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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was not quite the child prodigy that Mozart had been, but he was trained in the art from an early age and became a performer of astonishing gifts. Unlike Mozart, he put an emphasis on the piano sonata as both a performance vehicle for himself and as a sort of compositional testing ground. He wrote piano sonatas throughout his life, including three highly accomplished works at the age of eleven.
So when he moved to Vienna in 1792 (he had studied there briefly with Mozart in 1787), Beethoven was already a musician with a promising record and a reputation as a brilliant pianist/improviser/composer (the contemporary music world made little distinction between those roles). His first published works there were a trio of piano trios (his Op. 1, although he had previously issued a number of pieces, including those three early piano sonatas), followed by a triptych of piano sonatas for his Op. 2, published in 1797 and dedicated to Joseph Haydn, with whom he had studied with increasing dissatisfaction for about a year.
The Italian word sonata is used for both a genre and a form. For Beethoven and musicians of the Classical era, sonata form meant a single movement shaped by tonality and modulation, with the establishment of a tonic or home key and then a move away from it to a secondary key that was heard as dissonant against that tonic, ultimately followed by a return to the original key — in the recapitulation of sonata form movements, all that was in the “dissonant” secondary key is resolved into the tonic.
The three sonatas of Beethoven’s Op. 2 are large-scale works by the standard of the time. All are in the four movements more common to the symphony and the string quartet, rather than the three movements usually found in the sonatas of Mozart and Haydn, works that were also usually written with the amateur market in mind. Beethoven — and his publishers — certainly expected amateurs to buy his sonatas for home performance, but they are clearly imbued with the new expressive and technical range of the composer’s own playing.
The Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, is the most brilliantly virtuosic of the set, an expansive work that is almost a solo concerto in style and scope. The first movement is an Allegro very much con brio, in sonata form with a passage like a concerto cadenza in the recapitulation. The main thematic material is the sort of terse motives and gestural figures that lend themselves readily to development, while the lyrical second subject arrives in the expected key of G, but in the minor mode — not at all common. (Beethoven mirrors this in the recapitulation, where it returns in C minor.)
The Adagio second movement comes as another harmonic surprise. It opens in the unexpected key of E major, though by this point the ensuing shift to E minor may not be much of a surprise. This five-part movement balances an intimate, elegantly phrased main theme with swirling, arpeggiated music, first in E minor, then returning in E major. That return of the right-hand arpeggios and octaves in the bass begins, however, with a sudden dip into C major, reminding our ears of the Sonata’s home key.
Contrapuntal intimations and harmonic diversions are among the rapidly passing attractions of the fleet, vigorously rhythmic Scherzo. The turbulent Trio section in the relative minor key is all about harmony, expressed in roiling broken chords in triplets. The Scherzo’s ultimate joke is an astonishing coda, a nuanced but obsessive fadeout that manages both neurotic extension and emphatic summation simultaneously.
The concluding Allegro assai is a cheerful rondo, its gusto masking some technically very difficult music. The main rondo theme makes its final appearance with increasingly brilliant figuration until it dissolves into soft trills, silences, and the threat of another fadeout before ending in boisterous thunder.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.