Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas


Beethoven 1801 by Carl Traugott Riedel

Timewarp to 1802 – a comtemporary’s view

Be prepared to travel on new emotional paths

Beethoven also titled this sibling of 1801 „almost a fantasy“. The more than unusual first movement not only does away with a stringent notion of  a fantasia, the piece dismantles more – not only that it flouts the familiar fast-slow-fast structure.

First movement

Structurally, a surprise comes already in the first movement. Not only does it not give the piece its character early (that is delayed until the end), not only is it not a fast and lively movement (it is an Adagio sostenuto instead of an Allegro) – it is not even in any sonata form with which we are familiar.

Admittedly, there are two minimally contrasting themes, the first one mostly unaltered throughout the movement – even though is shows some variety later – the second one more malleable, „away“ and somehow contrasting the first, but in tonality as well as in overall atmosphere there is not as much difference as we might expect from the first movement in a piano sonata, a symphony or a string quartet. What the first movement appears can be compared probably – if we are forced to give a category – to something like a fantasia without appearing improvised (albeit, his talent for it comes handy), or a prelude we know from Bach. We are introduced, but we are not proposed as to what comes later.

We are presented two topics here. The first topic consisting of mournful base and a lamenting ostinato in triplet, the second one is a “dotted” funeral-march-like “hymn” (1). We might feel in familiar waters. However, there is no masculine vs. feminine contrast here, as it has often been the case, in particular in some of Mozart’s sonatas. The movement appears genderless. Both topics stay in C-sharp minor and both stick to the same heavy and menacing atmosphere. Beethoven demands it to be played without dampers, further diminishings the contrast: “the harmonies mingle like in water” (2). The most salient distinguishing feature from the sonata form is that we are not going anywhere. We never leave home, we never leave the exposition. There is no development. Hence, we also do not return home in a recapitulation. The movement eschews the sonata form – not only by being extremely slow.

It does not even provide a „home“ as might be expected from an exposition. The atmosphere is, before anything else, menacing – not a pleasant atmosphere you consider home. We experience a contrast between the mournful triplet, which is the ever mournful background, and the lamenting theme, undulating around that mournful background. It never breaks free – it rather delivers associations emanating from a fixed vantage point, which appears as ghostly voices getting to us through the fog.

If we ascribe a trait to the first movement, with its heavy C-sharp minor, it appears as a fist-swinging, a curbed exposition of power, like a tiger in a cage. The coda, returning to the base, gives the impression of that strength caving in, after having been struggling stationary, sinking in to itself. Nothing has been accomplished. The coda means death. It does not becomes clear whether the preceding associations were just memories of a past live or feverish fantasies. What remains is silence and a huge question mark.

Second movement

What a surprise and contrast. Abruptly, we appear out of the “abyss” (3), in life again, and we don’t even know how we’ve got here. Still, we feel a connection to the preceding situation: the key is D-flat major, the parallel enharmonic to the C-sharp minor of the first movement. It is a light-hearted Scherzo in allegretto, but it stays in piano just like the adagio movement. Hence, we do not leap fully into live, but, at least we feel that inner strength by means of interspersed subito sforzandos and forte-pianos.

A scherzo in the middle is familiar to us, so usually we would not expect anything signficantly different here, Yet, with the first movement having been slow, dreamy and fixated, we are not prepared to what is to be expected in the next movement. Hence, it is still a surprise, considering anything could have happened. The most probable thing we expect after the very long exposition – which essentially is the first movement – is a development section a sonata form owes us, a journey taking us away with familiar themes in the knapsack – but it doesn’t. The second movement rips us away, it relocates us out of left field someplace else, without any experience of a journey. A question mark remains. That way, Beethoven keeps us in suspense – at a point, at which usually we have the feeling the main plot is already in the rear mirror.

At this point, we would expect to have the typical sonatas journey ‘home-away-home’ behind us. Yet, we haven not been away in the first place! Furthermore, what has happened during that miraculous leap from the mortal first movement to the very alive scherzo – we don’t know. Hence, we expect an explanation after the scherzo, a big question remains unanswered, We want to know the whole story.

Third movement

We approach the last movement with great expectations, hoping for a redemption.

Beethoven makes up for everything he has withheld from us so far, and even more. We not only have our fast movement, we also have our sonata form, but – almost as a shock – an “inferno”-like piece   (4) in presto-agitato. Structurally, it is the sonata form we are familiar with: an exposition of two contrasting themes, repeated once, the main theme in the tonic C-sharp minor, the side theme in the dominant key G-sharp minor, a journey in the development with frequent key changes, finding the home key from the dominant when returning home in the recapitulation, concluded with a coda. The coda is tradtionally short; Beethoven’s appears to have left his aberration to extreme long and distant coda like in his sonata E-flat major from 1796/97 (annotation: Opus 7) behind him.

Nevertheless, do not expect a Haydn-, Mozart-, not even Early-Beethoven-trajectory here. It keeps the form, but not the path.

The movement opens with a menacing theme in the exposition, reminiscent of the main theme from the first movement. Admittedly, the second theme reminds us of a short motif in Mozart’s sonata in C major of 1775 with a subdued entertaining character, yet merely for the sake of some contrast. It does not chip away from the permanently agitated character of the entire movement. Emotionally, there is not much of a contrast.

In the development and terrifying in the finale, the so far suppressed energy is unleashed, the tiger is out of his cage. What is revolutionary about the piece: the last movement, the finale, becomes the highlight, the pinnacle of the dramatic endpoint of a trajectory, known so far as leading us down from an early pinnacle to a undramatic end. The finale of the last movement does not feel like a homecoming in a recapitulation. It is even more shaking and agitating. Beethoven already does something similiar in the coda of the E-flat major sonata, but that seems outside the sonata form. Here it is part of it.

Beethoven has turned the familiar trajectory upside-down, following a natural path of emotions rather than an artificial form, the course of suppression and explosion of personal rage. He pushes the boundaries of what we are able to experience as instrumental music, a little more away from prescribed structure towards individualistic expression, making it are more direct emotional and personal experience without the detour over form as intellect.

Klemens Großmann, May 2014


Jenő Jandó – Beethoven Sonatas, No. 14, Opus 27/2:

1st mvmt:

2nd mvmt:

3rd mvmt:

1) 2) 3) 4) Andras Schiff’s lectures on Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Moonlight sonata:


Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, portrait by Thomas Hardy

I’ve chosen Haydn’s piano sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI:52, as emblematic for Haydn’s late take on the piano sonata form, vicarious for the three so-called „English sonatas“, in a recording by Mehmet Okonsar.

Upfront: As a similarity to Beethoven sonatas of 1809. both Haydn and Beethoven are not exactly fond of the traditional role and expression of the piano sonatas. Both are playful and to some extent bold, even cheeky and clearly not for those sonata listeners who are seeking for a secure and resting vantage point, especially not emotionally. Both composers – Haydn even more than Beethoven – take us on an adventerous journey, in particular by means of unexpected key changes.

Compared in terms of structure, Beethoven steers away almost completely from the symphonic three-movement structure „fast-slow-fast“ in his opus of 1809: Opus 77 is a one-movement fantasy, Opus 78 comprises only two movements (slow-fast, fast), and Opus 81 has a trilogy-like structure: slow – leisurely – vivacious, depicting the timeless topics farewell, absence and return. Haydn, in contrast wide keeps the familiar three-movement structure of fast-slow-fast.

Looking at Beethoven opus 78, what is striking in the key first movement, vicarious also for Opus 81a to some degree in so far as every theme, every topic, every mood takes its righteous place. Beethoven has endowed each of it with an obvious raison d’être, widely in respectful neighbourhood to others. Contrasting topics and moods coexist without disturbing each other. As different as they may be – pensive, joyful, upbeat, pessimistic – surprisingly, they do not conflict with each other whenever they encounter. Richness and variety without conflict is the hallmark feature of those of Beethoven sonata, even in the case of Fantasy Opus 77, appearing perfectly improvised.

Beethoven of 1809 uses something which had not been common for sontats until then: a long introduction and a unusual coda in the first movement of Opus 78. Haydn did not do this.

Worth mentioning with respect to juxtaposing Beethoven sonatas with Haydn’s late sonata is a use of humour. Even though in the very short second movement of Opus 78, Beethoven shows humour –  for Beethoven’s sonata admittedly not that frequent – , opera of that time did not distinguish itself by wit.


Beethoven, circa 1811, by Carl Schloesser

In contrast, Haydn’s late „English sonatas“ are in in both respects -conflictlessness and a forgoing of humor- a striking difference. Already Haydn’s Hob.XVI:50 is – predominantly in its first movements – a cornucopia of wit. Also, in particular in the second half of Haydn’s Hob.XVI:52, witty cheekiness is found all over the place: Seriousness and gravity repeatedly tries to establish itself and to take center stage, but is repeatedly mockingly and teasingly interrupted and shunt by mirth and  sassy, buoyant sequences of sounds: Gravity gets not foot in the door, no matter often is tries to assert itself. Joyful and upbeat tunes sneeringly imitate the serious tones and shunt them. Those youthful forces are chasing each other like frolicking siblings. in some parts, the “old” and “grumpy” voice almost sulkily heckles from the background, and it is immediately put in its place by joyful voices.

Hob.XVI:50 does completely without an introduction, and opens with a short and festive motif  – a baroque motif, which is repeated again several time over the course of the movements, but is very quickly, after being echoes, replaced by something else. Haydn raises an expectation, but dispels it immediately, again leaving you confused about what is to come. Apart from Beethoven forgoing Baroque motive completely, Haydn – using the Baroque motive only for a cheeky confusion, does not establish anything of substance in the beginning.

In the slow movement of Hob.XVI:52, the Adagio. Haydn shows a relaxed mirth and an optimistic serenity, which is it is always expressed neither decrepit nor weak, but with force and energy. The strokes demand and express physical strength. Right at the beginning, Haydn’s slow movement takes up a key which came up in the first movement as suprising hovering points between the dominant and the tonic and which  was unconcluded, but in the second movmentwe feel that we are arriving where we were travelling to in the first movement. The second movement is an arrival, whereas in Beethoven the slow movements appear as a journey of its own beetween two fast movements. Furthermore, Haydn’s slow movement is imbued by optimism and strength, whereas the slow movements of Beethoven 1809 sonatas are mean to be, before anything else, beautiful.

Listening to Haydn Hob.XVI:52, the expectations of a rather festive Baroque piece is soon dispersed (to some relief), and one feels challenged by the chase of variations, and, predominantly in the second half the movements, which an amusement about the lovely cheekiness of joyful voices towards grumpiness.

It seems as Haydn, in his late sonatas, does away with the sonata form as the messenger of the gravity of life, and establishes them as message of a different kind: Don’t take life and yourself too seriously, you are going to embarrass yourself – and the upbeat forces of youth are going to push you lovingly into the background. They are going to put you in your place, and even more, you are going to miss much if you stay on the grave and serious side.

Haydn’s  Hob.XVI:52 seems to say with a wink: Life is full of cheerful surprises, and nothing is as serious as it purports to be. I feel the aged Haydn becomes astonishingly youthful in his last sonata – juvenile but wise at the same time, whereas Beethoven of 1809 seem to say: Life is full of surprises, and it is grave.


IMSLP(,_Joseph)), or directly via

1st movement:

2nd movement:

3rd movement:

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  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.

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