MOVEMENT ONE – LARGHETTO MAESTOSO, ALLEGRO ASSAI
Beethoven, when making his second attempt to compose a piano sonata, wrote a more difficult and serious piece of music than he did when writing his first sonata. It is in the dark key of Fm, maybe the darkest key in classical music, has more complex harmonies, and has a denser harmonic structure. In this piece, Beethoven’s emotions are darker and more passionate in the minor first and second movement yet more pensive in the second movement in the middle. The second movement has a sublime quality we don’t hear in the earlier Eb sonata.
Yet, as I examine and play the sonatas of the mature Beethoven, I become shocked at how simply the preteen Beethoven wrote his early music in comparison. He still writes for two parts in most places, abuses the Alberti base, and uses the simple thin textures of octaves. Still, keep in mind that Beethoven was already a prodigy at twelve who could compete with most composers of the day three times his age. This sonata holds much promise for the young Beethoven, a promise he fulfilled in his later years.
All movements in this sonata are in sonata form. Click on the roadmap below to expand it. To hear the complete sonata with all annotations go to this link:
The exposition; the introduction (bars 1-9) is made of two contrasting sentences. The first sentence is a typical statement of slow introductions during that time, the first phrase goes from Fm to C, the next statement returns from C to F. He contrasts a heavy loud cord and dotted rhythm with soft legatos. The orchestration is not obvious but you can hear it; a loud tutti announcement followed by a soft string quartet. This beginning is important because we see Beethoven using music as a tool of speech and rhetoric, not just a way to string melodies together, which suggests that Beethoven will be able to build his ideas together, to create an argument or thesis if you will.
The second sentence develops the ideas of the first; he transforms the descend by 2nd into rising octaves, rising from F to Gb to A to Bb. Meanwhile he uses the Alberti base but in the base register, especially on the downbeat by striking the lowest notes on the pianoforte’s range. The bottom register sounds like a contrabassoon and base, especially on a pianoforte where the lower register is raspier. But more important, the rising line in the treble gives a slow, creeping, crawling feeling, a device Beethoven used a lot in his music to raise tension before releasing it. Beethoven also uses more inventive harmonies, like Gb (the Neopolitan major), then mutates it to Gbdim. And finally, he suspends the music on a C chord (V/Fm) with a C note as the base (the 5th or dominant note of Fm).
All this dense and detailed music at last done with, we move to the exposition proper. The main subject and transition (bars 10-17) are fused into one sentence and proceeds as thus; first the melody flies up two octaves in Fm as a Mannheim rocket, a tool Beethoven used a lot in his early career, inherited from Haydn and Mozart, and representing drama and angst. Then the melody descends in 3rds from Fm to Db to Bbm, a technique Beethoven recycled from his Eb sonata. I don’t blame him since using it takes you to a relative key so easily while using diverse harmonies.
The subordinate subject (bars 18-27) is in Ab, a typical key a composer would land on in a piece in Fm. The construction is very simple here; not one long intense passage but a contrast between a loud descend on the Ab chord and a soft rise on Eb. The closing theme (bars 28-36) feels a little forced but it is remarkable. The cello base descends down by 3rds (notes Ab, F, Db), something that fascinated Beethoven in his career.
The development (bars 37-46) is short and simple. In the first sentence, Beethoven imitates the Mannheim rocket but in Ab. The second sentence, the meat of the development, is new material not based on anything before it; alternates from chords to arpeggios and likewise alternates from Fm to Bbm. These are somewhat imaginative harmonies, as Beethoven mutates the home key and plays I-iv chords, not something too expected. And finally he suspends the piece with two chords on F.
He enters the recapitulation; the introduction here is very different from before, which is important as it shows how Beethoven adds new ideas to old material. It allows us to glimpse at how the mature Beethoven transforms the material he works with; he digs ever deeper into it, explores its potential, plays with it, changes it in all sorts of ways. He creates music that is different at the end of a peace or movement than before, making it feel like you went on a long journey and changed along the way. Of course you didn’t go anywhere. Beethoven was manipulating your mind all along, something he gets very skilled at over the years.
The introduction (bars 47-56); the first sentence changes harmonies a bit, Fm-F unlike before, which was Fm-C. It’s small but it takes the harmony down a 4th, giving a IV chord or subdominant like effect. The second sentence is very different; very loud rising arpeggios, important since this is material taken from the development section and expanded. Beethoven plays around with harmonies; he mutates the keys of Bb and Eb. He turns Bbm to Bb7 and Eb to Edim7. It doesn’t seem like much, but remember how he turned Gb to Gbdim? He’s doing it again but with more keys.
Beethoven plays recapitulation, almost exactly the same as the exposition, but with some differences in range and timbre he uses to create a darker sound to the music. The main subject (bars 57-64) is the same as before. The subordinate subject (bars 65-74), now in Fm, has the base and treble spread out by two octaves to create a more intense effect, then has phrases low in the tenor (viola) and base (cello and base) to create a darker feel. The closing statements (bars 75-83) have little change, the base only a m3rd lower than before.
MOVEMENT TWO – ANDANTE
The second movement shows the young Beethoven at his best on the piano; it has a certain sublime quality he achieves by doing three things. He uses ambiguous harmonies and rhythms, especially in the subordinate subject, he uses richer and more varied textures as opposed to octaves, and he writes for the key of Ab. Composers at Beethoven’s time thought each key had a special character best used to reflect certain moods and states of mind. The key of Ab had an eerie sound that made listeners pensive and sensitive to sublime thoughts, especially back in the day when performers used mean tuning to tune their instruments; the further a key was from C the more dissonant it sounded.
You could say classical music is based on the I and V chord (kind of how jazz is rooted in the I and IV chord), and composers use such a base to build a structure of building tension in the V chord and then resolving it in the I chord. Of course composers write in many remote keys in a work but the work, in the end, hangs on creating a I-V tension and resolving it. Beethoven turns this idea on its head during his middle and late period, like building a Eb-B tension in the “Emperor” concerto and a Bb-B tension in the “Hammerklavier” sonata, but that is many years from now. The young Beethoven suspends tension in this movement by not resolving in perfect or authentic cadences, allowing him to expand his ideas since he can avoid resolving them so soon.
I found this movement the most difficult to analyze out of all movements in these “Kurfursten” sonatas, leading to many mistakes in my annotation, which forced me to remake the YouTube video on this sonata.
The exposition; the main subject (bars 1-8), using 3rds to great effect while the base uses good counterpoint by rising by steps as the melody falls and having the melody an octave higher and with more sixteenth notes in the second phrase to heighten the emotion. The transition is made of two sentences; the first sentence (bars 8-16) expands on the main subject by having the melody, made songlike by its 3rds and 6ths, end in cadence that don’t resolve the music. Furthermore, in each cadence Beethoven uses Ab as the base to blur harmonies. It makes you wonder if Beethoven is really implying Eb7 with an Ab note thrown in or Bbm7. It would seem like an Eb7 but in the second sentence (bars 19-22) Beethoven mutates it to Bb so he can modulate to Eb with a Bb-Eb harmonies, which implies Bbm7.
The subordinate subject (bars 23-31) is the most special line in the entire sonata it starts on the wrong harmony. The first sentences starts in Fm in all places but then goes through many Bb7-Eb harmonies to imply Eb. The melody keeps climbing up the scale from the D note to the Ab note, then falls to a low F note, an imperfect cadence. The second sentence rising in dynamic and pitch up the scale to Bb, again suspending the music in Bb, the V chord. Beethoven is taking great pains to suspend tension as long as he can, something he didn’t do so well in the Eb sonata, and finally lands on Eb in the closing section (bars 35-40). He even uses three voices when closing, something a little new.
Beethoven divides the development into two pre-cores and two cores and uses it to replaces the main theme and transition in the recapitulation. The first pre-core (bars 40-44) mimics the main subject but in the harmonies of C7-Db and reverses the melodic arc from descending to rising. The core itself (bars 44-48) is in Fm, with a simple, sad, songlike melody rising and falling with a C note humming in the alto register. Beethoven purposefully makes the note C because it is the 5th note or dominant of Fm; by implying such he keeps tension and lets him play almost any melody without fear of dissonance.
The second pre-core (bars 49-54) acts as a “resting point”. Beethoven lingers in Edim7 (vii7/F), the leading tone to F, and constructs it in such a way to keep tension. He keeps most of it in Edim7, uses arpeggios to build up to a striking, loud syncopated section, and climaxes by keeping the music suspended briefly. Beethoven takes a syncopated section in the exposition as material and, while he doesn’t alter or expand it, he uses it for a different purpose. Then Beethoven resolves to the core, but lands on F, not Fm, like we expect.
The second core (bars 55-60) is pretty simple as Beethoven just plays thirty-second notes over an octave base. He concerns himself with returning to Ab. The base goes down the circle of fifths, from F, Bb, Eb, and Ab. The harmony implied by the thrity-second notes is not so simple as that Eb base is really part of a Gdim harmony. In the end, Beethoven makes an Eb-Ab-Eb cadence, ending with the base on the Eb, the dominant. Now on Eb, Beethoven plays the retransition (bars 61-64) like he played the transition before, serving the same function, just a 4th lower in harmonies. The subordinate subject (bars 65-76) and closing statement (bars 77-85) of the recapitulation change little, only a 4th lower in harmonies.
MOVEMENT THREE – PRESTO
The third movement is rapid and lighter in substance than the first movement but is still complicated in structure. The main subject (bars 1-32) comes in two sentences and it is the first time we see Beethoven develop a main theme by playing a variation of it. He approaches the main subject in later sonatas as well, such as the “Waldstein” and “Appasionata” but with far more invention. In this sonata, he changes the melody little and uses the Alberti base yet again, but the changed material still does its job to heighten the angst. But Beethoven does use some interesting harmonies. The very first bar of the main theme starts out in F but then mutates back to Fm and he makes use of the C9 (V9) harmony. It sounds like Gdim in the first sentence but later in the second sentence the Alberti base gives you context, letting you hear its true design.
The exposition; the main subject is also the transition, easily landing to the subordinate subjects. The first subordinate subject (bars 33-44) is in Eb7 and ends in a IV-I cadence, which is interesting because most composers would land on Ab instead. While Beethoven does land a 5th higher on Eb he makes it Eb7 and uses Ab to create a IV-I effect, suggesting he may move to Ab. The second subordinate subject (bars 45-59) makes the Eb7-Ab harmonies more obvious by using loud octaves in the base and arpeggios in the treble. The closing statements (bars 60-74) are also odd; he spends some time in Ab7 and Db, but finally lands on Ab. Beethoven delays modulation to the “proper” key.
The development and retransition fused together (bars 75-84) is extremely short. It’s even shorter than the main subject, and it does disappoint me a little as Beethoven could have at least played it again as a variation. Either way, Beethoven mutates the home key of Fm to F while developing the material a bit; he uses new keys like Gb (the Neopolitan or IIb) and Bbm (iv). He does develop the melodic arc as well by making it rise higher and more often. He dips the melody down a bit before rising it; he raises it Gb, then to Db, and landing it on C just a m2nd away.
The recapitulation; the first subordinate subject (bars 85-101) is a little more complex, dividing amongst the Fm-C7 harmonies, and uses the chromatic base of Bh to make a leading tone of Edim9 lead to Fm, but then makes an imperfect cadence in C to keep the tension high. The second subordinate subject (bars 97-112) is much simpler, arpeggios in C7 and Fm. The closing section (bars 112-126) has little change, just dropped by a m3rd to put the key in Fm. The very last notes are important though, as Beethoven throws all parts down to the lowest register to create a downward, tragic finale. He later replicates this ending in the Op. 2 and “Appasionata” Fm sonatas but to greater effect. Even now Beethoven seems aware the very lowest note on the pianoforte is an F note (the lowest note on the modern piano is an A note). It possibly represents a darkest, lowest point in music, in feeling and literally in tone with the pianoforte. Beethoven doesn’t find lower points in feeling or transcend them until his last piano sonatas.