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Both the opening movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, composed 1804-05, and its finale are in sonata form, and that tonal opposition is the principal dualism of the work. But Beethoven also plays powerfully with severe contrasts of dynamics, range, and articulation, and he is a master of expressive silences.
All of this is immediately apparent in the opening bars of the “Appassionata.” (The nickname is not the composer’s, but it accurately suggests the defining character of the piece.) It begins in ominous mystery, with a hushed traversal of the notes of the F-minor triad, full of latent energy and developmental potential while defining the tonic key as starkly as possible. There are suggestive silences, unexpected harmonic bumps, great sonic holes between the widely spread right and left hands, and a kinetic explosion at the end. You will recognize the recapitulation when all of this returns, but now over a throbbing bass line that fills in the expectant silences with audible urgency.
The central movement is a contemplative theme in D-flat major – a key much alluded to in the first movement – and increasingly agitated variations. It ends with an enriched reprise of the theme, leading directly into the whirlwind finale, a physically grueling dramatic challenge that raises the violence ante to bank-breaking levels in a furiously accelerated coda.
“If Beethoven, who was so fond of portraying scenes from nature, was perhaps thinking of ocean waves on a stormy night when from the distance a cry for help is heard, then such a picture will give the pianist a guide to the correct playing of this great tonal painting,” wrote Beethoven’s virtuoso pupil Carl Czerny about the finale of Op. 57. “There is no doubt that in many of his most beautiful works Beethoven was inspired by similar visions or pictures from his reading or from his own lively imagination. It is equally certain that if it were always possible to know the idea behind the composition, we would have the key to the music and its performance.”
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.