Beethoven Sonatas – Introduction


I tend to work many different projects at a time. I complete some and neglect others, but this is a project I’d really like to complete. I would really like to analyze all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in my personal way. I want to go beyond just analyzing the keys Beethoven uses in a sonata. I want to analyze the “psychology” behind it all. I want to research how Beethoven develops his ideas throughout a work. I want to know why he chooses a direction to take his ideas or a strategy to modulate to a certain key. I want to discover what he is trying to say, how he tells a story or canvasses a painting to create a complete narrative.

In my analyses, I want to focus on Beethoven’s musical subjects first and foremost to explore what ideas he chooses to develop, how he develops them, and how he makes all the different aesthetic and narrative elements fit together into a complete story. Analyzing Beethoven’s keys is my second priority. I will examine the harmonic strategies he uses to create a certain sound and to modulate in certain keys. My least priority is musical form, determining whether a movement is in sonata form, rondo form etc. In the past I was too obsessed with rigid musical form in my compositions, so I would like to correct this defect by analyzing Beethoven’s sonatas in a different way.

Beethoven’s sonatas can be grouped into six or seven broad categories in chronological order. Each group reflects a different attitude Beethoven has at the moment and a different direction he takes his music. They are all unified under many strong traits that are more or less uniquely Beethoven’s, but I will discuss these overall traits last.

Older Bonn Sonatas (Nos. i-iii)
Beethoven wrote his three first sonatas in Bonn. The essays of his youth, these early works are unpublished, so they are not officially cannon. I may or may not analyze them, depending if I can find reliable sheet music. Beethoven’s earliest sonatas are relatively lighthearted compared to his later work. They sparkle with youth, playfulness, and naivety. Beethoven seldom expresses dark moods in this work but slow movements are melancholy, reflecting a young person’s sadness.

The sonatas sound similar to Mozart’s sonatas, but lack Mozart’s maturity, sophistication, and command over musical subjects. The young Beethoven need not be ashamed, for he more than makes up for it in his later piano sonatas, which I think far outstrip Mozart’s. A significant factor in Beethoven’s maturity was his study under Haydn, which becomes very apparent in his sonatas from now on.

Early Sonatas (Nos. 1 – 11)
Beethoven masters the techniques of his predecessors. Here we see two things happening at once. At one moment, Beethoven deliberately breaks new ground with techniques such as sudden modulations and key changes (Sonata No. 6), sudden dynamic changes, and longer development sections and codas. At the same time he perfects the standard forms he inherited from Haydn and Mozart. This is very apparent, as the early sonatas tend to have four movements in conventional order (sonata form, slow movement sonata form, minuettes or schezros, and rondos or sonata form).

Beethoven’s early sonatas are a lot like symphonies and concertos, with the large scope and weight of symphonies and concertos. Beethoven imbues his early sonatas with a very vocal and orchestral quality. Examples exist such as flutes and clarinets (Sonata No. 1) and horns and strings (Sonata No. 4). In many passages, Beethoven’s music seems to have voice parts for a string quartet or string ensemble. Beethoven’s choice here is extremely important and is one of the best he ever made as a composer. The vocal and orchestral qualities of his sonatas give them a powerful, rich, transcendent quality. You are not hearing only piano music. You are hearing something far beyond the piano. Beethoven keeps this quality through the rest of his piano works.

We will also notice how Beethoven’s music now is much more economical and concise than his Bonn sonatas. Here Beethoven clearly shows his tutelage under Haydn. Beethoven loses a lot of the Mozartesque qualities of his Bonn sonatas. Now, Beethoven uses less for greater effect. His subjects are trimmed of any unnecessary material. They are now simpler but much more forceful. Like Haydn, Beethoven uses simple ideas or musical cells to build an entire work. By having the entire work spring from a cell or idea, or at least by making the cell the work’s backbone, he succeeds in creating a unique sound world for each piece. He uses all of these techniques for the rest of his sonatas.

Fantasy Sonatas (Nos. 12-18)
At this point Beethoven has thoroughly mastered conventional forms and now becomes more experimental. Beethoven uses the tried and true four-movement sonata less and less. In fact, Sonata No. 18 is the last four-movement sonata he ever wrote. Beethoven experiments with form here for two main reasons. One, he wants to free his music of the formalities he mastered, lest he becomes trapped in them. Two, he wants to solve the balance problem in classical music.

Typically, classical music places the most weight in the first movement. The first movement usually is in sonata form and has the most complexity and drama in the entire symphony. The second movement is usually a kind of sonata form also, and comes second in dramatic weight. The third movements and fourth movements, however, are much lighter. The fourth movement in particular is breezy and over quickly.

This may be okay for music but dramatically it tends to fall short. It is like having a book or movie where the most character development and plot unfolds in the first half, leaving little in the second half. Beethoven tries to solve this problem in two different ways. The first way is by putting off the sonata form as the very last movement and having the previous movement build up to it in a dramatic climax. Sonata No. 14 is the most famous example of this happening. The second way is the way Beethoven uses a lot more often, and he uses it the most in the Great & Eerie sonatas.

Miniature Sonatas (Nos. 19-20)
Beethoven probably wrote these two sonatas when he was much younger. He never wanted to publish them but his secretary Schindler published them anyway. It was a rare good move on Schindler’s part because now posterity can enjoy them. They are of course not very stately or inventive but they weren’t meant to be. They are simple but beautiful pieces that explore feelings of melancholy and cheerfulness.

Great & Eerie Sonatas (Nos. 21-28)
Here we see two types of sonata intermingle together, probably because Beethoven was exploring two directions simultaneously. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beethoven found both styles in the same path. In either case, the two sonata types are the highly dramatic sonatas (Sonatas No. 21, 23, and 25). They are the “great masterpieces” of his output. The other sonatas are more introspective and experimental, and explore different directions. Some are cheerful and melodic (Sonata No. 24), others highly contrasting (Sonata No. 27), and others very spiritual and otherworldly (Sonata No. 28). Sonata No. 28 in particular presages the Eternity sonatas with their deep spiritualism and contrapuntal complexity.

I mentioned before how Beethoven tried to solve classical music’s form. Among these sonatas Beethoven solves the problem in the second way, which is essentially by having two very substantial movements. The first movement is a large, encompassing sonata form. The next two movements are a slow movement and a sonata form finale that together act as a counterweight to the first movement. In a way, they can be said to be one gigantic movement. Beethoven seems to have thought this way too, for in Sonata No. 21, No. 23, and No. 25, he outright fuses the second and third movements together. You go from the second movement immediately to the third, no stopping.

Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29)
Beethoven composed comparatively little in the 1810s. Most biographers blame the cause on his deteriorating personal life. He was completely obsessed with trying to get custody over his nephew, Karl, and his attempts at raising the boy were frought with difficulty. I think this is a fair explanation but I think other reasons were involved. It is not uncommon for creative minds to go in a state of preparation or hibernation. They take the time to probe the mysteries of their art, to refine their tecniques, to turn over new leafs in their styles and attitutes towards their work. Beethoven was no exception.

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier was the breakthrough that began his Late Period. It bears obvious traits of his late style such as a rigorous study of counterpoint learned from Bach’s and Handel’s music, eschewing common time for march, dance, and other bodily rhythms, extreme condensing of ideas and quick modulations, and the strategy to end a work in a fugue or variation form.

The Hammerklavier may have many similarities to his Eternity sonatas but the overall tone between the two groups is very different. That is why I don’t put them in one group. The Hammerklavier is highly spiritual but it doesn’t have the naturalness and surrender to the mysteries the Eternity sonatas do. In contrast, the Hammerklavier is so intellectual and rigorous it almost becomes too abstract for its own good. If Beethoven is trying to reach the divine, he seems to do so by climbing up a steep mountain. The senses of battle and overcoming in his Middle or Heroic Period are very present here. Not so much in the Eternity sonatas.

Eternity Sonatas (No. 30-32)
Beethoven continues his Late Period trends but they come about much more effortlessly. Unlike the Hammerklavier, these pieces are not “great masterpieces”. They don’t try to impress. They are too introspective and personal. Beethoven studies the mysteries of death, resurrection, and eternity more than ever. The Eternity sonatas remind me a lot of the Coming Forth By Day, the Comedy, and a Pilgrim’s Progress. In all of these works, a soul or pilgrim must journey to the Duat or Underworld and pass a series of tests along the arduous journey. Only once the soul has passed all gates and her heart weighed against Ma’at is she judged worthy and she can join the company of the gods.

As with his Late Quartets, Beethoven is deliberately closing a chapter of musical history. As he was composing his last works, classical music was already old-fashioned, replaced by emerging Romantic music. Beethoven stuck to his guns and traveled his own path. Of course he wasn’t traditionalist. He completely surpassed classical music and sonata form by this point. We can see this by observing that Beethoven barely uses sonata form at all. Once it was the staple of his music and almost all music of his day. Now, he only uses it once in Sonata No. 30.

In the place of sonata form, Beethoven preoccupies himself with variations and fugues. Beethoven was always adept at variations for he could improvise for hours on end, but in his late works he refines it into his personal art more than ever. Beethoven did a similar thing to the fugue, turning the rigid musical form into something very naturally, uniquely his. Beethoven fugues don’t suffocate under the strict rules of counterpoint. They soar free.

Beethoven’s Style
Beethoven was a very diverse and dynamic composer but he did have many techniques he mastered to create a consistent style you can hear in all his compositions. While Beethoven always remained a child of the Enlightenment and his attitude to musical form Classical, he explored many Romantic ideas to enrich his own personal style. He had one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era, but at his core he was a Classical composer.

As I said before, Beethoven’s piano writing is very orchestral, often imitating woodwinds, brass, and string ensembles. Some musicologists and biographers have complained how Beethoven was bad at counterpoint and fugue but this charge simply isn’t true. Beethoven, true to his orchestration, wrote a lot of complex counterpoint for many different voices. His even playing style reflected this. An elderly observer commented how the young Beethoven gave a unique voice for every different voice part he played, a style similar to Bach’s.

Beethoven also tended to make his music jagged in many different ways. He makes sudden changes in dynamics and leaps from one key to the next. His rhythms were often offbeat. Strangely enough, Beethoven is very melodically gifted but rhythm tends to stand out more, so much you could play a drinking game of guessing which piano sonata by the rhythm of its main idea. Sometimes, Beethoven will sing. Other times, he will declare as in rhetoric. Often his declarations are in unisons and he will more often than not dot them with sfortzandi to emphazise what words or phrases he wants you to hear the most. Beethoven also uses sfortzandi in soft passages, which means he knows how highlight a word or phrase with nuance. A soft sfortzandi is often more dangerous than a loud one.

Beethoven uses simple ideas or musical cells to build an entire work. By having the entire work spring from a cell or idea, or at least by making the cell the work’s backbone, he succeeds in creating a unique sound world for each piece. I said this before and I repeat it verbatim to show how important it is. But Beethoven does not imprison his work to form. He allows plenty of room to move around with all sorts of different ideas. A good way to think of Beethoven’s composition method is to think of the musical cell and other key ideas as the skeleton while the liberty to express all sorts of colors, harmonies, and melodies are the muscles and blood. They cannot exist without the skeleton.

Beethoven has a lot of interesting tricks up his sleeve when it comes to harmony and rhythm. As early Romantic composers were oft to do, Beethoven explores rather remote keys and even modulates to them. Beethoven’s favorite key relations in regards to harmony are by the 3rd and 2nd intervals. It is not uncommon for Beethoven to have a chromatic baseline as it gives him more interesting harmonies. Beethoven’s melodies tend to have close intervals or arpeggios with important notes outside of the chord to make them interesting. Beethoven especially likes to keep his intervals close in slow movements. This gives the music a creeping feeling and it builds a sense of depth, a desire to expand the narrative and develop the material.

Beethoven is also fond of diminished chords and isn’t afraid of dissonance. They give jaggedness to the music and often Beethoven easily resolves them when he needs to. In some sonatas, Beethoven deliberately starts in the wrong key. It is not only a witty trick but it immediately creates an urgent tension and expectation to resolve. Beethoven tends not to resolve his harmonies or his melodies easily, and for good reason. It keeps dramatic tension and lets the music expand and develop as Beethoven wishes.

When it comes to rhythm, Beethoven is fond of dotted rhythms. These were probably influenced by the music of the French Revolution, which were often militaristic and emphasized the brass and woodwinds. We can see a lot of brass and woodwind in Beethoven’s orchestral writing as well, which expanded the classical orchestra’s expressive abilities. Gluck, as well as French high drama and tragedy, again products of the Enlightenment and Revolution, also inspired Beethoven’s dotted rhythms. Beethoven also preferred to make his rhythms offbeat to make the music more interesting. Naturally this allows synchopation, which Beethoven also liked to use.

Though Beethoven burns with passion he also restrains himself. Like I said before, he is often economical with his music, using less to make more. Beethoven could easily dazzle the audience with flourishes and tremolandos if he wanted to, but usually he doesn’t. Rather than bring everything to the table right away, Beethoven tends to build up the dramatic tension. Though Beethoven is thought of as a loud composer, most of his music is actually soft. This amplifies the loudness when Beethoven builds the tension to a dramatic climax. Thus, when Beethoven builds up the pressure, the impression I get is of a simmering volcano, its fire burning beneath the surface but not quite out yet. This simmering aesthetic gives his music an added depth to it. He is so good at the technique he unwittingly makes it present even in his epic climaxes.


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