Listening exercise – a comparison between Beethoven’s first and last piano sonata

Posted on February 5, 2013


The piano was the most loyal companion of Beethoven throughout his life. In his first years in Vienna he created sensation as a piano virtuoso, playing the instrument with an advanced technique, elemental power and heartfelt passion as nobody else did. His piano compositions reflected his development at every stage and are among his most original compositions.  His piano works include piano concertos, sonatas, variation sets, bagatelles and miscellaneous pieces. His first piano sonatas already reflect compositional maturity, demonstrating not only a mastery of the Classical style, but a spirit of innovation and uncompromising originality. His middle period piano works are ample demonstrations of his deep inner conflicts, whereas his later works move towards high levels of creative freedom, a spiritual consolation and transcendental meaning.


Piano Sonata No 1 n F minor, Op 2

This music is the product of a young Beethoven of 25 years who handles with ease and confidence the compositional techniques characteristic to the Classical era. Overall, the piece gives the impression of structural clarity, with brilliant melodic passages built over orderly harmonic progressions.

The first movement is an upbeat, vibrating, dynamic allegro based on a powerful minor central theme. The music abounds in dazzling virtuosic details and is organised in cycles of increasing tension followed by rapid, cathartic relaxation i.e. well controlled, gradual stepwise upward motion building up energy for similarly well controlled, but much faster passages rolling downwards. The second movement is a relaxing, light, peaceful and elegant adagio with a breeze of thrills and other figures introduced with a great sense of measure and good taste. This is followed by a dance – minuet – where the rhythm is regular; structure and melody are essentially simple, with much restraint. However, even at this early age, Beethoven appears to be unable to write simple, undemanding music – descending fortissimo passages anchored to the baseline regular tempo add greater emotional charge to the third movement. The fourth movement brings the intensity of the music to the maximum and closes the frame of the composition by an energetic recapitulation of the thematic content. Although the rhythm remains regular, it brings about frequent changes in tempo and mood. The texture of the music is rich, the details are crystal clear, extremely elaborated and perfectly integrated into the framework.

Played by Sviatoslav Richter in 1975
Looking at the structure of the piece, it presents itself as a logical construction where the components are strongly linked together by the governing principles of classical tonality. Figures and embellishments fit very well to the underlying harmonies and are closely linked to each other, developing in relatively regular cycles. And yet, in spite of its structural unity and homogeneity, Beethoven’s Opus 2 evokes emotional intensity, dynamism, individuality and originality that are stretching and challenging the boundaries of the classical style, already anticipating the need for a radical transformation and liberation of the language of music.

Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Composed 26 years later, the last piano sonata is starkly different from the first one, reflecting the end result of a remarkable stylistic and conceptual development that characterised Beethoven’s music in the process of inventing Romantic music.

The first movement (Maestoso – allegro con brio appassionato) opens with an explosive, irregular, unpredictable rhythmic landscape. The thematic line is rich in chromatic elements, resulting in a strange, mysterious feeling. Gradually two conflicting patterns develop, alternating and overlapping with each other, one of a darker, menacing tone, harsh sonority, intensive attack, and another one bright, gentle and playful. The movement itself is loosely structured along the sonata format, but the thematic content is less clearly differentiated, with long segments of free-flowing music. Although some parts of the music are reminiscent to the nicely structured classical style, these are short lived and overshadowed by freely constructed, turbulent and tempestuous passages.

Played by Annie Fischer

The second movement (Arietta – Adagio molto semplice e cantabile) is light, gentle and peaceful, like walking freely on a natural trail. The melodic line is constantly changing without any strict constraints, displaying new and new figures without losing its bright coloration for a moment. It provides an insight into the composer’s most intimate emotions. Fate, struggle and reconciliation come together in the most poetic way.

That’s about enough of adjectives and musical terms, I’ll let you listen to the music now … I find it hard to describe its beauty anyway.

Posted in: Part 3