A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven
Why Beethoven Sonatas?
work, the span of Beethoven’s musical life is chronicled in these sonatas: from the early period (op. 2, 1795), with a clear nod to Haydn, to the late period (opp. 109-111, 1821) where truly no man had gone before. Beethoven invites us through these sonatas to join him atop the mountain, to see the big picture, to struggle in life and to ascend.
The 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas loom large as the Everest of the piano literature. Share with me the incredible views and personal insights inspired by this journey. Thank you to all who have helped me to bring this exciting adventure to life.
A State of Wonder: Program Notes
While the 32 Piano Sonatas largely parallel Beethoven’s creative life span, twenty-three of the sonatas were actually composed within a ten year span from 1795-1805. Remarkable in and of itself, yet truly extraordinary given that during that time he also composed three symphonies, four piano trios, nine of the ten violin sonatas (including the Kreutzer, Op. 47), two cello sonatas, six string quartets, piano quartets, string trios, dozens of songs and many large scale works as well.
Beethoven’s overall compositional output is generally divided into three “periods:” the early period (1790-1802), middle period (1803-1814) and late period (1815 onward). We can see from the Sonatas Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 10 No. 2 excellent examples of his early period style which is marked by the influences of the great Viennese masters Haydn and Mozart. But only a few years pass before the master himself is at the height of his compositional powers with such middle period masterworks as the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53 and the Appassionata Sonata Op. 57.
Looking at an overview of this ten year span seems an excellent introduction to the 32 Piano Sonatas. Sonata Op. 2 No. 1 and Op. 10 No. 2 from Beethoven’s early period demonstrate a strong sense of form and structure with clearly defined melodic content supported by predominantly straightforward harmonic accompaniment. In contrast, the middle period Sonatas Op. 54 and Op. 57 offer insight into how Beethoven challenges the standard forms and pushes to reshape and redefine the structure and very fabric of musical composition.
Welcome to Ten Years, the first concert in the series A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No. 1
Composed in 1795, the Op. 2 sonatas are the first published piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. They are dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn, a sign of respect for one of Beethoven’s most important teachers. The Sonata in F Minor is the shortest of the three Op. 2 sonatas, but it is by no means insignificant.
We hear right at the outset of the first movement (marked Allegro) a piece with a strong character and serious tone. Beethoven was known for his powerful playing and this sonata clearly represents his youthful passion and exuberance. The first movement follows a very clear sonata form (ABA – exposition, development, recapitulation) with typical key relationships. Even at this early time we can see Beethoven’s mastery of sonata form, and in particular, his genius development of thematic material.
Each of the three sonatas from the Op. 2 contains extraordinary slow movements, true masterpieces in their own right. The Adagio from the first sonata is an excellent example of the kind of playing Beethoven must have exhibited when performing for his friends and patrons. Extremely lyrical, this piece in the parallel major (F Major) possesses an improvisatory quality that is not dampened by conforming to a simple binary structure.
Haydn piano sonatas largely set the standard for the Classical period sonata to an even greater extent than did the sonatas of Mozart. The four movement sonata form which we see here (Op. 2 No. 1 of Beethoven) was used extensively by Haydn and would often include a Menuet and Trio. This sonata also uses as its third movement a Menuetto and Trio. Very classical and indeed very Haydnesque, this movement follows a traditional shape with the Menuetto in F Minor, with a rather serious, yet playful motive followed by a Trio in the parallel Major (F Major), which continues a rather lighthearted attitude.
The fourth movement marked Prestissimo (very fast!) is again what I imagine to be an example of Beethoven, the pianist, at work on the keyboard. This furious piece is typical in terms of how we expect Beethoven to sound but most unusual in the composer’s approach to form. This movement follows the typical shape of the Classical period sonata form (ABA – exposition, development, recapitulation), however, where we would expect Beethoven to develop thematic material from the exposition, he instead offers us an entirely new theme in the relative major (A-flat Major), and of a completely opposing character! New material in the development in and of itself is not unusual, but the complete abandonment of material from the exposition is extremely unusual and daring. This is but a foreshadowing of the changes Beethoven has in store as he explores and expands this classical form.
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10 No. 2
This delightful sonata was composed between the years 1796-1798 was published with two other sonatas as Op. 10. These years were busy for Beethoven and also saw the composition of great masterworks including the Piano Concerto in C Major Op. 15 (No. 1, although written 2nd), the completion of the Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 19 (1795), the Piano Quintet with winds (1796), the violin Sonatas Op. 12, and two cello sonatas Op. 5, among many others. While following a standard three movement form primarily used by Mozart, the character of this piece clearly points to Haydn.
The first movement, marked Allegro, begins with a beautiful gesture, both elegant and charming. This is followed by a lyrical melody that creates a gentle mood. As is Beethoven’s way, this mood is quickly disrupted as he moves away from the primary key of F Major. While this movement follows a traditional Classical period sonata form, there are some interesting features to note. For example, the development section is based almost entirely on a three note figure that we encounter at the end of the exposition – C - G - C. This descending figure which outlines the primary notes in a key (or tonality) is repeated immediately at the relative minor (A Minor) of our closing key (C Major) thus we immediately hear – A - E - A at the start of the development. It is this figure that dominates the remainder of the section and leads us back to the recapitulation. Standard procedure for a Classical period sonata form would be to return to our primary key (F Major) at the start of the recapitulation. Beethoven’s sense of humor is clearly at work here as we arrive at the recapitulation in the wrong key (D Major!). Beethoven then cleverly works his way around to F Major and we continue on true to form.
The Menuet (or Scherzo) and Trio is by now a familiar form in Beethoven sonatas, so it is not surprising to see one here as the second movement of this sonata. While this movement is not marked specifically as a Menuet (or Scherzo) it follows the same form and even incorporates some of the characteristic elements (for example, the second half of the A section). The tempo marking is Allegretto (somewhat cheerful) and its character seems to be more in keeping with a Bagatelle than a sonata movement. It opens with a rather dark and foreboding theme that gives way to a dancelike motive (second half of the A section) only to return to its dark origins. The piece segues into a Trio in D-flat major (a warm and inviting key) that maintains a gentle lilting quality, while never completely abandoning the mystery of the opening theme, to which he returns in a subtle and elegant way.
Haydn’s influence continues in the third movement which is a short tour de force in sonata form. This energetic piece is built primarily on a repeated figure outlining the tonic triad (F - A - C). I continue to marvel at Beethoven’s ability to take very simple information (a triad, or three note chord) and create from this a complex universe! By the end of this whirlwind of a movement, one cannot help but smile at the brilliance of Beethoven as he captures energy with pen and paper.
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F Major Op. 54
Composed in 1804, the F Major Sonata Op. 54 is one of Beethoven’s most enigmatic piano sonatas. While written around the same time as the first sketches of the fifth symphony, this piece has little in common with that famous and powerful work. The sonata is comprised of two movements, the first, In tempo d’un Menuetto (this is already unusual as the Menuet is usually reserved for a second or third movement) and the second movement marked Allegretto.
Further curiosities await in the first movement. In particular is the form: Beethoven abandons the typical Sonata-Allegro form here. Instead, Beethoven presents two contrasting themes, the first of which is repeated in parts (AA BB). Additionally, the two themes seem to have nothing in common with one another: the first a charming minuet, the second a gruff motive in octaves. While unusual, the octave motive could easily be seen in the context of his orchestral writing and one could imagine strings playing. The movement almost moves to a development section following the conclusion of the second theme, but instead of a true development, Beethoven turns around and returns to the opening theme, this time with some embellishment. What follows is nearly a repeat of the two main themes, but following the last iteration of the first theme, Beethoven finally relents and leads us by way of a short cadenza to a coda, thus ending the first movement.
The second movement of the Sonata Op. 54 is a lighthearted moto perpetuo built initially on an ascending scale. There is very little thematic material in this movement, which does not follow the sonata form, but rather hints at a rondo form. It is interesting to note that all of the sonatas Op. 53 “Waldstein”, Op. 54, and Op. 57 “Appassionata” have substantial ending movements. This Allegretto, while not as far reaching in scope as either the Op. 53 or Op. 57 final movements, still exceeds the first movement by over 200 measures (including the repetitions). This trend of making the final movement the substantial movement, rather than the first, can be seen in the Sontata Op. 90, Sonatas Opp. 109-110 and perhaps most notably in the Sonata Op. 111.
Sonata No. 23 in F Minor Op. 57 “Appassionata”
By 1805, Beethoven had composed many important and significant works. The “Appassionata” Sonata is certainly among them. While not authorized by Beethoven himself, the appellation seems apt as the sonata is quite powerful in many ways: passionate, dramatic, sublime, virtuosic.
One of the extraordinary qualities Beethoven possesses is the ability to take a fundamental idea, a descending triad for instance, and create from this atomic information an entire universe. The first movement begins with just such an example: a descending f minor triad (C-Ab-F). The repetition of this idea a semi-tone higher immediately sets the tension by destabilizing our sense of the tonic key. This movement follows the traditional Sonata-Allegro form of the Classical period with a few major differences: its size, the abandonment of the repetition of the exposition, and the expansion of the development section. This last idea is particularly interesting in that Beethoven seems not be satisfied with the development of only one theme and so writes two development sections on two separate themes. Composed around the time of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, this movement reflects an orchestral kind of writing: one hears the passing of motivic information from register to register as if Beethoven is writing for specific instruments. Additionally, the amount of sound Beethoven is trying to elicit from the piano seems beyond one instrument alone, and perhaps suggests that Beethoven had an orchestra in mind when composing this piece. Lastly, one of Beethoven’s most famous and enduring motives from the opening of the fifth symphony – G-G-G-Eb makes an appearance in this movement in the form of Db-Db-Db-C. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary suggested that Beethoven himself recognized the opening notes of the fifth symphony as “the hand of fate knocking at the door.”
Once again, Beethoven demonstrates his ability to hear potential in even the most basic of ideas. The second movement begins with a very simple chord progression, and as in the first movement, Beethoven uses this very simple starting point as a doorway to a sublime universe. The movement itself is a Theme and Variations, not an uncommon form for the sonatas (Op. 26, for instance has a set of variations as its opening movement), but he seems to be striving for an altered state of being with this movement – a state of being that he develops completely with the last three sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, 111). Following the statement of the theme, Beethoven increases the tempo by exploring the time contained inside of each beat. By the time he reaches the fourth iteration of the theme, he has divided the beat by eight and is at once developing the space within and deconstructing the theme at the same time. This movement’s brief encounter with the heavens is followed by a simple restatement of the main theme which leads us to an unsettling and deceptive ending.
The idea of continuing from one movement to the next without interruption is not a new idea in piano sonatas. Both of the Op. 27 sonatas indicate that each successive movement is to be played without interruption. Such is the case with the second and third movements of the “Appassionata.” The chord at the end of the second movement cannot be left unresolved, but Beethoven draws out the tension by suspending the resolution for twenty measures! This furious and exciting movement follows the traditional Sonata-Allegro form with two notable exceptions: the exposition is not repeated, but development and recapitulation are. In modern performance practice, the repetition of the development and recapitulation of the Classical period sonata are often skipped as the recapitulation makes a good balance to the exposition with repetition. However, in this case, Beethoven extends the length and breadth of this piece by repeating the larger portion of the piece (development and recapitulation) and adding a coda which contains exciting new thematic material. Again, we see in this piece a move toward making the final movement equal to the first in size and importance, a model which will come into its own in the last three sonatas.
What's in a Name?
Many of Beethoven’s most enduring works feature distinct titles: the Eroica Symphony, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Emperor Concerto (piano), the Ghost Trio, the Moonlight Sonata (piano) the Kruetser Sonata (violin). Some of these titles can be attributed to Beethoven himself while others have come into being through other means.
Of the thirty-two piano sonatas, twelve are referred to commonly by names:
Op. 7 Grand Sonata
Op. 31 No. 3 The Hunt
Op. 13 Pathetique
Op. 53 Waldstein
Op. 26 Funeral March
Op. 57 Appassionata
Op. 27 No. 2 Moonlight
Op. 78 A Thérèse
Op. 28 Pastorale
Op. 31 No. 2 Tempest
Op. 81a Les adieux
Op. 106 Hammerklavier
Of these, only the Hammerklavier Sonata received its name directly from the composer. Some of the remaining sonatas refer to their dedications, for example, Sonata Op. 53 is dedicated to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein and the Sonata Op. 78 is dedicated to Countess Thérèse von Brunswick.
Sonatas such as the “Moonlight” (Op. 27 No. 2), the “Pastorale” (Op. 28) and “The Hunt” (Op. 31 No. 3) are references to the character of the piece. Of course, it is tempting to brand a piece in this way, although each of the preceding sonatas is much more complicated than a single word can reasonably represent.
Beethoven himself called the Sonata Op. 106 Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier (Grand Sonata for the Piano) and was pleased by his publisher’s addition to the Op. 13 Sonata (Grande sonate pathétique). With respect to the “Appassionata” and the “Tempest” Sonatas, Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, recalls having asked Beethoven for the “key” to these two sonatas to which Beethoven replied: “Read Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest.’”
Welcome to What’s in a Name?, the second concert in the series A State of Wonder: the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor Op. 13 “Pathétique”
The Grande sonate pathétique was composed in 1798, a time of great turmoil for Beethoven as he was becoming increasingly aware of his hearing loss. Remarkably, this is also a time of great musical creativity and output.
The appellation “Pathétique” clearly is meant as a reference to pathos as a rhetorical device, rather than pity, as evidenced in the first movement, which begins with a sudden strong chord immediately followed by a plaintive, rising motive. The use of the appoggiatura (a leaning note that acts as a dissonance to be resolved) at the end of this gesture marks Beethoven’s use of “rhetorical” musical devices as well. An important feature of this Sonata is the juxtaposition of the Grave (very slow and serious) opening and an exciting Allegro. Beethoven returns periodically throughout the first movement to this Grave, perhaps as a reminder to the listener of the seriousness of this piece. The return to an earlier motive out of the context of the form is new and an important compositional tool that he develops with special effect in the Sonata Op. 101 (the first composition to use a single theme to unify an entire sonata).
Aside from this unique compositional development, Beethoven follows a fairly traditional formal structure. The development of the first movement is of particular interest because of Beethoven’s use of two themes simultaneously (the second theme in the Grave combined with the first theme of the Allegro). Additionally, Beethoven seems to be hearing beyond the piano in this piece and writes as if for an orchestra (note the timpani-like accompaniment in the left hand at the outset of the Allegro, and the combination of registers in the second theme of the Allegro). This, of course, is combined with the continued search for a larger sound and scope for the piano.
The second movement, Adagio cantabile, is iconic in its own way. Extremely simple in its construction and purity of line, this piece is an excellent example of Beethoven command of melody and accompaniment, a staple of the Viennese style. This piece is structured very simply – AABACAA Coda, but Beethoven manages to capture a timeless quality in this work.
A common form for the last movement of a Classical period piano sonata is the Rondo. Here Beethoven includes a piece whose scope pales in comparison to the power and reach of the first movement. While maintaining a rather light character, the main theme of the Rondo is reminiscent of the main theme of the Allegro in the first movement and finally, in the coda, we are reminded of the power of the first movement in a series of fortissimo chords.
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”
The Moonlight Sonata, composed in 1801, may be one of the most famous of Beethoven’s compositions. A popular piece from the start, this piece continues to be performed regularly by students, amateurs and concert pianists alike.
While its name certainly captures the calm, rocking quality of the first movement, it fails to adequately describe the charm of the second movement or the drama and excitement of the third. The “Moonlight Sonata” as it is called, got its name in 1832 from the German poet Ludwig Rellstab who likened the sound of the first movement to the light of the moon reflecting on Lake Lucerne. Within ten years, the name was being used in both English and German publications of the sonata.
Of special note is Beethoven’s marking at the opening of this piece: “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini“ (to play all most delicately and without mutes). What is most intriguing is the direction “senza sordini” – without mutes (dampers). One wonders if the blending of sonorities this creates may in fact replicate the sound Beethoven himself heard as a result of his hearing loss. Another important feature of this sonata is the observation by the composer: “Quasi una fantasia” (like, or almost a fantasy). The fantasia was a common form in the Classical period and is characterized by a variety of unconnected almost independent sections often of very different affect. Both Mozart and Haydn famously made use of this form. In performance, movements of a sonata are separated by silence as each piece usually has a very clear ending point. In spite of this, Beethoven directs the performer to move directly from one movement to the next without pause (Attacca subito il seguent – begin the following immediately), so as to further create the illusion of the fantasia.
While the first movement of this Sonata is instantly recognized, the second movement, Allegretto, is less often heard. Taking the form of a Scherzo and Trio, this charming piece belies the seriousness of the first movement (and indeed the last movement). Further, it serves to show Beethoven’s desire to mold form to his needs. While a Scherzo and Trio movement would be a common second movement, it is highly uncommon for a classical period sonata to begin with a slow movement! Thus we hear the combination of the typical with the atypical.
The relatively short first movement and light second movement give way to a spectacular third movement. Ferocious in its technical demands and energy, this piece far surpasses both the first and second movement in duration. This idea of the ending movement being on an equal footing with the first movement becomes more and more important to Beethoven over time, so that by the time we reach the last three sonatas, the final movement has become the dominant feature. This particular movement follows a very typical Sonata-Allegro form, keeping true to key relationships and formal construction. Clearly, this is not the moonlight on the water, but perhaps the memory of a nightmare from which we thankfully awake.
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”
The “Tempest” Sonata was composed in 1801/02 during a very difficult time in Beethoven’s life. While he was beginning to achieve success as a composer of significance in Vienna, he was also faced with the severity of his hearing loss. This so affected him that in October of 1802 Beethoven penned the infamous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers lamenting his encroaching deafness and his desire to commit suicide.
While the first movement of this sonata maintains a fairly rigorous Sonata-Allegro form, Beethoven still manages to be extraordinarily inventive. Like the Sonata Pathétique, Beethoven begins the sonata with a very slow musical idea: in this case an arpeggio (broken chord). This is followed by a breathless and excited motive that again comes to a halt, only to be followed by another arpeggio. The combination of slow and fast is reminiscent of the fantasia style of composition we heard in the “Moonlight.” Of particular interest in this movement is Beethoven’s use of recitative, which we briefly encounter at the start and then explore more fully at the beginning of the recapitulation. It is again reminiscent of the “Moonlight” as the composer asks that the recitative be played with the dampers up so as to create a mysterious blending of sound.
The arpeggio that we heard at the beginning of the first movement returns to start the second movement. A beautiful and expansive movement, we can hear Beethoven writing for the piano, but perhaps thinking of the orchestra. This is particularly evident in the outset as he moves from register to register assigning musical information as if to specific instruments (i.e. opening chord – strings; melodic motive – oboe). Again we hear Beethoven referencing the orchestra in the second theme as he highlights the melodic information with a timpani-like motive in the bass. Structurally, this piece is of a simple construction: ABC-transition; ABC-coda. Of special note is Beethoven’s beautiful accompaniment in the second A section; descending arpeggios that perhaps imitate rippling water, or falling leaves.
The idea of a single unifying motive heard throughout a sonata is unusual during the Classical Era (and in fact it is Beethoven who brings this idea to fruition in the sonata Op. 101 with a recurring theme that unifies the entire work), but the idea of the broken chord makes yet another appearance in the third movement of the “Tempest.” This time, however, it is the main musical idea and acts as a rhythmic motive as well. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the main theme of the last movement was inspired by a man riding on horseback, and one can definitely hear in this piece the rise and fall of the horseman! The restless quality of this work almost gives the appearance of a Rondo, but this piece adheres to the Sonata-Allegro form typical of this time.
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major Op. 31, No. 3 “The Hunt”
Of all the Sonatas on this program, “The Hunt” is the sonata least commonly referred to by name. Written during the same time period as the “Tempest” Sonata, it reflects a completely different attitude. Where the “Tempest” is dark and “stormy,” “The Hunt” maintains a light playful character throughout with all of its four movements in a major key.
While Beethoven returns to the four movement sonata (the typical construction for a classical period sonata), the piece itself contains some rather new and unusual characteristics. For example, the opening statement in the first movement poses a rather curious question; harmonically unstable, as if searching for the tonic (or home) key only to find it eight measures later. This motive returns throughout the piece almost as a reminder to the audience to stop and consider. Making use of the classical Sonata-Allegro form, this movement is forward-looking in that it points to the virtuosic sonatas that will soon follow (Opp. 53 “Waldstein” and 57 “Appassionata”). So, even though the character of this piece is light and playful, it is highly technical and demanding of the performer.
Typical of the four movement Classical period sonata is the Scherzo and Trio. In this case, Beethoven chooses for the second movement a Scherzo, but makes some rather daring alterations. Firstly, we would expect the Scherzo to be in 3/4 time. Beethoven, however, has written a Scherzo in 2/4 time! Further, the Scherzo would typically be paired with a Trio. Here, there is no trio! Lastly, the Scherzo would be in a simple form AABB (trio) AB, but in this case Beethoven has written a Scherzo in Sonata-Allegro form. A truly delightful piece, the appellation Scherzo clearly is designed to impart the character of the piece – joking, playful – not necessarily the structure. With an ostinato bass line this quick Scherzo is filled with playfully unexpected pauses and accents that keep the listener (and performer) on the edge of his seat.
The third movement, Menuetto: moderato e grazioso, is indeed a gracious minuet. Even though a minuet is not a slow movement, this piece acts as a moment of repose between the excitement of the Scherzo and the Presto that follows. Written in a very standard form, this elegant piece still possesses all of the beauty and charm we have come to expect from Beethoven. The tender and melodic minuet is contrasted with a playful trio that again evokes the orchestra by way of alternating chords in different registers, as if played by differing groups of instruments.
The Presto con fuoco is where this piece gets is name, “The Hunt.” The opening statement, with its running left hand eighth notes, introduces a theme that is reminiscent of a horn call. And while this piece could easily be heard as a reference to a hunt, there are other qualities that could likewise conjure a different name. For instance, the running left hand eighth notes are also quite like a Tarantella (an Italian dance); or the second theme with its repeated leaps calls to mind a Neopolitan song. Nonetheless, this movement is an exciting romp written in Sonata-Allegro form, which, like the last movement of the “Tempest,” almost sounds like a rondo.
Dedicated to the One I Love
The importance of patronage in the Classical period cannot be over stated. A composer was only able to earn a living with the assistance of an eminent patron, or in the case of Beethoven, several eminent patrons. It was common, therefore, to acknowledge these individuals by dedicating important works to them.
While Beethoven honored his patrons with dedications, he struggled to maintain his independence from his supporters. Loath to be under the yoke of his patrons, he often refused to see them or perform for them at their bidding. While he could not have succeeded without them, he demanded to be seen as an individual and not as a subject. This idea is vital to our understanding of Beethoven in the context of his contemporaries as well as to our understanding of his impact on the development of musical composition. For it is this sense of the individual that drove Beethoven to shape form to suit his needs, to create a musical canon that expressed his vision of the world for which he was admired and revered.
Of course, patronage alone was not the only motivating factor for Beethoven to dedicate a work: there are several dedications to people with whom Beethoven was particularly close: Franz Joseph Haydn, Thérèse von Brunswick, and Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, among many others. Additionally, there is an important dedication that Beethoven, himself, revoked. According to Ferdinand Ries (Beethoven’s student and assistant), a raging Beethoven tore up the first page of his third symphony (“Eroica”) thus retracting his dedication to Napoleon upon Napoleon’s self-declaration as Emperor. Clearly, musical dedications were important to Beethoven and were not made lightly.
Welcome to Dedicated to the One I Love, the third concert in the series A State of Wonder: the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2 No. 2
Beethoven had many teachers, but perhaps none were as famous or as important as Franz Joseph Haydn. It is thought that Beethoven may have studied briefly with Mozart, and in fact, he had travelled to Vienna in 1787 for that purpose, but due to the death of his mother he was unable to continue lessons at that time. Beethoven had planned a return trip to Vienna with the hope of continued studies with Mozart when, in 1791, Mozart died.
With the help of Maximilian Franz (the Electorate of Bonn) and with introductions from his patron Count Waldstein, Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792. He met Haydn in 1790, but did not begin composition lessons until 1792. The relationship between these two towering figures in classical music was complicated. Beethoven was strong-willed but talented; Haydn was at the height of his popularity. One of the most telling examples of their relationship is Haydn’s request that Beethoven put the phrase “pupil of Haydn” on the title page of his first works. Beethoven, of course, refused to do so. In later years Beethoven claimed that he had learned nothing from Haydn, but even before Haydn’s death, Beethoven revered the great Classical master.
The three sonatas from Op. 2, composed in 1795, are all dedicated to his teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. A substantial work, the sonata Op. 2 No. 2 still retains many qualities that one can hear in Haydn’s writing. Most notably is the four movement structure of this piece, containing a substantial first movement in the Sonata-Allegro form, a lyrical slow movement, a charming and light-hearted Scherzo and Trio, and a beautifully elegant Rondo.
While Beethoven has created a very large scale sonata movement, the structure of the first movement itself is not unusual. Beginning with a light, playful motive and contrasted immediately with a lyrical motive, this piece follows the standard Sonata-Allegro form: Exposition – Development – Recapitulation. Listeners may note the technical virtuosity at play in this particular piece. Beethoven throughout challenges the pianist with scales, leaps and arpeggios.
The slow movement of this sonata is a beautifully crafted work that again shows Beethoven’s use of the piano as if it were an entire orchestra. From the start, the legato melody is accompanied by a staccato bass line, much like a wind instrument accompanied by pizzicato strings. Keeping in mind that this is an early work, it is remarkable that Beethoven has already achieved the ability to write sublimely beautiful music.
Beethoven’s charm and wit are on display in the Scherzo and Trio, the third movement. Again, Beethoven is not choosing at this point to deviate from the normal structure of the period, but rather to elevate the level at which it is represented. This is an excellent example of the form with the Scherzo in A Major and the accompanying Trio in the parallel minor (A Minor); the Scherzo using an arpeggiated motive, the Trio a scale.
A typical closing movement in the Classical period is the Rondo, and this is one of the most delightful Rondos in the collection of sonatas. Beginning with an A Major arpeggio, we are constantly returning to this rising figure only to hear it get longer and more virtuosic throughout the movement. This piece is full of wonderful and creative ideas well-suited to the sectional nature of the Rondo, and while we hear several lyrical and gentle sections, the middle is quite stormy and agitated by contrast.
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat Major Op. 26
Prince Karl Lichnowsky was one of Beethoven’s foremost patrons for much of Beethoven’s early life in Vienna. Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and found himself a small attic room in which to live. After a brief time, he was invited to live with the Lichnowskys as a member of the family, and he resided with them for several years.
Prince Lichnowsky was not only a great patron to Beethoven, but a mentor and friend. Carl Czerny noted that the Prince treated Beethoven “as a friend and brother.” But Beethoven began to chafe at the demands placed on him by the Prince and ultimately, in 1806, they had a violent disagreement over the Prince’s request to have Beethoven play for a group of visiting dignitaries.
The depth of Beethoven’s respect and admiration for Prince Lichnowsky, however, can be measured by the dedications made to him: the three piano trios, Op. 1 (1793), the "Nine variations for piano on 'Quant'è più bello' from Giovanni Paisiello's opera La Molinara," WoO 69 (1795), the Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique" (1798), the Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 26 (1801), and the Second Symphony (1802).
The Sonata Op. 26 is a delightful work with an opening movement in the form of a Theme with Variations. The style of this piece is distinctly Viennese in that it possesses beauty and charm balanced by a clear simplicity. With Classical period variations, we expect to hear specific treatments of the theme: embellished melody, hand crossing, a minor variation, and an expanded last variation with coda. Beethoven obliges almost entirely, opting for an exciting variation in which the hands are entirely syncopated instead of the traditional hand crossing.
The second movement is typical of a Scherzo and Trio. Charming and elegant, this piece is an excellent foil for the serious Marche Funebre that is to follow. Indeed, the third movement is perhaps the most notable movement in this sonata. Foreshadowing the second movement of the Eroica Symphony only a few years away, it is a descriptive piece, somber and noble. One can even hear the drum rolls to honor the “death of the hero” in the middle section. Chopin, who rarely performed in public, included this sonata in his repertoire and indeed fashioned his own Funeral March Sonata after it.
The cheerful last movement is again a stark contrast to the severity of the third movement. The perpetual movement and shape of the opening motive are similar to the second movement of the Op. 54 piano sonata composed just a few years later.
Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor Op. 90
Count Moritz Lichnowsky, the younger brother of Prince Karl, was a lifelong friend of Beethoven. Count Moritz was himself an amateur composer and musician and was an important force in securing Beethoven’s position in Vienna. It was Count Lichnowsky who, along with Archduke Rudolph, paved the way for Beethoven’s post of “Imperial and Royal Chamber Music Composer” to the court of Count Moritz Dietrichstein, a post that ultimately was never filled.
Count Lichnowsky’s relationship to Beethoven must have been particularly close, as is evidenced by entries in Beethoven’s conversation books. The canon “Bester Herr Graf, sie sind ein Schaf” (Honored Count, you are a sheep [sheep=fool], evidently referring to Lichnowsky!) shows the uncommonly relaxed relationship between them. Unlike his brother Prince Karl, Count Moritz remained close to Beethoven his entire life and indeed was one of the last visitors to Beethoven before his death in 1827.
The Sonata Op. 90 is an interesting work that provides ample evidence of Beethoven’s evolution. While the piece itself is fairly compact, the first movement has a concise yet dense construction. Following the Sonata-Allegro form, Beethoven makes no use of the typical repetition of the Exposition but moves directly to the Development where he deftly explores both the primary and secondary motives. Of particular importance are the characteristic qualities of the thematic material. Beethoven seems to imbue this movement with drama and tension without the fireworks of sonatas like the Appassionata. Rather, he creates a pensive and haunting mood that nonetheless has a powerful impact on the listener.
While not the first sonata in two movements, this won’t be the last. The second movement here is as open and friendly as the first is dark and mysterious. A rather extended and complicated Rondo, this piece is composed in the parallel major (E Major) and offers several beautiful melodies and a construction reminiscent of Schubert. The form itself is fairly standard A-B-A-C-A-B-Coda, where the C section is almost a development of the second half of the B Section. Of particular interest is Beethoven’s use of parallel voice leading (B section), a compositional idea that will come to fruition with composers such as Debussy.
Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major Op. 81a “Les Adieux”
Of the many patrons who were particularly dear to Beethoven, none ranks above Archduke Rudolph who received no less than fifteen dedications including the Fourth and Fifth (Emperor) Piano Concertos, the Piano Sonatas "Les Adieux", Hammerklavier, the Violin Sonata opus 96, the Archduke Piano Trio (named for Rudolph), the Missa Solemnis and the Grosse Fuge.
Archduke Rudolph was himself a fine amateur musician and studied piano with Beethoven from around 1803-4. He was also the only student of composition that Beethoven agreed to teach. The two maintained a close relationship throughout the rest of Beethoven’s life and the Archduke was highly regarded by Beethoven. In 1809, when Beethoven contemplated taking an appointment from King Jerome of Westphalia (Napoleon’s brother), Archduke Rudolph, along with Prince Lobkowitz and Pirnce Kinsky, intervened and promised Beethoven a sizable annual salary on the condition that he make Vienna his primary residence for the rest of this life.
Later in 1809, the Archduke and his family were forced to flee Vienna with the arrival of French troops. “Les Adieux” was composed specifically for Archduke Rudolph on this departure. The first movement’s (Das Lebewohl) theme, So-Fa-Mi (G, F, E-flat) has the inscription Le-be-wohl above it and one can hear Beethoven’s sadness in this descending figure. The movement vacillates between the tragic departure theme and an exuberant and energetic theme which is ultimately hopeful. Following a Sonata-Allegro form, Beethoven shows his skill in the development section where he deconstructs both primary themes and creates a fascinating dialogue between them, clearly mirroring his own conflicting emotions regarding the departure of his dear friend. Of further interest is the coda in its opening and duration. Beethoven begins the coda as if it is yet another Recapitulation or perhaps another Development, this time, in a minor key. We stay only briefly here as he relents and returns to the Lebewohl theme and gradually departs.
The second movement, Die Abwesenheit (the Absence) was composed during Rudolph’s exile. Filled with chromaticism, we hear Beethoven’s anguish at the loss of his companion. Throughout, Beethoven uses the appoggiatura (leaning note) to express his deep sadness and desperation. We hear the capricious nature of his emotional state as he is alternately hopeful and devastated. The end of this movement segues beautifully to the last movement creating a wonderful sense of anticipation for the great return.
Das Wiedersehen (the Return) is a joyful expression of Beethoven’s relief at the safe return of his beloved Rudolph. Preceded by a brief and brilliant introduction, the movement proceeds in a buoyant 6/8 time which gives it a lilting, even skipping quality. The structure of the piece, Sonata-Allegro form, is not unique, but the message conveyed is entirely clear: Beethoven’s overwhelming happiness at the safe return of his friend. His use of scales and arpeggios throughout the piece seem to reflect his racing heart at the thrill of seeing his friend again. Only in the coda does Beethoven pause to reflect on the whole of this experience: slowly recounting the main theme, allowing it to repeat, grow and settle, ultimately reveling with a flourish at the Archduke’s return.
Ten Years, Part II 1795-1805
When Beethoven first arrived in Vienna in late 1792 to study with the renowned composer Franz Joseph Haydn, he was virtually unknown as a composer, but by 1793 he had already begun to establish himself as a virtuoso pianist. And while he had been at work composing, he did not formally publish any of his work until 1795 (Piano Trios Op. 1), perhaps to increase the impact his compositions would have on the public.
The years between 1792 and 1805 see a great change in Beethoven, not just in terms of his compositional style, but in his physical health. Abdominal maladies that were noted in his twenties, continued throughout his life, and even more troubling to Beethoven was the increasing loss of his hearing which came to a head in 1801-02. Though Beethoven himself laments his physical well-being, it is the loss of his hearing that takes its greatest toll:
“O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed.”
Beethoven - Heilegenstadt Testament, 1802
It is remarkable that in spite of his heath and impending deafness Beethoven was able to focus his attentions on his work. Perhaps it is because of this that he was able to focus so intensely on his work and sought to overcome these personal challenges through his music. It is this desire to conquer his inner challenges, I believe, that led to the development of his middle period “Heroic” style, a style that includes the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonata, the third and fifth symphonies among many other of his most important works.
This concert is another exploration of the incredible development of Beethoven’s compositional style from the clear and simple Classical period sonata form of Haydn and Mozart to the rich and complex compositional style that he created to suit his expressive needs.
Welcome to Ten Years Part II, the fourth concert in the series A State of Wonder: the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonatas No. 19 in G Minor and No. 20 in G Major Op. 49 Nos. 1 & 2
Although these two delightful sonatas were published in 1805, they were likely written much earlier. The dates of these compositions are not entirely clear but probably were composed in or about 1795-98. If not for Beethoven’s brother, Caspar, who himself thought them worthy of publication, they would not be listed among his published works and we certainly would not know them as sonatas. Had they been published by Beethoven himself, it is likely they would have been called Sonatinas.
These two sonatas present almost a mirror image of each other: the first is in G Minor, the second, G Major; the first sonata has a calm first movement and energetic second movement while the second sonata has an energetic first movement and calm second movement.
The first movement of each follows a typical sonata form (ABA – Exposition, Development, Recapitulation) with expected key relationships. The first sonata (G Minor) offers no knew structural development or deviation. The second sonata (G Major), however, shows a small movement away from the expected structure in the Recapitulation by borrowing some of the transitional material that leads from the second theme to the closing theme and inserting itself as a transition from the opening theme to the second theme.
Each of the subsequent movements acts as a rondo, though only the second movement of the first sonata is labelled as one. The second movement of Op. 49 No. 1 is in G Major, in contrast to its opening movement (G Minor), and is as cheerful as the first movement is melancholy. It follows the typical path of a Rondo, ABCBABCA (Coda) with the B section in minor and the C a light and lyrical foil to the bubbly opening theme (A). The second movement of the Op. 49 No. 2 sonata is even more plainly presented: ABACA (Coda), also in G Major with no thematic material in the contrasting minor.
Light and good-natured, these pieces reflect Beethoven’s early style of composition, very much in the Viennese style and very much in the style of Mozart and Haydn. Their simplicity of form and technical demand often make them the first sonatas learned by students of the piano.
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2 No. 3
The piano sonatas Op. 2 were composed between the years 1793-5, exactly at the time Beethoven was making a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist in Vienna. While only hinting at the depth of thought and emotion contained in his later writing, these first three sonatas possess every bit the technical demands of his late sonatas.
The third sonata of the Op. 2, also dedicated to his teacher Franz Joseph Haydn, is a display of technical ingenuity. Many of the challenges that are presented in this sonata are either completely novel or had not been used as extensively as we see them here. One reason for the demands of these sonatas is the length: by comparison, the longest of Haydn’s 62 piano sonatas lasts about 21 minutes; the shortest of the Op. 2 piano sonatas by Beethoven is 20 minutes, with Op. 2 No. 3 lasting roughly 26 minutes. In addition to the length of this piece, Beethoven challenges the pianist with double thirds, extensive arpeggios and delicate finger work.
The first movement follows a tradition Sonata-Allegro form (ABA – Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, Coda) and employs typical key relationships. In many ways this sonata is similar to the Sonatas Op. 49, however, much larger. The opening theme, which is based on a trill in thirds, is contrasted with a brilliant passage in rising arpeggios. The second theme is a beautifully shaped and lyrical melody which is followed by a sequence of scales that brings us to a third theme. Again, beautifully crafted and shaped the third theme leads us to a reprise of the rising arpeggios and ultimately to the closing theme, little more than a trill motive reminiscent of the opening theme. The remainder of the sonata follows true to form: Development starts off echoing the closing information from the Exposition, moves through an exciting series of harmonies reinforced by broken chords. This leads to an unexpected false Recapitulation (in the key of A Major instead of C Major) which proceeds to take us to a second developmental section. Finally, we arrive at the Recapitulation by way of the opening motive descending to our home key of C Major.
One of the most notable features of the Op. 2 sonatas is their slow movement. Each possesses a sublimely beautiful example of piano writing, and the third sonata is no exception. Poised and calm, profound in its use of time and silence, the second movement of this sonata is pointing to Beethoven’s future. The piece itself is comprised of two ideas: chords and broken chords. Of course this is a simplification, but at its heart, this is the nature of the piece. What this amounts to, however, is a way of looking at music from two perspectives: vertical versus linear. Both ideas have beautiful melodic features and both employ rhetorical devices (the first, silence, the second a falling figure). Beautifully crafted, it serves as a complete departure from the energy and enthusiasm of the first movement.
Beethoven’s use of the Scherzo in place of the Menuet is quickly becoming a standard. The form follows that of the Menuet and Trio, but, as is exemplified here, maintains a much more exuberant attitude. Beethoven uses imitation in different voices to create texture and excitement in this Scherzo. The main theme is in two parts: a three note motive much like a baroque mordant followed by a descending scale. He then very cleverly takes it apart and uses them both simultaneously! The Trio is, by contrast only one idea: a harmonic progression in arpeggios with almost no melodic material. Technically demanding and exciting, the Trio then returns to the Scherzo which in turn is followed by a Coda.
The fourth movement of this sonata is one of the most effervescent of the entire Op. 2. Beginning with an ascending scale in chords, one can’t help but smile at the lightness and playful quality that is presented. One can clearly see Beethoven, the virtuoso pianist in this movement, for the technical demands, which include lightning fast finger passages, leaps and a bel canto sound, are a formidable challenge to all pianists and must have been awe-inspiring in his time. Following the general pattern of a Rondo (ABACAB Coda), this lighthearted piece never lacks for interest between its technical challenges, changes of mood and lyricism.
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op. 53 “Waldstein”
Like the “Appassionata” and the “Les Adieu” piano sonatas, the “Waldstein” ranks as one of the most important of the Middle Period sonatas. It also remains a prime example of Beethoven’s Heroic writing style.
Composed in the summer of 1804 and dedicated to his friend and patron Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein, the sonata Op. 53 exemplifies Beethoven’s large scale writing for piano. While approximately the same duration as the early sonata Op. 2 No. 3, this sonata is comprised largely of only two movements with a brief middle movement serving as an introduction to the third. With this piece we begin to see Beethoven not just imitating the orchestra at the keyboard, but instead writing as if the piano itself were a symphonic instrument.
Following the standard sonata form (ABA – Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, Coda), Beethoven doesn’t so much change the shape of the sonata to fit his expressive needs, but rather fills the form to overflowing with expressive ideas. The opening theme is a wonderful example of how he sets up the keyboard as if it were an orchestra: opening motive, strings, followed by a descending flourish in the winds. One of the primary differences between this sonata and the early C Major sonata Op. 2 No. 3 is the increasingly sophisticated way Beethoven develops his ideas both motivically and rhythmically; eighth notes become sixteenth notes, a descending figure becomes a running scale.
While one can clearly see the similarity in structure and key relationships to his earlier works, an important difference is the character of the Development section. Where in the earlier sonatas one can see the relationship between motives and ideas, and the way in Beethoven moves this information around, in the sonata Op. 53, Beethoven seems to be challenging himself to overcome the obstacle he has placed in his path. The motives build on one another, heighten the tension and ultimately lead us to a new and undiscovered place. In the sonata Op. 2 No. 3, Beethoven uses a harmonic progression in the development section with arpeggios in the treble, here he has more than doubled the length of this wandering progression and added arpeggios in both hands; searching for a resolution rather than arriving, he finally finds the path back to the main theme. While the rest of the movement adheres to the form, there are a couple of interesting notes: the added transition between the first and second parts of the main theme is a wonderful departure from the expected, and the coda is one of the longest and most interesting of the codas written thus far (soon to be outdone by the coda in the third movement and by those in the “Appassionata” sonata).
The second movement or Introduzione, is not the original second movement designed for this sonata. However, Beethoven received (unwelcomed!) feedback about the length of the second sonata and the overall length of the sonata and reconsidered the second movement. The Andante favori, WoO 57 was replaced by the Intrduzione, a rather short, simply structured piece which relies on harmonic tension and a slow and thoughtful tempo to prepare us for the final movement.
The last movement of the “Waldstein” sonata remains one of the most significant of Beethoven’s piano pieces. It is inventive, challenging, creative, beautiful and inspiring all at once. While it generally follows a Rondo form, the sections between the main themes continue to expand and become increasingly difficult. Additionally, Beethoven on at least two occasions wanders off course and begins to improvise, or at least to render thoughtful moments through the exploration of harmony.
Coming on the heels of the famed Heiligenstat Testament in which Beethoven bemoans his encroaching deafness, one can’t help but wonder if the opening of this movement is not, as I do, an attempt to achieve in writing the blurred, somewhat cacophonous sound that he lives with daily. One might recall the “Moonlight” sonata and his use of pedal, and like the “Moonlight,” perhaps there is the added beauty of the ringing bell, not tolling for Beethoven, but ringing joyously to celebrate him. Another important observation is how Beethoven uses the trill in this movement. Instead of allowing the note to decay (as is the way with pianos), he breathes life into the sound through the trill, creating a vibrating tone through which the melody rings.
Lastly, the coda: as was mentioned earlier, the coda for this movement is truly a remarkable achievement in and of itself. In many ways it is summing up the whole of the movement and yet moving us to a new plain in the process. Technically demanding, yet brilliant and lighthearted the coda offers one of the most intriguing challenges in the piece: a series of scales in octaves too quick to play one after another. This has shown itself before as early as the first piano concerto, and the question has always been whether to use a glissando (sliding across the keys), to split the octaves between the hands or to be brave and play the octaves as fast as possible. These challenges in the midst of musical epiphany are what make Beethoven endlessly new and wondrous.
The Emperor's Key
Many composers gravitate toward particular key centers in order to communicate a specific mood or character. For example, it is often noted that G Minor is the key in which Mozart best expresses sadness and tragedy. Further, composers often write in keys that they feel a keen connection to, and ultimately write some of their most profound and important music in these keys. Clearly Beethoven had a special relationship with the key of three flats whether in major (E-flat Major) or minor (C Minor).
Evidence of this is the frequency with which he composes in one of these tonalities. Of the thirty-two piano sonatas composed by Beethoven, seven of them are written in the key of three flats (four in E-flat Major and three in C Minor). The character of each sonata is deeply connected to the key in which it is written: sonatas in the key of E-flat Major tend toward the expansive and noble, while the sonatas in C Minor are angular and intense.
It is not unusual for composers to feel a connection between tonality and color, such as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, whose musical color wheel displays E-Flat Major as purple in hue – the color of royalty. Beethoven, too, must have felt the connection between this color and key. He wrote the piano sonata “Les Adieux,” in E-flat Major, and the last and great sonata Op. 111 in C Minor, both dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf. Perhaps the most notable connection between E-flat Major and nobility is the piano concerto No. 5 also known as the “Emperor” written in E-flat Major and dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf.
Welcome to The Emperor’s Key, the fifth concert in the series A State of Wonder: the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-Flat Major Op. 7
Beethoven was able to capitalize on his early success in Vienna and travelled to Prague, Leipzig and Dresden in 1796. In the fall of 1796 Beethoven stayed in Pressburg and while there played concerts and began work on the piano sonata Op. 7 dedicated to his student, Babette, the Countess Kaglevics.
Coming on the heels of the three sonatas Op. 2, the Op. 7 sonata maintains much of the structural elements we find in the earlier sonatas. The Op. 7 sonata falls into four movements, just like the second and third of the Op. 2 sonatas, but here Beethoven begins to write in a somewhat more sophisticated manner, with a restrained virtuosity rather than the overtly brilliant technical writing of the earlier sonatas.
The sonata opens with an energetic rhythmic motive in the left hand and tonic triads in the right, this followed closely by scales in our home key. Again, Beethoven uses very basic information (chords and scales) to create an elegant and expressive opening. One can hear in this opening statement a warm and noble character due in part to the particular characteristic of our home key – E-flat Major. Of note is the beautiful way Beethoven moves seamlessly from one idea to the next. By comparison to the Op. 2 sonatas which had large and intricate development sections, this movement has a relatively short, compact development section. In all other respects, this movement follows the typical Sonata-Allegro form that we expect to hear in a classical period sonata.
Like the three sonatas that precede this one, the slow movement of the Op. 7 sonata is magnificent. Stately and expansive, we hear Beethoven searching for deep meaning in his use of sound and silence. It is interesting that Beethoven has chosen to write this movement in the key of C Major, a key Beethoven often uses as a foil to the key of three flats. Additionally, C Major tends to be a key in which Beethoven is particularly thoughtful. The Largo movement is in three parts (ternary, A-B-A), with the A sections being separated by a warm and beautiful theme in A-flat Major. Finally, Beethoven seems reluctant to leave us as it takes him three cadences in the coda to finally come to an end.
Even though it is not labelled as a Minuet and Trio, the third movement fits this moniker. One can feel the dance of the minuet in the gestures of the opening theme. The minuet is quite tuneful and jovial while the trio is dark and stormy with its roiling triplets. Again Beethoven refrains from writing a melody in the trio and instead relies on the harmonic voice leading of arpeggiated chords to create a melody. The return to the minuet bears note as Beethoven closes the trio with a dark E-flat Minor chord only to ascend through the darkness and into the light, returning to E-flat Major by way of a single G natural.
The last movement follows form and is a Rondo, and a beautiful Rondo indeed. Much like the last movement of the sonata Op. 2, No. 2, this movement is charming, elegant, and a joy to hear (and to play!) Unlike the trio, Beethoven writes a beautiful melody for us here; expressive, playful and surprising. The B theme is again reminiscent of the Rondo from Op. 2, No. 2 in the rising arpeggios in the left hand. Filled with intricate fingerwork, the A section returns and closes with the introduction of a new and startling theme. The C section stands in stark contrast to the rest of the movement and indeed to the rest of the sonata. In C Minor, this section is quite tumultuous and seems to embody the dramatic (ideas closely linked to the key of C Minor). Full of energy and power this is the most angular writing in the entire sonata. Following this boisterous interlude, we return to the calm A theme and the rest of the movement flows naturally to the coda where Beethoven introduces a playful motive that ultimately leads us to the close.
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10 No. 1
For Classical composers, the key of C Minor was largely associated with turbulence and the dramatic. Often used to symbolize a heroic struggle, C Minor is a key that Beethoven regularly composed in and is the key in which he wrote many of his most important and enduring works (Fifth Symphony, “Pathetique” Sonata, and of course the great Piano Sonata Op. 111).
The Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 was published in 1798, and is published as part of a group of three sonatas, each with a very distinctive character. While written only a short time after the Op. 7 sonata, it varies greatly in size and affect. It contains only three movements (as does the second of the Op. 10 sonatas) and it is the first to abandon the four movement sonata form. Additionally, where the Op. 7 sonata is warm and generous in tone and feeling, this sonata is aggressive and bold.
The sonata begins with a typical Sonata-Allegro movement, its opening theme brash and rhythmically angular. We sense right from the start that Beethoven is making a powerful statement with this theme and offers a hint at what will come in the “Pathetique” Sonata, also in C Minor. Beethoven balances this opening theme with a lyrical second theme in the relative major, E-flat Major and closes the exposition in this key. Common to Beethoven’s writing in C Minor is the eventual conversion to C Major, which is how he begins the development. In fact, Beethoven was continually haunted by a vision of C Minor resolving to C Major, and yet we see this relationship often (the first movement of the sonata Op. 111 is in C Minor while the second movement is in C Major, for example). The first movement continues true to form and, while fairly brief, is quite dynamic and exciting.
We often see Beethoven compose the slow movement of a C Minor work in A-flat Major (such as the Third Piano Concert and Fifth Symphony). A-flat for Beethoven is an extremely warm key and is often where we find some of his most profoundly beautiful music (the slow movement of the “Pathetique” Sonata, for instance). This slow movement fits this characterization. Stately and elegant, there is a simplicity to the line that allows the listener to be carried gently along by this noble theme. The structure is binary (two part) with a slight elaboration of the accompanimental figure as the theme returns. The coda arrives with yet another statement of the main theme which is then extended, but ultimately bringing us to the end of the movement.
The last movement of the sonata Op. 10 No. 1 is also in C Minor, is also quite dramatic and rhythmically dynamic. It is also composed in the Sonata-Allegro form and follows this particular form quite closely. While not a wholly inventive piece, we see the strength of Beethoven’s compositional skills in the tightly-knit structure, the quick changes of mood and character and the clear simplicity of the writing. Interestingly, the development of this sonata is one of the briefest of all the piano sonatas. It also contains a very important musical statement at the moment of arrival at the recapitulation, an idea which will soon take its rightful place in the Fifth Symphony!
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major Op. 27 No. 1 “Quasi una fantasia”
This wonderful and unique sonata was composed in 1800-1801 and was published in 1802. Even though this piece was published with its more famous counterpart, the sonata Op. 27 No. 2 (which came to be known as the “Moonlight” Sonata), it was actually printed separately. Both bear the inscription “Quasi una fantasia.”
Like the “Moonlight” Sonata, this piece was constructed as one large scale work divided into movements which are to be played attacca, or immediately subsequent to one another. The reference to a fantasia alludes to a form of composition common to both the Baroque and Classical eras in which a piece would move from one musical idea or affect to another without interruption. Generally these themes had nothing to do with one another and were often shockingly different in mood and character. It seems evident that with the Op. 27 sonatas, Beethoven is striking out on a new musical road where the form is less important than the content.
The sonata begins with a slow, bucolic melody which is really nothing more than primary chords in the tonic key (E-flat Major) accompanied by scales in the left hand. This theme is replaced by an equally friendly theme constructed of an ascending and descending scale supported by rich chords. The structure of the first movement is ternery (A-B-A) rather than Sonata-Allegro form. The B Section is a lively romp initially in C Major of rising arpeggios and falling scales, but Beethoven works his way deftly back to E-flat Major in order to return to the A section and bring the movement to a close.
Rather than a true finish, however, we immediately segue into the Scherzo and Trio movement. In the key of C Minor (the relative minor to E-flat Major), the Scherzo is a tumultuous combination of arpeggios that again lacks a clear melody. The elegant combination of harmonies seems to imply a melody, however. The Scherzo is replaced by a jocular trio reminiscent of a hunting scene with lilting chords and a rising melodic note placed on the second beat to create the sensation of riding horseback. The return to the Scherzo bears note as Beethoven, on the repetition of the main theme, displaces the right hand by an eighth note and uses staccato in the left hand to create an extremely exciting and unsettling end to the movement.
As in other C Minor sonatas, we often see the use of A-flat Major for the slow movement. In this case, Beethoven again makes this combination as he arrives directly in A-flat Major at the beginning of the slow movement. Like many of the other slow movements in A-flat, this sonata bears a warmth and depth that seems suited to this key. While this movement is short, it is extremely expressive and it allows us a moment of calm between the dramatic Scherzo and the upcoming energetic finale.
A Rondo, this exuberant movement is full of energy and playfulness with rapid scales and a bright, cheerful melody. The general form of this movement is typical with one very important exception: before the coda, Beethoven reprises the main theme from the slow movement, now in our home key of E-flat Major. This idea of returning to a theme from an earlier movement is quite innovative and sets the precedent for what will ultimately follow in his sonata Op. 101 of 1816.
The Viennese Master
Beethoven’s return to Vienna in 1792 was inauspicious, having visited in 1787 only to leave with little to show for his and his patrons’ efforts. However, his work with Haydn and with other important composers in Vienna, namely Johann Albrechtsberger and Antonio Solieri, instilled in him a deep understanding of the Viennese style.
By the middle of the 18th century, classicism as a musical style began to emerge. The primary elements of this style include a lighter texture, homophony (a clear melody supported by a simple accompanimental figure), and structures that were logical and easy to follow. This is all in contrast to the baroque period with its complicated polyphony (multiple musical lines acting both as melody and harmony), and ornate, highly decorated melodies.
Beethoven’s early works are clear examples of the Viennese classical style, following form and structure with clear melody and simple accompaniment. Even the early sonatas of Op. 2, though large in their construction and technically difficult, adhere to the general principals of the Viennese style. But as Beethoven gained confidence through the success of his compositions as well as his triumphs as a pianist (including vanquishing one of his major rivals, Joseph Wölfl, in a piano “duel” in 1799), he began to leave the Viennese style behind and create a new musical language with forms that suited his musical goals.
By the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven stood alone as the preeminent composer in Vienna. He was receiving important commissions and was the composer all others tried to emulate. The heir apparent to Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven had become The Viennese Master.
Welcome to The Viennese Master, the sixth concert in the series A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonatas Nos. 9 & 10, Op. 14, Nos. 1 & 2
The piano sonatas published as Op. 14 were composed in 1798/9 and published in 1799. They are both dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun. These two delightful sonatas have very little written about them, owing, I think, to the fact that they are relatively unassuming works that offer few clues to the startling musical advances that were underway in Beethoven’s development.
The sonata Op. 14 No. 1 is composed in three movements but shares more in common with the first two sonatas Op. 10 than with its immediate predecessor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). Its nature is one of ease and lightness, playful without being trite. The first movement is Sonata-Allegro form and opens with a simple, rising melodic statement in fourths supported by repeated chords in the left hand. One can immediately hear the connection of this theme to the descending theme in fourths in the third movement of the sonata Op. 13. The open quality of these intervals offers Beethoven plenty of space to fill, which he does with the second theme; a descending diatonic scale (both whole steps and half steps) followed by a rising chromatic scale (half steps). The second part of this second theme is a charming melodic phrase that shows Beethoven’s command of the Viennese style (light, clear melody with simple accompaniment).
Beethoven closes the exposition with a march-like motive that comfortably brings the section to an end. The development begins as if it is yet again repeating the opening, but Beethoven quickly moves to a minor key in stark contrast to the cheerful opening. What follows is a long, beautiful melodic line that again acts to counter the short, playful motives of the exposition. Arriving at the recapitulation, Beethoven then unerringly brings us to the end, adhering to the rules of the Sonata-Allegro form.
It is always interesting to see flashes of the future in Beethoven’s early compositions. The second movement, marked Allegretto, fills the spot of a slow movement, though itself is not overly slow. More importantly, the character of this piece, which is neither slow movement, nor minuet, nor scherzo, seems to hint at the Bagatelles that come toward the end of Beethoven’s career, much like the middle movement of the Op. 10, No. 2 sonata. Following the form of the Scherzo (or Minuet) and Trio, this movement in the parallel minor (E Minor) is somewhat brooding and ominous, clearly acting as a foil to the outer movements. We are given a respite from this moodiness in the B section which is in the key of C Major, but this is short lived and we return to the unsettled A section which ultimately leads us to the end of the movement.
The enigmatic ending of the second movement requires resolution, and Beethoven gives us that sense of coming home in the third movement. A very charming Rondo, the opening of the third movement catches us and carries us forward. Again, Beethoven follows form closely here and writes within the confines of the style with elegance and wit. The light character of this movement, and indeed the entire sonata, belies the profound musical changes that are about to emerge in Beethoven’s writing. This sonata and the sonata to follow, Op. 14, No. 2, both seem to point to a composer with a desire to please his audience.
Like the sonata Op. 14, No. 1, the second of the Op. 14 sonatas is extremely good natured and well-constructed. The first movement again follows the Sonata-Allegro form quite closely and imparts a feeling of ease and clarity. Beethoven here uses a rather ornate opening motive which is just a triad (three note chord) in our home key of G Major. Again, it is interesting (and impressive) to hear how Beethoven can take something as simple as a triad and create an entire musical world. Unlike the first of the Op. 14 sonatas, the development section of this movement is classic Beethoven: the exploration of the first theme in minor followed by a recapitulation in the wrong key. Once we find our way back to G Major, the true recapitulation takes us effortlessly the end of the movement.
The second movement of this sonata is a slow movement, however, not typical for this period. This is the first example of a piano sonata in which Beethoven uses a Theme and Variation form. Slow and stately, this march-like theme feels both open and playful. One can hear in the theme the promise of variation, of Beethoven filling in the time and space left open in the theme. Each of the three successive variations explores something specific. The first is a lyrical rendering of the theme with the melody primarily in the tenor voice (left hand). The second variation fills in the time between notes that Beethoven left open in the theme. The third variation combines these two ideas by filling in the space and adding a counter melody in the left hand while the main theme is subtly woven in the moving notes of the right hand.
The last movement of this sonata is a playful romp that teases the ear with rhythmic diversity. Beethoven starts with a rising scale that disguises the meter and creates excitement through the use of hemiola. While not innovative in its form, this rondo nevertheless offers a delightful end to the sonata.
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 78 “a Thérèse”
In 1809, nearly five years after the publication of the “Appassionata,” Beethoven writes the sonata Op. 78. Dedicated to the Countess Thérèse von Brunsvik, this sonata is one of Beethoven’s most lyrical and beautiful. While Thérèse von Brunsvik’s name was tossed about as a possible match for the Immortal Beloved, it was her sister Josephine that Beethoven was more interested in.
Written in two movements, the sonata Op. 78 is small in stature, but rich in melody. The first movement is a simple Sonata-Allegro movement with a stately introduction followed by a beautiful melodic theme. Beethoven responds to this theme with a playful motive which brings us to the second theme; chords outlining simple harmonic relationships. There is a moment of turmoil following the second theme, but it is brief and leads directly to the closing theme composed of gently ascending and descending scales that meander gracefully back to the opening theme. Upon arrival at the development however, the opening theme becomes minor an animated conversation takes place between the registers in the left hand. Even this excitement doesn’t overwhelm the genial attitude of this piece and we return to the recapitulation. The rest of the piece follows the form with one small exception: it is common practice to repeat the development and recapitulation. The repetition of these sections generally became unnecessary during Beethoven’s early period, but bearing in mind the size of this piece (especially when compared to the sonata that precedes this, the “Appassionata”), Beethoven may have felt a need to extend the length of the piece to give it more weight.
The second movement is a whirlwind of a piece. Very playful with fits and starts, it is also an unusual form for Beethoven in that is a truncated Sonata-Allegro form. That is to say that there is no development section. It would pass for binary (two part) but for the fact that there is a clear modulation in the first section. The piece consists of three main ideas connected by brilliant finger passages as if tickling his way from one idea to the next. Beethoven is constantly playing with the juxtaposition of major and minor tonalities, but ultimately leaves us smiling and breathless by the end.
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 “Pastorale”
Composed in 1801, the “Pastorale” sonata is the last example of Beethoven writing a four movement piano sonata and emerges at an incredibly productive point in Beethoven’s career, having just published the piano sonatas Op. 27, 26, the famed “Spring” sonata for violin and piano Op. 24 as well as the first symphony Op. 21. He is also hard at work at the second symphony which will be completed in 1802. All this at a time when his deafness was becoming a profound distraction. However, one would not know from this piece the toll that the stress created by excessive work and deadlines was taking on Beethoven’s health, nor the inward despair that Beethoven felt over his loss of hearing.
The first movement begins with an ostinato D in the bass that is reminiscent of a tympani. Over this warm sound in the bass comes a simple, bucolic melody in the treble setting a beautiful scene that immediately brings to mind the country side Beethoven used to spend hours walking in. The structure of this movement is strictly Sonata-Allegro; exposition, development recapitulation. Following the genial opening theme, Beethoven begins to build tension with a harmonically rich second theme. He uses this theme to modulate and the excitement created by this motive virtually explodes (happily!) in the dominant (A Major) signally the approaching end of the exposition. The development begins by restating the main theme, but then quickly moves to minor. Once Beethoven establishes the minor key (impending storm?), he very cleverly passes part of the opening theme through different registers on the keyboard, much like passing the musical idea through various instruments in the orchestra. He ends the development with a series of chords in F-sharp major, very cleverly moves to the dominant and takes us home to D Major and the recapitulation, which flows true to form to the end of the movement.
The second movement in D Minor, again brings to mind the feeling of walking. With a flowing series of staccato sixteenth notes in bass, the left hand creates a march-like feeling while the right hand plays a legato melody. Unlike the first movement Allegro, the Andante does not immediately impart a warm and friendly feeling, rather Beethoven seems to be struggling, as if searching for a solution that is just out of reach. We are given a brief diversion from this struggle with a light hearted romp in the parallel (D) major. We return, however to the main theme which is then repeated and embellished. A small coda brings us to the end of the movement.
The Scherzo is quintessential Beethoven: playful, somewhat ornery, and endearingly charming. This brief movement also in D Major begins with falling octaves creating a sense of expectation. As a response, Beethoven makes a quick cadence, only to repeat the whole idea again. This simple musical information makes up the whole of the Scherzo. The Trio, by contrast, is in B Minor and is quite energetic and frenetic. Beethoven manages to write a beautiful and intriguing melody to accompany the excited left hand octaves. The return to the Scherzo comes quickly, bringing us to the end of the movement.
The last movement Rondo possesses one of the most elegant openings of all the sonata movements. With a gently rocking left hand accompaniment, Beethoven introduces a simple, yet beautiful theme in the treble. Rather than a long melodic line, Beethoven offers small playful bursts of melody that ultimately build on themselves to create a long line. Again, one is reminded of the warmth of the countryside in early summer as this piece unfolds, with references to birds and nature at every turn. This piece, as a rondo, moves through several different sections, but Beethoven never seem to lose his good humor. Even when in the music turns dark and foreboding, it seems no more than a passing thunderstorm leaving things even more beautiful than before. The piece ends with a brilliant coda which seems to sum up Beethoven’s pleasure and joy for life.
When most of us think of Beethoven, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the scowling visage, the unkempt hair and the rumor of a foul temper. However, as with most people, reality is much more complex than such a quick caricature.
We know from the Heiligenstadt Testement how distraught Beethoven was at the prospect of losing his hearing. Further, Beethoven suffered issues related to his digestion from the time of his youth. These health issues only became more acute as he aged. It is not surprising, then, that he might have been somewhat short-tempered. Undoubtedly, his health had an impact on his demeanor, but it is also likely that his uncompromising standards and his inherent narcissism also contributed to his gruffness.
If Beethoven’s music was only sturm und drang (storm and stress, typified by wild often violent emotional swings) it is unlikely that we would count him one of our most important composers. It is Beethoven’s ability to capture and describe any emotion or affect that makes his music not just unique, but more importantly, universal. Beethoven communicates the complete human experience.
It is interesting that one doesn’t think of Beethoven’s charm or his wit. Nor do people commonly refer to his love for his fellow man. Yet these are the things that are Beethoven’s greatest gift to us. One needs to look no further than the text from the Ninth Symphony which honors joy and brotherhood, unity and freedom.
Welcome to Beethoven’s Humor, the seventh concert in the series A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major Op. 10, No. 3
The piano sonata No. 7 in D Major is one of three sonatas published as Op. 10. All three sonatas were composed between the years 1796-1798 and are dedicated to one of his patrons, the Countess Anne Margarete von Browne. The third sonata is unique among the three as it is the longest and the only one of the three sonatas in four movements.
All three of the sonatas Op. 10 are lively and dynamic, but the second and third both exhibit a charming and witty side to Beethoven’s character. The sonata Op. 10, No. 3 begins with a staccato scale in octaves announcing the key of D major. The ascending scale abruptly stops only to be followed by a legato descending scale in chords. The juxtaposition of staccato and legato, abrupt stops and starts as well as the use of silence all contribute to a playful mood that keeps the listener off balance and engaged with the music.
The first movement follows the typical form of a classical period sonata: Sonata-Allegro form (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation). As noted, the opening theme of the first movement is a scale, which he uses both ascending and descending. An advantage to this thematic material is that with a scale, one can start in the same place and end in another, which is exactly how Beethoven arrives at the second theme. Situated in the relative minor (B Minor), the second theme is much more compact than the first theme. However, Beethoven eventually begins to spin his second theme out into a series of scales (first theme) bringing us to an exciting climax which begins to lead us to the close of the Exposition. Beethoven uses only four notes from his first theme to lead us to the closing theme of the Exposition, a wonderful example of Beethoven’s ability to unify a large scale structure through the use of organically derived material.
The development begins by way of the four notes borrowed from the first theme, only this time reinterpreted in minor. Beethoven, though, is in much too cheerful a mood to stay somber, and the body of the Development is in a major key. The primary information for the Exposition is taken from the first theme; staccato scales, this time in the bass. The Development builds to a head as the scale motive moves from register to register and the pianist is eventually resigned to showing only the highest and lowest notes of the scale. With a fermata (pause) allowing us to recover from the excitement, Beethoven returns us to the Recapitulation, which follows true to form with a brief coda and a brilliant and cheerful ending.
The second movement of this sonata is as dark as the first movement was light. Beethoven deviates from the normal key relationships we expect in a classical period sonata and keeps the second movement in the key of D, in this case, D Minor. Filled with pathos, the opening theme is slow and somber, as if with each step, the mood grows heavier and heavier. Following the close of the first theme, Beethoven begins a lament; beautiful and operatic, this theme typifies Beethoven’s lyrical and expressive writing. But, in this case, Beethoven cannot resist expressing his pain and suffering, which he does through a series of strong chords, as if to punctuate the seriousness of his distress. A return to lyricism closes the first section of this movement.
When Beethoven starts the second part of this slow movement, he begins in F Major and it seems as if he has made peace with his troubles. However, this is not to be the case. Beethoven introduces a motive that engenders such longing as to inspire visions of Orpheus and Euridice in the underworld (“where are you?, where are you?”). This motive, alone, brings us back to the main theme to which we arrive with a sense of resignation. Following a recapitulation of the first section, we are offered a coda which builds to an intense climax leading to a reprise of the motive from the middle section. Beethoven seems loathe to leave and very slowly, reluctantly, draws this movement to a close.
Emerging from the darkness of the second movement is the delightful Menuetto and Trio of the third movement. Simply and beautifully crafted, this gentle minuet is an antidote to the suffering of the second movement. The form of the Menutto and Trio is typical for the period with little deviation from the norm (one small difference being the form of the Trio which is A A’ rather than A repeated B repeated). However, one is captivated by the charm and elegance of the Menutto and the playful exuberance of the Trio.
The last movement Rondo is perhaps the most playful and enigmatic movement. Beethoven begins with a question followed by silence. He seems to be saying “where are you?”, but this time as if in a game of hide and seek. Once again, the idea of humor takes center stage here, with playful stops and starts, curious musical turns and of course, the return to the question of the opening statement. Beethoven further surprises us with sudden harmonic shifts as in the section following the second iteration of the main theme, with a dramatic move from D Major to B-flat Major. This ignites a delightful sequence which ultimately brings us back to our main theme: the question. Beethoven reviews all of the information from our first section and leads us to a charming and elegant coda which echoes the opening motive accompanied by a chromatic scale, all of which quietly disappears.
Sonata No. 11 in B-Flat Major Op. 22
The piano sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major was composed in 1799-1800, concurrent with his composition of the string quartets Op. 18. This sonata is considered to be a great masterpiece of Beethoven’s high-Classical phase. Beethoven himself said to his publisher, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, that this sonata “is quite something.”
While the musicologist, Sir Donald Tovey, considers this sonata conventional, the pianist Anton Kuerti reminds us that “conventionality does not have to be the enemy of beauty.” Both conventional and beautiful, this sonata is brilliant, light-hearted and inventive.
The formal outline of Op. 22 is indeed quite conventional: it is composed in four movements; the first movement is in Sonata-Allegro form, the second is an adagio, the third a minuet and trio and the fourth a rondo. All movements follow a typical formal plan for the time period and few structural surprises await us.
The first movement follows the familiar Sonata-Allegro form (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation). Beethoven’s ingenuity lies in his development of the primary motive. He begins with a brief figure that outlines our tonic triad (B-flat). Key to this motive is the collection of 16th notes contained within this figure. It is these four notes which become an important developmental tool as the movement progresses. Throughout the first movement we are entertained by the cheerful mood and surprising silences that Beethoven employs to great effect. Of note is the long sustained decrescendo in the Development section. This section is reminiscent of passages in earlier sonatas (in particular the arppeggiated Development section in Op. 2 No. 3), however, the progression of harmonies combined with the sustained decrescendo points to a more sophisticated compositional style, a style that will soon be intentionally modified by the composer (Op. 31).
Perhaps the most Italianate of all the sonata movements, this Adagio is designed in three parts. The first section is light in texture, with its melody floating above a sustained harmony in the left hand. As he continues, Beethoven modulates away from our home key and closes in the dominant (V). The second section does not begin in the dominant, however, but shifts rather uncomfortably to the mediant (iii), a temporary shift as he moves through a series of keys with a plaintive melody supported by moving 16th notes. The close of this section brings us effortlessly back to the first theme and ultimately to a gentle conclusion.
The Menuetto (and Trio) follow the slow movement and continue the elegant style presented by the Adagio. While no new or innovated features are to be noted here, the control and sophistication of compositional style is clear. Easy-going and gentile, the A section of the Menuetto is short but beautifully crafted; it gives no hint to the drama that follows. The B section begins with the alternation of two harmonies designed to create energy and tension. This gesture then erupts with a chordal response. Following the repetition of this idea, the Menuetto returns to the A section and closes peacefully. The Trio immediately disrupts that sense of calm with a flurry of fast moving 16th notes. The energy and dynamism of the Trio is an exciting foil to the bucolic Menuetto.
Beethoven has a way of writing exquisite Rondos. The Rondo that concludes the sonata Op. 22 is no exception. This elegant piece follows the typical form of the Beethoven Rondo (ABACAB-Coda). He even keeps the character relationships consistent, in that he very often reserves the most dynamic and exciting writing for the C section. What is interesting to note is that, in the C section, Beethoven seems to be testing out his counterpart writing. At this point we have not seen a fugue in a Beethoven sonata, and while he is not yet ready to write one, the organization and style of motivic information in this section seem to point to a future fugal structure. The excitement and drama of this section only reinforces the charm of the main theme and, once back, we are carried gently on to the coda and a lovely end to this beautiful piece.
Sonata No. 16 in G Major Op. 31, No. 1
Composed in 1801/2 the sonatas Op. 31 represent a new direction in Beethoven’s composition; this in Beethoven’s own estimation. Feeling as though he may have exhausted the current forms and needing a change, he vowed to write a “different kind of music.” The first pieces published after this grand statement are the sonatas Op. 31.
While Beethoven may have felt as though he was changing his writing style or perhaps deepening his music suddenly, it seems that this process is more gradual and less apparent than he may have believed. In fact, there are some striking innovations which occur earlier than the Op. 31 sonatas, and even the sonatas Op. 27 and 28 (“Pastorale”) offer a highly complex writing style that is clearly very deeply sophisticated and rich with ideas.
The Sonata Op. 31 No. 1 begins with a Sonata-Allegro movement. Structurally, this piece follows the standard form quite closely (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation-Coda). This playful movement shows Beethoven’s sense of humor as the two hands seem unable to play together. Of particular interest is the way in which Beethoven uses the first motive. Already charming and witty, this motive makes several appearances throughout the piece. The repetition of this idea serves to keep the listener off balance; one has to ask, “Is this the repetition of the Exposition? Is this the Recapitulation? Is this a broken record?” Of course, Beethoven’s repeated use of this theme serves to mask the structure, creating a delightful sense of confusion for the listener.
One of the longest slow movements written for a sonata by Beethoven is the second movement of this sonata. C Major always seems to provide for Beethoven a sense of comfort; the freedom to write expressively and extemporaneously. This slow movement is an excellent example of this style of writing. Beethoven seems to have a unique sense of tempo here; not only the speed at which the notes move, but the way in which the piece unfolds. He is in no hurry and wants to make sure that there is plenty of space in the music so that he can ornament and fill in as he sees fit.
Reminiscent of an aria, this beautiful movement begins with a trill in the right hand, singing over a simple accompaniment. This opening gives rise to a lovely melody ripe with the possibility of ornamentation, which Beethoven uses liberally as the theme develops. This piece is composed in a simple form: ABA-Coda, where each of the A sections contain their own form – aa’b-cadenza-a. While not overtly innovative, one cannot help but notice Beethoven’s sense of time. In particular, the B section seems to move at a pace only Beethoven could conceive of, hearing a long line that moves inexorably forward at its own pace.
The final movement of this sonata, a Rondo, shows Beethoven writing in a new a forward-looking way. While one might not notice the writing style initially, as we feel very comfortable with the gentle feeling of the opening theme, one can hear creeping into the writing a sense of independence in the hands that Beethoven had not fully explored until now.
Often challenging, the last movements of Beethoven sonatas tend to be, if not predictable, familiar. And while there is a familiarity here, Beethoven begins to challenge the pianist in ways that point to the coming sonatas – “Waldstein,” “Apassionata,” “Les Adieu,” et al. The primary challenges come in the form of accompanimental figures: Beethoven no longer feels the need to relegate the accompanying information to simple forms (Alberti bass, repeated chords, etc), but instead treats the accompaniment as its own distinct voice often developing new and more complex figures than in the melody. Structurally, Beethoven stays within the standard Rondo form, adding a coda in which he uses changes of tempo to at first lull the listener with the promise of a gentle ending, then, in a burst of energy rushes to a wonderfully humorous conclusion.
Rondo a capriccio in G Major, “Rage over a lost penny” Op. 129
Having been given the opus number 129, one would assume that this is a late work. In fact, despite its late opus number this Rondo was composed around 1795. As such it bears all the traits of early Beethoven: brilliant technical passage work, bright character, good construction and well presented, if not profound musical thought. The great composer and music critic Robert Schumann wrote: “It would be difficult to find anything merrier than this whim…It is the most amiable, harmless anger, similar to that felt when one cannot pull a shoe from off the foot.”
This humorous piece centers around one idea in two parts: the arpeggiation of the tonic chord and the first five notes of the relative minor scale. This theme repeats frequently in the tonic key but it also visits several other keys throughout the work. Each repetition of the main theme is separated by an opposing theme, usually displaying brilliant arpeggios or scales. Over time, the main theme becomes more ornamented often including notes which sound wrong, adding to the playful quality of this piece.
Eventually Beethoven slows things down by focusing on one element of his ornamented motive: the appaggiatura. This brief respite prepares the listener for the wind up to an energetic coda and witty ending. In all, the piece makes one think of the dog chasing its tail; fun, amusing, and good for a laugh!
The Late Sonatas
From the years 1811-1818, Beethoven’s life underwent a series of extreme challenges. His health was continually compromised, he lost his dear brother Caspar Carl to tuberculosis, and he became embroiled in an acrimonious custody battle over his nephew which nearly cost Beethoven his nephew’s life.
This is also a time when Beethoven’s compositional style became its most transcendent. Whether because of the personal difficulties he faced, or due to his deafness and resulting emotional isolation, the music we hear from this period is unlike any music created to this point. Formal structures still exist, but only as a translucent vessel for the ideas contained therein: ideas that now challenge the very definition of the word music.
That is not to say that Beethoven’s late works are unintelligible to the listener, but rather that Beethoven goes beyond the limits of sound and composes music that approaches the philosophical. By now Beethoven is not bound by the limits of sound and so can compose completely in his head, “hearing” a pure version of his music that can address his deepest feelings and highest aspirations. It is this music that is perhaps Beethoven’s most important gift to us.
Welcome to The Late Sonatas, the eighth concert in the series A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79
Composed in 1809, the sonata Op. 79 does not qualify as a late period sonata, but will offer a good contrast for the sonatas which follow. While the Op. 79 sonata does not share much in common with the sonata that follows it, Op. 81a, it seems a kindred spirit to the sonata that precedes it, Op. 78.
All three sonatas, Op. 78, 79, and 81a were composed in 1809 during the siege of Vienna by Napoleon’s army. As has been previously noted, the sonata Op. 81a, “Les Adieux,” was composed for his beloved friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph on his departure from Vienna during this difficult time. It is interesting to note that, during this oppressive and dangerous time in Beethoven’s life, he manages to compose music which has little resemblance to the tumultuous events that surround him.
Unlike the earlier sonatas in Beethoven’s middle period, the sonata Op. 79 is quite short and doesn’t make the technical demands upon the pianist that most of the other sonatas of this period do. It is in fact the shortest of all sonatas composed with more than two movements. It does, however, follow a typical format.
The first movement, marked Presto all tedesca (referring to a German dance), is in Sonata-Allegro form and stays closely within that structure with two main variations. The first, and most notable, is the use of almost no melodic material for the entire development section. Rather, Beethoven relies on one motivic idea that we hear very near the beginning of the development recalling the sound of the cuckoo. This new motive becomes the primary (and almost exclusive) musical information in the development as Beethoven uses this idea to move through various key centers. The second notable difference is the repetition of both the exposition and the development-recapitulation (largely not done throughout Beethoven’s piano sonatas with the exception of the sonata Op. 78). This, like the repetition mentioned in Op. 78, may be Beethoven’s way of making up for the brevity of the movement.
The one dark moment in this light and charming piece comes in the second movement. Written in the key of G Minor, this movement is both somber and lyrical. Composed in three parts (ternary form), it moves from its initial moody theme in the key of G Minor to a lovely melodic section in the key of E-flat Major. There is little to note in terms of novelty here, but the elegance of the melodies and simplicity of structure give this piece a somewhat ephemeral quality.
The last movement is written in the form of a Rondo (A-B-A-C-A-Coda), albeit a brief one. The main theme of this piece and its rhythmic treatment gives the impression of thoughtfulness and self-reflection. This movement is especially delightful, perhaps due to the lighthearted nature of the opening theme; the same theme that we will here as the opening theme of the sonata Op. 109.
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major Op. 101
Truly the beginning of Beethoven’s late period, this sonata shows a new mastery of composition. Beethoven has long been manipulating compositional structures to suit his musical needs, and here we see the complete control of form, totally in the service of his musical goals.
The sonata loosely follows the four movement structure that we encountered with Beethoven’s first published sonatas from 1795, but there the similarities end. The first movement opens as if the sun is rising; simple and pure, this opening theme never rises above a mezzo-forte (medium strong) thereby maintaining an overwhelming sense of calm. Beethoven has no need for fireworks here; the bravura that we encounter in the middle period with sonatas such as the “Appassionata” is gone.
Composed in a Sonata-Allegro form, we see the elimination of the repeated exposition creating a sense of unity in the first movement. An important idea that will return as the piece develops. While brief, this movement is emotionally profound and opens into a world of emotional depth and conflict. The development section of the first movement shows Beethoven’s control of form while allowing for freedom of thought, following a natural and organic development of musical ideas. Beethoven subtly returns to our main theme (Recapitulation) just when it seems the Development will lead us somewhere else. While the Recapitulation begins with a strength brought on by the tension in the Development, the power gently relents and we recapture the calm beauty of the opening, closing the movement quietly.
A departure from the norm, the second movement is a March. Energetic and angular, Beethoven displays a sense of urgency and determination not experienced in the opening movement. Rhythmically unified, the March employs polyphonic writing at a level not previously seen in the sonatas. One can see in the score a similarity to string quartet writing in that there are distinct “parts” or voices each going their own way yet combining to create a unified whole. Structurally similar to a Menuet or Scherzo and Trio, the March contains two sections each repeated (AABB). As with a Menuet or Scherzo, the March is followed by a “Trio,” though not strictly a Trio. As in the March, we see Beethoven continue to develop his skill at writing counter-part. In this case, Beethoven writes a canon. While not completely strict, it is clear that Beethoven is preparing us for his eventual move to writing fugues.
The slow movement of this sonata is brief and acts more like an interlude than a full movement. Initially somber, Beethoven moves away from the tragic to the sublime. Again using imitation between voices, we hear a primary motive echoing between the hands as it develops its own tension through repetition. Ultimately, this leads us to a pause and a small cadenza which acts as a bridge to a restatement of the original theme from the first movement. Much like the repetition of the main theme of the slow movement of the sonata Op. 27 No. 1 before the coda of the last movement, this repetition serves to unify the entire sonata. No longer is a sonata a collection of movements, but one structure in and of itself.
This restatement of the first movement main theme leads us by way of trills to the last movement. Looking at this movement from a distance gives the impression of a Sonata-Allegro form. But on closer inspection, we see that while the general shape is Sonata-Allegro (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation), Beethoven replaces the Development section with a fugue. Full of energy and excitement, this final movement reflects a trend that began with the sonatas Op. 27 (in particular, No. 2 “Moonlight”) where the size and importance of an individual movement shifts from the first movement to the last. This movement is by far the longest and most complex both structurally and technically. Given the personal difficulties with which Beethoven struggled at this time, the last movement here can be seen as a triumph over the challenges one faces. For, in spite of his suffering, he meets the world through music with gentility, hope and courage.
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major Op. 109
This remarkable work was composed in 1820 and dedicated to Maximilliane Brentano, the daughter of Beethoven’s long-time friend, Antoine Brentano. It is important to note that this sonata was one of three sonatas commissioned by Beethoven’s publisher, completed over the years 1820-22. While perhaps not intentional, it is not difficult to see these three sonatas as a sort of tryptic.
Beethoven completed this sonata shortly after the close of the long and arduous custody battle over his nephew. Constantly struggling with his health, Beethoven was beginning to earn his reputation as a misanthrope, exhibiting wild mood swings and increasingly neurotic behaviors. It is within this context and following the publication of the great “Hammerklavier” sonata (Op. 106) that Beethoven undertakes work on Op. 109.
The piano sonata Op. 109 certainly bears more in common with Op. 101 than with Op. 106; first and foremost, its size. The great pianist, Ilana Vered, casually referred to Opp. 109 and 110 as the “little ones,” and while it’s true that these sonatas are not long (each lasting barely half as long as the “Hammerklavier”), what they lack in duration they make up in depth.
The first movement displays Beethoven’s interest in parenthetical structures. For example, following the opening statement (a theme we have already encountered in the third movement of the Op. 79 sonata), Beethoven stops the motion and a fantasy-like passage ensues. The rhythmic treatment of the main motive imbues the character of this movement with an uplifting quality. An idea that permeates all three of the last sonatas: looking up to the heavens. The movement follows loosely the Sonata-Allegro form and in the development we are introduced to a doleful melody that will again appear in the slow movement of the sonata Op. 110. These connections hint at an overarching connection for the last sonatas.
The coda of the first movement recaptures the simplicity of the opening statement and gently guides us to the second movement which begins abruptly and without interruption. The Prestissimo is full of energy and drama. Unlike the first movement which encourages the listener to “look up,” the second movement seems to ask us to “look in.” Even the writing has the hands moving toward each other and at various points pushes the hands toward the middle of the piano. This movement also loosely follows the Sonata-Allegro form, but has a minimal development section. Written in the key of E Minor, this movement acts as a foil to the light first movement. Additionally, the lack of separation between movements seems to imply a new kind of two-part first movement form.
Taken together, the first two movements adequately balance the third movement, which is by far the most significant movement of the three. A set of variations, the writing in the last movement is an excellent example of the transcendent quality of the Beethoven’s late compositions. The theme is an exceptionally thoughtful melody. It is marked Andante (relatively slow walking tempo) so that Beethoven can explore the world of time that exists inside each beat.
Beethoven originally composed six variations, then nine, finally settling on six. Each variation offers a unique perspective on the theme. The depth of Beethoven’s sensitivity and expression is felt immediately in both the theme and especially in the first variation. Stately, elegant, deeply personal, the first variation exemplifies beauty. The opening of the second variation is light and playful, with a deconstructed version of the theme. Beethoven takes every opportunity to provide new ways to look at the main theme and on the repetition of the theme in this variation, Beethoven contrasts his initial approach with a pensive and sustained vision of the same musical information.
Variation three is energetic and lively, with imitation between the hands as the theme and its counter point switches from hand to hand. After a frenzied conclusion, we segue into a beautiful variation that seems to be built on waves; waves of sound. Beethoven often uses trill to create waves of sound -- vibrations of sound -- and we will see this idea again in the finale. The fifth variation is a nod to Beethoven’s interest in counterpart writing. Almost a fugue, not quite a canon, Beethoven clearly is writing individual parts and implies a strictness not only in the setting of the parts, but in the character of the sound.
The finale is the ultimate devolution and evolution of the theme. Beethoven reminds us at the outset what the theme contained, but he immediately directs our attention inward. Using smaller and smaller rhythmic values, the music descends to a micro level and then further by way of trills to an atomic level. By looking inward at the very essence of the sound, Beethoven develops an incredible tension that ultimately lifts us out of this micro world and into the universe. When we finally return to earth, we are greeted with a restatement of the main theme. How can one hear this music the same way, however? Indeed, one cannot. It is only a memory of the original theme and we are no longer the same.
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major Op. 110
Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 is the penultimate piano sonata composed by Beethoven. It is perhaps my favorite. Composed in 1821, this sonata continues in the amicable spirit set forward in the sonata Op. 109.
Like the sonatas in Beethoven’s early period, this sonata consists of four movements. However, even to say that there are four movements in this work belies the formal innovation at work here. Once again Beethoven moves away from the overtly technical challenges of the early sonatas in favor of an exploration of musical thought. I would argue that these last three sonatas (and perhaps all five of the last sonatas) are more than music, and share as much with philosophical thought as with musical expression.
In Beethoven’s conversation book of February 1820, Beethoven writes: “The moral law in us, and the starry sky above us—Kant!!!” This emphatic embrace of these dual truths are born out in Beethoven’s compositions, and most certainly in these last three piano sonatas.
The first movement of Op. 110 begins with a simple introduction, followed by an exquisitely beautiful melody reminiscent of a Mozart aria. What follows is an elegant display of arpeggios which, like a good painting, directs our eyes upward, ultimately to the heavens. Like stars, the sound is pointed and distant, but eventually we return to the earth and feel the weight of our humanity, as with descending trills in the bass, we become overwhelmed with the beauty of the universe. Beethoven closes the Exposition of this movement simply, allowing us to reflect on the images and ideas he has laid before us.
The Development is an exploration of our opening theme as seen through a variety of tonal centers. The melody, which remains unchanged, is accompanied by travelling scales in the bass, eventually reaching our home key and the Recapitulation. What follows is a free flowing reiteration of the Exposition with some small variation. What remains true to form is the musical conception: man’s relation to the heavens. An elegant and thoughtful coda, which beautifully sums up the emotional experience of the movement, closes this movement.
Like the sonata Op. 101, the second movement here acts much like a Menuet and Trio, though is neither in 3/4 time, nor a Menuet. Neither is it a March, like the Op. 101, but it holds the same form as both. The first section of the second movement is in two parts; a brusque theme in 2/4 time, full of angles and urgency (one can almost imagine Beethoven storming through town) begins this movement. The first section being rather short is immediately followed by what functions as a “Trio,” which is all curves interspersed with strong accents in the bass. A return to the first section (with repeats) brings this movement to its conclusion.
As was mention earlier, there are four movements in this sonata, however, I would argue that in fact there are three. What remains is a slow movement followed by a fugue. But it is not so simple: there is a slow movement and a fugue, followed by a return to the slow movement and another fugue based on the inversion of the original fugue subject. All are meant to be played without interruption creating one long structure that defies typical definition.
The pathos expressed in the Adagio cannot help but remind the listener of Beethoven’s own suffering; his ill health, his deafness, his loneliness and isolation, the loss of his nephew. Throughout this movement we hear in the music Beethoven’s pain and feel a kinship with it. The main motive here is not unfamiliar to us: it is the same melody from the Development section of the sonata Op. 109. Beethoven also employs some unusual compositional techniques in this movement including the use of recitativo and a technique called bebung, a technique associated with the chlavicord whereby the performer, via the key, actually maintains contact with the string and rocks the string creating a vibrato.
The end of the Adagio segues quietly into the fugue, using the closing A-flat in the Adagio as a connection to the opening A-flat at the start of the fugue. As was mentioned at the outset of this project, one of the most amazing aspects of Beethoven’s writing is his ability to take simple ideas and make from them an entire universe. This fugue subject is a great example of this idea: ascending fourths, nothing more, lead to a complex and rigorous exploration. Unlike the fugues we see in Opp. 101 and 106, this fugue maintains an elegance and beauty that make it more accessible to the listener. Like the first movement, the ascending theme of this fugue encourages the listener to look up, to rise above.
The climax of the fugue is also the transition point back to the dolorous Arioso. A rhythmically embellished restatement of the Adagio ensues, this time in the key of G Minor. Arriving at the end of this section Beethoven reminds us of his unique greatness in an unexpected way: he dwells on the tonality of G Major, repeating the G Major chord ten times and increasing the volume with each repetition. In addition to that, he asks that the damper pedal be held down allowing all the strings to resonate together. The result is an avalanche of sound, and we are invited to join him in being enveloped in the resonance of the piano. From this G Major cacophony emerges a single line: a G Major arpeggio which delivers us to the opening of the second fugue.
It is startling enough to be in G Major and not A-flat Major as the end approaches, but when the second fugue subject begins we hear that it is an inversion of the original fugue subject. While it would seem that this fugue will proceed as the first did, we soon see that Beethoven is aware of his tonal predicament as well as the result of descending fourths instead of ascending and the effect that this creates. Beethoven begins to rhythmically accelerate the subject and modulates to G Minor (two flats – half way to A-flat, four flats). As the music progresses, Beethoven increases the frequency of entrances of the subject (stretto) and then lets things seemingly fall apart. What follows is bridge to the coda based on even smaller note values, which then is joined by the second fugue subject, and ultimately a triumphant return of the original ascending fourth fugue subject. This is not only deeply satisfying, but important for the unification of the movement. It also reinforces for me the idea that perseverance and hope, a deep reliance on personal morality and an appreciation for our place in the universe leads us to triumph over adversity.
A State of Wonder
There are many great composers. Beethoven, however, rises above even them as a singular giant. We are witness to his mastery of form, the transformation of form to accommodate his expressive needs, and ultimately the synthesis of idea, emotion and sound. Few composers find the inspiration that never seems to have left Beethoven; the desire to create something important and lasting.
The late works of Beethoven are uniquely important. In many cases they mystify the listener as well as the performer! But Beethoven himself realized at the time that he was not writing music for his time, but rather for the future. He has created in these late works a catalogue of life experiences, lessons, epiphanies; truths. What makes them so important is their universality.
It is easy to put Beethoven on a pedestal, out of the reach of us mortals. But Beethoven, through his music, extends his hand down to us, inviting us to join him, to accompany him into the musical universe he has created.
Welcome to the final concert in the series A State of Wonder: The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven.
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”
The piano sonata Op. 106 looms large as one of the single most challenging pieces composed for the instrument. Beethoven began work on the “Hammerklavier” in 1817 and completed the composition in 1818, publishing it the next year in 1819. It is dedicated to his most important patron, the Archduke Rudolf.
In many ways it is Beethoven’s most ambitious sonata, although he stays within the four movement sonata form that we see as far back as his sonatas Op. 2. In addition to using a standard sonata format, Beethoven includes in this piece many examples of compositional styles that predate the Classical period; most notably, contrapuntal writing and specifically the fugue. He also makes use of a free kind of composition that we see in the Baroque period called the unmeasured prelude (which has a kinship with the fantasia).
The first movement is marked Allegro and follows the Sonata-Allegro form quite closely (Exposition – Development – Recapitulation). What starts as a striking fanfare immediately gives way to a beautiful and elegant melody. This duality, brilliant crashing chords and delicate, sinuous melody, make up the entirety of the Exposition. Of particular interest are the harmonic relationships between motives. Rather than follow a typical harmonic relationship between themes (i.e. first theme in Tonic, second theme in the Dominant) Beethoven uses third relations between themes (i.e. first theme I in Tonic, B-flat, second theme in the Sub-median, G Major – a third below the Tonic, B-flat).
Following the cadence of the Exposition in G Major, Beethoven continues his movement down by thirds and moves seamlessly to the key of E-flat. What follows is a feat of engineering: beautifully constructed counterpoint based on the first theme. This is not the first time Beethoven has used fugal techniques in the Development of a sonata movement. In fact, the sonata Op. 101, which immediately precedes the Hammerklavier, has a fugue in the Development section of the last movement. Beethoven’s preoccupation with the fugue and counterpoint has finally come to fruition and Beethoven includes fugues or highly polyphonic writing in all of the remaining piano sonatas. Following a brief movement to the key of B Major (the enharmonic equivalent of C-flat, a third below E-flat) for a restatement of the closing theme from the Exposition, Beethoven begins to rekindle the opening theme, but it quickly disintegrates, leaving us with a repetition in layers of just four notes. These four notes become two, and as the excitement builds, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Recapitulation.
The rest of the movement follows form and key relationships established in the Exposition. From a structural perspective, there are no surprises. The coda which brings this movement to a close echoes the opening theme while gradually drawing to close.
The second movement is what, by now, we would expect from early Beethoven: a Scherzo. Indeed, the structure of this Scherzo harkens back to the early sonatas with some notable exceptions. First, the phrase length of the opening theme is unusual: 7 measures. A typical phrase length in the Classical period would be 8 measures. Further, Beethoven does not chose to use repeat signs for the repetition of each section of the Scherzo, rather her writes out the repetition and uses this as an opportunity to change registers. In the Trio, we again encounter a uniquely Beethoven writing style: arpeggios as melody. Beethoven offers us a rapidly moving arpeggio as an accompaniment to a slow arpeggio in octaves in the opposite hand. Beethoven has some fun with this by reversing the rolls of each hand on the repetition.
Following the Trio, we are met with a rather unusual section. A brief Presto in two (rather than the three beats of the Scherzo and Trio) connects us to the return to the Scherzo by way of a scale covering almost the entire length of the keyboard. The playful Scherzo does return, with some slight variation, but it is the ending that proves the most unusual. Composed in the key of B-flat major, one assumes that the piece will conclude in the same key. But upon arrival at the end, there is some confusion as to whether Beethoven means to end in B-flat or B! The argument between the two keys escalates, but suddenly abates and the Scherzo disappears.
When we think of the Hammerklavier sonata, what immediately comes to mind is the fugue, its breadth and difficulty; or perhaps the first movement with its huge sound-scape. In any case, one is taken with the size and scope of the piece. The Adagio fits with this description in its own way. Not only is it the longest (by far) of all of the slow movements, it contains within it a depth of suffering that speaks to all of humanity.
The form and content of this movement is reminiscent of the slow movement from the sonata Op. 10, No. 3, and not since then (1798) has Beethoven imbued a slow movement with such pathos. But this piece is not only suffering: a common theme in Beethoven’s music is the triumph over adversity, and even here we are elevated from our suffering with some of the most sublimely beautiful sounds in this sonata. And with much of Beethoven, it is not the suffering that endures, but the triumph. This is borne out in Beethoven’s use of a Picardy third at the end of the movement, offering hope and solace for the suffering.
Beethoven was hailed as a superb improviser at the piano, known to elicit a wide range of emotion from the listener. In the slow movement we see such freedom, almost a stream of consciousness that Beethoven manages and molds into a formal structure. But it is the freedom that is of interest: one can almost imagine Beethoven himself sitting at the keyboard improvising this slow movement, allowing himself to follow his own thoughts as he plays.
The last movement of the Hammerklavier stands alone as a singular achievement and as a singular challenge. The fugue that Beethoven composes here is monumental from a technical perspective both as a performer and composer. Beethoven maintained the ethos that what was difficult and beautiful was good, and he writes to his publisher in 1819, “Now there you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played fifty years hence.” And in fact, it was Franz Liszt and the pianists Ignaz Moscheles who championed this sonata and brought it into the standard repertoire many years after Beethoven’s death.
Beethoven prepares the way for this fugue with an improvisatory prelude. He seems to be searching for a tonality, and as he wanders through various key centers, he draws on tradition from the Baroque period using a style of composition similar to the unmeasured preludes of Rameau, and a starkly imitative passage we might associate with Bach. None of these moments linger, but Beethoven’s search for a tonality eventually finds a home with a harmonic series based on third relations (A-F-D-b-G-e-C-a-d!-A-F) and building to a climax before settling in to announce the fugue subject.
While Beethoven notes that this is a fugue in three voices, with license (fuga a tre voci, con alcuna licenze), he manages to use all the typical features we would expect from a traditional fugue. We encounter augmentation of the subject, diminution, inversion, but most important is how Beethoven develops the fugue subject as a way of melding the idea of thematic development with the rigor of a fugue. The fugue subject itself can be broken down into three parts: a leap of a tenth with a trill, a series of scales, and a long passage of notes. Each portion of the subject is highlighted in different ways and at different points throughout the fugue, allowing Beethoven to explore each idea specifically and within the context of the entire subject.
Of particular interest is the complete stop that Beethoven arrives at two-thirds of the way through. Here Beethoven introduces yet more melodic material in the form of a cantus firmus (again harkening back to a compositional style we associate with pre-Baroque era composition) which he then folds into the body of the fugue. This stop, of course, signals a move toward completion, but we are not there yet.
Beethoven does indeed arrive rather abruptly at what could be called a coda, cadencing in our home key of B-flat major and then immediately invoking the trills from the subject to lead us to the end. Harmonic tension is eventually resolved by way of layering two aspects of the subject simultaneously and allowing the music to find its way to resolution. However, this is still not the end: Beethoven reprises the scale passage from the subject covering most of the keyboard. The ending arrives in dramatic fashion as he uses the opening of the subject (a leap of a tenth – this time stretched even further and doubled in octaves) followed by the trill, each iteration ascending until it finally arrives at our dominant (F) which allows for a satisfying close in the key of B-flat.
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor Op. 111
The piano sonata Op. 111 is one of the most significant works composed for the piano. Beethoven truly is the master of form and content and here shows his genius as well as his humanity. Composed in 1821-22 as the third of three sonatas commissioned for publication and is dedicated to his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolf.
The opening of the first movement immediately informs the listener of the seriousness of this work. Strong chords filled with tension and presented with a swift angular rhythm belie the tonality of C Minor. Beethoven seems to enjoy the fullness of this sound and even extends the harmony beyond reach by arpeggiating chords over three octaves. Like the Hammerklavier, this opening is momentous.
The big sound created by the opening statement gives way to more intimate thought as Beethoven moves delicately from harmony to harmony, inviting us to listen to each by pausing, asking us to ponder with him some unanswerable question. In the end, Beethoven leads us by way of a simple stepwise melody to what will be the transition to the Exposition.
For, like many of the sonatas, even those in the late period, Beethoven still wishes to use the standard Sonata-Allegro form which he has reshaped and which has allowed him so much expressive freedom. Beethoven’s theme here is again angular and in keeping with many of the subjects on which he has written fugues: angular leaps followed by sinuous moving notes. This, of course, is prophetic as the Exposition is largely made of up counterpoint writing. Not a fugue, per se, but fugal. But like the first movement of the Hammerklavier, and perhaps even more like the first movement of Op. 109, Beethoven interrupts himself by moments of beauty, perhaps dreams or thoughts of escaping the suffering with which he was familiar and which permeates this movement.
The Development follows a new type of composition Beethoven has created, a hybrid comprised of counterpoint writing and thematic development. There is great tension here that comes to a climax as the main theme is repeated in chords while the left hand echoes the arpeggios we heard at the opening. All this leads to a tremendous return to the Recapitulation.
With some slight embellishment, the Recapitulation follows form and leads us in a normal path to the conclusion via a short coda. It is interesting to observe the similarity between the writing in this coda and the writing at the end of the Etude Op. 10, No. 12 “Revolutionary” by Frédéric Chopin. Not only is the harmonic progression nearly identical, the finger patters and treatment of the melody is very similar.
Once again, this piece seems to echo a sentiment that is pervasive in Beethoven’s writing: the triumph over adversity. This piece is a struggle from the outset, but we are offered glimpses into the peace that awaits us should we prevail. Initially, the coda offers us little solace, but in the final cadence, C Major, we feel a deep sense of calm and resolution.
It is with that sense of calm that we enter into the second movement. A magnificent set of variations, this is perhaps Beethoven’s greatest offering in this genre outside of the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. The theme once again shows Beethoven’s power of foresight as he can see in this simple theme a universe of possibility. Each variation here seems to gain traction evolving rhythmically in smaller and smaller fractions.
I cannot help by view this work as autobiographical: the first movement, Beethoven’s struggle with adversity (deafness), the second movement an overarching exploration of life from birth to death. The theme of the second movement seems to come from a time before knowing, from a place beyond words. From there we begin to move into the world, exploring slowing, learning about joy and suffering, but only in as much as a child is capable of understanding.
With each successive variation, we grow stronger, more daring, more willing to explore our surroundings, as is evidenced by the increasingly playful rhythm. And as the rhythm itself begins to develop, the energy explodes much as youth explodes into young adulthood. With wild abandon and playful wit, the once sedate theme is now at the peak of its physical form. Once the sins of youth have played themselves out, Beethoven turns to a new chapter in life, a time when one contemplates those questions which are hard, eternal questions of purpose and place, and indeed he looks to the heavens and sees his own relationship to the universe. This epiphany is announced by a series of trills over which can be heard a resounding return of the main theme. From this high peak, Beethoven descends to the world having reconciled his struggle and his purpose.
A new vision of the theme is then presented to us as a complete view, as one looking back, not with regret, but with perspective. It is from this place that Beethoven leaves us; one last iteration of the theme enshrouded by trills, at the very top of the piano, Beethoven ascends.
The 32 Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven remain a monumental and enduring gift to both pianists and audiences.
I remember learning Beethoven sonatas as a child and as I practiced I would imagine Beethoven sitting next to me, coaching me through each phrase. To this day, Beethoven remains my companion as I live and work at the piano. These sonatas are not only formative for young (and old!) pianists, but informative to all of us seeking insight into the human condition. I am constantly reminded as I study these amazing works that they are not only beautiful in sound, but beautiful in thought.
After 30 years as a concert pianist I have decided to devote the next three years of my performing life to the complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas. One might wonder, why? Having performed hundreds if not thousands of pieces over that time, I have found that these pieces are forever new for the pianist. Each year that passes offers fresh insight into the challenges and ideas that Beethoven proposes. Why all of the Sonatas? Aside from the obvious challenge of attaining mastery of such a body of