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The 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven

 

 

 

I. Homage
II. Introduction
 
III. The Sonatas  
Sonata No.1 in f minor, Op.2, No.1 Sonata No.17 in d minor, Op.31, No.2
Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.2, No.2 Sonata No.18 in E-flat major, Op 31, No.3
Sonata No.3 in C major, Op.2, No.3 Sonata No.19 in g minor, Op.49, No.1
Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7 Sonata No.20 in G major, Op.49, No.2
Sonata No.5 in c minor, Op.10, No.1 Sonata No.21 in C major, Op.53, “Waldstein”
Sonata No.6 in F major, Op.10, No.2 Sonata No.22 in F major, Op.54
Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3 Sonata No.23 in f minor, Op.57, “Appassionata”
Sonata No.8 in c minor, Op.13, “Pathétique” Sonata No.24 in F-sharp major, Op.78
Sonata No.9 in E major, Op.14, No.1 Sonata No.25 in G major, Op.79
Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.14, No.2 Sonata No.26 in E-flat major, Op.81a, “Les Adieux”
Sonata No.11 in B-flat major, Op.22 Sonata No.27 in e minor, Op.90
Sonata No.12 in A-flat major, Op.26 Sonata No.28 in A major, Op.101
Sonata No.13 in E-flat major “quasi una fantasia”, Op.27, No.1 Sonata No.29 in B-flat major, Op.106 “Hammerklavier”
Sonata No.14 in c-sharp minor “quasi una fantasia”, Op.27, No.2, “Moonlight Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109
Sonata No.15 in D major, Op.28, “Pastoral Sonata No.31 in A-flat major, Op.110
Sonata No.16 in G major, Op.31, No.1 Sonata No.32 in c minor, Op.111
   

 

 

Homage


These notes were written for PianoTexas and its Founder and Director, Dr. Tamás Ungár. I dedicate them also to my professors at the Franz Liszt Music Academy of Budapest: Dr. Erno Daniel and Tibor Wehner—brilliant students of Erno Dohnanyi—who taught me the meaning and glories of the sonatas of Beethoven, and to Bence Szabolcsi, whose unforgettable lectures I was privileged to attend for two years. When I quote these masters—for surely I do frequently without even realizing it—it is with deepest respect and gratitude.


I thank Geoffrey Simon for his perceptive editing and for contributing precious ideas and jewels of insight of his own. He is a superb musician and a dear friend of PianoTexas.


Some of the observations which follow are purely personal, while others arise from my experience of preparing the sonatas for performance. Furthermore, I was privileged to hear many of the greatest artists of the last century play, and on occasion also discuss, these magnificent works. They planted treasures in my memory which I am pleased to offer now to the next generation.


The notes are written with humility, and in admiration, love and eternal gratitude to Beethoven.
My hope is that today’s students who are embarking on the monumental task of mastering these sonatas, especially those attending PianoTexas, may find the facts and insights below to be of some use along the way.


Stephen Seleny

 

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) freed music from its eighteenth century “classical” restraints and pointed the way to its greatest manifestation, the Romantic Age. In the true spirit of the French Revolution, he proudly proclaimed the primacy of the individual, and that of the artist, the creator.


The son of a court musician, who lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was barely eighteen, had to struggle with illness and constant financial and family crises, and was faced, at age 28, with the devastating realization that he would be deaf within a few years, gave humanity a treasure trove of immortal music.


“O men who consider me, or describe me, as quarrelsome, peevish or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me! I had to cut myself off and live in solitude… I could not find it in myself to say to people ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf!’… I came near to ending my life—only my art held me back… Oh God, you look down on my soul, and you know that it is filled with love of humanity… Oh my fellow men, when you read this some day, reflect that you have done me wrong and let him who is unfortunate comfort himself with the thought that he has found someone equally unfortunate, who, despite all the burdens placed on him by nature, did all that was in his power to earn a place among worthy artists and human beings.”


These heartbreaking words, expressed in “The Heiligenstadt Testament” of 1802, reveal a tragic, utterly lonely soul, yet one who will not be defeated by fate.


Beethoven’s numerous sketchbooks document his immense creative struggle to reach self-imposed perfection. He kept them throughout his life, jotting down ideas as they came to him, mercilessly altering, adding, transforming, cutting and discarding. Reading these tormented pages, we are taken into the world of a searching, restless, deeply troubled genius who had to write music to communicate with his fellow man because fate had denied him the means to do it adequately with words. Through this process Beethoven transformed himself into a monumental, heroic elemental force, paralleled by very few in the history of mankind. His music has been accurately described as the voice of humanity, communicating with God.


Most often, Beethoven’s life and oeuvre is divided into three periods, although this approach is not without its critics. No lesser personality than Franz Liszt, a pioneer performer of Beethoven’s most difficult sonatas, saw only two phases in Beethoven’s career. In the first, thought Liszt, Beethoven followed the models of earlier composers; in the second he developed new means and techniques of expression, requiring new styles and forms. The thirty two piano sonatas were created over a span of nearly three decades—Op.2 being commenced in 1794 and Op.111 completed in 1822. Twenty of them (Op.2 to Op.49) were, however, composed within the first nine years, and this, we believe, was the main reason prompting Liszt to group them into a first phase.


For me, the more convincing division is the traditional one, which identifies three periods: “early” being Op.2 to Op.28 (and including the later-published, earlier-written Op.49 pair); “middle” being Op.31 to Op.90; and “late” being Op.101 to 111. In this grouping, the sonatas perfectly track the artistic, intellectual, physical and spiritual journey which history has shown to have so profoundly influenced Beethoven’s creativity.


It was an incredible rite of passage, both in itself and in its uncanny parallel with the long-recognized three phases of the mystic’s spiritual development, separated by two Dark Nights of the Soul. The first phase is that of youthful passion, overweening confidence and unbridled exuberance. The onset of tragedy or disaster forces the second phase, in which cruel fate is challenged head-on, with deep-seated anger and a brutal determination to triumph. Finally, a shattering revelation elevates the protagonist to state of transcendental acceptance, tranquil resignation and ultimate reconciliation.


Beethoven’s first period lasted through the 1790s until about 1801. In his music, it was generally represented by a continuation of eighteenth century compositional techniques. Even here, however, the boundaries were constantly challenged, stretched and at times openly discarded.


The years which followed, 1802-1824, formed his middle period, a time of immense personal tragedy, constant battles against fate and political unrest, and the awful descent into complete loss of hearing. It was also the time when Beethoven found his inimitable, personal voice, in expanded harmonies, enlarged forms and an expressive power beyond belief.


The third and final period, from about 1816, is often called “Triumph and Tragedy”, with good reason. Toward the end of his life, Beethoven totally withdrew from society, pouring his heartbreaking loneliness, fist-shaking defiance and ultimate resignation to fate into the ninth symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the late piano sonatas and the last five string quartets. 


Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas form the spine of his monumental creative output, and hearing them opens the central, most illuminating window into the evolution of his creative genius. Without an understanding of these sonatas, our knowledge of Beethoven’s music would be incomplete and unfulfilled, just as Michelangelo’s genius would remain a closed door to us if we ignored the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


Beethoven was a superb pianist, and by all accounts a mesmerizing performer. He concertized constantly in his younger years, until deafness closed this avenue for him. Tremendous power, unheard-of bravura and fluidity of technique, extraordinary refinement of touch and the deepest intensity of feeling are the most often used descriptions by his contemporaries. Of course we must keep in mind that Beethoven’s piano was an instrument with severe limitations compared to our modern grand pianos, and therefore these characterizations likely represent the effect of his sheer hypnotic expressive power rather than the actual sound he would have produced at the keyboard. Beethoven made his last public performance in 1814, playing the Archduke trio, although by then he was almost completely deaf and could not hear that the piano was badly out of tune. 


Germany, at the time of Beethoven, was not yet a nation but a conglomeration of more or less independent principalities, ruled either by secular or ecclesiastical princes under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire (which Voltaire aptly described as neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire). This sometimes uneasy alliance of states had been created a millennium earlier by Charlemagne, after the Pope had crowned him Holy Roman Emperor at Aachen on Christmas Day in 800 A.D. The House of Hapsburg governed Germany from 1438. Bonn, the birthplace of Beethoven and the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne, was a sleepy little town until 1784, when the brother of the Emperor (who ruled the Empire from Vienna) became the Archbishop. Attempting to reproduce the Emperor’s achievements and re-create the intellectual and artistic glamour of Vienna, Maximilian Franz invited famous personalities and leading creative  figures to his court. He encouraged the flowering of ideas and the arts. The Academy of Bonn became a University, and the library of the court offered a large collection of literature and news, spreading the explosion of cultural, philosophical and scientific thought which emerged throughout the eighteenth century and eventually became known as the Enlightenment. Beethoven was fortunate to spend his formative years in this bracing environment. It stimulated his political and intellectual development and was to influence such compositions as Fidelio, Egmont and the ninth symphony.


What was this “Enlightenment”? Although described in many ways by scholars over the years, the definition offered by Immanuel Kant in his book; “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), is notably succinct: “Freedom to use one’s own intelligence.” As expected of a German philosopher, Kant, in addition to providing a terse definition, went on to elaborate further, listing a number of  characteristics as essential ingredients: increased empiricism, scientific rigor, questioning of religious dogmas (if not yet religion itself), the supremacy of individual freedom—especially intellectual freedom—and above all, the centrality of the individual. Since artists, especially such giants as Goethe and Schiller in literature and Beethoven in music, were the most visible representatives of individual achievements, they became the flag-bearers of the movement. This intellectual and political current swept over Europe like wild-fire; it kindled the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic Movement and above all, in its most enduring legacy, it enshrined forever the rights of the individual.


The social status of composers and musicians before the Age of Enlightenment was that of artisans. No matter how well appreciated by the cognoscenti, even the best were treated by their employers as little more than superior craftsmen. Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart composed solely for their powerful patrons, whether the nobility or the Church. They wrote perforce only for the moment; the idea of immortality probably never entered their minds. Certainly they valued the quality of their work, but they also well knew that styles and tastes could change, having seen that for their audiences, the music and traditions of earlier times was of little interest.


Any income received by pre-Enlightenment composers from music publishing was merely an extra—no more than pocket-money—for all that it would have been welcome and, too often, badly needed. Publishing could never be relied upon as a steady source of funds, nor was it then seen as in later times: a step towards immortality. In Bach’s day, music publishing barely existed. For us it seems almost inconceivable that most of Bach’s works were not published in his lifetime—and were therefore simply unknown to the world beyond his immediate sphere of influence. When Mendelssohn discovered the manuscript score and handwritten copies of the St Matthew Passion a hundred and fifty years after Bach’s death, his Berlin performance of it in 1824 heralded the resurrection of the all but forgotten Cantor of Leipzig.


The Enlightenment was first and foremost a revolution in thinking, and profound changes in human expectations were its consequence. Before, art had been the exclusive domain of the aristocracy and the Church. But from the turn of the nineteenth century, immediately following the French Revolution, the growing and increasingly literate bourgeoisie also wanted “the finer things in life.” Increased demand led to increased supply. The publishing of literature and music became a major and profitable industry. It gradually freed writers and composers from the demands, strictures and politics of patrons. For Beethoven, publishing his music became his primary source of income—the cornerstone of his financial independence and his assurance that his music would be an open book for generations to come. He spent many painful hours correcting the proof-copies sent to him by his publishers, at times using extremely colorful language when pointing out their ignorance. (That said, if you have seen manuscripts of Beethoven, you probably feel at least some sympathy for those who had to try and decipher them.) Above all he demanded accuracy. He had a fierce temper and reserved some of his worst outbursts for musical incompetents. But he also had a great sense of humor. According to his friend Karl Holz, when the publisher complained that the Op.135 string quartet was too short, Beethoven replied, “If he sends circumcised ducats he will have a circumcised quartet.” He knew the worth of his music, and was an astute enough businessman to play one publisher against the other. His aristocratic friends recognized, or at least sensed, that Beethoven was a different kind of genius—representative of a new age—and considered it an honor when the Master dedicated a composition to them. Their financial support was no longer a sign of condescension but an expression of respect. The Artist had become the Hero and the Hero had become Immortal.


Indeed, Beethoven and the ideas of the Enlightenment are inseparable. J.S. Bach was a faithful and submissive servant of the Church. For all that Haydn was treated as a prince of music, at the end of the day he was a servant of his Eszterhazy masters. Mozart waged constant battles with the Archbishop of Salzburg and had contentious relationships with later patrons who provided him with no more than a meager daily existence. In stark contrast, a contemporary drawing depicts Beethoven, hands folded behind his back, wearing a hat, walking straight forward, looking neither left nor right as the oncoming aristocrats part to give him passage, bending their heads in wonder. What a change!


The story of Beethoven’s life, his family problems, his desperate struggle with the inexorable encroachment of deafness, and his triumph over all adversity, has been well documented and described. For the inquisitive, non-professional reader let me recommend Lewis Lockwood’s “Beethoven: The Music and the Life”. For the musically literate, “Thayer’s Life of Beethoven” will be most rewarding. The short but extraordinarily perceptive “Beethoven—His Spiritual Development”, by J.W.N. Sullivan, is indispensible. For now, part of the oration given at Beethoven’s funeral by the great German poet, Franz Grillparzer, beautifully sums up the essence of the Master:


“An instrument now stilled. Let me call him that! For he was an artist, and what he was, he was only through art. The thorns of life had wounded him deeply, and as the shipwrecked man clutches the saving shore, he flew to your arms, oh wondrous sister of the good and true, comforter of affliction, the art that comes from on high! He held fast to you, and even when the gate through which you entered was shut, you spoke through a deafened ear to him who could no longer discern you; and he carried your image in his heart, and when he died it still lay on his breast.


“He was an artist, and who shall stand beside him? As the behemoth sweeps through the seas, he swept across the boundaries of his art. From the cooing of the dove to the thunder’s roll, from the subtlest interweaving of willful artifices to that awesome point at which the fabric presses over into the lawlessness of clashing natural forces—he traversed all, he comprehended everything. He who follows him cannot continue; he must begin anew, for his predecessor ended where art ends.”

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Sonata No.1 in f minor, Op.2, No.1
1. Allegro  2. Adagio  3. Menuetto: Allegretto  4. Prestissimo


Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.2, No.2
1. Allegro vivace  2. Largo appassionato 3. Scherzo allegretto  4. Rondo: Grazioso

 

Sonata No.3 in C major, Op.2, No.3
1. Allegro con brio  2. Adagio  3. Scherzo: Allegro  4. Allegro assai

 

The first three piano sonatas, under Op.2, were composed in 1794-95 and published in 1796. They were dedicated to Joseph Haydn, not long after Beethoven studied with him in Vienna. Clearly the dedication is a gesture of homage—although their student-teacher relationship was contentious, to say the least—but it was certainly not a statement of intent to continue in the style of Haydn. Quite the contrary; with these sonatas Beethoven sets himself apart, not only with the four-movement form (compared with the usual three movements of Haydn) but in the far more intensive emotional content of the works and in their technical demands on the performer, so much more challenging.


“This was a sensitive, emotional period of Beethoven’s development, full of melting moments, agitation and resolve, prayers and vows, remorse and complacency, floods of tears and soaring spirits, a constant excess of feeling. The sonatas faithfully and minutely record these fluctuations; they bear truer testimony concerning those years in Beethoven’s life than any diary, correspondence or autobiography could provide”. (Szabolcsi).


Beethoven begins his first sonata with a copybook imitation of the then popular ascending note-pattern known as the “Mannheim Rocket”. The device was a favorite of composers writing for the virtuoso Mannheim Orchestra. But at the beginning of the fifth measure, after a powerful foreshortening, Beethoven interjects a sudden fortissimo which must have shocked his conventional audience. The whole movement is full of such willful accents and unusual turns. The mature Beethoven is not yet present, but lurks not far ahead. The lovely Adagio is an adaptation of a former, youthful piano quartet from 1785. The Minuet which follows is a dance with a calmly flowing Trio. The Prestissimo is the first of those “storm finales” which later became so characteristic of Beethoven’s closing movements, reaching their zenith with the Moonlight and Appasionata sonatas and the even more complicated and dense textures of the fugue in the Hammerklavier sonata. Beethoven places all four movements in the same key, a construction rarely found with his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, but often used by Beethoven in his later sonatas.


The first theme of the second sonata’s Allegro vivace is not really a melody but a clever play with contrasts: a progression which provides Beethoven with excellent material for the improvisatory development section. This is attractive, virtuoso piano music, well suited for Beethoven’s own hands. The Largo appassionato’s swaying melody, above a pizzicato-style accompaniment—a technique he would frequently employ in his later years—forms a startling contrast to the exuberance of the first movement. The Scherzo is bright, witty and fleeting. Its Trio brings forth a snippet of melody, but even this is essentially just a minor descending scale. Despite the scant material—or perhaps because of it—the genius of Beethoven shines through in its superb organization. The last movement arises from an elegant initial gesture: an ascending arpeggio answered by a quick descending slide of the melody. Each time this returns, Beethoven embellishes it with delicious variations. The mood is interrupted by a willful, syncopated middle section, but when the main theme returns after a descending, staccato passage, it is irresistible. This is a loveable Rondo which, when well played, makes the listener smile. One can easily imagine the youthful Beethoven’s unrestrained enjoyment in performing this delightful music!         


Imagine the faces of Beethoven’s contemporaries when they opened the first pages of the third sonata, the beloved C major. To play the first measure correctly already presents a daunting technical problem. The virtuosity of the first movement is extroverted, daring, exposed and further underscored with a cadenza, as if it were a concerto. It flows with lively abandon, and it is no wonder that pianists of all ages relish playing this sonata. The texture of the score is wonderfully pianistic and clearly designed to be challenging. The breadth and weight of the magnificent Adagio movement, its noble main theme alternating with passionate interludes, clearly foreshadow the mature Beethoven. The Scherzo flies smilingly with occasional foot-stampings, until it encounters the accents and far darker colors of its Trio. The concluding Rondo is a utterly captivating. Its Mannheim Rocket-like theme explodes, followed by cascading, champagne-bubble passages. A chorale-like interlude interrupts the revelry for a few measures, until a lighthearted counter-motive teases it out of existence. Although the embellished main theme returns five times, it hardly seems enough! This rambunctious movement is a pleasure to play and a delight to listen to.

 

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Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7
1.  Allegro molto e con brio    2.  Largo con gran espressione  3. Allegro  4. Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso


Whilst Op.2 and Op.10 each contain three works, between these Op.7, the fourth sonata, stands alone. It is fitting, since it is one of Beethoven’s greatest early achievements, and the composer must have sensed it. Written in 1796-97, little is known about the circumstances of its creation. The Allegro molto e con brio first movement is so strongly felt that it prompted Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil and one of the most famous piano pedagogues of all time, to wistfully call it Appassionata. It is dense with harmonic changes, syncopations and driving energy. The magnificent second movement is sublime and beautiful. “In it, silence is as eloquent as sound”. Its rich harmonies support an almost palpable feeling of pain and melancholy resignation. By any measure this Largo con grand espressione is the centerpiece of the sonata, a monologue whose spiritual meaning is all but unfathomable. In contrast, the remaining two movements appear as soothing epilogues, much needed after the Largo “from whose infinite depths we are allowed to ascend into the clear daylight of the mortal world” (Wilhelm Kempff). The first edition called Op.7, presciently, a “Grand Sonata”. And indeed it remained one of Beethoven’s biggest until ultimately dwarfed by the Hammerklavier, Op.106.

 

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Sonata No.5 in c minor, Op.10, No.1
1. Allegro molto e con brio  2.  Adagio molto  3.  Finale: Prestissimo


Sonata No.6 in F major, Op.10, No.2
1. Allegro 2. Allegretto 3. Presto


Sonata No.7 in D major, Op.10 No.3
1. Presto  2. Largo e mesto  3. Menuetto: Allegro  4. Rondo: Allegro


From the earliest of them onwards, every Beethoven sonata exhibits a strong and individual personality. Beethoven tied several of them into cycles—those of Op.2, Op.10, Op.14 and Op.27—in order to emphasize their complementary waves. The powerful musical contrasts which formed the core of his inspiration would here find expression not only within the framework of a movement or a sonata, but across sets of two or three complete works.


The composer’s late twenties were sensitive and sensual years, full of big plans for romance, studded with eloquent declarations, prayers and vows, and underpinned by blithe self-confidence and overflowing emotions. The Op.10 sonatas chronicle in detail the ups and downs and the hopes and desperations of the young Beethoven, constantly seeking his ideal love and despairing when not finding her. No letters or diaries can approximate the intimacy of these passionate, unguarded musical confessions, expressed through Beethoven’s first, and at the time still favorite, instrument. Although the first two piano concertos had by then already been composed and performed, the first symphony was still a year away from completion. Beethoven remained primarily a pianist-composer, and his most heartfelt music was reserved for the instrument. The full bouquet of these three magnificent sonatas gives us an even more complete picture of the man than each of them by itself.


The key of c minor was beloved by Beethoven as a vehicle for high drama and pugnacious muscle-flexing. It was the ideal choice for the first sonata of this ambitious set. The marking of the first movement, Allegro molto e con brio “very fast and with fire”, precisely defines its character. Written in 1795-96, the zigzag motion of its dotted-rhythm, upward-thrusting, boldly assertive main theme is answered by a beautiful, feminine, lyrical second melody, and the dynamic duality between them dominates the movement. The second movement is divine peace itself. “Had nothing of his come down to us except this Adagio molto, it would have sufficed to insure Beethoven’s place among the immortals” (Wilhelm Kempff). Its solemn style prompted admirers of the composer to transcribe it into an Agnus Dei for a cappella chorus. The closing Prestissimo is full of surprises and ghostly humor, its overheated speed providing a startling contrast to the solemn stillness of the preceding movement.              

            
The F major sonata is one of Beethoven’s shortest and most immediately appealing. Composed between 1796 and 1797, it is the second of the Op.10 set. It emerges as a colorful vignette of the young, heroic Beethoven, who at that time was playing enormously successful concerts in Vienna, Prague, Bonn, Bratislava, Berlin, Dresden and many other musical centers. He was the rising idol of the musical world, adored particularly by women of all ages. He was constantly in love. The jaunty witticism of Haydn, Beethoven’s mentor, informs this exuberant work, but here and there the willful, trail-blazing spirit of the composer shines through. The first movement is full of immediately-appealing turns, the second has an easy, melodic lilt and the third is a fugato which flies with the speed of a tightly-wound arrow. It is a virtuoso sonata written by, and for, a phenomenal pianist.


But it is universally acknowledged that the third sonata of the Op.10 set—the D major, composed in 1798 and dedicated to Anna Margarete von Browne, his platonic muse and patron—is Beethoven’s first absolutely great work in the genre, a supreme creation by a dashingly handsome 28-year-old at the height of his youthful powers.


The scale of the composer’s inspiration called for the larger, four-movement framework, in contrast to the three movements of the previous two sonatas. Indeed, Beethoven would refer to his more extended works as “grand” sonatas. The fast-moving first movement is full of surprises, as its upward-thrusting main theme is gently soothed by a lyrical second theme containing, however, its own element of impatience. Their interplay sustains a nervous tension throughout the movement, taken to further heights by the spacious but deeply sad and moving Adagio movement which follows. This melancholy, grief-laden song, with its long-sustained theme and desperate ending, forms the gravitational center of the sonata. Beethoven expressed his feelings to his friend Schindler about the inner power this Largo e mesto by likening it to a painting: “In a painting’s shades of light and shadows, everybody can witness the emotional state of mind of a melancholy person without the need for a specific title.” The ensuing Minuet, with its almost Schubertian melody and good-natured, somewhat odd Trio, comes as a welcome relief to the unfettered anguish of the movement before. The concluding Rondo is a lighthearted romp which surprises us with its unexpected turns, pauses and accents. It disappears, like an apparition, with a shadowy pianissimo.

 

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Sonata No.8 in c minor, Op.13, “Pathétique”
1. Grave—Allegro di molto e con brio  2. Adagio cantabile  3. Rondo: Allegro


In today’s full-of-holes-blue-jeans world, with its penchant for narrow values expressed in timid, politically-correct sound bites, the adjective “pathétique” is viewed with suspicion and is usually roundly misinterpreted, if not outright sneered at. Not so in Beethoven’s day. The classic education which he and his contemporaries had absorbed pointed them to the word’s Greek origin, “pathos”, evoking suffering, awe, tenderness, endurance, courage and above all, heroic perseverance. For Beethoven’s generation, honest displays of true emotion were their own justification, and the appellation “pathétique” was reserved only for persons of the strongest character.


The Op.13 is the only sonata to which Beethoven himself added a descriptive title. All the other named sonatas, such as the Moonlight, Appassionata and Pastorale, were so named by their publishers. In this sonata, composed in 1799, Beethoven declares himself to be his own master, unreservedly and with total confidence. The shadow of Haydn, evident in his previous sonatas, has disappeared. Beethoven emerges here as a defiant hero, evoking the power of the gods of Greek mythology.


The opening Grave is utterly masculine and uncompromising. It lays down the gauntlet with its aggressive first chord, wrenching diminished sevenths and suspensions, and mysterious filigrees. The furious, dark energy of the Allegro di molto e con brio which follows, dramatically interrupted by reprises of the Grave motive, takes the power and grandeur of the conception to heights which would have been unimaginable if the music were not right there before us. Nothing like this had been written before, and Beethoven knew it. The Adagio cantabile seems to be the only possible foil to what has just happened: tender and rapturous, and introducing one of the most glorious melodies ever penned. The Allegro marking of the concluding Rondo has, in this writer’s opinion, been badly misinterpreted by so-called cognoscenti. The essential elements of this movement, sometimes lyrical, sometimes serious, sometimes quasi heroic, sometimes canonic, need not be rushed! In providing welcome relief from the unremitting intensity of the previous two movements, the music elegantly balances out this extraordinary sonata, and its expansive, operatic main theme prompts a much-needed smile.

 

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Sonata No.9 in E major, Op.14, No.1
1. Allegro  2. Allegretto  3. Rondo: Allegro commodo


Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.14, No.2
1. Allegro  2. Andante  3. Scherzo: Allegro assai


The years around the turn of the nineteenth century were turbulent for Beethoven. A new epoch had arrived, full of expectation and hope, and although Beethoven’s immediate circumstances had not yet changed noticeably, in Paris Napoleon was already First Consul. No-one knew yet whether the French Revolution had truly ended or whether it would spread it throughout the world. Beethoven was celebrated as a hero of music, but in his heart he worshiped Napoleon as the true hero. He met with General Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s most brilliant soldiers. It reinforced his vision that the Man of the Revolution was a worthy equal to his own lofty vision. No wonder then that these two sonatas are beacons of optimism, full of lively humor and joie de vivre. They depict a dream-world, and achieve divine equilibrium in their three-movement form. Subsequently Beethoven returned for the most part to the four-movement structure, but here both the subject matter and the natural flow of the melodies are entirely appropriate to the smaller scale. The E major sonata, written in 1798, is gentle in nature and evokes the intimacy of chamber music—it was no wonder that soon after its composition, Beethoven transcribed it for string quartet. Its focal point is the gently rocking second movement which (according to friends’ descriptions) Beethoven played with unexpected passionate intensity and speed, contrary to his own prescribed tempo. The G major sonata of 1798–1799 occupies the same emotional world, but adds a few surprises. For the first time in a Beethoven sonata, one of the movements—the Andante—is a theme and variations, while the last movement is an extended Scherzo which teases us with its duality of rhythm. Its particular humor is not obvious, but refined and complex, taking its pleasure in rhythmical ambiguity.    

 

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Sonata No.11 in B-flat major, Op.22
1. Allegro con brio  2. Adagio con molto espressione  3. Menuetto  4. Rondo: Allegro


With this sonata, Beethoven re-enters the world of the concert virtuoso. The two upward-springing motives from which the main theme of the first movement arises undergo fantastic transformation and development—they prove to be brilliant building blocks. Here is spectacular piano writing, of the first order. Hidden motivic threads tie together the Adagio and the Menuetto, bearing witness to  Beethoven’s on-going struggle, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, to reconcile what was for him a fundamental and burning contradiction: the classic duality of sonata form versus his obsession to impose binding unity on his creations and thereby open the door to working with ever-larger structures. This battle would be a hallmark of all of his later sonatas, and it would in fact only be finally resolved in his last string quartets. At the time of writing this sonata, in 1800, Beethoven had just completed his first symphony and the Opus 18 quartets, had begun the c-minor piano concerto and nearly finished the Spring sonata for violin. He was especially proud of Op.22. “Die hat sich gewaschen,” he would remark of this “Grand Sonata”, knowing that he had achieved his goal of extending yet respecting the proportions of the classical style. Beethoven may well have regarded this sonata as his salute to the passing of the eighteenth century.


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Sonata No.12 in A-flat major, Op.26
1. Andante con Variazioni  2. Scherzo: Allegro molto 
3. Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe  4. Allegro


It’s 1800-1801, the turn of the century and a time full of promise. After the Op.22 sonata—a  respectful and heartfelt farewell salute to the classical style—Beethoven began to experiment in earnest. Seeking new forms of equilibrium and, indeed, a new expressive medium, Beethoven essentially “decapitated the sonata”, creating shapes and structures which were not only novel but often antithetical to the older concepts. And here is the miracle: in the hands of the genius sonata form was reborn, and it spoke to the new age. The A-flat sonata rings in the changes, starting daringly with a set of variations. The theme is one of peace, goodness and wisdom. From the pathos of the third variation to the glitter of the last, the movement foreshadows the great variations of much later. The Scherzo surprises us with its orchestral-type effects, while the light-shadow interplay of the final Allegro is a fantastic quasi-etude. But between these movements a funeral march is placed, suspending time for a moment and turning out the bright lights of the newborn apparitions. Who is the hero lying on the catafalque, honored with fanfares and drum-rolls, pomp and circumstance? We will never know. Yet Beethoven’s contemporaries may have sensed intuitively that a new, mighty hero, as yet unknown, was waiting in the wings to appear in the music of the Master.   

 

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Sonata No.13 in E-flat major “quasi una fantasia”, Op.27, No.1
1.  Andante—Allegro—Andante  2. Allegro molto e vivace  
3. Adagio con espressione  4. Allegro vivace

 

Sonata No.14 in c-sharp minor “quasi una fantasia”, Op.27, No.2, “Moonlight
1. Adagio sostenuto  2. Allegretto  3. Presto agitato

 

It’s still 1800-1801, with Beethoven realizing that the traditional sonata form had become too restrictive for his creative genius. To make the point, he added the phrase “quasi una Fantasia” to the titles of his two Op.27 sonatas. They emerge as prototypes for a new form. Both start with slow movements, displacing the definitive, dramatic weight of the traditional first movement structure for the closing movement. The composer’s improvisational voice is especially evident in the first of this pair, and in his desire for a freely flowing format. But in both of these works we also see discipline: Beethoven intended to counteract the dissolution of the classical form by using strong, new tools. He demands that the E-flat major sonata’s four movements be played without breaks (ultimately it proves to be the only such example amongst the 32), and in the second of the set—the so-called Moonlight Sonata—the first two movements are tied together by the marking attacca. It is Beethoven’s defense against the danger of excessive loosening: the internal logic of form aided by external binding. His quest for organic unity within new forms would find final fruition with the last sonatas, some twenty years later.


The E-flat major sonata begins with a gentle song melody and preserves its improvisational character throughout; in this dream-like, contemplative, warm and generally subdued work, even the essential solitude of the Adagio is dissolved. Only the finale awakens us, with its humorous theme, kinetic energy, imagination and unpredictability, and leaves us with a smile.


The subtitle Moonlight for the fourteenth sonata was not Beethoven’s but his publisher’s, cleverly capitalizing on the nocturnal atmosphere of the first movement. It’s easy to see how this famous and most popular movement evokes a clear, moonlit night and the song of a lover. The long melody, gently accompanied by broken chords, is reminiscent of a singer with a guitar. Yet for all its apparently wistful character, the music also hints at much deeper emotions. Liszt remarked that the short second movement was “a flower between two abysses”. The last movement’s all-conquering force is indeed elemental, with its wave-upon-wave explosions allowing only a few fleeting seconds of respite, in the second theme. And even this has its nervous impatience. Inexorably, this musical hurricane rushes toward the final two chords, leaving the audience drained.

 

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Sonata No.15 in D major, Op.28, “Pastoral
1. Allegro  2. Andante  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace 4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo


Although a contemporary of Op.26 and the two Op.27 sonatas, Op.28 does not seek to dazzle in the same way. The epithet Pastoral, although not Beethoven’s, is apt. The principal theme of the Allegro unfolds over a repeated, long pedal point. It seems to flow without ending, and the second, lyrical theme enters unannounced. This is warm, cuddly music, imbued with gentle colors. The elegiac theme of the Andante, accompanied by a pizzicato-like figure in the bass, dominates the slow movement. Clearly Beethoven loved this child of his. The jocular Scherzo, almost devoid of a theme, conjures up an image of a sprightly dance at the dawn of spring. In the Rondo, bagpipes herald an idyllic landscape, a drifting world of evoked by constantly changing, floating arpeggios. A short, virtuoso coda serves as an exclamation point, concluding this otherwise classical-style movement as if an announcement that one epoch has ended and a new one is on the horizon.

 

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Sonata No.16 in G major, Op.31, No.1
1. Allegro vivace  2. Adagio grazioso  3.  Rondo: Allegretto—Presto


Sonata No.17 in d minor, Op.31, No.2
1. Largo—Allegro  2. Adagio  3. Allegretto


Sonata No.18 in E-flat major, Op 31, No.3
1. Allegro  2. Scherzo: Allegretto vivace 
3. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso  4. Presto con fuoco     

 

1802 was a momentous year for Beethoven. In April he moved to Heiligenstadt, and responding to the inexorable approach of tragedy, unleashed an astounding burst of creative energy over the summer, completing the three violin sonatas of Op.30, the second symphony and the three piano sonatas of Op.31. Of all his grouping of works, of whatever genre, none are more divergent than these three sonatas. Why? The answer is found in history.


Beethoven first noted symptoms of deafness in 1796. The condition is now suspected to have been caused by an illness, but as of today it remains undiagnosed. He tried desperately to hide the encroaching disability: such a celebrated pianist and composer could never be deaf!! His emotional equilibrium was shattered and we can only imagine how violently his moods must have vacillated between hope and desperation, resignation and defiance. He visited a variety of doctors, some of whose remedies helped his digestive problems but none his hearing. One doctor thought that moving to Heiligenstadt, with its quiet countryside, would help his ears. In September 1802, he wrote “The Heiligenstadt Testament” which, as we saw in the introduction to this essay, expressed the full force of his agony. No wonder then that the three sonatas of that time, Op.31, have such utterly different faces: the first narrative, the second tragic and the third—to a degree—an expression of joy and hope.


The G major’s first movement explores rhythmic displacement. It proceeds with an almost comedic kind of limp, tinged with a bit of sarcasm. “Today I am as I should be, absolutely unbuttoned” said Beethoven, and the music is exactly that. A wonderfully poised Adagio grazioso provides a totally contrasting center-point, and in so doing begs the question whether this sonata is something of a Cinderella amongst the composer’s children. Its coloratura-embellished, quasi-operatic main theme is a pianistic tour de force and even the dark shadows of the ensuing section cannot overpower the Arcadian landscape. This bucolic atmosphere also predominates in the Rondo, which ambles along with an extended theme and embellished repeats until, finally, the coda gives us a jolt. With this, Beethoven seems to be saying that in spite of the prevailing peaceful mood, all is not well. He stretches the theme beyond recognition, and its hurried, hushed imitations collide with defiant fortissimo chords. These are echoed, pianissimo, to close the scene, posing questions, withholding answers…


To comprehend the second sonata of the triad, I invite you now to re-read the excerpt from “The Heiligenstadt Testament” which appears in the opening section of this essay. It is no wonder that this work is in d minor—Beethoven’s key of tragedy—and that its mood is melancholy and resigned. A broken chord is the key motive for the entire sonata, perhaps a metaphor for Beethoven’s anxiety and uncertainty about his fate. The improvisatory character of the opening Largo—Allegro is explicit. Its meditative arpeggios introduce impatient runs and defiant spear-motives, interspersed with tearful recitatives, ample evidence of how Beethoven was not at peace with himself. The Adagio—also starting with an arpeggio—evinces agonizing loneliness through its incessant, funereal bass-drumbeats. There is no glimmer of hope in this melancholy landscape, and when the final, solitary notes are contra-posed in extreme registers, they bring no relief, just more unanswerable questions. And what is the meaning of the constantly repeated, churning and turning yet gentle, fluent and melancholy melody of the final Allegretto? Is Beethoven searching for a resolution which he knows by now does not exist? The demon imprisoned within this understated emotional storm simply will not let go. Again and again, more troubling questions are asked. Beethoven would not find the answers until much later, in his very last three piano sonatas and his superheated, superhuman last string quartets. For now, he settles for closing this gentle but obsessively questioning Allegretto with a single note at the foot of an enigmatic downward arpeggio.


The E-flat major sonata is a particularly powerful contrast to the dark hues of its predecessor. None of the four movements are slow, unlike in the d-minor whose Adagio provides a center of gravity. The first movement artfully suspends its greeting: “The tonic key appears a bit reluctantly, slowly and with hesitation, like opening a window onto a sunrise over a mountainous, pristine landscape, or like a budding flower touched by the morning dew” (Szabolcsi). The colors of the main theme are ever-changing and the dancing second theme shines with even brighter hues. The Scherzo is a virtuoso toccata: a teasing, quirky, playful romp. The lilting melody of the Menuetto: Moderato grazioso contrasts with the angularity of the movement before, and, dancing forward gently and deliberately, is perhaps a substitute for the missing slow movement. The finale, Presto con fuoco, is a tarantella (or gallop?), and another of Beethoven’s virtuoso, quasi-perpetuum-mobile closing movements. Fiery good humor predominates in the swirls and jumps which run forward with such care-free abandon, but how are we to understand such joie de vivre from a composer knew that he was losing the hearing which was so precious to his musical gift, and his life?

 

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Sonata No.19 in g minor, Op.49, No.1
1. Andante  2. Rondo: Allegro


Sonata No.20 in G major, Op.49, No.2
1. Allegro ma non troppo  2. Tempo di Menuetto


Although published in 1805, this pair of two-movement sonatas dates from 1795-1797. As early works, therefore, their opus numbers are misleading. Charmingly naïve, they hardly require comment. That they are a pleasure to play is attested to by generations of young pianists, for whom mastering them is an achievable delight. Beethoven liked the Tempo di Menuetto of the second sonata well enough to incorporate it into his septet, Op.20. 

 

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Sonata No.21 in C major, Op.53, “Waldstein”
1. Allegro con brio  2. Introduzione: Adagio molto—attacca  
3. Rondo: Allegretto moderato—Prestissimo


Beethoven wrote the Waldstein sonata in 1804, at the start of his “middle period”, the time of the Eroica symphony, the opera Fidelio, the Appassionata sonata and the Razumovsky quartets. By then he had conquered Vienna, but his ever-restless soul was impatient with the role seemingly assigned to him by the Imperial City as heir apparent to the classicism of Mozart and Haydn. He was well into his search for new forms of expression with which to expand the possibilities, not only of his beloved piano but other instruments as well, not least the orchestra. He dedicated the sonata to Count Waldstein, a dear friend from his youthful days in Bonn. So, does this work signify nothing more than nostalgic memories of a long-lost childhood?  To be sure, the music is suffused with cheerful activity, and the singing, open-ended melody of the final Rondo evokes sweeping vistas of the Rhineland. But this sonata is also much more, and indeed, presents an entirely new vision. 


The opening Allegro con brio launches as an apparently formless apparition, with rapidly pulsing chords below and flashing interjections above: it does not “happen” in melody but in rhythm and harmony. The stop-and-go, up-and-down sliding of the tonality foreshadows the Master’s unique developmental techniques which were later to be employed increasingly in his music. The second theme—the melodic element of the movement—is in E major, introducing as structural factor the “major-third” key relationship, a device which Beethoven had hitherto scarcely employed. The movement’s shimmering vitality, strength and forward-leaning vision have assured it a place as one of history’s great pianistic showpieces.


Originally, Beethoven penned a complete slow movement for the sonata. But a friend convinced him that this made the work too long and the movement was shelved, only to reappear a year later as the now-beloved Andante favori. Beethoven’s solution was the short Introduzione, and it tightens the sonata perfectly. It is the essence of stillness; but its darkly mysterious theme barely has time to ascend from the depths before the Master launches into the sunny, smiling music of the Rondo.  This ebullient music transforms continuously in more and more brilliant variations, although dramatically interrupted by contrasting sections and often embellished with trills, triplets and virtuoso runs. The movement reaches its shining zenith in a final, exuberant prestissimo. The technical difficulties of this movement surpass those of all predecessors, to be mastered only by the chosen. 

 

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Sonata No.22 in F major, Op.54
1. In tempo d’un Menuetto  2, Allegretto


Hardly known, except to pianists, and seldom performed, this sonata, written in 1804, is an enigma. Beethoven marked the first movement In tempo d’un Menuetto but after the first few measures it becomes quite apparent that he was not looking to write any typical gracious dance. Instead, rude octaves in both hands interrupt, loud, dry and studded with unexpected accents and cross-rhythms. While you are wondering what is going on, the so-called menuetto motive returns, only to be jolted away again by these rude octaves. To add to your bewilderment, the  second movement is equally strange: a perpetuum mobile etude of finger-testing dexterity meeting an experiment in harmonic density. Indeed, in this strange apparition the composer covers more harmonic ground than in just about any of his earlier opuses. The compressed energy of this strange child of Beethoven may leave you admiring it for its succinct structure, even if it may not exactly speak to your heart.    

 

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Sonata No.23 in f minor, Op.57, “Appassionata”
1. Allegro assai  2. Andante con moto  3. Allegro ma non troppo


Composed in 1804-1805, just after the monumental Eroica symphony, the Appassionata ratchets up the passion, defiance and blazing power so evident in Beethoven’s middle period. For all that its name is apposite, it was actually only added in 1834, long after Beethoven’s death, by a publisher. The work has the overwhelming destructive force of a tsunami, but as great art its passion is profoundly singular, stirring and cleansing, as broadly impulsive and unbroken as if informed by a superhuman presence.


The arching vision of this sonata arises from the protean potential, in Beethoven’s hands, of the minor triad. The two-octave-encompassing, flickering f minor upward arpeggio which kicks open the first movement, followed by a shivering trill, menacing knocking (first in the bass, echoed in the treble) and then breaking waves, is devastating in its impact. Even the second theme arises from the same, red-hot eruption. The middle Andante too has this genesis. In its own way it is equally tense, equally terse, a barely moving, almost shapeless harmonic succession, virtually devoid of melody, settling on the tonic chord in twenty of its mere thirty-two measures. It never concludes, instead linking smoothly into the terrifying whirlwind of the finale. This, Beethoven’s most demonic sonata movement, was born during a walk one day in the Vienna Woods. The composer was accompanied by his pupil Ferdinand Ries, who wrote:


“We went so far astray that we did not get back to Döbling until nearly 8 o’clock. He had been humming, and more often howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. When questioned as to what it was he answered, ‘A theme for the last movement of the sonata has occurred to me.’ When we entered the room he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat. I sat down in the corner and he soon forgot all about me. He stormed for at least an hour with the beautiful finale of the sonata. Finally he got up, was surprised that I was still there and said, ‘I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some work.’”


The music rages ceaselessly; there is no gleam of light, no respite. It is an elemental catastrophe, an abyss opening before Beethoven which he could never close, but would instead set him on the path to the late sonatas and final quartets, transcending music itself.

 

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Sonata No.24 in F-sharp major, Op.78
1. Adagio cantabile—Allegro ma non troppo  2. Allegro vivace


After the two giant sonatas of 1804-1805—the Waldstein and the Appassionata—Beethoven seemed to lose interest in the genre for a few years. In 1809 he wrote to his publisher: “I don’t like to concern myself with solo piano sonatas, but I do promise you some.” In February 1810 he kept his word and sent three sonatas, each to be published separately. They were Op.78 in F-sharp major, Op.79 in G major, and Op.81a, Les Adieux. A special favorite of Beethoven’s, the charming Op.78 was composed between the seventh and eight symphonies and is dedicated to a special, valued friend, Thérèse von Brunswick. Although small in comparison to such other works of the period as the Emperor concerto, the string quartet Op.74, the cello sonata Op.69 and the “Farewell Sonata” (Les Adieux), it is breathtakingly original. For all that it gives the impression of an off-hand improvisation, it is in actuality superbly and meticulously organized. The four-bar introduction is an amazing, intimate moment and the melody which opens the first movement may be a musical description of Thérèse. It leads into a fairytale land of veiled sparkles and rainbow-colored pastels. The texture could not be more unlike that of the Appassionata. Light, almost featherweight, it seems to fly and tease. Above all, it sings and it soothes with its refined gentility. The second, closing movement weaves similar magic: its rondo-scherzo format is perfect for this floating, ethereal, barely touchable angel dance. Is this sonata a musical love letter to Therese? We can only imagine.

 

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Sonata No.25 in G major, Op.79
1. Presto alla tedesca  2. Andante  3. Vivace


The G major sonata is also a small-scale work.  The theme of the first movement, essentially a fast Austrian Ländler, had earlier appeared in Beethoven’s teen-age composition “Music for a Knightly Ballet” and it is used here to start a light-footed chase. The second movement is a barcarolle-like song which would subsequently be found in one of the Bagatelles, albeit in much more secretive vestments. The third movement, a play on a theme of Mozart, runs by so fast that it is almost over before one can truly appreciate its wittiness. But this theme would also later return—with much larger proportions and in golden garb—at the start of the sonata Op.109.

 

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Sonata No.26 in E-flat major, Op.81a, “Les Adieux”
1. Adagio—Allegro  2. Andante espressivo  3. Vivacissimamente


Although many Beethoven sonatas have names (none but the Pathétique given by Beethoven) only Les Adieux has a specific, extra-musical association. In May 1809, Napoleon besieged and ultimately occupied Vienna. In anticipation, Archduke Rudolph and his entire entourage left the city. The Archduke was a true patron and friend of Beethoven, and the imminent danger threatening the Archduke deeply affected the composer. In Beethoven’s handwriting, the sonata’s title page is inscribed “On the departure of His Imperial Highness. For Archduke Rudolph, in admiration. Written from the heart.” Then, above the first three notes of the first movement, we see “Le-be-wohl” (German for goodbye; literal translation: “live well”). The second movement is entitled Die Abwesenheit (The Absence) and the third Das Wiedersehen (The Reunion). Beethoven was highly indignant when the score was published in London by Muzio Clementi with a French name, Les Adieux. The French were the cause of all the misery and by this time Beethoven hated Napoleon with a purple passion.


Beethoven composed the first movement in the basement of his house, seeking shelter from the bombardment. He covered his head with pillows in an effort to protect his sensitive, failing ears. The remaining two movements were written in 1810, after Napoleon had left and the Archduke returned.


The sonata needs few explanatory notes, since the music itself is so exquisitely descriptive. It is not so much pictorial of external events as of Beethoven’s reaction to them. The “horn-call” motive in the slow introductory section sets a mood of resignation. It is the building block of the whole sonata. In this movement Beethoven unashamedly expresses his sorrow over his friend’s departure, reinforced by occasional angry outbursts. The sense of desolation and loss is also palpable in the second movement. But the last movement is a brilliant, happy picture of the reunion, one of the most joyful pieces of music the composer ever wrote. It seems not only to celebrate his friend’s safe return but also to rejoice in the departure of the reviled Napoleon. 

 

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Sonata No.27 in e minor, Op.90
1. Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck 
2. Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen


Four years passed, and then in 1814 Beethoven surprised the musical world with this two-movement jewel. His descriptions of it as “an argument between the mind and the hearth” or “a dialogue between lovers” well explain the duality of this gentle sonata. Its two movements complement each other, comment on each other, and seem to recall times past. Set in refined textures, melody dominates and reigns supreme. Beethoven leaves no doubt as to the interpretation; here, as in the later sonatas, specific directives multiply, first in German and then, later, again in Italian. Beethoven clearly wanted to encourage his interpreters to reach beyond the limitations of bare musical notation in order to arrive at the expressive essence of the music. The first movement, marked “Vivaciously and with feeling and expression throughout” is discursive, highlighted by exclamations and gestures. The second has an equally precise instruction: “Not too quickly and very much like a song.” It is indeed a continuous flow of heartfelt melody. This is romantic music, but the organization of the themes and the translucency of the piano texture are classical in their straightforward simplicity. 

 

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Sonata No.28 in A major, Op.101
1. Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung; Allegretto, ma non troppo
2. Lebhaft: Marschmässig; Vivace alla marcia
3. Langsam und Sehnsuchtsvoll; Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto
4. Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit; Allegro

 

Beethoven wrote his last five sonatas between 1816 and 1822. The first of them, Op.101, is contemporary with the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte; the last with the Missa Solemnis. These monumental piano compositions, encompassing as they do Beethoven’s final creative outpouring, present pianists with almost insurmountable challenges. None of them should be touched before the performer is completely ready, technically, emotionally and spiritually. With these sonatas Beethoven transcends the expressive possibilities of the piano. He was completely deaf when he wrote them, and clearly sensed that he was asking the near-impossible, since the scores are replete with written directives as to how to approach their inner meaning—some in German, some in Italian. For example, in this sonata, the Italian words are exact translations of the German, except for the last movement where Beethoven could not find the Italian for “Fast, but not very fast, and with determination”, so simply wrote “Allegro”. A rarely-used phrase in the third movement, “tutto il cembalo ma piano”, instructs the player to perform this particular section without soft pedal, but softly. 


Behind each of these five “liberated, last will” sonatas lurks the shadow of older form types. The Op.101 follows the “feminine” line of the Op.27 E-flat major “fantasy” sonata. It begins in a reflective mood, floating in mystical dew, spreading veiled melancholy. The syncopated chords, carefully avoiding any downbeat, defy gravity. The ensuing march, usurping the traditional scherzo, is full of fantastic and at times demonic quirkiness, although its trio is transparent and mysterious. The closing part of the sonata starts with a numbly aching Adagio,  then looks back to the first movement before finding itself in the ensuing Allegro-fugato. Here the theme starts with a nervous trill that quickly frees itself from the hesitant, self-reflecting mood and leads to a slowly-awakening melody. After dissolving into meditative figurations, once again it glances backward to the first movement. This closing movement, with its energy, drive and strange dissonances, is so taxing for the pianist that Beethoven himself acknowledged its technical difficulties.

 

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Sonata No.29 in B-flat major, Op.106 “Hammerklavier”
1. Allegro  2. Scherzo: Assai vivace  3. Adagio sostenuto  4. Largo – Allegro risoluto


The Hammerklavier, composed in 1817, is the largest of all Beethoven’s sonatas, almost twice as long as the majority of the others. Beethoven struggled with this giant of a work, but when it was finished, he remarked: “Now I know for certain how music can and should be written.” Indeed, the immense arch and inexhaustible breadth of this sonata transcends every conventional measurement. Its name has been extracted from Beethoven’s descriptive tag, “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier” (“Large sonata for the piano with hammers”). Only two out of all of the Beethoven sonatas, Op.101 and Op.106, were published with such a tag, although they were indeed all written for “piano with hammers” (more usually referred to by its Italian name, “fortepiano”). Ostensibly this was simply to make a distinction from the string-plucking harpsichord, which was still in use in many homes during Beethoven’s time. But the word “Hammer” has the same larger meaning in German as it does in English, so we can readily intuit why posterity assigned Hammerklavier only to Op.106. I doubt this would have been of any surprise to Beethoven.


Beethoven’s contemporaries had difficulty understanding and accepting this colossus of a sonata. It was Liszt who was amongst the first to recognize and appreciate this work’s superhuman greatness, and to champion it. Like a magician opening up the inscrutable, he played it often. Yet even he, the unsurpassable pianist of the ages, left many in his audiences shaking their heads in disbelief. It is no easier for today’s listeners, either. I quote Charles Rosen, who summed it up superbly:


“The Hammerklavier is not a typical Beethoven work. It does not sound like the others, not even those of his final period. It is an extreme point of his style. Never before and never again did he write such an obsessively concentrated piece of music. Perhaps it was an attempt to break out of the blind alley in which Beethoven felt he had been trapped. Longer than any other piano sonata, it sought to create a new, original example of ruthless greatness—Beethoven himself spoke of it in these terms. The content and true subject of the Hammerklavier is none other than the musical language of his time.”


The gigantic sonata-form first movement Allegro has the usual thematic groups but they are much more complex than in any other Beethoven sonata. The fanfare-like first theme receives an immediate lyrical answer and the duality of these two dominates the movement. Sudden rhythmic, melodic, lyric, dramatic and textural changes present one surprise after the other. The development is ingenious: contrapuntal and with a concentrated drive which is overwhelming. The enormous technical difficulties of the Allegro match its size.


The second movement, Assai vivace, is a scherzo, bringing us a few playful-mystical minutes which are much needed between the granitic first movement and equally monumental Adagio sostenuto. Indeed, the scale and intensity of the third movement is unrivalled anywhere in Beethoven’s oeuvre, with the exception of the last string quartets. By far the longest of the sonata’s four movements, it has been described as “the most painful monologue of Beethoven’s loneliness, the most stifled sobbing ever heard, ever deepening layers of lament and reconciliation…” Beethoven’s own instructions here are highly emotional: Appassionato e con molto sentimento: con grand espressione. (“With passion and much feeling: with deep expression”.) Yet it is but a song—for all its immense proportions, lasting 18 to 25 minutes depending on the tempo taken by the performer—full of intense, passionate melodies which reach directly to the heart. Deeper and deeper layers of loneliness, complaint and resignation alternate in reaching to the core of the human soul, until the very end, until death. The unexpected, descending, sighing consolation melody, a cousin of the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis, brings no relief, and only the faintest glimmer of hope. A softly phosphorescent, Chopin-like ornamented melody appears, also to no avail. These are but apparitions: fading dreams, suspicions and remembrances, destined to disappear under the broad arch of the closing hymn theme. This is music of the night: the night of memory, of shadows and of nebulous recollections. Finally, once the hushed intensity of the ending and the following silence have been broken by a transitory, fantasia-like introduction, we are faced with the closing, enormous fugue, this terrifying, unbridled masterpiece, this unimaginable confluence of enforced order and chaotic freedom. The scale here is incredible, and the fugue has been a test and a trap for the greatest of pianists. The trill gesture, to which Beethoven in his final period assigned such a deeply symbolic and creative role, is heard here for the first time as motivic material. It is the theme and the very center of the movement: through twenty-three sections reappearing in parallel voices, over and over, in inversion, enlargement, stretto, mirror and retrograde, and in every contrapuntal device imaginable. It runs ahead at breakneck speed, twisting and turning, and it shocks us at every juncture. Then, at the center, in D major, Beethoven inserts a sublime, celestial chorale and—as if the texture were not already complex enough—incorporates its melody into the already multiple-voiced fugue. But what follows sweeps away all disbelief. Like a cyclone or a tidal wave, the elemental force of the fugue is irresistible. Its overheated steam shoots into a mighty coda. You do not require musical training to become overwhelmed by the superhuman force of this music. Likely, when it is over, you will wonder how any human being could have written it. I doubt you will find the answer.

 

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Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109
1. Vivace ma non troppo—Adagio espressivo  2. Prestissimo 
3. Tema: Molto cantabile ed espressivo; Variazioni I-VI


In the floating, gentle first movement there is fairy-tale like freedom; a melancholy lilt, veiled with the sparkling dew and colors of autumn. This is a free-flowing question-fantasy; a dialogue that does not have, and does not want to have, an answer. The pastel-colored main theme has barely commenced when an emotional Adagio espressivo exclamation interrupts and starts the interplay. The dialogue continues, then ultimately seems to just fade away, until the sudden outbreak of the scherzo, Prestissimo, fortissimo. “A masculine spirit, coolly decisive, controls this music, parts of which are written in double counterpoint” (Kempff). These movements are however but a prelude to the last movement’s sublime set of variations on a celestial theme. The variations develop step by step, like a flower opening its petals. Each creates its own dream-world, yet maintains the outlines of the theme, until the final peak is reached. The theme itself is symbolic, for it is one of those hymn-like sarabande melodies from the world of Bach and Handel. Here it is treated gently by Beethoven, with kid-gloves and enduring respect. The variations juxtapose extreme contrasts, then close with the reemergence of the theme, unchanged. Yet when we hear it again, it is no more the same than we are.

 

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Sonata No.31 in A-flat major, Op.110
1. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo  2. Allegro molto  
3. Adagio ma non troppo—Arioso dolente—Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo—
L’istesso tempo di Arioso—L’inversione della Fuga


If, as is often said, the last sonata of Beethoven’s mighty thirty two—the Op.111—is a transfiguration, then the penultimate, the Op 110, is a spiritual farewell. The first movement is a song: lyrical, calm and retrospective; and the second a romp: tart, witty and rambunctious. Both however are but extended preludes to the final movement, which forms the heart of this magnificent conception. This complex, sublime movement emerges as an intimate prayer and a submission to the unalterable laws of eternity. As a synthesis of extreme elements, it stretches the limits of classical style in every respect, yet its component parts are essentially classical nevertheless—a recitative, an aria, a fugue, a variant of the aria and, to conclude a variant of the fugue.


This final movement is one of Beethoven’s most original creations. It combines in one the traditional slow movement and closing fast movement, and by repeating the sequence, brings it full circle. To ensure that his intentions would be understood, Beethoven wrote seventeen interpretation signs (not counting pedal) for the introductory, eight-bar recitative alone, the Adagio ma non troppo. The rest of the movement is also laden with instructions, not only in Italian but in German. The Arioso dolente recalls the great alto aria in Bach’s St John Passion. Sung at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies, this heartbreaking “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is fulfilled”) must have had the deepest of personal meanings for the ill, completely deaf Beethoven. This lament is followed by a serene fugue, marked Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo, which reverts back, just before its triumphant close, to the tragic “Es is vollbracht”. Marked “Ermattet, klagend” (“Wearily, plaintively”), and this time iterated half a tone lower in g minor, it is full of sobs and gasps for breath, and is the most tragic moment of this sonata. From his numerous sketches we know that the transition which then follows gave Beethoven immense trouble, but in repeating defiant chords in G major with increasing intensity, Beethoven does find his way back into A-flat major, using an upside-down version of the fugal theme. After this complex, extended link, the closing Fuga comes as a glorious hymn, a triumphant ending to an immense human drama and a sincere confession of Beethoven’s faith in the eternity and glory of God.

 

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Sonata No.32 in c minor, Op.111
1. Maestoso—Allegro con brio ed appassionato  2 Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile


Catastrophe then transfiguration—this is the dramatic essence of Beethoven’s last sonata. At the start, a Promethean, Maestoso curtain rises as dissonant, descending chords fall into a menacing, tympani-like trill, threatening an abyss. Unlike the introduction of the much earlier Pathétique Sonata, this goes beyond “pathos”. It is neither a theatrical background nor a slowly moving curtain: the lightning-strike which starts the main theme illuminates, with blinding clarity, the hero, the fate, the place and the drama itself. Gradually, with a dark black trill as if from distant thunder, the Allegro con brio ed appassionato arises. The first theme, itself made of motives, is the seed from which the entire cyclopean movement develops. The emotional storm rages and we gradually realize that this entire movement is a monumental, tragic farewell, a last fist-shaking gesture of defiance. At the end, as the last chords of the Coda disappear into hushed, pianissimo murmurs, we sense that a miracle must come and we hope that transfiguration is not too far away. 


The following Arietta’s crystalline purity is in fact just such a miracle. Like the “Ode to Joy” of the ninth symphony, this melody is immortal: as if carved into marble, it is eternal in its simplicity. It is the cornerstone of the ensuing variations and also their crowning glory. In this, his last sonata movement, Beethoven once again ascends from the depths of bitter solitude to ethereal heights, from hellish suffering to heavenly peace. Every moment of this sublime music seems divinely natural to us, but we know that Beethoven struggled through endless sketches to perfect this transformation. At first, increasing intensity and complexity dominates, then, less and less implies more and more. It leaves the earth far, far behind, soaring above the pains and sorrows of existence. The murmur of the deep, above which floats the arietta’s serene theme, is transformed into a shining trill high above the melody’s disappearing fragments, and the music—indeed, the entire Sonata—finds celestial peace; transfigured into the sparkling expanse of the star-studded milky way. With a pianissimo, hushed gesture the struggle ceases, the torch is turned downward and the flame extinguished. Beethoven has closed the book; he need never write another sonata for the piano.


Instead, in complete solitude, he would embrace God with the purest possible voices: the four stringed instruments of his last quartets. 

 

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