Christmas Orchestrations

Orchestrations of the Piano Sonatas op. 109 –  )
by Gerd Prengel

This summer I was hiking through a beautiful countryside in the area of my hometown Darmstadt while listening to Beethoven’s wonderful Andante from the late piano sonata op. 109. As I was listening, I think it was the heavenly variation IV in 9/8, I got the earnest desire and the inner imagination to hear this variation movement in a symphonic orchestral form, so I tried to do an orchestration and began right away with the theme and the first variation – and I knew that something special began to unfold in my life.

Opus 109, 3. Andante molto cantabile

Until this time I had created only own compositions in classical style, some based on late Beethoven sketches like a symphonic variation movment on the wonderful Andante sketch for the second movement for the 10th symphony or a finale movement based on the jubilent theme Beethoven sketched for a 4th movement for the symphony ( ). But orchestrating a piano work was something new for me.

How did I proceed? Usually I first conveyed the notes from the piano form into the 4 strings systems, listened to it and then copied or moved these notes to the woodwinds or French Horns as I perceived it with my inner ear. Important for me was to work like an impressionistic painter who didn’t compose his pictures with long lines but with many little dots (pointillism), so I also tried to distribute the various phrases to different instruments, especially woodwinds to create many “spots” of different colours. Best example for this is the second Arioso in op. 110.

Opus 110, 3. Adagio – Arioso dolente – Fuga

Well, this way within about 2 weeks I finished the Andante from the E-major sonata and the result was more than I ever had dreamed of. After this I had a deep experience. Again I made a hiking trip in forests listening with my MP3-Player over and over again to the Andante which just had been completed. While stopping for a rest I also began reading a book by Zenta Maurina, “Mosaic of the Heart”, which decades ago my mother had recommended me to read (what I never did until now) where I found this remarkable sentence: “Happiness does not depend on outward things but is a calm singing of the soul – like the ending of the Andante of Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 109”. Wow, this struck me like a flash of lightning! Why did she refer exactly to this movement? I never had read that book until the days where I just had finished orchestrating this very movement by Beethoven – and this book was written in 1961, the year where I was born! This sentence was such a confirmation of what I felt in my heart and of what I had begun to create! After this I continued my hike and spontaneously I heard in my inner ear the beginning of the Ab-Major sonata performed by oboes, clarinette and bassoon, then the beginning of the Arioso dolente performed by a lamenting flute, then the orchestral outbreak of passion in the Allegro of op. 111, … – and I knew I would not find rest until I had finished orchestrating all 3 sonatas. And that is what I did – in my free time and long nights over about 2 months.

After finishing the Andante from the E-Major sonata, within a week I orchestrated the powerful Presto movement, Opus 109, 2. Prestissimo, but didn’t see a way to do it with the very pianistic first movement. So I worked on op. 110 instead. Then I saw a way to orchestrate the first movement of op. 109  – by using a harp, but I hesitated because Beethoven never had done this. I am grateful to Willem and Mark who have encouraged me to do so. Opus 109, 1. Vivace – Adagio.

Working on sonata op. 110 also was tremendously satisfying for me. I feel this work just cries to be expressed with the colours of orchestral instruments, especially woodwinds. Regarding the first movement, Opus 110, 1. Moderato cantabile, I am in particular happy with the development section where the main theme, transposed to minor, wanders from one woodwind instrument to another, being contrasted by the ascending/descending 1/16 notes not just somewhat hidden in the bass like in the piano version but dominantly in all levels of the celli, violas and violins. Or what a joy just to listen to the movement’s last 6 measures of woodwinds which remind even of Mozart.

A special joy was for me the work on the Arioso, Opus 110, 3. Adagio – Arioso dolente – Fuga, for since my youth – together with the Adagio from op.106 and the 6th mov. from op.131 – this melody (with it’s similiarity to Albinoni’s famous Adagio) always has been THE expression of lamentation and deepest sadness to me. To listen to this divine music now in a symphonic dressing just makes me very happy. As I said above, especially here and even more in the second Arioso I felt like an impressionistic painter, dissolving the melody into fragments each being performed by different woodwinds, thus increasing the sense of transcendence. By the way, the basic line of this wonderful tune interestingly corresponds very much with the various sketches for the Allegro theme of the 10th symphony from one year later, see my note examples in

As for the Finale I must admit that in the past for me this sonata had consisted primarily of the lovely first movement and the Arioso, but the Fugue certainly had not been too exciting for me. But now when I hear the various voices in different colours it is an altogether different matter. I just think of the somewhat unusual sequence of instruments (clarinette -> flute -> celli) in the beginning of the second fugal part (m.143) or of those few measures 173-174, which I never had payed attention to before – what a tender beauty! Nowhere else in Beethoven’s works I sense J. S. Bach as much as in this movement now.

After completing this I could finally began with the climax – with op. 111 which unfolded to me in both monumental movements like a symphony! Much has been written regarding the metaphysical character of especially the Arietta. In one of the first receptions from 1824 somebody said that the first movement, Opus 111, 1. Maestoso – Allegro con brio , would refer to Beethoven’s life whereas the second would foreshadow his death, as “music of a distant funeral procession”. Eventhough A. Schindler wrote in his Beethoven biography that by remarks like these and “similiar misinterpretations” Beethoven was “disturbed”, I personally also perceive a kind of pilgrim’s procession in this Arietta’s theme, Opus 111, 2. Arietta (Adagio molto), a sense of ascending up into a spiritual reality.

I find it interesting that the characteristic opening 3-notes-motif c’-g-g is identical with the phrase “…na-tus est” of the “incarnatus est” from the Missa Solemnis, written just 2 years earlier. This fourth-down-step phrase is essential for the beauty of this “incarnatus est” (but interestingly this was missing in the initial sketches for the Credo where Beethoven always wrote c’-b-g instead (!!), (sketch and final version). And in both cases the trills are essential, in the Missa denoting the Holy Spirit of God entering into humanity, and in the sonata, as I see it, in the opposite direction humanity transcending into eternity. But surprisingly, as Nottebohm points out, this opening 3-notes-motif was also missing in the first sketches for the Arietta – Beethoven didn’t include it until having begun with the work on the variations! See here the first sketches for the Arietta which contain just a general idea of what would later become be the Arietta theme, but the characteristic deep bass notes are already there and also the a-minor passage is quite clearly found: ,

In the past my focus in this movement had always been on the first third with the fantastic climax of the wild 3rd variation, but after this many times I somewhat got lost in this “endless ending”. But now in the symphonic form, this part has become even richer to me than the first part. I don’t know any music where fragility and transcendence is portrait in such a complete way. “Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?” (“Do you sense the creator, world?”, from the Ode to Joy) – yes, here I can “sense the creator, world! … Above stars he must dwell…”

The work on this movement was the hardest for me and took me 3 weeks. My notation system was not able to handle the complex rhythms of the 3rd variation (so my  score looks rather weird here). Another problem was that the harmonies in several passages are very “thin” where there are only 2 or 3 voices  (like in the first variation). I was tempted to add notes to fill the harmony but I could resist that temptation, so I could keep the transcendent character of this movement.

Generally speaking in these sonata orchestrations I added only in a handful of cases notes which were not from Beethoven. But in one instance, I must admit, I even changed the key: In the transition of the fugue to the reoccurence of the Arioso in op. 110 (at 6:35 of the mp3) I had misread the notes in one measure as G-Major instead of g-minor. After Willem pointed this out to me I still could not “correct” this because this short light beam of G-Major I just found so beautiful. Also Willem encouraged me to keep it that way.

So, as the next project I will try to orchestrate the Adagio of the Hammerklavier Sonata (as F. Weingartner has done before, but only old and bad quality recordings from 1933 exist), certainly even more a huge task …

Gerd Prengel, December 18th, 2013

Opus 109, 1. Vivace – Adagio
Opus 109, 2. Prestissimo
Opus 109, 3. Andante molto cantabile

Opus 110, 1. Moderato cantabile
Opus 110, 2. Allegro molto
Opus 110, 3. Adagio – Arioso dolente – Fuga

Opus 111, 1. Maestoso – Allegro con brio
Opus 111, 2. Arietta (Adagio molto)