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I am learning Piano Sonata no. 1 in F minor by Beethoven. It looks way easier than the Pathetique Sonata and in a sense it is. But the ending of the exposition for my right hand is quite a stretch. Not only that but it is legato as well, or at least as legato as possible with chords.

Here is the section I am talking about:

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The right hand is easy until I reach those final 2 chords. The cluster in the left hand is very easy to play legato. But the right hand, as I have said several times already is not easy at all at that spot. In general, this is the fingering I use for that spot:

5 2 1

So yes, I have my first and second fingers a fourth apart. I then play the Eb, a 9th away from the lowest note in the right hand with my 5th finger like I would for any 9th interval. This is what happens if I do it legato without the pedal as Beethoven is asking me to do here:

First finger moves down by step making a very uncomfortable 10th interval stretch in my hand

Second finger leaps by third like an arpeggio making the 10th interval stretch even more uncomfortable

Fifth finger leaps down by fifth resolving the discomfort by going from a 10th interval stretch which I can't play with both notes ringing to a 6th interval which is very doable

And of course, this all happens simultaneously. But there is a moment when my hand is stretched to the interval of a 10th as I play the last 2 chords of the exposition. That is very uncomfortable for my hand and is also unplayable without arpeggiation. A 9th interval, like the interval between my first and fifth fingers that I start with in that chordal legato is actually playable but still uncomfortable making the largest comfortable interval an octave. Of course, it is situations like this that increase my flexibility but I doubt I will ever be able to play a 10th interval unless I am one of those that gets a growth spurt in my 20s.

Besides getting rid of the ninth interval and just having a fourth go to to an Ab major chord, how can I make this wide stretch legato more comfortable for my hand?

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    Don't damage your hand to no purpose, just use a half pedal to achieve the legato. Lack of an explicit pedal indication doesn't mean you're forbidden from using it. Often Beethoven only marks pedal when its use is non-standard e.g. first movement of Op 31 No 2.
    – user48353
    Feb 16 '19 at 3:57
  • So you're saying that in that section of the sonata, instead of stretching further than a 9th interval and then releasing it when my fifth finger lands on Ab, that I should press the sustain pedal halfway down, play that 9th interval chord in my right hand and then leap from there into the Ab major chord at the end to acheive a legato sound while at the same time not having much more sustain than there would be if I didn't press the pedal at all?
    – Caters
    Feb 16 '19 at 4:12
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    Play the chord, then half pedal it, then release the pedal as you play the following chord to bind the tones.
    – user48353
    Feb 16 '19 at 4:18
  • Listen to Schiff: youtu.be/sIExQ1Rsoy4 He says: an interprete needs to have a certain civil courage! Feb 16 '19 at 21:26
  • This strikes me as a valuable question beyond it's specific Beethoven context. Please consider accepting an answer or adding a comment regarding what more you'd like to see addressed.
    – Aaron
    Sep 5 '20 at 6:30
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The last chord's top note should be played with the fourth finger. I would practice playing only the outer two notes of the last two chords at first, working on getting that as smooth as possible before adding in the middle note. Use the pedal slightly to connect the two chords, but no more.

You should not ever be playing a 10th in the RH in those measures. All the notes are meant to move at the same time and your hand should move completely in the same direction going to the second chord. It contracts as the thumb moves down to the lower note and pulls the higher fingers with it. Don't leave the pinky "behind". This will strain the hand!

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  • +1 for the important mention of smooth carriage of the hand. A break in legato on the piano is often caused by bumps in tone rather than microscopic gaps that are felt by the player but not heard.
    – user48353
    Feb 16 '19 at 4:30
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    The indications in the score tell you what the music is supposed to sound like, not how you're supposed to play it. Don't worry about literally connecting the chords. Feb 16 '19 at 5:10
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The lack of a specific pedal indication doesn't mean Beethoven is telling you NOT to use the pedal. In fact, I see no way the musical effect could be produced WITHOUT pedal!

Careful with that decrescendo hairpin to the last note! Yes, sometimes notation tells us the required effect, not how to achieve it.

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    Well, usually, when I see no pedal marking it is one of 2 situations. Either, it means no pedaling for x measures such as in a Chopin polonaise, or it means there was a pedal sempre marking before, such as in the Moonlight Sonata adagio movement. I have rarely ever come across a situation where no pedal marking, just slurs for a legato marking = use the pedal to acheive this legato sound.
    – Caters
    Feb 16 '19 at 17:50
  • @Caters Well, you've found one now! And you'll find plenty more, particularly if you consult urtext editions Feb 16 '19 at 17:58
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...there is a moment when my hand is stretched to the interval of a 10th as I play the last 2 chords of the exposition. That is very uncomfortable for my hand and is also unplayable without arpeggiation. A 9th interval, like the interval between my first and fifth fingers that I start with in that chordal legato is actually playable but still uncomfortable making the largest comfortable interval an octave. Of course, it is situations like this that increase my flexibility but I doubt I will ever be able to play a 10th interval unless I am one of those that gets a growth spurt in my 20s.

Besides getting rid of the ninth interval and just having a fourth go to to an Ab major chord, how can I make this wide stretch legato more comfortable for my hand?

Beethoven usually didn’t mark the pedal. (But in the Mondschein Sonate he marked senza sordino.)

In the first edition 1796 there’s no slur at all. In the 2nd edition you can see a hand written slur in the right hand.

As Caters tells in a comment:

I have rarely ever come across a situation where no pedal marking, just slurs for a legato marking = use the pedal to acheive this legato sound.

Listen to Schiff, Bollini, Barenboïm in Youtube:

They all use the pedal.

So use the pedal. That’s the answer!

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You might pencil an X on those two legato markings in the treble and bass, because they appear to be an editor's addition. They are not in either the First Edition (Vienna, 1796) or First London Edition (1812) available at IMSLP. Nor do they appear in two modern urtext editions (ABRSM and Henle) I have that were based on these editions (the autograph is lost).

Vienna first edition London first edition

Just how legato or non legato (almost detached but not staccato, i.e., the default touch) you want to play them should be your musical decision based also, of course, on what you are able to do comfortably. I'm suggesting that you don't have to necessarily strive toward a goal based on markings that aren't Beethoven's. If you agree with the legato markings, that's fine, too.

As you play more, your stretch will improve. Like most of us, you'll probably enjoy returning to the pieces you're learning now -- perhaps several times -- in years to come.

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  • I doubt it will ever get to playing a tenth comfortably without feeling that overstretched tendon pain or simply not reaching it at all. It hasn't happened yet and I play a lot. Plus, it isn't like my hands have grown much at all in 10 years. I was one of those fast but stop early type of growers.
    – Caters
    Aug 4 at 19:45
  • @Caters Exactly what your maximum span will of course depend on your hand size. Put your wide-open hand on a flat surface with your palm flush against it. As practicing time goes by the angle that your thumb and pinky make will open to its maximum -- perhaps not to 180 degrees, but it may increase. A tenth is big -- not everyone has that reach. Alicia della Rocha had small hands, but managed wonderfully.
    – DjinTonic
    Aug 4 at 20:09

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