor sonata, we are first treated to an interesting consideration of the composer’s life and development to that point, including too a useful discussion of his earlier keyboard works and the fashion of Sturm und Drang.
Turning to his subsequent analysis of each movement of the work, it is equally clear that Davidson’s intent is to write as much, if not more, for the performer as for the academic; structural analysis is present and clear, but academic considerations never overpower the writer’s interest in presenting practical ideas for interpretation, performance, and ultimately enjoyment of these works.
Indeed, the opening chapter very much sets this scene, introducing topics as they relate to the performance of the keyboard music of the mid-18th century, such as:
- Understanding notation properly, especially with regard to: slurs; dots and wedges; staccati; accents; choice of touch; ornamentation; etc
- Choice and freedom of tempo
- Sonority: choice of instrument; dynamic levels; pedalling
- Repetition of sections; improvised ornamentation in repeats
- Style versus personal reactions; taste versus feeling
These topics are all covered with didactic clarity and tremendous practical wisdom, ensuring that this chapter already justifies the purchase of the book.
And just as each subsequent chapter contributes to a chronological survey of the piano sonata repertoire, so too each is bursting with interpretive considerations and insight into the development of the performing conventions around these great masterpieces. Here again I must stress that reading this book, one feels secure and in the safest of hands.
In short Davidson provides a “field guide” suitable for performers, students and listeners, steering all his readers towards the most fulsome and enjoyable engagement with each sonata and with the repertoire as a whole. The book is marvellous both for its analysis and practical advice.
I have often seen performers, students and teachers alike rail against the idea that there is a “core repertoire” at the heart of classical music, centred perhaps on the very composers and works discussed so evocatively in Davidson’s The Classical Piano Sonata.
Davidson’s great achievement here is to explore, describe and enthusiastically explain what it is that makes this music such a hallowed treasure, laying out the realistic context of each sonata before delivering an inspiring denouement of precisely the genius which lies behind and within their composition.
The book is undoubtedly essential reading for anyone interested in learning, performing or teaching any of the works discussed within. Moreover though, I must strongly recommend it to any serious pianist or classical music-lover.
When I received my copy, my initial assumption was that The Classical Piano Sonata would be a book to dip into for reference, rather than a gripping ‘page-turner’.
To my very pleasant surprise the book has been a difficult one to put down; as an enthusiastic listener, performer and teacher I have found the balance of narrative drive and fascinating insight, intellectual rigour and enjoyable anecdote, to be compellingly interesting and hugely rewarding.
I suspect many others will find just the same; Davidson has surely succeeded in his aim to write “a useful guide to some of the most marvellous music ever conceived”!
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