Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2, No. 1 in comparison to his Opus 7

For a comparsion of Beethoven’s Opus 7 with another of his piano sonatas, I have chosen Sonata Op. 2, No. 1, the first of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, in a  live recording by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, accessible online  via  http://youtu.be/T6YTd9z8PQM.  Due to it being structured in four movements (just like Opus 7), in a way it lends itself for a comparison.

Similarities and differences to Opus 7

The most obvious similarity to Beethoven Grand Sonata is the way in which is has, to some extent, a symphonic character. It is structured into four movements, the first one in a fast pace (Allegro), the second one a slow movement (adagio, not literally leisurely, but really slow), the third a traditional piece (here it is a menuett just like in opus 7), and, finally,the fourth movement (Prestissimo), which has, despite its contrasting tempo and after a rather conventional, traditional, reassuring third movement, exposes the listener again to a movement with a character of its own.

Another key similarity is how much the first movement follows the sonata form: an exposition with two themes, the main theme in the tonic (F minor), the second theme in the dominant (A-flat major), an „away-from-home“ development, and a recapitulation of both themes in the tonic, with a more or less long (or short) coda at conclusion of the movement.

The first movement (Allegro)

Opus 2 opens with a rather simple, 2/2-upbeat, but also catching main theme , the a so-called „Mannheim Rocket“ (a theme Mozart used in the finale in his G-minor symphony) The second theme is, just as in Opus 7, in the relative major to the tonic (here A-flat major) and is complemented by a 4-beat theme.

The opening scene of the movement bears a similarity with Opus 7 insofar as it does not at all raise the expectation that something modest is under way – rather the opposite: it appears agitated and give high expectations. But whereas the opening of Opus 7 announces -already in the first few seconds- . something really grandiose to come, the first seconds of Opus 2 are rather unspectacular, almost timid, but soon after that it also becomes promising,, here for something emotional meaningful and heavy to come, even though substantially less dramatic than in Opus 7.

Both the main theme and the second theme in Opus 2 and Opus 7 are rather “simple” and catchy (in case of the main theme), and the second them in both is more complex and melodic.

Yet, as a difference, the first theme of Opus 2 does not play the important role for the development as the first theme of Opus 7 does. The second theme takes up that role:

The development of the first movement in both sonatas does what the sonata form is expected them to do. It takes up the themes introduced in the exposition, playing around with them (or at least one of them), modify them, and give them various expressions. In the case of Opus 7, the main theme is so neutral, that it almost lends itself to be transformed into a variety of expressions: irate, despondent, cheerful – you name it. Opus 2 does that too to some extent. Yet – and that is the difference- it takes up the first topic, the „Mannheim Rocket“, only at the beginning of the development, and then only harnesses the second topic in order to make the development an adventurous experience. The second theme turn out to be rather malleable as well, and serves its purpose well, like the first theme of Opus 7.

As as side note, it’s might take as no surprise that the first theme, coming as recipe ingredient from a rather traditional school, it is not or cannot be used as very malleable theme to be tampered with -maybe is it too much ‘off-the-shelve’ to serve a versatile kernel like the main theme of Opus 7.

In both works the recapitulation – we are still talking only about the first movement- follows the sonata form quite strictly. It returns to the initial two topics again in the home key (the tonic) and concludes it -not mandatorily, but still to some extent expected by the listener- with a rather short coda, which which remains in the characteristic of the movement.

In the first movements of both works their symphonic characters becomes visible insofar as in the development, Beethoven seems to strive for other instruments. In case of Opus 7, we here reverberations which reminds us of an orchestra, and in Opus 2, some passages sound like imitations of other instruments, like a flute or a violin.

The second movement (Adagio)

In both cases Opus 2 and Opus 7, the second movement stands in the ‘tradition’ how Beethoven interpreted the tempo „adagio“: Not literally as leisurely pace, but as „slow“. Both movements are indeed slow: in Opus 7 in the interpretation of „adagio“ and in case of Opus7 ‘largo’ also with the strong connotation of „slow“.

Both slow movements are emotional very meaningfull Yet, whereas Opus 7 does something bold in deviating in tonality quite daringly by switching do a distance key (C major instead the parallel key E-flat minor), Opus 2 stays conventional and keeps the connection to the first movement – its key is F minor, the parallel key to F major.

As another difference, whereas the Largo of Opus 7 makes frequent use of silent pauses, as an integral part of the grammar of the music and as manipulative tool of time, the Adagio of Opus 2 does not do that to same extent. Almost every pauseshere is still filled which reverberations of the piano, and is just before the sound would end, taken up again as expected. Thusly, Opus 2 hardlys allow those totally silent moments like in  Opus 7, moments which poses questions and raise expectations. In Opus 7, the pauses are more a prolonging and a fading-away of the previous tone than a raised question. You don’t feel like you do in Opus 7: “And…?”.

The third movement (Menuetto, Allegretto)

For both Opus 2 and Opus 7, the third movement is a rather traditional piece and form: a minuett in allegro or allegretto, respectily Also on this  respect, both sonatas share a similarity in their symphonic character. They differ insofar as, even though the third movement of Opus 7 has some trembling moments towards the end, in this movement, Opus 2 appears overall less conventional and more lyrical than Opus 7.

The fourth movement (Prestissimo)

In the last movement the most salient difference between Opus 2 and Opus 7 comes to the fore. Whereas Opus 7 has a fourth movement in a traditional form, a Rondo, which usually gives the expectation of nothing groundbreaking being to expected anymore, as though the plot has already happened, Opus 2 offers another promising movement in sonata form – albeit in a modified form. Whereas for Opus 7 it is true – at least up to to the impressive and meaningful coda at the very end- that everything of meaning is already behind us and took place in the first two movements, it is not that obvious in Opus 2. The fourth movement of Opus 2 has a dramatic and a brisk character and even a grandiosity at times of its own. In this regard it almost takes up with the first movement of Opus 7.

Whereas in Opus 7, the movement is unspectacular and rather conventional, except from the revolutionary coda, in Opus 2 appears more energetic, even more dramatic in large parts, and seems more weighty than the preceding movements.

Probably the most salient difference between Opus 2 and Opus 7 is the coda of the last movement. Whereas Opus 7 gives a very surprisingly extended coda with a very dístant key, but also a different theme and becomes what lingers in the memory of the listeners, the final coda of Opus 2 ‘merely’ concludes the last movement in its character and is much less conspicuous.

Overall, despite the last movement of Opus 2 being more ‘daring’ in its sonata form than the Rondo of Opus 7, Opus 2 appears to me more tradititional and less revolutionary than Opus 7 – mainly because of a conventional final coda, the absence of silences in the slow movement and the use of a familiar and traditional main theme in the first movement.

External sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No._1_%28Beethoven%29

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