Studying Beethoven – Piano Sonata in D (Op. 10)

The sonata in D (Op. 10) is overshadowed by the “Pathetique” sonata (in Cm, Op. 13), but unjustly so. I could even describe this sonata in D as superior to the “Pathetique”, if not on the whole than at least in a number of ways. For instance, it tells a larger and more nuanced story than the “Pathetique” does; its movements explore more different nuanced moods and are less linear in form; while “Pathetique” is intense and dramatic but in stark colors of black and white, and its Sonata Form structure goes from point A to point B. While this sonata in D (Op. 10) does have a four movement structure typical of Beethoven’s earliest sonatas the movements come together in a more organic way. While Beethoven lumped contrasting moods together in his earlier sonatas he still, in essence, followed an outlined script of how he should structure his ideas, but here it is different. Now Beethoven is using the different movements of the piano sonata genre to tell a larger story, a pattern he develops for many different kinds of works later on: the “Pathetique” sonata, the “Eroica” symphony, his last string quartets, and his last piano sonatas.

So what story does this sonata in D tell? It is hard to say because the moods are so varied; the first movement has a light touch but is neither too lyrical or comic, the second movement takes us through a sudden mood whiplash to very grim and profound emotions, the third movement is lyrical and gentle, and the last movement is a little strange but lively. Beethoven usually thinks of death when he writes such dark and grim slow movements; either he thinks of the death of a person, where he evokes a funeral march, or death as a general part of the life cycle, such as in this sonata. Beethoven centers the whole sonata on his deathly slow movement, and he devotes following movements on how to respond to death, which he does in a way that evokes triumph, beauty, gratefulness, optimism, and other such emotions. Once Beethoven, we listeners, and the sonata itself go under such a death-rebirth cycle we are never the same again.


A Presto first movement is uncommon but not unheard of, but here we have it; either way it makes extreme use of the main subject as a motif throughout the entire movement, and goes through a winding path of different subjects and moods. It could have as many as three subordinate subjects depending on how you look at it, as if the sonata itself does not know what emotion to have so it simply tours different lands. It lacks an emotional center.

Either way, Beethoven builds his main subject with a turn and a rising D scale, suspending us at the melodic tip in A, the dominant. He establishes everything this movement will be made of in at most five seconds. The rest of the main subject is turning that opening turn into variations, one soft and lyrical, the next loud and bouncy, then Beethoven repeats the opening phrase (in variation) and suspends us in F#, the median and dominant of Bm…

…which is where Beethoven begins his transition. He inverts the opening turn and breaks it into its three opening notes, uses it again in eight notes, and further builds on it to make the entire transition in one very long melodic phrase. Perhaps this is where the humor is. He uses the turn and scale to create a long tine of arpeggios, and uses it to create two slow melodic climbs, building in intensity until he finally falls to A. The first climb peaks at D, our current home key, the second peaks at E, the dominant of A. Beethoven pairs his arpeggios with pieces of the rising scale and even spends some time swapping registers in them to make cells imitate each other. His method of changing Bm into A is by mutating F# (dominant of B) into F#m (subemdiant of A), then going F#m-E-A. The rest is basically A and E.

We reached the subordinate subject but Beethoven meanders around different variations of the falling scale and turn, as if he doesn’t know what mood to cast his music. He converts the falling scale bit into something more lively and witty by putting grace and eight notes in it, and rising scale material from the transition is further collapsed. Beethoven suddenly stops this idea and tries something different; a placid second subordinate subject, where he uses the opening turn in the base, then uses imitation with a rising scale motif, all the while changing harmonies many times: A-D-G7-C (moving down the circle of 5ths), then Dm-Bb (submediant of D), then returning to A with G#d-E-A.

Now, a third subordinate subject, where Beethoven tries something a little more spunky. He uses the turn to create a descending melodic line, then swaps the Alberti base to the treble, using it as a variation of a long climbing scale, meanwhile the tenor imitates the descending turns from before. A tranquil episode later, we arrive at a closing subject at last; created from a piece of the descending scale, and suspends us in A.

The development is one very long unbroken phrase, like the transition except even longer. He leads us from A right into Bb! He bases his precore on connecting many turns to make a descending scale (again), which moves right away into the core; he builds a phrase with a rising scale of quarter notes in the base, then answers it with a descending scale of eighth notes in the treble, and so he uses Bb and Gm. He then takes the base part longer, and answers that larger expectation with quarter notes that oscillate between the cello and flute parts, taking advantage of how his filler eighth notes are in the middle register. This way Beethoven takes us to Eb (with F# notes implying Gm, so you could interpret it as Gm in Aeolian Mode), to leap to A, which comes with Dm (minor subdominant) and Bb (neopolitan), an inventive alternate to the usual V and IV, then suspends the melody on G, the subdominant of D, while the overall harmony is A7.

Now in the recapitulation, Beethoven repeats the sonata’s opening phrase but then develops a little afterward with a rising chromatic base to take us from A to B, which is the dominant of Em, where our new transition begins. The transition and subordinate subjects are more or less the same but all in D, but Beethoven adds on to the closing subject to build a Coda: he develops it by cycling through D-Gm-Dd-Bb, then falls down a minor second to A-G-Em-A-D. He builds the Coda with a long falling scale and a long rising scale, guns blazing with a eight notes in both hands. His final cadences are novel, based on the G# note leading to the A note, which means he creates the unique harmonic progression Dd-D-G-D.


Now we arrive to the deathly slow movement, the lynchpin that anchors the entire sonata, gives context to the story. I could say that among composers before Beethoven only Mozart himself used slow movements to such effect, but Beethoven goes further in this sonata. I could say that this movement is the deepest and most melancholy piece of piano music ever created, only surpassed by the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier” sonata (in Bb, Op. 106). Beethoven often likes using dotted notes in serious slow movements to amp up the drama and grandeur, borrowing from French Baroque music, used to great effect by composers Lully, Rameau, and Gluck. Not so much in this movement; like the “Hammerklavier” slow movement ironically enough. Perhaps he did not want to remind people of a funeral march.

The second movement is in Dm, and is in Sonata Form, but the transitions are so long you can see the movement as large blocks of ABACoda; the form like a lengthy elegy, one eloquent statement to the next without too much connection between them. The main subject is based on the minor 2 nd interval and a leap; the melody goes from F# to stop a bit at B (mediant of the Gm harmony), then B to climax at F# (mediant of the Dm harmony), before falling to D. The harmony is designed to take us to Gm (subdominant) in the first phrase, then use less typical harmonies to keep tension; like going to C#d7 but changing to E7 rather than going to Dm so soon, then finally going G#d7-A-Dm.

We can say the large A block as two transitions; the first one modulates to C, the second to F. In the first transition, Beethoven hangs around A7 and Dms4, so he can take us to G7 and Cs4. Even in C, Beethoven surprises us with some D harmonies (major subdominant of Am, supertonic of C). This small hopeful major episode gives nuance to this dark movement, which Beethoven drives home with a C and D note played together, a soft dissonance. The second transition gets very angsty; Beethoven builds up tension with counterpoint with similar lines in the tenor and soprano parts and leaps to a high F# where the opening motif is transformed into heavy chords, and the harmony transitions from G#d7-Am. The repeated phrase amps the tension with octaves, thirty-second note imitation, and leading notes D#-E-F# to lead to three heavy chord motifs; the harmony moves from G#d7-C#d7-D#d7-G#d7-Am. Beethoven does not lead you from G#d7 to Am right away. Instead, he develops his material by treating G#d7 (yes, a diminished seventh), as a kind of home key and moves around it with diminished seventh dominants and subdominants.

Beethoven lingers in Am a bit before silently ending there. Then, he begins the subordinate subject by leaping to F. He convinced us this entire time that he was moving to A or Am but now he takes to a different place entirely. Granted, the relative major is what is usually expected, but Beethoven seemed to be preparing us for something different. Anyway, Beethoven takes the 6/8 rhythm of the main subject and turns it into a baseline and harmonic color, giving the melody an anchor while it floats freely above. Beethoven makes a point to peak his melody at the E note (leading tone of F), not quite making it up the octave, so the dejected melody can fall down an octave, moving chromatically downward to the D note. Beethoven also plays his F harmony alongside Dm, Am, and Gm instead of E and D, to once more make the point that this hope does not last.

A mournful phrase take over, treble triplets above, a basso continuous and alto coloring below, from Gm-A-A7-C#d7, where the retransition happens. The triplets fall far down the scale to slowly diminish tension, then suddenly leap out of nowhere to a sharp pang in Bb. You will see Beethoven use a similar tactic in his “Tempest” sonata (in Dm, Op. 31) where he interrupts a downward scale with a sudden leap to a sforzando, then hang us there for a short while before falling down again. Here, he says that grief comes in long numbing pains and sharp pangs.

We return to the main subject in Dm in a recapitulation of sorts. Beethoven uses extra thick voices in the alto and baritone registers, later swaps voices in the treble cleff, the whole point is to make the main subject stronger and more dramatic in its return. Beethoven skips a phrase and goes right to his first transition, where he modulates from Gm to Bb, and he does use C7 sometimes, major subdominant of Gm. This subverts our expectations since we usually expect the subdominant of a minor key to also be minor.

Passing the second transition, same as before but in Dm, we enter the Coda, where Beethoven ramps up the pressure by using ever smaller note values but, being resourceful as always, reprises the main subject in the base. With his baseline he slowly climbs up a chromatic scale from D (tonic) to A (dominant) but he uses harmonies that do not match the leading tones in the base. While an A note leads into a Bb note, Beethoven does not play Ad and Bb harmonies but instead mutates Ebd into Eb, and so forth.

Beethoven returns with the same descending triplets to slowly guide us to base clef to make his final grievous statements, where he sharply contrasts his ferocious arpeggios from before with stillness. Andras Schiff compared the Coda to winter, where everything is frozen, dead, still. Beethoven leads C# into D in the melody many times but his harmonies are Ed7-Dm. Using the C# as a dissonance grinds the pain in more.


The third movement in D in Minuet Form can be compared to new shoots growing in spring; overall the movement is easygoing. Beethoven builds his melody loosely from the turn motif from way back in the first movement and uses it to go in a placid downward motion; first A (dominant) to F# (while playing D), then B (while playing Em) to D, pretty standard. The three voices underscore the melody with simple first species counterpoint, again to convey an easy, relaxed feeling. You can breath.

Beethoven brings up a new little motif to imitate among different registers, cycling around the relative keys F#m-B-E-A (down the circle of 5ths), then reprises his subject but develops it: he extends the two phrases by having the motif climb upward to build tension before letting fall in a longer arc, he gives greater counterpoint to the other voices, especially the alto voice, and extends the harmonies as far as B.

For the Trio in G, Beethoven uses leaps in the base and treble, not unlike in the first movement, and uses the turning motif in the minuet. The harmonies are very straightforward here; close keys to G, climaxing in A7 to modulate us to D7. (He chooses D7 over D so he can easily move us back to G.) Both subject (in the base) and triplets (in the tenor) rise higher, with the triplets hitting the soprano line at the peak. Both subject and triplets go in a similar pattern when the phrase resolves but the triplets don’t go as high up when the Trio ends, with Beethoven hanging us in A7, dominant of D.


The fourth movement in D in Rondo Form functions as a book end to the sonata; like the first movement it meanders through different keys and moods but the moods it does reach convey a more confidant and assured feeling. The piece makes its Rondo Form clear by ending each Part in an unresolved fermata; similar to the Rondo of Beethoven’s very first piano sonata, the “Kurfursten” sonata in Eb. Beethoven has come a long way since then, as have we.

We begin Part A: the subject at the heart of the movement is a melody where a leading tone is followed by a rising 3 rd , the base descending the broken G chord in opposite direction. The harmony is D-G, with the leading F# note making G the core harmony, not D. Beethoven does use the rising third cell to build an ascending broken G (subdominant) chord melody to complete his first phrase in A7. – Notice how Beethoven turns G7s4 into G#7, but mixes a base B# note with a treble G note; all before resolving to A7. – The second phrase, that resolves the A7 tension, develops the motif, having it ascend a broken Bm chord (submediant).

Beethoven builds his transition on a rising scale and downward leap, countering with Alberti base, then has both parts swap hands in imitation, while Beethoven constructs his Alberti base in a way to imply keys such as Em, Bm, and C#d7 to not have a stale I-V-I progression, and overshoots to E7, pretty typical stuff. The subordinate subject is made of the second and third beat of the subject, transformed into chords with a knocking rhythm; melody turns into rhythm, while Beethoven builds tension with a rising chromatic scale, first peaking at the E note (E7 harmony, dominant of A), then peaking at the E note again (but with the A harmony, the tonic). He moves downward to the G note (with the A7 harmony) where he suspends us, readying us to return to D.

Now Part B: Beethoven repeats the main subject, but he suddenly leads from A7 to a bridge in Bb to take us to a new subordinate subject; where the treble and base parts of the motif swap hands and call and answer the other. He also used this A7-B tactic in the first movement. The Bb subordinate subject builds on the rising 3rd part of the motif: to invert it and dip down a broken Bb chord before rising a broken Ad chord, before doing it again in Eb and Dd. Beethoven ramps up with sixteenth notes in Eb, climbing up, going somewhere, but suspends us in Ed (Neapolitan of Eb).

And this way he leads to a false reprise of the subject in F. Beethoven takes us through a broken Gb chord (Neopolitan of F), then peaks his melody in G (Neopolitan of Gb), then descends down a chromatic scale, to further emphasize a chromatic feel to this episode, and suspends us in A7. It’s an interesting way to move to distant keys and return to D.

To Part C: He repeats the subject as before but the transition leads to a very different place than A; instead it features a more chromatic melody and progresses D-F#d7(diminished mediant)-F# (mutated into a major dominant)-Bm. Our third subordinate subject is quiet and mysterious; repeating woodwinds on top, the base strings taking up the motif, not sticking to Bm but floating around distant harmonies as the woodwinds slowly rise up a chromatic scale: F#-Gd7-Ebm-Ed7-G#d7. Beethoven raises tension: the volume goes into crescendo, the treble shortens into sixteenth notes, the baseline motif becomes more frequent, the harmonies G#d7-A, and once more crashes down to an A harmony suspension. This intense phrase acts as a retransition taking us back to a recapitulation of sorts.

To Part D: Beethoven develops the subject by putting sixteenth note counterpoint in the base, then drops to a Coda in the lower register. The Coda in D is complicated, with a phrase leading to a false ending, a remote key episode, and a final phrase. Beethoven builds the melodic line on the motif, both upright and inverted forms, and in this way he culminates at a high D note, the harmony being A7s4, to point out that the highest note being on a tonic note does not make it the end of a movement. Beethoven moves to Gm into an episode of synchopated chords, the melody descends a chromatic scale, into a soft finish; the base picks up the motif with a I-IV harmony, the treble gently goes up and down and up and down the chromatic scale and later arpeggios of D and A7, finally falling to D. It’s a silent and unassuming end to a great sonata but Beethoven knew silence to be as worthy as any note.


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