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Classical Sonata and Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven’s career as a composer split up into three periods. During the first part of his compositional career, Beethoven’s music revealed the Classical characteristics inherited from Haydn and Mozart. During this period he wrote the “Pathetique Sonata” for the piano. The middle part of his compositional career saw his contributions to the sonata-form: the coda was lengthened in the first movement while the development section was created to be the dynamic thrust, the second movement was woven together with a hymn-like character and the scherzo was written not for elegance but for powerful expression, and the final movement of his sonata-forms became just as large in scale and breadth as the initial movement. The music he wrote during his middle period was infused with a sense of drama and character with explosive accents and dynamics. During this period Beethoven contributed the “Heroic Symphony” which was originally dedicated to Napolean but later the composer tore up the dedicatory page, declaring that the revolutionary leader was a tyrant just like all the other political leaders. Beethoven’s final compositional period revealed compositional techniques beyond the time. When asked if his string quartets written during this period could be considered music, Beethoven replied, “Not for you. For a later time.” Beethoven’s compositions include piano works including sonatas, one opera, various vocal works, and chamber music, but the genre most centralized to the composer was the symphony.


The three or four movements of the Classical Sonata were based on the Sonata-Cycle. A sonata could be written for a solo instrument or for two instruments and was a favoured genre in the home as well as for composers to write for themselves to perform.

“Piano Sonata in C minor “Pathetique” Op. 13″

Beethoven himself dubbed the sonata “Pathetique” in reference to the passionate character the sonata exhibits. The masterpiece was written in 1798, during the composer’s first compositional period. The dramatic dynamics are captivating for the listener. It consists of three movements finding its form in the sonata-cycle.

I Movement.

Tempo: Grave-Allegro di molto e con brio Meter: 4/4-2/2 Key: C minor Form: Sonata-Allegro Exposition Introduction. A grand introduction is presented in heavy chords with homophonic texture in 4/4 meter and Grave tempo. Beethoven creates a sense of improvisation by intermingling the grand chordal passages with rapid passagework in the right hand. The introduction comes to a conclusion with a descending chromatic scale in the right hand ending on a fermata over an Ab. Theme 1. The tempo is now indicated Allegro di molo e con brio with the meter shifting to 2/2. Ascending, staccato chords form theme one with rhythmic octaves accompanying in the bass. The dynamics build in a crescendo as the chords climb in register. Bridge. The bridge works as a modulating tool to shift to eb minor, the key of the second theme group. The bridge is comprised of quick passagework and climbing chords as in theme one. Theme Group 2, 2a. Challenges for the pianist in theme two a are hand crossings at a quick tempo with grace notes and trills in the right hand. The key has temporarily settled in an unusual key: eb minor. The character of this theme is cute and upbeat yet darkened slightly by the minor key. Theme Group. 2, 2b. Now the key has settled into tonic’s relative major key: Eb major. This theme comprises of a harmonic progression built on the foundation of Alberti Bass, which presents a challenge for the pianist. Codetta. The codetta refers to ideas from theme one, the climbing chordal pattern, before concluding. The exposition is repeated without the Grave introduction. Development The development opens with the Grave introduction theme, but this time in g minor, before launching into the quick development material, opening in e minor, which comprises of fragments of the grave intermingled with fragments of theme one. Tension is built from various modulations before returning back to the tonic: c minor. Recapitulation Theme 1. The theme is again introduced in c minor. Bridge. The bridge is built from half note chords instead of the rapid passage work heard in the exposition. Theme 2. The theme is heard this time in f minor. Codetta. A brief visit to the chordal material in reference to theme one is heard. Coda A visit to the grave theme is heard one last time, this time in piano dynamics to create contrast with the last remaining measures of the movement, which arrive as a crashing pattern of descending chord patterns reminiscent of theme one.

II Movement.

Tempo: Adagio Cantabile Meter: 2/4 Key: Ab Major Form: Rondo (A-B-A-C-A) Section A. is heard as a lyrical melody, first in the middle of the keyboard’s range then repeated an octave higher. The character is sweet and hymn-like. The pianist finds some of the right hand’s part in the bass clef, which presents a challenge. Section B. The key shifts here to f minor with a broader dynamic range and a more agitated character. Some rapid passage work is challenging for the pianist. Section A. The lyrical melody returns unaltered in the key of Ab major but is not repeated an octave higher. Section C. Triplet figuration are introduced with accents and arpeggios which heighten the tension. Section A. The triplet figuration continue through this section in conjunction with the lyrical melody which is again presented in Ab major in the middle range then repeated an octave higher. Coda. Triplet figures provide continuity through to the end of the movement. A 7-note pattern is repeated three times at the conclusion of the piece.

III Movement.

Tempo: Allegro Meter: 2/2 Key: C minor Form: Rondo (A-B-A-C-A-B-A) Section A. The opening is a bright and assertive theme created by grace notes and staccatos. The left hand accompanies the theme with arpeggio figuration. Section B. A striking chord in f minor introduces the section followed by an arpeggio figure in the right hand. A shift to Eb major occurs before triplet figures and a brief visit to a slower chordal section. The section concludes with a descending scale. Section A. The bright and assertive theme is unaltered in c minor. Section C. A syncopated rhythm is introduced in Ab major then a dialogue between the hands occurs in 16th notes. Like section B, this section is also concluded with a descending scale. Section A. The bright, assertive theme reveals itself again in c minor. Section B. This time the section contains scale passages instead of the arpeggio figures heard in the initial section b in C Major, the parallel minor key of the tonic. Section A. This bright and assertive theme is heard for the last time first in the right hand then the melody is heard in the bass. A scale passage is heard before the Coda is introduced. Coda. A bold character is heard in the coda but Beethoven creates contrast with introducing a sweet passage before the last crashing measures of the piece.

All information on this article is derived from: Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney. The Enjoyment of Music, Eight Edition, Standard Version, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. Personal Study derived from original score found at Petrucci Music Library
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