Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 10 No.1

An important part of the Beethoven myth is the idea that he was not bound to any one job or patron but rather wrote what suited him, when it suited. While it is true that he was not employed in the same way Mozart or Haydn were, Beethoven, especially in the early days, still wrote pieces for a purpose, namely money. His first two cello sonatas, Op.5 were composed on the occasion of a visit to Friedrich Wilhem II of Prussia, who fancied himself as a fine amateur cellist. As Beethoven became more established, he began to dedicate pieces to members of Viennese society that supported him much in the same way modern buildings or sporting events are named after those that provide funding.

The Op. 10 piano sonatas were dedicated to the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, whose husband was Beethoven’s chief patron between 1797 and 1803. Their collaboration resulted in one of the more amusing examples of Beethoven’s scatterbrainedness. After the dedication, the Brownes gave Beethoven a gift of a riding horse, which he promptly forgot about. One of his more enterprising servants hired out the horse and it wasn’t until Beethoven received a large bill for fodder that he curtailed the servant’s illicit entrepreneurial activities and got rid of the animal.

During the late 18th century, it was customary for chamber works to be published in multiples of three. Mozart’s six Haydn quartets and Haydn’s Op 76 quartets are well known examples of this practice. Beethoven worked on Op 10 from 1796-1798. As a set, they are angular and experimental, moving farther and farther away from the influences of his Classical heritage. Despite his erratic behaviour and tempestuous personality, Beethoven made changes to his compositional style rather gradually. The bookends of his oeuvre are miles apart but still very much connected, with each piece representing an indispensable part of the whole.

Sonata in C minor Op 10 No 1 1796-98
Allegro molto e con brio
Adagio molto
Finale: Prestissimo

Often referred to as the Little Pathétique, Op 10, No.1 is appreciated more for its foreshadowing of subsequent compositions than a valuable sonata in its own right. The comparison between the two sonatas (the other is Op 13) doesn’t own anything to the thematic material but rather to the key structure and tempo markings. Pathétique was written in 1798, almost immediately following Op. 10 and it does seem as if Beethoven was using this sonata as a trial run.

The first movement is a fairly standard affair in sonata form. In the second movement, Beethoven is up to his usual trick of using harmony to create melodic tension, choosing rather to innovate in his choice of form. The sonatina form, ABAB, is a sonata without a development section and was quite a popular choice during the Classical period. It is not considered a serious form and indeed many an amateur pianist will recall learning works in this format in their early days.

[redacted to correct error. third movement returning soon!]


  1. Miss Mussel

    Hello Bram! Thanks for taking the time to write. I can assure you that I have indeed spent several hours listen to each of the sonatas I’ve written notes for.

    It is silly to think we can say for certain what would outrage Beethoven. One of my main objectives when writing these notes is to strip away the Beethoven myth. The idea that everything he ever wrote is a masterpiece and therefore fantastic in every way is simply ridiculous. Of course the flip side is that non-masterpiece status doesn’t mean the piece is useless.

    I trained as a horn player and a good amount of our rep is not A-grade material when compared to the violin or cello but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to play or listen to.

    I plan to take as much care with the third movement analysis as I have with the rest of the notes.

  2. Bram Simmonds

    But these pieces take a life-time to appreciate. I genuinely believe that although Op. 10 no. 1 may not be stucturally complex, the musical content is as exciting and beautiful as many other better-respected pieces.

    Maybe not everything he wrote was a masterpiece (though I have yet to come across a mediocre work – and as a classically trained musician myself I’ve studied a lot!), BUT this piece really is great, and should not be used to destroy a myth that doesn’t apply to it!

    P.s. yes actually the Dances and some of the songs he wrote are pretty ordinary!! Destroy the myth with them instead!

    P.p.s also, surely if you’re writing programme notes you want to sell the music positively to the audience?! :P

  3. Charles Ghisalberti

    Who asked you to “destroy the myth?”
    Your pompous comments about the sonata don’t indicate that you have any special
    insight into the piece. And the story about the horse is SO revealing.

    • Miss Mussel

      No one asked me to, but why should I not? The Beethoven myth is one of the most crippling in all of classical music. Behind all the purple prose is a fascinating but flawed man who wrote fantastic music. What’s so disappointing about that?

    • Royce van Beethoven

      I agree that nobody asked him to “destroy the myth”. But he did it so that people will understand the risks that Beethoven was taking when he wrote what he did. It is a NECESSITY to get that clear. Of course, he didn’t mean for callous people like you who don’t know a shit to read this. If you haven’t realised, your comments are so disjointed and without reasoning that I am wondering right now whether you have even reached your teenage years. So I really hope you can understand what’s about to come. And yes, what I just wrote IS a personal attack.

      Have you even SEEN Beethoven’s Op.10, No.1? I doubt so. It is indeed called the Little Pathétique. It foreshadows the later Pathétique Sonata and the Fate Symphony with it’s nervous energy. I believe that you think this means that the Little Pathétique is not as beautiful as the other two pieces I mentioned. For goodness’ sake, one of my personal favorites is the Little Pathétique! The Little Pathétique is nicknamed so because it is somewhat recognised as an “ancestor” to the Pathétique. This brings me to an idea in the post that I find rather interesting – that “Beethoven was using (the Little Pathétique) as a trial run”. As far as I am concerned, this idea is an original idea. It has much room for controversy, but I agree with it. It has been proven that Beethoven tested his ideas before expanding them. Look at the Op.2 sonatas. Look at what came after that in Op.10. I dare say that the two opuses are similar and comparable. Why wouldn’t Beethoven try to transform the Little Pathétique into something he was more satisfied with (the Pathétique)? What was in the post, contrary to your juvenile believes, shows much insight on the part of the person who posted it. I assume from your defensive (though nonsensical) comments that you love both Beethoven the man and Beethoven the composer as much as I do. So, as a fellow Beethoven lover, I gently encourage you to learn both the Little Pathétique and the Pathétique simultaneously to bring yourself to the Great Enlightenment.

      But at least you brought up something that I sort of agree with (about the horse), though you put it in such an unlearned manner. It shouldn’t have been put there because is served no purpose in the entire critique. However, it did serve as entertaining factual information that I bet you wouldn’t have known had you not read this. And, please learn to use your vocabulary appropriately – what was posted is not a STORY: THOSE ARE FACTS.

      If you did not intent to be rebutted like that when you posted your comment, please explain and elaborate whenever you post comments that contrast the original post. This allows you to APPEAR rational, even if you are not.


  4. Gabriel

    Let me start by duly noting that the fact you write about classical music at all, when it is so otherwise endangered, is, or should be, a good thing. It is not, however, a good thing when your writing consists of the same sort of absolutely useless and unenlightening exegesis that so many failed amateur musicians, or those who call or fancy themselves musicologists (in most cases one and the same), are wont to engage in.

    In my many years of listening to and reading about music it has become abundantly clear that the absolute worst writers about music are musicians themselves, both because most don’t know how to write (they communicate useless information that more often than not misses the forest for the trees thereby clarifying and elucidating absolutely nothing), and because they get so caught up in so-called “technical” and “structural” analysis that two pieces of vastly dissimilar character and quality end up being grouped together merely because they evince similar structural qualities, which have nothing to do with the actual musical quality of the pieces themselves.

    It’s like dissecting two human bodies – that of, say, Einstein and Stalin – and deducing that because they both share similar structures, they must have both been similar human beings and functioned as such. Music, similarly, is but a dead body on the page, and it only comes to life upon being played. And upon being played, the vast differences between two pieces that may otherwise be structurally similar become abundantly clear. Thus, while Clementi and Czerny may have written pieces that were structurally similar to Beethoven’s and vice versa, the greatest efforts of those lesser composers were as nothing compared to Beethoven’s supposedly lesser works.

    What I mean to say is, one learns nothing about the living, breathing qualities of a piece of music by engaging in so-called musicological analysis, and that is a FACT, as demonstrable as it is absolute. That is why what is written here that passes off as some kind of useful “analysis” of a piece of music does a greater disservice both to the composer and his works than any of a thousand myths propagated about the man. At least the myths are reflective of a certain essence in his works, whereas no musicological analysis I have ever read of a piece of music has ever done anything at all to deepen my appreciation of said work.

    Now, I haven’t even mentioned all that is terribly wrong about the so-called “analysis” posted above. To start with, if the Beethoven “myth(s)” have been at all damaging to our appreciation of his works, the inane and asinine names appended to many of his works have done far greater damage to the way most people, and the general culture, listen to his works. If it were not nicknamed “Pathetique,” Op. 13 would have never become as popular as it became. Beethoven had already written greater works before Op. 13, specifically Op. 7 and Op. 10 no. 3, but because neither of those sonatas have some silly nickname appended to them, they never became as popular as Op. 13 (and, it goes without saying, that it is nothing less than a miscarriage of historical and musical justice that, say, Opp. 109 – 111 are not nearly as well known as the “Pathetique” merely because they lack a handy appellation by which to refer to them and remember them).

    Now, quite apart from the fact that Op. 13 gains nothing musically by calling it “Pathetique” or any other name, whomever was the idiot who came up with the idea to call Op. 10 no. 1 “Little Pathetique” should have been summarily executed. The fact that they share the same key makes them no more alike than Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa were alike because they were both female. Yes, they are both minor key works, and that inevitably dictates that they both share a certain more “dramatic” character than a work written in major, but other than that, they are nothing alike. In contrast, it would be far more apt to compare Op. 2 no. 1 to Op. 10 no. 1, as they are far more similar in character and content. But that also would do nothing to heighten or deepen our appreciation of either work.

    As regards Op. 10 no. 1 specifically, a sonata that would be considered a landmark and a masterpiece in the oeuvre of many other composers, to remark that its slow movement, one of the most sublime slow movements not only in early Beethoven but in middle and late as well, has an ABAB structure tells us nothing of the greatness of this work any more than it would reveal nothing of his genius to remark that Stephen Hawking is confined to wheelchair. Just as not all paraplegics are geniuses not all ABAB movements are created, nor sound, the same. It would be a disgrace if anyone were to read this utterly idiotic analysis of Op. 10 no. 1 and make any sort of conclusions regarding its value because they are otherwise ignorant of it. What is inexcusable is that the writer of this “analysis” is ignorant even after admittedly spending “hours” listening to this work. Even worse, she admits she is a musician. Who knows nothing about music, apparently.

    Oh, yes: Op. 10 no. 1 was not in any way, shape or form, neither demonstrably nor by virtue of any kind of the most fanciful supposition and conjecture, a “trial run” for Op. 13 any more than striking a chord on the piano is a trial run for Op. 106. They are both minor key piano sonatas written by the same composer a couple of years apart and that is as much as you can say about them as far as similarities go. And just as Op. 13 is not one of the greater Beethoven masterpieces (though it IS a masterpiece), Op. 10 no. 1 can by no means be categorized or easily dismissed as “minor” Beethoven merely because it breaks no new structural ground.

    The expressive regions it discovers are another matter altogether, however, and that’s what makes this sonata a veritable, albeit minor, masterpiece in the Beethoven canon. It is in the above-disparaged slow movement’s coda that Beethoven discovers an expressive depth of timeless melancholy such as is found in much of Schubert that makes one bow in gratitude for the existence of this great work. It is an expressive region never before explored in the history of music – not by Bach, not by Mozart, not by Haydn – and which would later be mapped in greater depth and detail both by Beethoven himself and Schubert, his spiritual heir. We’re talking, of course, of a specific vein of musical romanticism whose progenitor was Beethoven and whose greatest apostle was Schubert, and it is in none other than Op. 10 no. 1 that it makes its first miraculous, almost unbearably moving appearance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *