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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 14, 21 and 23
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
Beethoven was born in the Rhineland town of Bonn in 1770, the eldest surviving son of
Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich. His grandfather, after whom
he was named, had joined the chapel of the Elector of Cologne in 1733 as a
singer, marrying in the same year. In 1761 he became Kapellmeister, a position
he held until his death in 1773. Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven had been
unfortunate in his marriage. His wife became incurably addicted to drink, and
was for many years confined in a convent asylum. The only surviving son of the
marriage, Johann van Beethoven, the composer’s father, was trained as a
musician, but was never able to match the ability of his father, later
preferring to follow his mother’s example, a course of action that soured the
composer’s childhood and brought early responsibility for two young brothers,
an obligation that Beethoven continued to fulfil in his own way in later life.
early career as a musician was in the service of the Archbishop of Cologne, as
a player of the violin and viola, as deputy organist to his teacher, Gottlob
Neefe, as harpsichordist in the theatre, and, above all, as a potential
virtuoso of the keyboard. In 1787 he travelled to Vienna,
hoping to take lessons from Mozart, but was recalled to Bonn when his mother became seriously ill.
The journey served no purpose but to incur debt, as the Elector was later to
possibly through the young Count Waldstein that it was decided that Beethoven
should return to Vienna, where he might study with Haydn, who had passed
through Bonn on his first visit to England and been entertained by the electoral
orchestra on his return.
1792 Beethoven set out for Vienna,
with introductions from Count Waldstein that were to stand him in good stead.
He took lessons from Haydn, later claiming to have learned nothing, and from
Albrechtsberger and the distinguished court composer Antonio Salieri. Waldstein
saw him as a successor to Mozart in the closely related and complementary
fields of composition and virtuoso performance, and his foresight was
It has been
customary to divide Beethoven’s career into three periods, early, middle and
later, or into four, if we are to include the even earlier years in Bonn. The piano sonatas
reflect this view of his development as a composer, and incidentally mirror
technical developments in the pianoforte itself.
Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor ‘quasi
una fantasia’ Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”
Sonata has its name from the inspiration of the poet Rellstab (whose verses
were to be set to music by Schubert). Writing in 1832 he likened the sonata to
the wild scenery bordering Lake
Lucerne, seen from a boat
by moonlight. The French romantic composer Berlioz, on the other hand,
preferred to see sunlight in the sonata, and other writers have been equally
is more properly described by its title Sonata quasi una fantasia, Opus 27 No. 1,
in the key of C Sharp Minor. The imaginative writer Arnold Schering, already
referred to, found a literary parallel with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,
but others have chosen to find in the sonata romantic notions of a different
kind. It was completed in 1801, and dedicated, at the last minute, to Countess
Giulietta Guicciardi, a young pupil of Beethoven.
has always enjoyed enormous popularity, and has, therefore, been the subject of
speculation. It has also undergone the indignity of various arrangements,
including, in 1835, a concert performance in which the first movement was
played by an orchestra, and the second two by Liszt.
The form of
the Moonlight Sonata is unusual. Its first movement, a texture of delicacy, is
a slow one, and it is followed by a brief second movement in the form of a
scherzo and trio, the slightly less regular successor of the Minuet.
Histrionics are left until the last movement, with its contrasts of melody and
Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”
Sonata in F
Minor, Opus 57, the Appassionata, was considered by Beethoven to be among his
best piano sonatas. Its nick-name, although not chosen by the composer, is an
apt one, although Schering’s parallel with Shakespeare’s Macbeth may appeal to
us less. Dedicated to the Countess of Brunswick, the sonata was completed in
1805 and published two years later.
this sonata proved a fertile source for imaginative speculation in the
nineteenth century, writers finding in it grim spectres, heartfelt emotions,
storms of passion and the ominous threats of Fate. Musically its first movement
is one that allows a full exploration of the resources of the keyboard. It is
followed by the kind of slower melody that Beethoven knew so well how to write.
This is treated as the subject of a number of variations. Fiercely repeated
chords introduce the Finale, which, with its great technical and musical
demands, brings us into a new world, before the coda, with its sudden
reminiscences of the beginning of the movement.
Sonata in C Major, Opus 53 “Waldstein”
in C, Opus 53, dedicated to Count Waldstein, was written in 1803 and 1804 and
published in the following year. The work is on a grand scale and exploits
remarkably the sonorities of the piano and the form of the classical sonata. The
first movement demonstrates both developments, in its range, with a second
subject in the unusual key of E Major, an extended development and coda, and
startling dynamic contrasts. The original slow movement was discarded as too
long, and published separately as Andante favori, to be replaced by the present
Introduzione that ushers in the final rondo, with its principal theme of
winning simplicity the source of much later activity.
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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 14, 21 and 23