Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 2 Sonata in b flat major, Op. 22 (1800, published 1802), dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 2

Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 (1800, published 1802), dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne

The twentieth-century British music theorist Donald Tovey chose the first movement of the Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 to exemplify the early period of Beethoven at its best, noting that the composer himself was particularly proud of what he achieved here: ‘Die Sonate hat sich gewaschen’, Beethoven had proclaimed to his publishers.1 And while none of its themes is as memorable as that of the slow movement of the Pathétique (Op. 13) or as striking as the opening of the near-contemporary ‘Moonlight’ (Op. 27 No. 2), the composer is able to develop his material logically and imaginatively, sustaining interest throughout without confounding our expectations. In the opening Allegro con brio, there is no letup in Beethoven’s inventiveness from the opening bars until the end of the development section, where a brief pause allows the listeners to catch their breath.

The Adagio con molta espressione, set in the unusual metre of 9 / 8 (which Beethoven would use again two years later, in Op. 31 No. 1), is remarkable for the way in which unusual harmonies are created from the appoggiatura of the principal motive, particularly at the beginning of the development section where entire chords are the result of multiple appoggiaturas. (The sound of a D flat dominant seventh over a G pedal is followed by an even more extraordinary E dominant seventh over the same pedal note; both sonorities are merely embellishments of the dominant of C.)

The techniques employed in the last two movements are more conservative. The lyrical theme of the Minuetto acts as a foil to the vigorously running semiquavers in the bass line of the trio section. The Allegretto finale recalls the halcyon mood of its antecedents, in Op. 2 No. 2 and Op. 7; the word grazioso is not part of the tempo indication, but it is implied by the character of the themes.

Sonata in A flat major, Op. 26 (1800 – 01, published 1802), dedicated to Prince Carl von Lichnowsky

Although his next three sonatas fall within what is generally reckoned as his early period, they show the thirty-year-old Beethoven attempting to change the external shape of the sonata without abandoning the basic classical principles of thematic development and harmony-defined form.

Op. 26 is a four-movement sonata, and all four movements are substantial enough for the piece to earn the title Grande Sonate under which it was published. Yet the mood established at the beginning forecasts something different. Instead of assigning the bulk of musical development or innovation to the first or first two movements (as, for instance, in the Pathétique), which would have given it the front-heavy quality normally associated with late eighteenth-century music, Beethoven deliberately relaxes at the outset, with a quiet theme and variations which has an even quieter ending. In its peaceful-to-brilliant trajectory, Op. 26 anticipates the late sonatas, Op. 101, Op. 102 No. 1 (for cello), and especially Op. 110 with which it shares the key of A flat major.

The Scherzo has close links with its counterpart in the ‘Moonlight’. Both begin off the tonic, thus providing harmonic interest from the outset and promoting continuity of phrase structure. It is also notable that, in this sonata, the scherzo is placed, uncharacteristically, before the slow movement; in this way, the finale assumes greater importance as a ‘stand-alone’ fast movement following the funeral march.

The setting of the Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe in the tonic minor is enough to give this movement a particularly dark quality; this is heightened by a harmonic sequence ascending in minor thirds, thus from A flat to C flat to E double-flat. (To make the music readable, Beethoven respells C flat as B and E double-flat as D, respectively.) The brief maggiore middle section incorporates an unusual programmatic effect: the tremolos represent the drum-rolls that would have been performed in a military funeral procession, and the subsequent chords portray the volley of shots fired over the hero’s coffin. (In his 1815 orchestral arrangement of this movement, Beethoven appropriately makes the wind instruments and timpani stand out.)

The Allegro is based on a theme that could be taken for a finger exercise; this becomes the basis of brilliant, unrelenting counterpoint and thematic development. It is a far cry from the leisurely rondos of the previous sonatas, and looks ahead to the moto perpetuo finales of the Sonatas, Op. 54 and Op. 57, and the Fourth Symphony.

Two Sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’, Op. 27 (1801, published 1802), dedicated to Princess Josephine of Liechtenstein and Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, respectively

No. 1 in E flat major

Of all the early sonatas, Op. 27 No. 1 has the most unusual design: it is more a fantasia quasi una sonata than a sonata quasi una fantasia. Apart from its scherzo and trio, which are cast in traditional bipartite forms, nothing here corresponds to a ‘movement’ in the conventional eighteenth-century understanding of the term. The opening Andante is cast as an A – B – A – C – A rondo, but the C-section is in a different tempo, and metre, and it is tonally remote from the home key of E flat. The form of the finale is still more unusual. It starts with an Adagio con espressione in the subdominant key of A flat, i.e. as if it were the sonata’s slow movement, but this is merely the introduction to the Allegro vivace in the home key. And there is another surprise yet to come: shortly before the movement ends, Beethoven recalls the Adagio, now marked simply ‘Tempo I’, this time in the ‘correct’ key of E flat.

Op. 27 No. 1 offers an early and unusual example of what is sometimes called ‘progressive tonality’: the middle section of one movement provides the starting-point for the next. Thus the internal C major in the first movement prepares C minor in the second; and the A flat major of the trio anticipates the tonality at the start of the Adagio:

Andante – Allegro – Andante

E flat C E flat


Allegro molto e vivace

C minor – A flat – C minor


Adagio con espressione – Allegro vivace

A flat E flat
No. 2 in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’

The first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ – the sonata acquired its nickname in 1832, when the poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab recalled the music during a moonlit night over Lake Lucerne is far freer in form than anything Beethoven had previously included in a sonata; yet the more famous of his two sonatas quasi una fantasia also conforms more closely to traditional overall sonata design. Its three movements are distinct – though the performer is instructed to play these without a break – and in the same key (C sharp / D flat). What makes this sonata ‘like’ (or ‘almost’) a fantasia has less to do with overall formal structure than with the absence of contrast within each of its constituent parts. The Adagio sostenuto unfolds more like a prelude from the baroque era than a sonata movement, even though its tonal structure has a good deal in common with sonata form; the emphasis on triplet figuration suggests as much, the occasional appearance of a melodic idea contributing to the character (if not the design) of a chorale prelude. The Allegretto is also atypical of Beethoven’s minuet-scherzo combinations in that essentially the same mood prevails in both parts. The final Presto agitato is in sonata form; but here, too, the emphasis is on continuity rather than contrast; only in a couple of bars of octave texture – near the end, and marked Adagio – do listeners have a moment to reflect on what has gone before, perhaps to recall the stillness of the opening bars of the sonata.

Sonata in D major, Op. 28 ‘Pastoral’ (1801, published 1802), dedicated to Joseph Edler von Sonnenfels

With its clear, spacious four-movement design and its placement of most of the musical development nearer the beginning, the Sonata in D major, Op. 28 evokes – almost for the last time – the world of Beethoven’s grandes sonates of the 1790s. It has its counterpart among the orchestral works in the Second Symphony, which Beethoven would compose a year later and in the same key; one also thinks of the composer’s Violin Concerto (1806), likewise in D major and set in motion by those same repetitions of low D. Indeed, what distinguishes Op. 28 is an almost total lack of aggression. A few passages are marked forte, but these are of limited duration; and it is not until the middle of the finale that a fortissimo appears in the score. The sonata acquired its nickname from the title Sonate pastorale, which was used when the sonata was published by Cranz of Hamburg, in 1838; though this cannot be traced back to Beethoven, it well captures the overall character of the piece.

There is an almost mock-serious element in the central Andante, a counterpart to the near-contemporary Marcia funebre from Op. 26. Its jaunty bass line in the main sections and chirpy triplets in the ‘trio’ return at the end of the movement, in minor, as if to insist that they, too, are capable of being taken seriously.

The main theme of the Scherzo comprises four F sharps, descending in octaves without accompaniment. This is unremarkable in itself, as the note is quickly explained as the third of a D major chord. But at the da capo following a trio section in B minor, they provide a moment of harmonic uncertainty, as F sharp is now heard as the fifth of that key. (One wonders whether Beethoven may have been paying tribute to Haydn, who exploits a similar opposition of B minor and D major in two of his string quartets.)

The Rondo finale, like many others from the period, has an amiable momentum that is gently interrupted each time the main theme returns. This movement is Beethoven’s first piano sonata finale marked by an accelerated final page; its Più Allegro quasi Presto anticipates the even more virtuosic coda of the ‘Waldstein’ and ‘Appassionata’ sonatas that lay some years in the future.
Three Sonatas, Op. 31 (composed 1801 – 02, first published as a set in 1804)

No. 1 in G major

The publication history of Op. 31 is somewhat unusual. The first two sonatas were first issued together as the fifth volume of the Répertoire des Clavecinistes of the Zürich publishing house of Hans Georg Nägeli, in April 1803. A year later, Nägeli brought out two more sonatas by Beethoven to form the eleventh volume in the series: Op. 31 No. 3, and a reprint of the Pathétique. These editions were so riddled with errors – Nägeli actually took the liberty of adding several bars of music to the first sonata – that Beethoven approached the Bonn publisher Nikolaus Simrock, with the help of his pupil Ferdinand Ries, to prepare a new edition of the sonatas; Simrock’s ‘very correct edition’ of the first two sonatas appeared before the end of 1803; No. 3 was included in Simrock’s edition of Op. 31 in the following year.

Apart from its unusual tonal scheme – its second subject begins in the remote key of B major instead of the usual dominant – the main interest in the Allegro vivace of the first sonata of the set lies in the nervous rhythms of its opening theme. Working out this idea reaches a climax at the end of the development, where the opposition of on-the-beat and just-off-the-beat chords is transformed into the opposition of a full chord and a single note. The Adagio grazioso, with its stately 9 / 8 metre and regular phrase structure, recalls Beethoven’s early slow movements; its most dramatic passage is withheld until after the reprise of the main theme, so that what begins life as a small ternary form turns into something more like a five-part rondo. The finale begins life as a leisurely Allegretto, but the closing Presto seems to brush aside what has preceded it – a technique that Beethoven borrowed from Op. 28 and would exploit more fully in the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata.

No. 2 in D minor ‘Tempest’

It is often said that minor keys offered classical composers much greater scope for emotional expression and that, in a given opus, the work written in a minor key usually stands out from the others. Nowhere does this generalisation seem more applicable than to the Violin Sonatas, Op. 30 and their contemporary Piano Sonatas, Op. 31. Integrating new harmonic and formal ideas in the first movement of No. 2 in D minor (the nickname ‘Tempest’ derives from Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable chronicler Anton Schindler), Beethoven takes a leap forward in sonata style: as has often been noted, the opening idea, comprising a slow first-inversion arpeggio and rapid continuation in quavers, is not quite an introduction, and not yet a first theme either; but the first arrival in the home key has taken the form well past the point where such a theme might be found. As in the case of the earlier Pathétique Sonata and several string quartets that lay in the future, these slow and fast ideas are developed together throughout the first movement: in the recapitulation, for instance, the arpeggio sets up a passage of intense vocal expressivity. By comparison with this extraordinary movement, which has claimed the lion’s share of attention given to the sonata, the ensuing Adagio and Allegretto are laid out along more conventional lines, perhaps to illustrate that movements in sonata form (without and with a development section, respectively) do not always defy the conventions of the day.

No. 3 in E flat major

The last of the Op. 31 set is Beethoven’s only four-movement work without a slow movement. In the Allegretto vivace which occupies second position, interest is focused on texture and articulation rather than on thematic contrast. The Menuetto, which may be based on a discarded ‘Eroica’ variation, puts distance between this mercurial Scherzo and the even more vivacious final Presto con fuoco.

Although Beethoven himself spoke of the Op. 31 sonatas, along with the variation sets for piano dating from this period, as representing the start of a ‘new way’ of composing, they are now generally viewed more as occupying a transitional role in his development as a composer than marking the start of a new creative period. The quirkiness or profundity of individual movements aside, this set marks the end of Beethoven’s composition of piano sonatas in groups of three for nearly twenty years. What follows after 1802 is a succession of individual works – some in three movements, many in only two, and just one clearly designed as a four-movement grande sonate – from which it will no longer be possible to define the genre in a normative way.

Two Sonatas, Op. 49 (No. 1 composed c. 1797, No. 2 composed 1795 – 96, set published 1805)

No. 1 in G minor

In many respects, the two slender Op. 49 sonatas stand apart from the rest of the sonatas by Beethoven. It is possible that he regarded them at one time as discarded works, as he recycled the minuet from No. 2 in his Septet, Op. 20 (1800). They are short, and not difficult to learn (they are designated as Sonates faciles in the first edition), and may have served as teaching pieces for Beethoven’s pupils in the late 1790s. Moreover, the sonatas are the only works in the canon to have been first published many years after their composition.

The first movement of No. 1 has a number of features associated with the music of Haydn: a string-quartet-like opening texture, a brief modulation to the relative key, and the use of variants of the initial rhythmic figure in subsequent themes. The unison writing at the start of the development may be a further tribute by Beethoven to his former teacher.

No. 2 in G major

By contrast, the second sonata suggests the influence of Mozart in its reliance upon the right hand for the melody, the left hand for the accompaniment. In the layout of its form, the first movement has often been compared to the well-known Sonatina in C major, KV 545, which Mozart wrote ‘for beginners’ in 1788, though the work did not appear in print until 1805.

Each of these two-movement sonatas ends with a rondo in G major. For No. 1 Beethoven chose a highly unusual route for modulating to the second subject, and an unusual point of arrival (B flat major): it is as if he were writing a movement that was simultaneously in G major and G minor. The harmonic plan of the second finale is altogether more straightforward:
A-section B-section first reprise of A

G major modulation to D G major

C-section second reprise of A

C major G major

But it is too short: the C-section merely comprises a pair of eight-bar phrases and a two-bar turnaround to G, where one would normally expect a considerably expanded episode and a lengthy transition back to the home key.
Sonata in C major, Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’ (1803 – 04, published 1805), dedicated to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein

Like the Eroica among the symphonies and the first ‘Razumovsky’ among the string quartets of Beethoven, the ‘Waldstein’ may be said to mark the inauguration of his middle period in the composition of piano sonatas: his ‘crossing the Rubicon’, in Tovey’s words. The composer’s conception of sonata form has now grown substantially larger: the second group of themes is generously provided for, and each theme is developed extensively within the exposition; the development section unfolds in two broad phases, each marked with distinctly different treatments of the thematic material; and the coda is extended to accommodate new development, rather than merely reinforce the home key. And Beethoven’s first thoughts were to repeat each of the two halves of the opening Allegro con brio – exposition, development plus recapitulation; at a late stage, he deleted the second pair of repeat signs.

Much has been made of the unusual tonal plan of the exposition: the arrival in the remote key of E major is even underscored thematically: when a chorale initiates the second group of themes, we have reached a truly different world from the wrist exercise with which the sonata had opened. And it is this enormous contrast which gives rise to the expansions in form just described; in this respect, the ‘Waldstein’ differs from its more light-hearted tonal cousin, Op. 31 No. 1.

Originally, Beethoven planned a lengthy, formalised slow movement for the ‘Waldstein’, but he removed it at a very late stage (see below) and replaced it with a terse, harmonically probing Adagio molto. This ‘Introduction’, as Beethoven titled it, is unprecedented in the literature – Beethoven may be imagining a piano-sonata equivalent to two moments in the music of Mozart: the famous opening of the ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, or the introduction to the finale of the Quintet in G minor (he knew both these works well). The ensuing Allegretto moderato is a work no less original than its preparation: instead of relying on tonal contrast, Beethoven shapes the work mainly on the basis of texture and pattern, almost blurring the distinction between rondo and variations. (Again, the Eroica comes to mind, on account of its hybrid form.) Uncannily, he is able to make extraordinarily beautiful transitions back to the home key without really ever leaving it.

Andante in F major, WoO 57 ‘Andante favori’ (1803 – 04, published 1805)

The Andante in F was originally conceived as the slow movement of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata. As Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries reported,

A friend of his suggested to Beethoven that the sonata was too long, for which he was most sternly rebuked. When he was alone, calmer reflection soon convinced my teacher of the correctness of the remark. He then published the grand Andante in F, in ⅜ metre, on its own and later composed the interesting introduction to the rondo, which we now find there.

The autograph manuscript of the Sonata corroborates Ries’s story: a heavily corrected score of the Introduzione now occupies the place where a slow movement had once stood.

A thoroughly charming piece in its own right, the Andante was published in the autumn of 1805 and quickly became one of Beethoven’s most popular works; and when it was republished two years later, in 1807, it acquired the title Andante favori. It is similar in design to Beethoven’s other middle-movement rondos of the period, in that its theme undergoes ever more elaborate embellishment each time it reappears: one thinks of the slow movements of the near-contemporary ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, and also of the Fifth Symphony. It is not an easy piece to perform, as it contains many passages in octaves and some rapid figuration; the piece that took its place is technically easier but musically much more searching, and it provides the ideal backdrop to the ray of light that seems to shine out at the start of the sonata’s finale.

There is one point at which the Andante intersects with the piece that took its place: towards the end, there is a six-fold repetition of F (in 1803, the lowest note on Beethoven’s piano) reinforced in octaves, which slides up to G flat to initiate the rondo’s single moment of darkness. This same octave F initiates the Introduzione, though here – with a greater sense of mystery – it moves not up but down by a semitone. It is as if the opposing choices of slow movement (cheerful self-contained rondo versus brooding open-ended introduction) were played out at the level of a single move in the bass line.

© 2014 William Drabkin

1 Literally, ‘The sonata has washed itself’. Beethoven is probably alluding to the common expression, ‘mit allen Wassern gewaschen sein’, by which he would be implying that the new sonata shows the depth of his experience and his mastery of every ‘trick of his trade’. He is thus warning his publishers of the complexity of the work, which may at first be hard to perform and difficult to understand.

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