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About this Piece

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 7 in D (Op. 10, No. 3) of 1798 is the last of a set of three sonatas bearing a dedication to the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne. That inscription tells us something about the environment in which the young Beethoven found himself. He arrived in Vienna in 1792, not yet 22 years old. The city, already the musical capital of Europe, was founded on a system of commercial wealth and aristocratic patronage. It was an intensely competitive milieu in which pianist/composers (synonymous roles) vied with each other for the financial favors of noble benefactors. The names of these patrons are preserved on the scores of Beethoven and Haydn and Mozart: van Swieten, Lobkowitz, Kinsky. A year before the dedication of the sonatas, the Brownes gave Beethoven a horse in return for an earlier dedication - cash was not the sole artistic currency of the time.

By the end of the decade, Beethoven had distinguished himself as the leading keyboard virtuoso in the city, but it was a position he was obliged to defend. By any standard, the competition was cutthroat. Pianistic feats demonstrated in improvisational performances by one instrumentalist were quickly imitated by others. Compositions were hurried into print to ensure their provenance and at the same time to declare the technical and stylistic advances of the composer to a knowledgeable audience. It does not diminish the stature of this early masterpiece to suggest that the enormous expressiveness to be found in the sonata, particularly in the second movement, is as much a result of the need to be innovative as it is a manifestation of creative inner impulses.

The festive opening movement, though seemingly guileless, contains subversive elements - Beethoven insinuates music which reaches beyond the compass of the keyboards available to him at the time. Following the jaunty first phrases, a downward cascade of notes leads the left hand to one note below the lowest F then possible and the ensuing upward sweep carries us to a high F-sharp, also a note which did not exist on the restricted keyboards of the day. Our modern eight-octave keyboard makes it possible for pianists to play the two unwritten but implied notes and in fact most editions of the score include them as part of the text.

The despair which pervades much of the second movement Largo e mesto was new to Beethoven's music - the sadness and resignation made all the more palpable when heard after the energetic first movement and followed by the hesitant balm of the third movement Menuetto. The full return to affirmation is confirmed by the last movement Rondo which opens with a teasing three-note question, repeated and then answered with what sounds like a Beethovenian improvisation on that motif. It would be comforting to hear only good humor in this conclusion, but we may note that the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau heard in that three-note phrase an echo of the three-note group which begins a high, almost wailing, figure midway through the second movement. Perhaps the peaceful evaporation of the ending offers us a reason to consider this similarity.