St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
"It would be a serious error to underestimate Beethoven's sonatas from the 1790's. . . . It was in the piano sonata that Beethoven first revealed the full expressive range and power of invention that he was to demonstrate only years later in some other musical forms" (Kinderman: 30).
This comment by William Kinderman appears to basically agree with Joachim Kaiser's comment:
"Als fünfundzwanzigjähriger, genial >fertiger< junger Künstler stellte Beethoven sich in Wien mit den drei -- ihrer technisch pianistischen Ausdrucksmittel vollkommen sicheren -- Sonaten Opus 2 vor. Nicht etwa, um in der damals ersten Musikstadt der Welt das Fürchten zu lernen, sondern um das Fürchten, aber auch Erschütterung und Bewunderung zu lehren. Wir mögen heute noch imstande sein, Erschütterung und Bewunderung nachzuempfinden, wenn wir diese Sonaten studieren oder angemessen interpretiert hören. Was wir nicht mehr fertig bringen, ist das Staunen: das Staunen über soviel kompositorische Sicherheit und seelische Selbstsicherheit" (Kaiser: 41; --
Kaiser refers here to Beethoven's bursting onto the Viennese public scene as a professional composer in the spring of 1795, and to his sonata compositions that were completed in that year, the Piano Sonatas No. 1, 2, and 3, Op. 2. The gist of his argument is his reference to the difference between the reception of these sonatas by us, today, and by his 1795 audience. He argues that, while we are certainly still able to admire the mature skill level in these works, we no longer can share the amazement these works might have evoked when they were first heard).
Thus, both Kinderman and Kaiser consider Beethoven's early piano sonatas works that deserve our attention. Why don't we first turn our attention to the chronological history of the creation of these three sonatas?
The first traces of the works mainly lead us back into the years 1794-1795, but also to Beethoven's Bonn years.
Thayer provides us with two indications as to when Beethoven might have begun with the composition of these sonatas:
"Finally, the closing lines of a short article in the Jahrbuch der Tonkunst für Wien und Prag, 1796--which notice was not written later than the spring of 1795, nine or ten months before the publication of the Sonatas Op. 2--are pregnantly suggestive: "We have a number of beautiful sonatas by him, amongst which the last ones particularly distinguish themselves." These works were, therefore, well-known in manuscript even at the time when he was busy with his studies under Haydn and Albrechtsberger" (Thayer: 129).
Thayer's second indication mainly refers to Beethoven's possibly playing these works for the first time--at least in private--, and in his footnote, he discusses their possible time of creation:
"Some other incidents recorded by Wegeler belong to this year. Haydn reached Vienna upon his return from his second trip to England on August 20, 1795. Beethoven had now ready the three Sonatas, Op. 2, and at one of the Friday morning concerts at Prince Lichnowsky's he played them for Haydn, to whom they were dedicated. These sonatas were, therefore, the second group of compositions which Beethoven considered illustrative of his artistic ideals and worthy of publication, (28; The first movement of Op. 2, No. 3 contains three themes borrowed from the same movement of the Piano Quartet in C (1785), WoO 36, III. (TDR, I, 408) which were written at least eight months before the Sonatas appeared in print, lead to the conclusion that they were known in Vienna in manuscript in the spring of 1795. . . . " (Thayer: 175-176).
In this second comment, Thayer first confronts us with the possibility that the sonatas might already have existed in manuscript form, in the spring of 1795 and that they have already been known in Vienna, due to this. (His first comment also refers to the possible existence of manuscripts to these works at a time when Beethoven was still studying with Albrechtsberger and Haydn.) In his footnote, Thayer discusses the first movement of Op. 2, No. 3 and three themes that Beethoven might have borrowed for it from the same movement of his C-Major Piano Quartet of 1785. Solomon confirms Thayer's reference as follows:
"The three Quartets for Piano and Strings, WoO 36 (1785), are in the style of Mozart, whose music became increasingly popular after the installation of Max Franz in 1784. The Quartet in E-flat is frankly modeled on, and owes some of its most beautiful passages to, Mozart's Violin Sonata, K.V. 379; while, according to Douglas Johnson, those in C and D are more subtly based on Mozart's K.V. 296 and K.V. 380 sonatas, respectively.(5) Each of the quartets is in three movements, with quick outer movements enclosing a slow movement in the dominant or subdominant key. The closing movements are in rondo form. Beethoven never published these works, possibly because of their indebtedness to Mozart and possibly because the piano dominates the scoring so completely. He evidently held them dear, however, for they contain a number of original melodic ideas upon which he drew in Vienna for the Sonatas, op. 2 nos. 1 and 3, the Sonate pathethique, op. 13, and the finale of the Sonata, op. 27, no. 1" (Solomon: 46-47).
As further "creative sources" of Op. 2, Thayer mentions the following:
"A Trio in E-flat for Pianoforte, Violin and Violoncello, found among Beethoven's posthumous papers, was published in 1830 by Dunst in Frankfurt-am-Main. On the original publication its authenticity was certified to by Diabelli, Czerny and Ferdinand Ries, and it was stated that the original manuscript was in the possession of Schindler; Wegeler verified the handwriting as that of Beethoven. There is a remark in Gräffer's written catalogue of Beethoven's works: "Composed anno 1791, and originally intended for the three trios, Op. 1, but omitted as too weak by Beethoven." Whether or not this observation rests on an authentic source is not stated.
Dr. Deiters points out as characteristics of this Trio the freedom in invention and development, the large dimensions of the free fantasia portion, its almost imperceptible return to the principal theme, and the introduction of a coda in the first movement. These indicate that it was not written by Beethoven at the age of fifteen as Schindler states but long after the pianoforte quartets. Thematic motives from this movement recur in later works, for instance, the Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, and the Pianoforte Concerto in C major. Beethoven seems to have used the designation "Scherzo" in it for the first time (11)" (Thayer: 123).
Ultimately, Thayer (p. 178) places the composition of these works into the years 1794-1795. Cooper has this to say with respect to Beethoven's timing of his first public appearances in 1795:
"The timing of major events in Beethoven's life seems as uncanny as the timing of major events within his compositions. Sometimes it was fortuitous, as when his move to Vienna closely coincided with the death of his father and the French invasion of the Rhine. On other occasions, however, Beethoven manipulated events himself, and he was certainly determined to have control of the timing of his 'arrival' as a composer. Thus he kept out of the limelight in 1794, to enable himself to make a bigger impact the next year, when he would take Vienna by storm. Not a single work was offered to a Viennese publisher in 1794, although several could have been (including some that Haydn had sent to Bonn). His only publication that year was Simrock's edition of the old piano-duet variations on Waldstein's theme (WoO 67). When he heard in June that this work was about to appear, he sent Simrock a revised version so that it would come out in 'as perfect a form as possible'. But he added, 'The fact is that I had no desire to publish any variations at present, for I wanted to wait until some more important works of mine, which are about to appear very soon, had been given to the world.' (28) This confirms that he held back deliberately so as to make a more striking impression once he had full command of contrapuntal technique and had composed some major new works. Thus in 1794, although he completed next to nothing, he began work on several major compositions (indeed, some of these may have been begun before, then, while others make use of brief ideas sketched independently at an earlier date)" (Cooper: 52).
With respect to the first performance of these works, we already know that it very likely took place on a Friday morning after Haydn's return from England on August 20, 1795, namely at Prince Lichnowsky's Vienna residence.
If we take a moment to reconsider Beethoven's and Haydn's relationship at that time and Barry Cooper's 'softening' comments that we have also reflected in the appropriate section of our Biographical Pages, it is very positive to note that Beethoven waited for Haydn's return in order to perform these works for the first time in private.
That Beethoven must have made his last corrections of these sonatas before their publication in the spring of 1796 before his departure for Prague in February of that year, becomes clear when we look at his 1796 travel itinerary, particularly at his February 1796 letter from Prague to his brother Nikolaus Johannes in Vienna (see our Biographical Pages).
Titelblatt mit Widmung an Joseph Haydn
With respect to the publication, Thayer reports that it "was announced in the Wiener Zeitung of March 9, 1796" (Thayer: 176) and also mentions their publisher: "By Artraria: Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte, Op. 2, dedicated to Joseph Haydn" (Thayer: 202).
With respect to the first public performance of these works, Thayer has this to report:
"Another interesting and valuable discussion of Beethoven's powers and characteristics as a pianoforte virtuoso at this period is contained in the autobiography of Tomaschek, who heard him both in public and in private during a visit which Beethoven made again this year to Prague . Tomaschek was then both in age (he was born on April 17, 1774) and in musical culture competent to form an independent judgment on such a subject: "In the year 1798, in which I continued my juridical studies, Beethoven, the giant among pianforte players, came to Prague. He gave a largely attended concert in the Konviktssaal, at which he played his Concerto in C major, Op. 15, and the Adagio and graceful Rondo in A major from Op. 2, and concluded with an improvisation on a theme given him by Countess Sch. . . [Schick?], 'Ah tu fosti il primo oggetto,' from Mozart's Titus (duet No. 7). Beethoven's magnificent playing and particularly the daring flights in his improvisation stirred me strangely the the depth of my soul; indeed I found myself so profoundly bowed down that I did not touch my pianoforte for several days. . . . Then I heard him a third time at the home of Count C. (6; Clam-Callas) where he played, besides the graceful Rondo from the A major Sonata, an improvisation on the theme: 'Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.'" (Thayer: 207).
After this chronological overview of their composition, their first performances and publication, we might wish to look at these sonatas from Maynard Solomon's point of view, before we embark on finding out more about their musical content in three separate pages for each sonata:
"Thirty-two piano sonatas bear Beethoven's opus numbers. The first twenty were composed in the eight years ending 1802, and it is in them that Beethoven's first unquestioned masterpieces are to be found. These sonatas fall readily into two groups: thirteen sonatas written prior to 1800--opus 2 to 22, plus two "easy sonatas," opus 49--which explore and expand the possibilities of sonata form; and seven sonatas--opus 26 to opus 31--which are simultaneously an epilogue or farewell to the standard high-Classic sonata and a transition toward a new line of development, whose potentialities would be realized in the works of Beethoven's later years. Beethoven's earliest sonatas, broadly conceived, spacious in design, rich in detail and invention, were clearly intended as major efforts. Where Haydn and Mozart had relied almost exclusively on the three-movement design, six of Beethoven's first sonatas (including his first four) used the four-movement scheme usually reserved for symphonies and quartets, through the addition of a minuet or scherzo; these sonatas were, on the average, almost one and a half times as long as those of his predecessors. The sonatas run the full gamut of Sturm und Drang sentiment--passion, reverie, exuberance, heroism, solemnity, nobility, and dramatic pathos--but they are also full of abrupt harmonic and dynamic effects, piquant episodes, unusual rhythms, syncopations, and brief departures for distant keys, all of which signify that this young composer was not content merely to remain a dutiful exponent of a great tradition. Tovey observes that Beethoven's "epigrammatic" manner was characteristic "not of immaturity, but of art in which problems are successfully solved for the first time" (23) It is Beethoven's unification of two opposing trends--the epigrammatic tendency along with an overall striving for spaciousness--that is a distinguishing characteristic of his early Vienna style" (Solomon: 104).