The Importance of Asking "Why?" 


It may be unavoidable that the natural curiosity of childhood should become subordinate to training as we grow up taking our lessons and putting in our hours of practice. On the contrary, asking “why?” is learning to think independently, the purpose of all disciplined study: submitting to the guidance of the best teacher of all, the teacher’s teacher, the score. Not every student, young or not so young, will arrive at the same explanation for the composer’s choice of notes or form, but this in itself is the beauty of it all. Traveling intellectually into the distant past, we follow the process of composition and return to play with greater conviction.

The questions that follow probe the inner life of repertoire that many reading these words may be presently studying. In each instance searching for an answer nourishes the gestation of one’s concept of the piece that lives beyond the boundary of the notes.

Why might it be significant that the first movement of the Mozart B-flat Sonata K. 333 begins with an appoggiatura? Should it be played differently than if it were written as the first of four 16ths? Being a ‘leaning-on’ ornament and the first note we play, does the appoggiatura have an effect on the Allegro tempo marking and, if so, our perception of the character of the movement?

Do the many appoggiaturas on the upbeats in the Rondo alla turca, the finale of the sonata dated exactly 100 years after the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, raise the possibility of a more sophisticated piece? On a piano of the period with devices imitating cymbals and drums, is this music historical color, or are these appoggiaturas, if given their due weight, a clue to a tongue-in-cheek parody?

Why did Beethoven subtitle the familiar Sonata Op. 13 Grande Sonate Pathétique? The Cassell’s New French Dictionary gives a number of translations of grande, among these, great, large, lofty, spacious, noble, majestic. What does grande suggest regarding Beethoven’s own concept of the work? More to the point, is grande interrelated with the choice of tempo?

Comparing the Allegro theme in the exposition with its appearance in the recapitulation, why did Beethoven place a sforzando over the C-major chord in the latter and not in the exposition?

Why did Beethoven fashion the theme of the Rondo to begin and end with an authentic cadence? Does this theme that begins with a cadence – an ending – at all determine one’s interpretation of the conclusion of the sonata? Specifically, tempo?

In the E-flat Sonata Op. 27/1 Beethoven indicated Attacca subito l’Allegro, Attacca subito l’Adagio, and Attaca subito l’Allegro vivace after the first three movements respectively. In the C-sharp minor Sonata, the ever popular “Moonlight,” why does attacca subito il seguente appear only at the end of the first movement but not the second?

Why did Beethoven write the rolled A-major chord in the first measure of the D-minor Sonata Op. 31/2 in first inversion, beginning with a low C# instead of an A?

Other than the extramusical image attributed to him (like a voice within a vault), why did Beethoven indicate a long pedal under the recitatives in the first movement of this Sonata?

Why is the passage beginning m. 205 marked piano whereas in the parallel passage in the exposition (following the crescendo in m. 73) there is no dynamic marking except for the parenthetical indication provided by the editor? Czerny in fact corroborates this difference in his On the Correct Performance of all of Beethoven’s Works for Piano.

Why did Czerny, quoting the first measures of the movement, place a double-sharp under the turn in m. 6? (In his edition of the sonata, the usual # is given.) If, as is possible, Czerny coached the sonata with Beethoven, might the accidental have been discussed and a reason given for an f double-sharp?

What does the double dotted rhythm have to do with the character of the second movement?

Why did Beethoven indicate such strange sounding sforzandos in the passage between m. 173 and 198 in the third movement? Could there have been a purpose other than just accent?

Why did Beethoven place a crescendo over a held dotted half note – the duration of a full measure (m. 4) in the opening line of the Sonata Op. 31/3, as well as at the end of the first movement of Op. 81a (m. 252)? (In the latter the crescendo appears only in the autograph, presumably Beethoven’s original intent.) Since a crescendo over a held note is not actually possible on the piano, what does a pianist do with the marking?

Why is it significant for our understanding of the piece that the second theme of the first movement of the “Waldstein” is in the key of the mediant (E major) in the exposition and in the submediant (A major) in the recapitulation, although the usual key would be G major and C major, respectively? Does Beethoven’s replacing the original second movement (that we know as the Andante favori) with the Introduzione possibly reflect any purpose other than advice that the original movement made the sonata too long? Why did Beethoven indicate long pedals over the several phrases of the theme of the Rondo?

Why did Schubert notate the G-flat major Impromptu Op. 90, marked Andante, with a double cut-time signature and what looks like two measures of common time joined as one long measure? Could he not have cut the time values and measure lengths in half and indicated 4/4 and Lento cantabile? Does this notation make any difference in the tempo one chooses and the effect of the piece?

Why is the form of the F-minor Ballade of Chopin important to the pianist for a concept of the meaning of the piece? Why the conspicuous dissolving into A major midway through the piece, in m. 134? Why the three eighth-note chords in m. 202 marked staccato fff and followed by a fermata over a rest? Why the strange progression from dominant ninth in m. 206 to the plain dominant chord sustained in m. 7-10? Why did Chopin indicate accel. sin’ al fine in m. 227 and not at the beginning of the coda?

Questions are the breath of life in playing these monologues in notes. It is the means by which we make the piece our own, the gift of the composer. Or is it the means by which we become possessed by the piece, the gift of Thought beyond the boundary of the notes? One’s answers to the questions about the score will seldom be the same for the piece tomorrow or twenty years hence. That which cannot be reliably replicated is antithetical to making a recording, the preparation to pass a degree recital, or the assurance needed to win a competition, however intended these may be to educate and preserve and to uphold standards of performance. Because of the numbers of fine pianists and boundless opportunity for professional exposure, the new, unpredictable discovery to which a question leads seems necessarily of a lower priority than a perfection of means.

One reads that Beethoven, as a listener, cared not so much about technical accidents as about a thinking interpretation. One can anticipate the cry that we today have much higher standards, making blemishes unacceptable. On another level our standards may be much lower than those Beethoven upheld. In fantasy imagine playing for Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven or Chopin, each of whom would know instinctively, before we would have finished the first line, whether we had ever bothered to ask questions of them as they listen, silent in the score.