Studying Beethoven – Piano Sonata in Cm (Op. 13)

The Pathetique sonata (in Cm, Op. 13) is arguably Beethoven’s first great sonata; at least it was the first one to earn itself a nickname, one that Beethoven liked for a change. The sonata is a milestone for Beethoven, where the composer achieves a high sense of drama never done before in his career, taking his skills to the next level. He was only 27 years old at the time.

The sonata itself comes in a structure prominent in Beethoven’s later great sonatas; it is composed in three movements, with a great first movement in the full scope of sonata form balanced by the second and third movement combined; in the same structural approach in the Waldstein (in C, Op. 53) and the Appassionata (in Fm, Op. 57). The Pathetique is in a minor key, so it follows a structure where a serene and deeply felt middle movement stands between two emotional abysses. Later sonatas that follow this pattern are the Moonlight (in C#m, Op. 27), the Tempest (in Dm, Op. 31), and the Appassionata (in Fm, Op. 57).

Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio 

The first movement is of truly epic proportions, boasting a grand and tragic slow introduction followed by a dark and agitated sonata form, with the grand, tragic motif recurring at the development and coda sections. The introduction motif exists to add extra weight to the sonata form and to vastly increase the first movement’s emotional breadth and depth. While the main subject in the sonata form proper is truly pathetic, the sonata would be hardly better than the early Fm sonata (Op. 2) without the extra motif. Beethoven always looked forward, to climb higher and higher, and so he considered it a failure if he merely repeated himself.

The Grave motif has a melodic arc based on forcefully rising up two steps, then sighing down one step; it holds a dotted rhythm that characterized French Baroque music by giving it powerful feeling and royal grandness, most effectively used by Jean-Baptiste Lully; it harmonically moves to a diminished seventh chord and hangs on it before resolving to a new key. Regarding melodic line, Beethoven peaks twice, with the melody at a high subdominant note relative to the key he resolves to; the first note being Ab with Beethoven resolving to Eb and the second note being F with Beethoven resolving to Cm.

Beethoven spends the first few bars slowly rising up the Cm scale, his harmonies Cm and Bd7, later adding some F#d7 to lead to G, the dominant. – The melodic note is first the tonic, then subdominant, then tonic of Cm, pointing that Beethoven makes much use of the subdominant key in this movement, which is Fm, significant since Fm was considered to be the darkest key in Beethoven’s time – Beethoven slowly climbs his way up to the Ab note (with a small leap from F to Ab), meanwhile his harmonies lead F#d7-G before using keys close to Cm to reach Bb7, preparing us for Eb. (Notice that Beethoven briefly plays C instead of Cm, adding a more colorful touch to the passage.)

Now in Eb, Beethoven develops his Grave motif further by contrasting a piano, tender, pleading phrase with a fortissimo, forceful denial. – Beethoven uses this idea of pleading and denial in other words, such as the second movement of his piano concerto in G (Op. 58) – Beethoven slowly works his way up the Eb scale (but never “perfectly” as he almost always includes small leaps to make the melodic arc more jagged) all the way to the high F note, frequently using leading tones such as C# and Eh. However, he does take the melody in interesting turns by using interesting harmonies; he moves to D of all chords, mutates it to Dd, and moves to Fd.

Once Beethoven reaches that high F note, he modulates Gm7-Ab, meaning he briefly denies us the Cm we expect to hold us hanging a little while longer and to play the softest and most tender phrase of the introduction. The last bar comes in the standard harmonies of Cm, Bd7, and G7, and shrinks the note values further to play a long descending chromatic scale. And Beethoven hangs us on a diminished chord (Bd7) while holding us on a sudden high note, which is a typical technique for Beethoven at this point.

The sonata form is monothematic; it makes use of the main subject and its variations throughout the entire movement; as a main subject, subordinate subject, closing subject, development, and coda. Haydn, the great composer and Beethoven’s teacher, also created monothematic sonatas where the same material appeared as main and subordinate subjects. The main subject itself is a rising Cm scale but uses Eh frequently, which makes the harmonies to often be Ed leading to Fm. Beethoven emphasizes Fm, the darkest key, and the leading tone gives a sharp edge that highlights the wrathful and tragic subject, which you wouldn’t get if the rising Cm scale had no accidentals. All this established the main subject, now Beethoven must add to it in order to resolve it; he does this by using half notes that move down the Cm scale, an inversion of the main subject before. Beethoven resolves through F#d7-G-Cm.

For the transition, Beethoven uses as material the syncopated sustained notes held in G, the dominant of Cm, then follows it with downward eight note arpeggios where Beethoven again uses F#d to lead to G. But all this is a small episode in Cm the whole time, now Beethoven modulates for real. He brings back the main subject so he can break it up into smaller leader notes, and he pairs it with a huge contrast; low, thundering whole notes resolving down a step. This way he modulates from F#d-G to Gd-Ab to Ad-Bb, then he breaks down the whole notes so he can use a cell to descend by the octave; he uses Ad-Bb over and over, so by highlighting Bb he prepares us for Ebm.

The subordinate subject uses material from the main subject but part of it is broken off and placed in the base. Beethoven uses repeated notes in the middle register to give harmonic context with his left hand while he jumps between low and high registers with his right, and trails this striking motif with a falling melody in the treble, again an inversion. Beethoven’s new key is Ebm, which subverts our expectations of Eb or Ab, and he points it out more by using Gb notes. He modulates us to Db during this time, from Bbd7-Ebm to Ab7-Db and Ab7a-Db. Time to raise the pressure; Beethoven uses large leaps and trails off with the descending melody more to build our anticipation as he leads us to the closing section; the harmonies change from Db to Ebm7 to Bb7, making us expect Eb major.

And for the closing section in Eb, Beethoven makes use of a long rising Eb scale but with chromatic notes thrown in; Eh-Ah-Dh, thus linking the harmony Eb to the harmony C7, the major submediant. Beethoven builds us up slowly, with sixteenth note Alberti base in opposite motion, taking the melody higher while the base goes downward, taking us to a high Eb note before falling quickly downward, resolving through Eb-Eba-Ab-Bb7-Eb. Beethoven brings us a new phrase, using a half note to underline that high Eb and descending downward in sixteenth notes. It also holds examples of where Beethoven has the implied harmonies of the two hands not agree with each other. The left hand fleshes uses repeated notes to flesh out the harmonies Cm-Fm7-Bb while the right hand fleshes out diminished sevenths of the left hand harmonies;

And finally, Beethoven plays the main subject once more, untampered with except in the key of Eb, and brings back whole notes that keep leaping by octave from the Eb6 to the Eb5 notes. He cycles through keys close to Eb, then he falls to a D note and makes the leap by two octaves, and shifts the harmonies to D7-G7 to prepare us for Cm.

Now here is where performance gets tricky. Most print editions of the Pathetique direct us to repeat the Allegro sonata form, but Andras Schiff makes a compelling argument of why we should go all the way back to the Grave introduction; it further cements in our mind the bold and tragic material that gives so much weight to the first movement.

Beethoven reprises the Grave introduction before going to the development proper. He begins in Cm again but his high note is G, the dominant, not the tonic note of C like last time. Beethoven climbs his way slowly to a high Eh note, the median, before slowly moving down to a middle Eh, making much use of the F#d7-Gm harmonies, before shifting to D#d-Em.

Beethoven lands on Em for his development, the mediant of Cm, and for his first core he uses the subordinate subject in treble and base lines, meanwhile accompanying it with tremolos or repeated quarter notes. The material itself is, the subordinate subject, a more jagged version of the main subject made entirely of leading notes, the rising scale replaced by leaps from leading cell to the next. Thus Beethoven plays the material in the treble, taking us from Em to D to Bbm, then shifts the material to the base, taking us from Bbm to Gb to Bd, then leads us from F#d7-G.

Thus begins the second core, where Beethoven drums away tremolo notes at the base in G, the dominant of Cm, there is high tension here as the 18 th century audience would expect that G base to leap to C to resolve the tension through a V-i progression. But Beethoven has no interest in letting us off the hook easily; he uses arpeggios in the tenor range to cycle through C#m-Dd-Ab-G, keeping an Ab (the submediant of Cm) as the top note. He does suddenly shift to the soprano range to play a variation of the main subject, using C#d-Dm, then makes use of something new; whole notes and trills, to bring us to Cm-G. Once Beethoven has brought us to G7, the dominant, he uses eight note arpeggios to throw us all the way down from a high F, the subdominant he makes so much use of in this movement, to a baseline C.

Now in the recapitulation, Beethoven still develops his main subject even after just reintroducing it; he develops the descending half notes to function as a new transition to trail us to the subordinate subject, modulating from Db to Bb7-Ebm to C-Fm. Beethoven puts the subordinate subject in Fm, which deviates from the usual as most listeners expect the harmony of C. But Beethoven does modulate to Cm, but even still he uses harmonies such as F9, Bb, and Ab, as if he was in Eb the whole time. The closing section is the same as before, only transposed to Cm, but at the end, when Beethoven thunders with his whole notes and two octave leap, he crashes us to F#d7, which appears like he is leading us to the G, the dominant.

He returns to the Grave introduction but without the large thick chords; the point is to create a poignant and sad feeling and keep us in suspense, which works very well as Beethoven built so much expectation beforehand. Beethoven, perhaps more than any other composer, knew the value of silence. Silence is as important to music as zero is important in math. He leads us from F#d7-Gm to Bd7-Cm to Ed7-Fm, before softly floating down the Cm scale, using Cm-G7. Beethoven uses the main subject a final time to bring the movement with a fortissimo close, using F#d7-Cm-G7-Cm, delaying the F#d7-G7 progression a bit with an in-between harmony of Cm.

Adagio cantabile 

The second movement is romantic and deeply felt, and its pensive nature contrasts the agitated and violent first movement. It is rondo form where the main subject appears three times and is contrasted by two subordinate subjects and a coda. So what about the main subject itself? The melody is based more or less on the Ab triad while also making use of rising chords, leaps downward, and resolving by a downwards step. The harmony usually sticks to Ab and other nearby harmonies, but does have a Ghd7-Ab and a Ahd7-Bbm progression. The etxture is sophisticated, with a songlike soprano melody above and a similar base below, both using quarter notes and first species counterpoint, while the alto and tenor roles come in sixteenth notes to flesh out the harmonies.

Now Beethoven arrives to a brief subordinate subject in Cm, the texture simplified to only two voices, the melody built around the cell of a held quarter note and descending sixteenth notes taken from the main subject. The peak note is always Ab, the submediant of Cm, until it becomes G when Beethoven suddenly moves to Eb. The retransition shifts the melody, now a chromatic descent and later a chromatic turn, to the tenor part, the repeated eight notes give the very thick harmony of Bb9s4 before resolving to Eb9 so Beethoven may return to Ab.

Beethoven replays the main subject but only once but avoid repeating himself too much. Now he mutates to Abm to play a second subordinate subject, and breaks it into two parts; an eight-note descent by scale followed by a leap or a step in the treble, and a chromatic descent in triplets in the base, while the alto is made of repeated notes to flesh out a harmony. Beethoven lingers around in Abm and Eb for the first sentence, then makes a sudden leap to the F# note, the dominant of the relevant key, to a passionate outburst in B7, the median of Abm. The triplet descent swaps to the soprano role as the harmonies modulate to E through the progression B7-E-F#7-E (in between harmony)-B7-E.

Beethoven begins his second sentence in E and B7 but rather than taking his material to any special places he slowly modulates back to Ab; he uses rising broken chord triplets way down in the base to do so, going through Dd7 (leading tone of E) to Bbhd7 (submediant of D) then to Eb7 (subdominant of Bhd7 and dominant of Ab). Beethoven returns to the main subject, playing it in full, and slightly develops it further by using triplets in the alto and tenor parts.

The coda makes use of descending triplets in the melody, with the melody starting high on an F note (submediant of Ab), then falling to an Eb note and later an Ab note. The whole movement can be said to be a gradual development where sixteenth notes gradually become triplets as the movement progresses. Either way, Beethoven gently lets us down with a turning and descending phrase. He uses Ab and Eb7 as harmonies the whole time to let us know the piece is over.


The third movement is a rondo in Cm and, together with the second movement, balances out the massive sonata form first movement. While this last movement is not as grand and tragic as the first movement it is still a heavyweight piece of music in its own right, and should be respected as such. Most listeners would agree that this rondo satisfies us as an ending to the entire sonata. Beethoven himself may have disagreed, as he would go on to try different ways of putting the most weight on the end of a sonata, not the beginning. His later third movements, such as those of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, do have a higher drama and urgency than the first movements and create the climax of the entire sonata, not just one movement. Beethoven would later blow even that out of the water with the fugue finale of the Hammerklavier sonata (in Bb, Op. 106), and repeated that success with the choral finale of the 9 th symphony (in Dm, Op. 125) and the Große Fugue finale of his massive string quartet in Bb (Op. 130).

But we have not arrived to such heights yet.

But we have not arrived to such heights yet. The main subject begins with a dotted swinging motion in Cm, peaks with G and Ab (dominant and submediant) half and three quarter notes, and swings back down to Cm. Beethoven draws a tail to our subject, where the melody peaks to the Bb and C notes (subtonic and tonic) before decisively ending with G-Cm chords. The harmonies never leave the usual Cm nexus except for a brief moment in C, between Ab and Fm.

The transition uses loud whole note chords to suspend us before resolving to the “proper” harmony, whereby rising and falling arpeggios in piano take over. In this matter Beethoven easily takes us to the subordinate subject through C7-Fm and Bb7-Eb. Again, Beethoven is fond of playing the dominant or leading chord of the new home key first, then resolving to it, and even modulates to the dominant or leading chord through keys relevant to them, not the new home key.

Beethoven uses the subordinate subject to raise the blood pressure; he uses eight notes in both hands; arpeggios in the left hand, a brisk melody in the right, all in Eb. Beethoven sprints around in Eb before climbing up with half notes to Bb (dominant) and Eb (tonic) so he can slip into new material; two phrases built on triplets imitating one another in the soprano and alto parts. Beethoven builds his first phrase, and its triplets, on the high Bb note, dominant of Eb, and peaks his dramatic descent with the highest note in F, the supertonic. In the next phrase, Beethoven centers on a high Ab note, subdominant of Eb, and Db, the subtonic. Never one to leave well enough alone, Beethoven squeezes in one more dramatic descent, the peak note being C, the submediant of Eb. The harmonies throughout the entire subordinate subject are rather plain, mostly Eb and Bb7, with only a Cb7a, an Ad-Bb, and a Cm7 chord throughout.

Beethoven begins the closing subject with a theme made of repeated notes and slow turns, the key notes are Bb (dominant) and F (dominant of dominant), and includes a chromatic descending base with a Cb note, which adds dissonance to an F harmony. This small episode acts as a brief respite and a bridge to the real closing subject, one built on the imitation of eight note triplets among soprano and alto, based on Eb and Ab notes. Using this standard I-IV-I progression, Beethoven uses it to build to a climax, at first using the triplets in a melody in a full bar to peak at a G note (mediant), then jumps up a broken Dd chord (leading tone of Eb) to reach high up to F (subdominant of C), playing the harmony of G7 in the process. This way Beethoven modulates through Eb-Abs4-Dd-G7-Cm.

Beethoven briefly returns to the main subject, then immediately jumps to a second subordinate subject in Ab; it functions like a canon with a subject of half notes that leap up by 4ths and down by 5ths. The harmonies have a marked contrast to previous subjects because Ab is by no means emphasized, drifting through almost every key closely related to Ab while Ab itself only appears once in the beginning. Beethoven repeats the subject many times, trading it among alto, base, tenor, and soprano, each new version a variation, and he tails it off by using whole notes to lead the base through F-F#-G, while the treble climbs down from a high C (median of Ab) to a low G (dominant of Cm). Now in the retransition, where the triplets are crushed into sixteenth notes, Beethoven hammers G in the melody (dominant) over and over, slowly jumping into higher Gs by octaves, then to Bh, then to D, then peaking at F (subdominant of Cm); in other words, up the G7 chord. The harmonies are just are straightforward; G-Cm-Bd, and so forth, and like the melody they function to prepare you for a return to Cm.

We now return to main subject a third time, which Beethoven cuts up after the first sentence to lead us to the subordinate subject in a different way. His transition his built on rising arpeggios figures that climb up the Gm7 chord to peak at F (subdominant as usual), and drop to G (dominant), while the harmonies are built on leading tones Bd-Cm, Ed-Fm, and F#d-G. The third subordinate subject is similar to the first one, transposed to G rather than Eb, where Beethoven peaks with a high F note (subdominant of Cm) and later when he uses triplets in imitation he holds on C notes (subdominant of G7) and G notes (dominant of C).

The closing subject begins in C, the mutation of Cm, which you would expect to be in the subordinate subject, but Beethoven develops it by leading his melodic line, through three fourth notes, up a Gm chord to an Ab note, the essential harmonies progressing through Cm-Gm-Dd-Eb-Dd7. The retransition is brief; Beethoven uses whole notes to make a chromatic fall from Ab (subediant of Cm) to Eb (median of Cm) while the harmonies progress G-Da-Bd-Cm.

Beethoven repeats his main subject a fourth time, and jumps to the coda, which is once more a long dramatic climb up a C chord of all things, before leaping to a G note (dominant) and repeating it to raise the pressure, then another leap to a high F note (subdominant of C), then rapidly falling to a Bb note (dominant of Eb). The harmony at this point is build around C7-Fm, where the subdominant Fm is key in a recapitulation and this coda functions as such, with some progressions to relative keys mixed in; F#d7-Bd-Cm, Dd-G, Db-Eb7. The base notes remain the roo

Beethoven holds us on Eb for a while to signal he is still not done yet, which you wouldn’t get if he went to Cm. So he delays Cm a little more with calm Ab versions of the swinging phrase from the main subject. A small leading melody from F#d7-Cm (in between note), then Beethoven plays a fortissimo finish from G7-Cm, the melody flying down from F (the usual subdominant) to C.


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