It has been said so many
times that Beethoven revolutionized the piano.
He extended all the background he got from Haydn, Mozart but also from
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Muzio Clementi to such a level that the
word "revolution" is not an over-statement. He introduced the "romantic
piano ecriture" by large steps, following the evolution of his artistic
On one side the assessment of virtuosity to the requirements of the
musical inspirations and lyricism, a piano which does not mimic some
orchestral instruments but gets alive as a full symphonic orchestra. An
orchestra where not only each instrument has its own sound-color but
also the ensemble has one tremendous power never heard of before, and
on the other side, the evolution of classical forms towards new forms
of expression elaborated with a "new musical logic" can only
incompletely describe this gigantic work.
Regarding the thirty-two Sonatas Wilhelm Kempf said: "Beethoven must be
experienced. Experience him and the listeners will also. Beethoven
requires pianistic abilities never heard of before or after. The
pianist's hands are asked to perform things so unique that years of
skillful practice is needed. What is even more strange is that in each
of his great sonatas, new abilities are required which are not acquired
with the previous training. When the technical background is solid we
can then go to conquest the Beethovenian universe. However, as this is
a universe; it can not be conquered in one day."
The thirty-two sonatas form in the output of the composer a large,
As commonly stated, there are three main "styles" or periods in
Beethoven's creative life. To use Franz Liszt's somewhat empathetic
expression: "the adolescent, the man and the god."
The somewhat artificial subdivision of Beethoven's styles: "early -
middle - late", as reflected in the piano sonatas is blurry. According
to one scheme the thirty-two sonatas are divided as fifteen in the
first period (until 1802), eleven in the second (1802 - 1814) and six
in the last (1814 - 1827). That is: the early sonatas are from opus 2
to opus 28 "Pastoral"; middle ones: opus 31 to opus 81a "Adieux" and
last period is from the opus 90 to opus 111. Another scheme I find more
stringent is opus 2 to opus 26 ("Funeral March") in the first period;
opus 27 to opus 90 in the middle and the late period starting at opus
Of course, both are over-simplified schemes, not in contradiction with
historical and biographical facts but they may be misleading specially
when examining the first two periods. All of Beethoven is present in
all his works.
According to Alfred Brendel: "Beethoven piano sonatas are unique in
three respects. First, they reflect all of the composer's genius until
the last Quartets. The Diabelli Variations and the last series of
Bagatelles which then conclude all his output. Second, there is no
"less important" pieces in them, this separates them form the series of
Variations which are not equal in creativity and masterly crafting.
Lastly Beethoven never repeats himself in his sonatas. Each one is a
totally new concept and realization."
Sonata N.1 in F minor op.2 n.1
This first "Grande Sonate" belongs to the series opus 2 with the two
following ones and are dedicated to the "Docteur en Musique Joseph
Haydn". Composed between 1794 and 1795 they were first published by
Artaria in Vienna with the mention "Sonatas for pianoforte or
Harpsichord". They were first performed by the composer, before Haydn,
in a private concert at the Prince Lichnowsky's court.
Audience acclaimed the new compositions, except for Haydn, who,
presumably, liked them but recommended his pupil (Beethoven) to keep
learning. But we well know, from many other sources the complex
relationship between one illustrious and very distinguished yet
somewhat distant teacher and his greatly talented pupil.
This first Sonata still has a Menuet as a third movement, very typical
with its major key Trio and a rather conventional second (slow)
movement in the manner of a Haydn or Mozart, deployed as a theme
and ornamental variations. This second movement "Adagio" seems to be
written as a development of a quartet in C Major from 1785.
The first theme in the dark and tormented key of F minor is deployed as
an arpeggio in the first movement, Allegro. The F minor arpeggio as a
theme will, interestingly, re-appear in the famous "Appassionata". Both
themes do have a strange similarity.
The following movement Adagio presents a serene theme in F major,
masterly varied in its diverse expositions, similar to the best slow
movements of Haydn and Mozart sonatas.
The elegant Menuetto is, following the tradition, crafted with a
typical strings-trio type of ecriture. One of the many places in
Beethoven's piano works, where the pianist must have a perfect legato
touch and create the illusion of an ensemble of strings players.
The last movement, uncommonly indicated Prestissimo and half-time
simultaneously, expands the possibilities and sound limits of the
instrument and the average performing limits of the pianists of the
time (or of all times?) to new levels. Mozart never employed the
indication Prestissimo in a last movement. This, combined with the
half-time time signature, the block chords and the extremely
contrasting dynamics working as a theme already present us with a new
language in music.
Sonata N.2 in A major op.2 n.2
Right after the tormented, somewhat tetchy first sonata, Beethoven
surprises us with a bright, luminous and joyful one in the most
appropriate key for the mood: A major.
As Jorg Demus put it, this sonata brings the most apparent hommage to
Joseph Haydn. A bounding theme in unison octaves and one a
chromatically raising second theme are followed with a development
section which starts with an immensely effective modulation from C
major to A-flat major.
The Largo Appassionato may be the first of Beethoven's deep and sublime
slow movements. A fully orchestral writing deployed as a symphony's
slow movement is a giant step from the keyboard-style ornamental
variations commonly used until then by the classical masters.
For the first time Scherzo replaces the Menuetto as a third movement.
The moderately conservative sound-range of a typical Menuetto is now
abolished and the music expands over a wide range on the keyboard with
fast and brisk jumps.
The Rondo of the last movement is characteristic with its large
arpeggio (or later a running scale) leading to the high E note and this
note's legato "drop" to a G-sharp far below. An unusually large
interval is made the theme's distinctive aspect. The Rondo deploys as
A-B-A-C-A-B-A-coda and the given indication Grazioso best describes the
Sonata N.3 in C
major op.2 n.3
Composed and premiered simultaneously with the preceding ones, this
sonata is specially brilliant and virtuoso.
The first theme gets all its energy with the fast alternation of
simultaneous thirds, its main feature. The great Beethovenian who was
Edwin Fisher beautifully described the lyrical second theme: "as if
entering in a shaded forest in a sunny summer day.."
The first movement is a fantastic deployment of energy presented with
the most refined virtuosity on the keyboard, never written before.
Extreme dynamics, syncopations, all kinds of trills abound all over.
The second movement in E major has the characteristic sound color of
all E major slow movements of Beethoven. They all start with a chord
featuring the third degree (G-sharp) on the medium range octave of the
piano. As Paul Badura-Skoda put it, starting with this sonata and all
over the finales of opus 90 and opus 109 and including the second
movement of the third concerto, that particular sound of the E major
tonic chord with the third degree at that particular position gives
those movements a warm and meditative characteristic.
A fast and brisk Scherzo penned in a fugato style displays the usage of
a wide keyboard range and features a Trio which may be the total
opposite of the traditional Menuet trio. In the traditional Menuets,
Trios are most often in a lighter tone, sometimes in a calmer tempo.
Here we have the opposite: the "Trio" is articulated with demoniacal
arpeggios covering a large range.
The up run in parallel 3-6 chords constitutes the theme of the last
movement constructed as a free-style Rondo. The choral-like second
theme, according to Badura-Skoda is a big novelty in a sonata's last
movement. The idea of inserting a choral-like theme within a similar
context will be widely used by the German composers to follow.
Badura-Skoda also points out the similarity of this theme with one in
Brahms' opus 5 Third Sonata.