A Q and A with the artists of The (NEW) Beethoven Sonatas

Jeffrey L. Briggs, Composer

Why did you do the transcriptions?

(JLB) Several reasons. I have been playing and analyzing these pieces off and on my entire life and I love all of them -- both individually and as a body of work. Each has its own particular charm and sets of "musical patterns," that distinguishes it from all the others; but they all have Beethoven's powerful voice and brilliant mind holding the body of work together. Additionally, the 32 Piano Sonatas clearly illustrate Beethoven's steady musical and intellectual development like no other set of his works (with the possible exception of the 16 String Quartets).

While the String Quartets have been transcribed for piano many times (for solo piano, piano four hands, and for two pianos), other than Beethoven's own transcription of Opus 14/1 (transposed into F Major), the opposite had never been done. Realizing this led me to begin thinking about doing a few movements from the later sonatas.

After doing a couple of variations from Opus 26, I saw that voicing and range were nearly always appropriate for quartet; which raised an eyebrow. Also, by dividing piano figurations between the players (consistent with Beethoven's patterning, of course), elements of the music are enlivened and become a layer in the texture, whereas they are merely implied in the piano music; this got the juices going. Nearly every piece contains "typical piano passages" meant to sustain a harmony or imply a line (or both). But using figurations and patterns simply as source material, the arranger can be very creative and remain faithful (hopefully) to Beethoven's vision. 

As is well known, Beethoven's writing in the later sonatas became increasingly contrapuntal, and a good pianist can easily (mainly) bring out the various voices. But by breaking the counterpoint among the quartet an extra dimension is added. The voices have their own auditory space and literally a unique character (the player). In live performance, the audience can see the structure, and I think, experience the Sonatas in a whole new way.

I'm not sure at what point I lost all sanity and decided to arrange all of them. But it was probably at the moment I realized how much fun I was having and how this was a daunting yet do-able challenge that I felt was long over-due. I decided to do them at the same level of difficulty found in Beethoven's 16 String Quartets (otherwise no fun), to maintain the original keys, and in a style that Beethoven would have deemed reasonable (if possible).

Finally, I used the Vienna Symphonic Libraries (tm) along with Sibelius (tm) to realize the arrangements. These two software packages work so well together that I was able to use musical notation to indicate articulations, dynamics, etc and have it faithfully played back in real-time. It sounded natural being played by the ensemble. Sometimes it feels like newly-discovered Beethoven... 

Why did you do the transcriptions for String Quartet? 

(JLB) The String Quartet is one of the most established musical ensembles in all of western music. Most of the "great" composers wrote multiple pieces for it and a relatively complete history of Western Music could be constructed around it. The ensemble is maybe the most versatile chamber group there is, and because there's so much good music for it, there are many good ones around looking for interesting music to play.

What do you believe the composer (Beethoven) would have thought about your transcriptions?

(JLB) Having read a lot about Beethoven's personality, I can safely say, "have no idea." I hope he'd love them (could he hear them), but at least I want to think he'd be happy someone took the time.

What would you want people to listen for - are there aspects of the transcriptions that you believe can elevate the way 'we' might hear one of the piano sonatas?

(JLB)This is music most of us have listened to, or are familiar with, but have never actually heard before; that's its charm. If you've never heard the Piano Sonatas, you'll be in for a unique cultural experience as you hear how Beethoven builds inevitability into his melody and harmony. Just hearing any Beethoven for the first time works the same. You'll also get the thrill of watching a quartet put through the paces and blending together. 

If you are familiar with the piano sonatas you'll want to listen for lines implied but never stated in the piano, also the division of motives among the various instruments brings a new clarity to the music that perhaps was felt but not realized. 

Is there a work that you think works 'better' for string quartet than it does for Piano? 

(JLB) Not going there. The Sonatas have stood for 200 years as examples of genius (mainly), needless of any arranging or transcribing. Having said that, Some of the more complex contrapuntal writing (finale of "Hammerklavier) may seem less complex because of clarity derived from separation of parts in space and color. Does it work better? You tell me.

 What is your favorite of the transcriptions and why?

(JLB) Not sure I have a favorite transcription because it's hard for me to separate them from the sonatas themselves.

How do you hope string players will receive the collection? 

(JLB) I hope they'll want to play them and that they have fun playing them. Also, I hope that they will treat them as original works for string quartet, and when they play them they can forget they are playing music conceived for piano.



Jason Calloway, Cellist, The Amernet String Quartet, Florida International University

Why do you think the project is important? 

(JC) As a lifelong quartet player and one always on the hunt for interesting repertoire, whether lesser known works from the past or contemporary music, this project of the New Beethoven Quartets is vital in establishing a new body of literature. At the same time, composers and performers have long 'borrowed' from one another - the art of transcription - and the fact that Jeff has revealed for all of us another side of such an important part of the musical canon is exciting indeed.

How do you think other quartets will receive the collection? 

(JC) I imagine other intrepid ensembles will be both inspired and invigorated by the challenge as well as a bit wary of the undertaking - we struggle all our lives with Beethoven's sixteen original works in the form and now we're confronted with thirty-two more!

Do you see yourself using these transcriptions with student players? 

(JC) Many of the early sonatas and as well the two Beethoven actually subtitled 'light' will prove to be excellent teaching works. The standard repertoire for quartet contains relatively little that is happily manageable by younger students, so in this sense, less complex piano sonatas that become eminently playable for students are a welcome addition.

Which of the transcriptions are your favorites? 

(JC) We've barely tested the waters of this mammoth body of works, but from among those we've played so far, we've enjoyed them all equally and in different ways. This includes the Pathetique, with its fiery outer movements; the two light sonatas; the Moonlight; and the grand op. 101. And at the risk of committing sacrilege, it's well to have at our disposal many of the expressive devices pianists talk about emulating as a means of bringing Beethoven's many beautiful slow movements to life - namely vibrato, sustained tone, and portamento.

Talk about the Hammerklavier. 

(JC) I'm afraid! This is the first feeling which came to mind when, as Jeff was nearing completion of the project, he sent me a draft of most of the Hammerklavier. Through much of the work the writing appeared challenging to be sure, but no more so than the late quartets. That first draft left dangling just the first few bars of the final movement, so the suspense was palpable. Since then, however, I recognize that many of the fearsome technical problems of this work's fugal finale are alleviated in the transcription. A string quartet need not give the 'impression' of counterpoint, as a pianist must do - we can literally separate and delineate the voices, bringing a special clarity to the entire work.

Now that you have a chance to play the piano sonatas on your own instrument, do you know them in a new way?

(JC) Playing the sonatas indeed allows us to know the music in a new way, namely with much greater intimacy. Even as an avid listener with a large record collection, there's no substitute in truly absorbing a work for studying with the intent to interpret it. Thus I feel already, in the early stages of this adventure, that my appreciation and understanding of the music is exponentially greater.

What do you think the study of these transcriptions can bring to the study of theory and composition, an arena in which arranging is also taught?

(JC) These related fields rest on the premise that, most commonly, imitation is the surest way to absorb style. So it was that Mozart copied works by Händel, and Beethoven the quartets of Mozart, and on and on. Likewise, the most common arrangements are those made by composers of their own works - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvorak, among so many others, come immediately to mind. All this considered, however, Jeff's undertaking is unique in that he has brought his own contemporary creative voice to a monumental part of the musical canon. Thus all these disciplines - theory/harmony, arranging, and composition itself - are at the service of creating something truly new. Jeff has thrown down a formidable gauntlet in creating what is far more than a simple transcription but a thorough re-imagining of this music, and composers would do well to study how he's done it!