SONATA N0. 16, OP. 31/1

In our look at the musical content of this sonata we follow the pattern indicated in our introductory comments on music criticism offered here.  This pattern offers you comments in the following sequence: 




Each category can be directly accessed by clicking on the above links.  Therefore, if you prefer one kind of comment(s) over another, you can make your own selection. 


Manyard Solomon's comment very generally discusses all three sonatas so that it is not easy to extract from it his particular opinion on the 16th Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1: 

"It is difficult to say whether the three Sonatas, op. 31 (composed in 1802, published 1803-04 by Nägeli in Zürich), opened an era or closed one.  Bekker saw the first two sonatas as the culmination of the fantasy-sonata form, and the third as the beginning of a new virtuoso style which would later come to fruition in the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.  Blom calls the first--a three-movement piece in G major--"a somewhat reactionary work for its time" and one which leans heavily on pianistic devices" (Solomon: 106).

After an initial comment on all three sonatas, William Kinderman offers us an overview of Op. 31, No. 1:  

"Beethoven's innovative tendencies surface more clearly in the three piano sonatas of op. 31, also from 1802.  These three sonatas, in G major, D minor, and E-flat major, are notable landmarks along Beethoven's so-called 'new path', boldly exploring artistic territory that he soon consolidated in the Eroica Symphony.

An aggressively original thrust emerges at the beginning of the G major Sonata op. 31 no. 1.  The initial gestures are syncopated; the two hands seem unable to play together.  Swift falling passagework yields to repeated tonic chords that reach the dominant ant the end of the first phrase.  Then, surprisingly,  Beethoven shifts the following phrase down a whole step into F major.  Such treatment of the nearer keys 'as if they were mere local chords', in Donald Francis Tovey's words, (19: A Companion to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, p. 115) expands the tonal and dramatic range of the music.  Beethoven introduced similar harmonic departures at the outset of his Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.  Both of the other op. 31 sonatas, in D minor and E-flat major, also begin with striking harmonic ambiguities and tensions--a hallmark of his innovative approach.

Unlike these pieces, the G major Sonata proceeds with an air of paradox and comedy, with a touch of the bizarre that is no longer Haydnesque but distinctively Beethovenian.  As Brendel writes, 'the character that emerges is one of compulsive, but scatterbrained, determination'. (20: Music Sounded Out, p. 28)  Such a work cannot be taken at face value, but solemn commentators who would deny humorous possibilities to music have maligned op. 31 no. 1 as inferior and slipshod. (21: See, for instance, Blom, Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas Discussed, pp. 123-6)  A key to understanding the opening Allegro vivace lies in Beethoven's ironic attitude to the unbalanced, somewhat commonplace nature of his basic material:  what unfolds in the development with startling vehemence later dissolves into coyish, understated accents in the coda, where a new point emerges in the business at hand.  In these last moments of the Allegro vivace, Beethoven introduced a turn-figure foreshadowing the head motif of the rondo finale, while he correspondingly recalls the opening movement in the last moments of the rondo, thereby casting unifying threads across the piece as a whole.

The second movement, Adagio grazioso, displays an atmosphere of operatic elegance slightly overdone.  The trills and ornate decorations, the serenade-like flavour, and the exaggerated rhetoric convey a hint of sophisticated mockery.  In the following rondo finale, Beethoven's ingenious demands on the musical tradition take yet another form.  He renders the expected repetitions of the main theme in the rondo design unpredictable through variations in texture and rhythmic intensification, but reserves the most extraordinary events for the coda.  Here, once more, he sees through, and beyond, the surface of his thematic material, exposing an underlying substratum of musical meaning.  First, the head of the rondo theme is broken off into silence; the ensuing phrase is then broadened into an Adagio.  Beethoven extends the series of interrupted phrases without allowing the music to close in the tonic, building suspense (Ex. 21).  He then plunges into an exciting Presto coda, with the thematic turn emancipated from its earlier context.  Beethoven caps his sonata by allowing the rapid turn-figure to migrate into the low bass register, as sharp repeated rhythms recalled from the opening movement dissipate into a paradoxical close of soft chords and pregnant silences" (Kinderman: 74-75).



Joachim Kaiser's comment of this sonata is, again, full of references to to its interpretation by 20th century pianists, so that we should limit ourselves to looking at his introduction: 

"Am Anfang dieser glänzenden, übermütigen und unwiderstehlich eleganten Sonate ist der Rhythmus, die straffe, federnde Betonung. Erst das Seitenthema des Allegro vivace spielt Modulationen aus, knapp-empfindsame Dur/Moll-Wechel, die dem stürmisch motorischen Impuls des Satzes nicht mehr ganz so offenkundig untergeordnet sind.  Das Adagio läßt sich mit ausführlichem Charme auf Serenadenhaftes ein, auf Koloratur-Überfluß und Opera-buffa-Effekte, gerät dabei aber weniger ins Pesiflieren als ins Schwärmen.  Thematische Arbeit und souveräne Virtuosität bestimmen das Rondo:  alles endet in einer spannungsvollen Kadenz samt pointiertem Presto.

Die Sonate Opus 31 Nr. 1 weist Analogien zur Waldstein-Sonate auf (harmonischer Ablauf des Hauptthemas, Terzverwandschaft des Seitensatzes, die Rondo-Kadenz).  Hier bietet sich straff, artifiziell, noch zur >>Salon<<-Musik im Konservationston gebändigt, was später zur hymnisch-irdischen Freiheit von Opus 53 explodieren wird.  Auch war der Wiener >>Salon<< Haydns und Beethovens von 1800 etwas durchaus anderes als der Pariser Salon Chopins und Liszts von 1840.

Pointierter, trockener, klarer, witziger hat Beethoven kaum je komponiert.  Es gibt kein >>strawinskyhafteres<< Stück aus seiner Feder.  Um so merkwürdiger, daß Strawinsky in einem Essay über Beethovens Klaviersonaten gerade über diese G-Dur-Sonate so abfälloig urteilt!  >>Mit Ausnahme von Opus 31 Nr. 1 finde ich alle Sonaten bezaubernd<<, schreibt Strawinsky.  Verwandtschaften, die sich abstoßen?

Noch eine Vorbemerkung:  Manche Interpreten stellen Beziehungen her zwischen den (auf den ersten Blick so verschiedenen) Sonaten Opus 31 Nr. 1 und 2.  Was ist überhaupt den Sonaten Opus 31 gemeinsam und was an ihnen neu?  Unabweisbar, wenn auch schwer beweisbar, legen sie den Eindruck nahe, indirect und direkt etwas vorzuführen, etwas im Schilde zu führen.  Sie scheinen mehr als nur strömender oder imporisatorischer oder passionierter oder stimmungshafter Ausdruck zu sein, sie demonstrieren auch etwas.  Sie wirken, wie auf ein Ziel hin angelegt, auf die Entfaltung eines jeweils bestimmten Problems hin entworfen, wollen offenbar hinaus über bloß unmittelbar >>Charakteristisches<< -- worunter die Musik-Ästhetik der Beethoven-Zeit musikalischen Ausdruck verstand, modifiziert >>einmal durch den Gang und die Bewegung der Töne, und dann durch die Tonart<<.

Opus 31 Nr. 3, die Es-Dur-Sonate, >>ist nach ihrer Entstehungs- und Veröffentlichungs-Geschichte wie in ihrem Charakter ein Einzelwerk, während ihre beiden Schwesterwerke deutlich zusammengehören<<, stellt Ludwig Finscher in seinem Aufsatz über >Beethovens Klaviersonate Opus 31 Nr. 3< fest.  Und Beethovens vielzitierter Plan, einen >>neuen Weg<< einzuschlagen?  Laut Czerny sagte Beethoven nach der Vollendung von Opus 28 zu Krumpholz:  >>Ich bin nur wenig zufrieden mit meinen bisherigen Arbeiten: von heute an will ich einen neuen Weg einschlagen.<< Später, 1804, heißt es im Skizzenbuch -- und mithin durch keinen Zeugen, kein irrendes Gedächtnis, keine wie immer beschaffene Vermittler-Absicht entstellt!--als unbezweifelbares Selbstgespräch Beethovens:  >>Gott weiß es, warum auf mich noch meine Klaviermusik immer den schlechtesten Eindruck macht, besonders wenn sie schlecht gespielt wird.<<" (Kaiser: 290-291; --

-- As Kaiser states, at the beginning of this brilliant, exuberant and irresistibly elegant sonata, there is rhythm and tight, vibrant emphasis, while the side theme of the Allegro vivace plays out modulations, brief, sensitive Major/minor shifts that are no longer too obviously subordinate to the stormy motor impulse of this movement.  The Adagio, continues Kaiser, moves into a serenade-like with great charm, and into a coloratura exuberance and into opera-buffa-effects, while it delivers less of a persiflage than enthusiasm, while thematic work and sovereign virtuosity characterize the Rondo, in which everything ends in a suspenseful Cadenza with a poignant Presto.    

Kaiser is of the opinion that this sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, shows some similarities to the Waldstein Sonata in its harmonic sequence of the main theme, in the relationship of the thirds, in the side movement, the Rondo cadenza.  Here, continues Kaiser, there offers itself in a terse, artificial manner that is still tamed into >>salon<< music of the conversational style what should later explode into the hymnic-earthly freedom of Op. 53.  Kaiser also points out that the Viennese >>salon<< of Haydn and Beethoven, around 1800, was something entirely different from the Paris salon of Chopin and Liszt around 1840.  

Kaiser then states that Beethoven has ever composed something more poignant, try, clear and witty, and that there is no work from his pen that is more >>Stravinsky-like<<, what makes it all the more peculiar that Stravinsky, in his essay on Beethoven's piano sonatas was particularly harsh in his opinion of this G-Major Sonata when he states that, without the exception of Op. 31, No. 1, he finds all sonatas wonderful.  Kaiser asks himself if Stravinsky might have recognized the closeness of expression in this work to his and was repelled by it.  

Kaiser then points out that some interpreters try to find a connection between the (at first sight so different) sonatas, Op. 31, No. 1 and No. 2, and then he is asking what these three sonatas have in common and what is new in them and writes that they create the impression that they are, directly and indirectly, wnat to show us something and that they, although this is difficult to prove, might have "something up their sleeves", and that they appear to be more than merely streaming, improvisatory, passionate, or moody expression, thus, that they also demonstrate something. They appear, continues Kaiser, to be designed to strive towards a goal, towards the unfolding of certain problems, that they want to move beyond the immanently >>characteristic<<--which is what the musical aesthetics of Beethoven's days considered >>musical expression<<, or, to put it in a different way, >>once through the scale and the movement of the tones, and then through the key<<.

Opus 31 No. 3, the E-flat-Sonata, continues Kaiser, quoting Ludwig Fischer from his essay on >Beethovens Klaviersonate Opus 31 Nr. 3< >>ist nach ihrer Entstehungs- und Veröffentlichungs-Geschichte wie in ihrem Charakter ein Einzelwerk, während ihre beiden Schwesterwerke deutlich zusammengehören<< (Fischer states that this sonata, considering its creation and publication history as well as its character, can be considered a separate work, while its two sister sonatas obviously belong together).  And what, asks Kaiser, of Beethoven's plan to walk a new path, quoting Czerny,   >>Ich bin nur wenig zufrieden mit meinen bisherigen Arbeiten: von heute an will ich einen neuen Weg einschlagen.<< Later, writes Kaiser, in 1804, Beethoven is reported as having written into his sketchbook, which, since there were no witnesses present, can be considered a true self-evaluation at a certain point in time,  >>Gott weiß es, warum auf mich noch meine Klaviermusik immer den schlechtesten Eindruck macht, besonders wenn sie schlecht gespielt wird<< (God knows why my piano music still makes the worst impression on me, particularly when it is played badly).


In connection with this sonata, also the active Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti mentions its unjustified neglect in his introduction:  

This, argues Kuerti, can also be attributed to the fact that in it, the most serious and important movement is the first movement, and moreover, in this work, Beethoven's best-known characteristics, such as his dramatic or emotional expressive ranges, were not at work here.  On the other hand, states Kuerti, another important aspect of Beethoven's characteristics played an important role, namely his sense of humor.    

Allegro vivace

Although, writes Kuerti, one can enjoy this sense of humor at a purely musical level, there is no harm in describing the first movement in an "animated" fashion, as, perhaps, as follows:  

A nervous mouse is stopping in its tracks, is quickly darting forward, stopping again, as little rodents do.  Kuerti then points out that the Allegro score is full of such pauses that create the impression of someone halting and darting forward.  Gingerly, a cat is approaching twice, and lashing out.    However, writes Kuerti, as in every good animation, it misses, otherwise, the story would be over right then.  The mouse darts forward a second time, this time a little more daring and even cocky.  Here, writes Kuerti,  the change in keys is extraordinary, as we are very brusquely shifted half a key lower.  Gingerly, the cat is prowling about again, lashing out again, missing its aim again and finally beginning its great chase, at the end of which, however, the mouse has been transformed into a herd of elephants.  Kuerti describes the possibility of changing mice into elephants as an advantage of music!:-)   Then, writes Kuerti, the mouse that was able to put some distance between itself and its pursuer, sings to itself a cocky, carefree song, that, freely translated, could go like this, "ha, you will never catch me!"  This song is then immediately answered by the cat in the same melody and in it, it threatens the mouse what it will do with it... 

The end of this little story, writes Kuerti, should be left to the imagination of the listener, but he points out that the mouse run does not occur in the coda, anymore... 

Adagio grazioso

Kuerti writes that the character of the slow movement is distinctly described by the peculiar tempo marking, Adagio grazioso.  In his opinion, this movement emphasizes the gracious and flowery and is adorned with trills and passages that are full of fantasy.   Tovey and others, writes Kuerti, have attacked this movement as "reactionary" and, indeed, this movement is set apart from other slow Beethoven movements by is rich ornamentation, however, one can find in it enough serious passages, full of longing that prove that it certainly was not Beethoven's intention to write a 'frivolous' movement.  In the middle part, writes Kuerti, the composer amazes us by his conveying to us a motionless "perpetuum mobile" stage of repeated chords.  

Rondo: Allegretto

Kuerti writes of this Rondo that it is perhaps one of Beethoven's most excellent Piano Rondos.  The theme is full of refreshing, most inviting ideas, and he again refers to the so-called "Beethoven squeeze" as an answer to the main subject and describes it as descending chromatic lines that are filled with  pathos that, when they reach their most suspenseful moment, suddenly dissolve into a soft embrace.  After the theme has been transferred onto the bass and after a new counterpoint has been introduced in the higher registers, this accompaniment forms the theme of the first section.  In the middle part, continues Kuerti, Beethoven deals again with his "gentle squeeze" that is intensified in this manner so that it becomes a more intense embrace.  .   

The first return of the Rondo theme takes on the bubbling tremolo accompaniment, writes Kuerti, and it soon settles in the minor key and begins a bold fugal episode that gives to this gentle movement a new seriousness. 

After the next return of the Rondo theme, writes Kuerti, we would actually expect a last repetition of the theme--more or less--in its original form; however, fortunately, this does not happen, since its truth would be stretched in this manner, particularly after the organically compressed development.  However, as Kuerti states, luck does not play a role here but rather Beethoven's genius.  

What Beethoven offers us instead, continues Kuerti, is a fascinating coda which contrapuntally develops the descending chromatic reply to the as Rondo theme, and the main subject ultimately returns in new clothing, namely in simple block chords, that are abruptly interrupted after a few notes and that are then continued solemnly in the Adagio tempo.   Some, writes Kuerti, may see mocking irony at work in this, while he prefers to consider this passage a melancholy reflection.  After a few further still life scenes of the remainder of the theme, we are transported into a Presto finale that Tovey derisively described as "fitful giggling", while, in Kuerti's opinion, it crowns this work with pure, ecstatic enthusiasm.    The way, writes Kuerti, in which the various parts of the Rondo are put together harmonically, and considering the outstanding quality of the musical ideas, make this movement unique.   (Kuerti: 32-34).


Here, we offer you a chance to listen to a midi file of this sonata, via the following link: 

Kunst der Fuge: Beethoven-Sonatas

We wish you a great deal of listening enjoyment!

For those of you who want to explore this topic further in a serious manner, we can offer you a link to the Beethoven Bibliography Data Base of the Ira Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, California:

Opus 31/1 - Search