Although they were not conceived as a cycle like the Well Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are a formidable complement to Bach’s opus. Referred to by many as the Old and New Testament of piano literature, they form the foundation of the instrument’s repertoire. Intensive study of these two collections is essential for any serious student of the keyboard.
By the age of 23, Beethoven had moved to Vienna and established himself as a virtuoso pianist without rival. Like Bach and Mozart before him, Beethoven could out-improvise anyone and took great pleasure in showcasing his talent. The three early sonatas were written between 1793 and 1795 for piano pupils, just like those of Haydn, Mozart and Clementi. This doesn’t mean that they were inferior or very easy, just that they were not really intended as concert pieces.
The hearing loss that would torture Beethoven for the rest of his life was still two years away, so Beethoven was not yet using the piano sonata as a means of personal expression. Nevertheless, there are still moments of simple beauty, particularly in the Adagio of the first sonata.
The Opus 2 sonatas are dedicated to Haydn, with whom Beethoven studied briefly. Haydn held Beethoven in high regard and predicted that he would be a musical giant. The young Beethoven however, did not return the sentiment and was later reported to have remarked that Haydn was a teacher from whom he “did not learn a thing.”
Piano Sonata in F minor Op 2 No 1
The opening movement is very Classical in style and brings to mind immediately the works by Hadyn or Clementi learned by many a student pianist. The movement has many features one would associate with a late Classical piano work. It is in sonata form; the accompaniment in the left hand is generally quavers based on the triad and the theme is developed using the circle of fifths pattern. There are no surprises here but it is still a very pleasant four and a half minutes of music.
The Adagio illustrates Beethoven’s ability to write a good slow movement. He does not write beautiful melody like Mozart does but relies instead on the harmony to lead, usimg suspensions to create and release tension. The Alberti bass line is a nod to late 18th century style. Beethoven’s choice of harmony gets more interesting in the second section where he write chromatic passages in the left hand. The transition back to the first theme is quite beautiful and the movement finishes with some tender moments in the coda.
In the final movement, there is no trace of the wildly popular Alberti bass. The rather furious opening passage very much foreshadows the tension of the Appassionata opening movement. The second theme is operatic and features the quaver accompaniment one would expect. After a very short development, we hear the opening themes in the home key and piece ends out of nowhere, as it began.
Piano Sonata in A major Op 2 No 2