FIRST MOVEMENT – ALLEGRO
Beethoven’s last “Kurfursten” sonata is more lighthearted in tone than his first two sonatas, especially the dark and sublime sonata in Fm, but it has the most intricate design of all three. The young Beethoven does not necessarily develop his musical ideas more thoroughly than before but he does expand the overall structure of sonata form. He uses his musical material a little more purposefully and he makes some savvy use of mutations, chord progressions, and sixteenth notes.
I created a roadmap (below) and a YouTube video of the sonata with all annotations. Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkJKexgQIE4
The first movement is in sonata form. We turn to the exposition; the main subject (bars 1-12) has treble notes in intervals of 3rds and 6ths to give the music a mild, relaxing feel. This subject in particular evokes the image of a lounge room, gentle and reclining, and is thus similar to the second movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 23, which also treble notes spaced apart in 3rds. In either case, Beethoven uses accidentals to be more diverse with his harmonies as playing I-V-I can get boring fast if no ideas are developed soon; I refer to the G#3 note base implying E (V/V) and the Ch5 note implying D7 (V7). Beethoven uses those accidentals and harmonies to rise slightly above and dip slightly below the I-V chords. He also uses them to lead to the next relevant harmony. E (V/V) leads to A (V) in a V-I cadence of sorts (relevant to the key of A). D7(I7) leads to G(IV) as using I7 is a common way of dipping down to the IV chord or subdominant.
The second sentence is much plainer in its harmonies; only using I-V7 chords but Beethoven does develop his main subject a bit. He flips the descending 3rds from before upside down to create a rising melodic line. He plays arpeggios in the base but it is not the cliché Alberti base. The transition (bars 13-17) is short and boils down to Beethoven’s strategy here; he descends down the scale from the D2-D3 octave to the G#1-G#2 octave, then just rises up a m2, leading to A2 (is not an octave). The arpeggios in the treble imply the harmonies that happen; here Beethoven deviates a little into Bm7 (vi7), then to G (IV), before going to E (V/V) and A (V). This transition is pretty quick and simple but it does show how Beethoven makes good use of something simple and basic like playing notes down a scale.
In first subordinate subject (bars 18-31) Beethoven takes the eight note snippets from the transition and changes them a bit to create material, allowing the snippets to make turns and rise up and fall down as a melody. And he mutates to Am just to make it more interesting. He wants to dip down back to D (to play IV-I chords relative to A) in the second sentence so he uses the C#dim7 harmony as a leading town. Beethoven then uses arpeggios here to stop the first sentence from dropping the tension but he sharpens the 3rd note in each one to make a more interesting sound.
The second subordinate subject (bars 32-37) is much plainer with the more typical Alberti arpeggios in the treble and a simple V-I harmony. Beethoven does this to trick you, to make it sound like he is making his closing remarks to end the exposition. V-I-V-I, done! But he is not. He takes a brief detour in Am (38-44), using an E-B-E7 (V-V/V-V7) cadence at the end to keep the music suspended on the V or dominant harmony. Had Beethoven used a E-A-E7 (V-I-V7) cadence it would work too but it would be less special and would be less able to hold you up in the air. The last sentence in the exposition (bars 45-50) is plain and finally wraps it up. This is the first piano piece where Beethoven purposefully delays an ending to develop ideas more and keep the suspense lasting longer. This technique will become one of his staple skills in later years.
Beethoven makes a long development section with two cores. He follows custom with a pre-core (bars 50-57) to prepare for the first core, where he transposes the main subject to A and chances it a bit to emphasize Bm. As I look back on other sonatas and symphonies, I see how often composers base their pre-cores off the main subject. At first I wondered why they did this but now I have an idea. In older music, like the music of Haydn, and even older music, like the music of Scarlatti, sonata form hardly had a development section; it was basically an exposition and recapitulation repeated twice. The pre-core is like the main subject but it is used to lead to “cores” where a bit of music is cycled through many different keys.
Moving on, the first core (bars 58-64) is made of material taken from the transition. Beethoven uses Bm as a home key with a lot of D7, the relative major, thrown in as if to show how the core relates to the home key. Bm has another use; Beethoven can mutate it into B7 and easily take us E. In fact, this is the key of the second core and retransition (bars 65-73), and Beethoven uses the second sentence of the first subordinate subject as material. Beethoven uses E to hang on A (the V chord or dominant of D) at the retransition, at this point we can see Beethoven’s entire plan. Bm led to E led to A. Beethoven starts at the relative minor of the home key (D) so he could go down the circle of fifths. His plan has a purpose in style not just in form; he moves down the circle of fifths to create a more relaxed feeling to the listener, fitting the nature of this sonata. He uses a similar tactic in the “Archduke” piano trio decades later.
We are in the recapitulation. The main subject (bars 73-77) is triumphant and slightly embellished; this slight altering made to announce the return of the main subject, after which we go straight to the first subordinate subject. The transition is completely gone, like it was in the first movement of the Fm sonata. Perhaps Beethoven felt adding a transition after such a big development was too much. He certainly does not do such a thing in his later work. In fact, he even goes so far to play the main subject differently and create a new transition more or less based on the old one, to develop the music even further, to keep the tension going, yet also to give the music a sense of homecoming. It is similar to how you end an argument by repeating your main points but not verbatim and add some important points to provoke thought long after you leave the podium or put down your pen. In this sonata, while Beethoven skips the transition, he does develop what comes after.
The first subordinate subject (bars 78-87) is strikingly in G (IV) instead of the usual D(I), done so to not stay on the home key for so long. The movement is not done yet! Mozart did something similar in the first movement of his “Facile” piano sonata where he played the main subject in F(IV) in the recapitulation. Beethoven himself does the same in the “Name Day” overture. The point is to further emphasize the IV harmony or subdominant while not being stale. If you should play some notes in IV why not play entire subjects and base the recapitulation around it? Though this will be the last time Beethoven takes this specific approach; that is playing subordinate subjects in the subdominant.
The second subordinate subject (bars 88-99) is in G but has 4 bars of extra material where Beethoven uses octaves in the base to go down the A7 and G chords to spell out the harmonies. A7-G (V7-IV) seems awkward at first but it’s more interesting than D7-G (I7-IV) and Beethoven uses it to play G7-D-A7-D (IV7-I-V7-I), a IV-V-I sequence in essence, to finally return to D. The closing statements (bars 100-112) begin in Dm and Beethoven uses three rising V-V/V-V7 (this time A-E-A7) chords to keep you hanging. The rest is in D.
SECOND MOVEMENT – MENUETTO, SOSTENUTO
Beethoven tries out a theme and variations in a piano sonata in the first time. While he does use some interesting harmonies his overall approach is typical for his time. Most eighteenth century composers, Haydn and Mozart included, would start with a simple melody and embellish it more and more with each new variation. Sometimes they play a variation where the key is mutated, played simply and often poignant, as resting point of sorts. The last variations are embellished again, sometimes to a greater degree than before, sometimes not so. Beethoven will break these rules later in his career, especially in his late period works, piano sonatas No. 30 and No. 32 and the Diabelli Variations; where he breaks down the theme to its basic structure and transforms it into something new each variation. But it is not that day. Beethoven is only twelve now.
The theme (bars 1-16) or subject that builds the entire movement is a simple minuet in two parts in three sentences. The melody in the first sentence us A-D (I-IV) harmonies, making it gentle, lazy, rocking like a hammock. But Beethoven puts interesting harmonies still; he includes Gr6 (really just VIb7), E9 (V9), and G#dim9 (vii9) in the cadence. – Maybe I complicate things too much. Baroque and classical composers would sometimes play the base in the I chord while they would briefly play the melody in the V chord before soon resolving it, blurring harmonies to create poignant dissonance. Beethoven may simply be doing this but we should understand that it implies a vii7 or vii9 chord, the leading tone back to the I chord. – The second sentence in E7 gives a loud contrast to the minuet before slipping back into a quiet third sentence. The harmonies in this second part are simpler than those in the first.
The first variation (bars 17-32) embellishes the melody into arpeggios, changing their function to filling out harmonies, while the base becomes the new melody. Beethoven plays with the D3 base note and I-IV-I harmonies in these variations; for instance here the D4 base note implies E7 (V7), not IV. The note is the same but the harmonies are different. In the second variation (bars 33-48) the base now becomes full of arpeggios, the treble goes back to a simple song but Beethoven writes it for two voice parts. He also reverts back to A-D-A (I-IV-I).
The third variation (bars 49-64) has the arpeggios get even quicker, the note values get even smaller into tuplets of three. At the end of the first and third sentences, Beethoven sharpens ever second note of each tuplet, similar to a tactic he used in the first movement. Harmonies remain the same. The fourth variation (bars 65-80) squeeze note values even smaller to thirty-second notes. Now Beethoven implies E7 each time he plays D in the base.
Beethoven rests in Am in the oasis that is the fifth variation (bars 81-96). Beethoven reverts back to a simple melody but now he syncopates it with the base while at later points he plays sixteenth notes with sharpened accidentals. Harmonies remain the same. In this manner Beethoven is still able to develop material and hold interest as to not merely repeat the theme in Dm. The sixth and final variation (97-112) has tuplets of eight notes as the melody. Composers of the period would sometimes end their variations by playing the theme again or playing a final variation where little of the theme is altered. Beethoven takes the latter route, developing material while still keeping the music friendly and gentle. He starts the coda (bars 113-120) on a deceptive cadence in F#m (vi), a different and more poignant way of ending the last variation, before smoothly rounding it off.
THIRD MOVEMENT – SCHERZANDO, ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO
The last movement is most playful and buoyant movement of the whole sonata but you should not be fooled. Beethoven still has a few tricks up his sleeves, a little more wit to spare for our humanist. It is no walk in the park. The word “scherzando” roughly translates to “little joke” but you should not be fooled by the title. The movement is in sonata form, not in the ternary form of a scherzo or minuet. Haydn and Mozart made plenty of musical jokes in their career. Haydn’s method was to start a work with a closing statement, making the listener think the piece was already over. Mozart mocked bad composers and performers in “Some Musical Fun” by exaggerating the dullness of boring melodies and the dissonant sounds of wrong notes. Beethoven made jokes out of harmony throughout his career, as you will see in this movement.
We begin the exposition. Part of Beethoven’s humor in the main subject (bars 1-17) means jumping the melody up and down a sixth and octave while briefly jumping to B7, a rather remote key. The transition (bars 18-36) has a very long sentence; its rapid augmented sixteenth notes are funny like someone getting a little too ahead of himself. Beethoven modulates by quickly jumping to A and simply playing A-E-A (I-V-I) a lot, but he splatters some Bm(vi) and B7(VI7) to spice up the harmony a bit and to recall that funny B note.
Beethoven designs the subordinate subject (bars 37-52) to have two contrasting sentences, one exuberant the other grounded. He rushes with rising arpeggios in the first sentence while he swoops low with a M2 treble and humming base in the second sentence. As part of his joke, Beethoven gives each sentence the “wrong” harmonies. He gives A-D (I-IV) harmonies, the quieting subdominant, to the gay first sentence while he gives A-E7 (I-V7) to the quieter sentence. He even plays a prank in the closing statement (bars 53-58) by using A-D (I-IV). It’s as if the piece doesn’t want to move to a new key and you’re trying to move it as if dragging Homer Simpson away from the couch. Beethoven creates humor in the second half of the exposition by misplacing harmonies and keeping the texture light and transparent, even by “Kurfursten” sonata standards.
The development (bars 59-70) is hardly anything at all. Even the harmonies are stale, mostly A-D (I-IV), only briefly in Dm. Beethoven makes light of our expectations. We heard a terrific development in the first movement and listeners in Beethoven’s time expected a darkening of mood or some new harmony, so we have the right to expect at least something. But the young Beethoven laughs, “It’s nothing!” and so we move to the recapitulation.
The main subject (bars 71-86) repeats with no change. The “transition” (bars 86-89) can hardly be called any such thing. We expect something similar to the exposition, some emphasis on the IV chord or subdominant, yes, but at least something substantial. Beethoven again spurns us. He cuts straight to G without any fluff, and even makes it the key of his subordinate subject (bars 90-110), which he makes long by playing it in three variations. The first uses trills, the second gives the base the melody, the third gives the treble the melody. Now we can see Beethoven’s comic scheme; he puts all the development on the subordinate subject, the one part of sonata form we often think to be the most placid and uneventful.
He also expands the closing section (bars 114-129) into a long-winded sentence. In essence, he transplants the transition to the end of the sonata, highlighting the closing section, a piece of music most composers rushed off to end a piece. He “misplaces” harmonies here too. In the exposition Bm (vi/D) was an important punch line so we expect to be back but Beethoven replaces it with F# (V/Bm) instead. It is the vi chord of A, which Beethoven uses to suspend the music a bit. The closing section is done but the piece has yet to end. Enter the coda (bars 129-160); Beethoven plays the main subject one more time, one more little joke, then ends the piece in a long-winded flurry of sixteenth notes. Thus Beethoven ends the Kurfursten sonatas on a high note.