SONATA N0. 17, OP. 31/2

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. 


To begin with, the Beethoven research William Kinderman offers us this overview of this sonata:  

"The Sonata op. 31 no. 2, the so-called 'Tempest', is Beethoven's only sonata in the key of D minor.  A chief innovation of this work is its use of an opening theme that embraces two diametrically opposed tempos and characters:  a hovering, ambiguous unfolding of dominant arpeggios in first inversion, marked largo; and a turbulent continuation stressing a rising bass and expressive two-note sigh figures or appoggiaturas, marked allegro.  The harmonically ambiguous opening allows Beethoven to delay the first strong cadence in D minor until the beginning of the apparent transition, where the initially suspended, arpeggiated motif is incarnated in the driven, propulsive Allegro (Ex. 22).  The long series of ascending sequences in the bass is balanced against expressive gestures in the treble, creating a dramatic dialogue.  From a variant of this passage Beethoven derives much of the development section, leading towards the climax of the movement at the beginning of the recapitulation.  Here the mysterious arpeggios return, a kind of temporal oasis removed from the strife of the Allegro, and their expressive implications are now made explicit through passages of unaccompanied recitative.

This recitative was the passage that influenced Beethoven, consciously or unconsciously, when he conceived the famous baritone recitative 'O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony, also in D minor.  The thematic similarity amounts almost to quotation, and the analogous expressive function of the two recitative passages invites close comparison. (22:  Certain aspects of this relationship are noted by Kolodin in the Interior Beethoven, pp. 128-30).  In a sense, Beethove seized on and exploited this moment of internalization and reflection as embodied in the gesture of recitative in the sonata to provide a gateway to the utopian plane of the Ode to Joy as the basis for the choral finale of the Ninth.

The ensuing Adagio in the 'Tempest' Sonata transforms elements from the first movement in a brighter, warmer context: the opening arpeggio now rests on the stable tonic sonority of B-flat major, and the following, double-dotted motifs in the high register are reminiscent of the recitative.  The broadly lyrical periods of this Adagio are linked by mysterious drum-rolls in the bass. The close of the movement exposes this registral gap in the most striking way, as a final, cadential version of the high motif is answered by a single B-flat in the cavernous low register.  In the Allegretto finale, in D minor, Beethoven develops the arpeggiated chords throughout, as an all-encompassing, perpetuum mobile rhythm sweeps away the rhetoric of dialogue characteristic of the preceding movements.  Intimate, speech-like accents are left behind here.  As Jürgen Uhde pointed out, the temporal drive of this finale opens a new and strangely distanced dimentsion, suggestive not of spontaneous human expression but of engagement with objective phenomena beyond our control (23: Beethovens Klaviermusik, iii, pp. 78-9)" (Kinderman: 75-77).

In his discussion of this work group, Maynard Solomon also briefly discusses this sonata:   

". . .  But it is the impassioned second sonata, in D minor and in three movements, which is the best known of the set.  The first movement of the D-minor Sonata opens with an unusual alternative traditional second theme, this has given rise to debate as to its underlying structural principle.  Ludwig Misch believes that the Largo and the Allegro, taken together, constitute the theme, and he finds in this mixture a daring innovation, "far more novel and simple, more daring and logical" than had previously been supposed. (29: Ludwig Misch, Beethoven Studies (1950; Eng. trans. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1953), p. 53)." (Solomon: 106).

Among Beethoven researchers, Barry Cooper offers us our last comment of this section:  

"All three sonatas abound in interesting ideas, but the one that has attracted most attention is the second, in D minor.  Often known as the 'Tempest' Sonata, on account of an anecdote by Schindler once widely believed, it is certainly tempestuous, at least in the first movement, which never once settles properly in a major key despite the promise of the opening A major chord.  Beethoven originally planned to begin with a bold D minor arpeggio theme, but he replaced this with a singly mysterious chord played arpeggiando.  It was the first time he had begun a sonata with a dominant chord, and the effect is many-sided:  it creates uncertainty about key, instability through its first-inversion position, and ambiguity about whether it is a slow introduction or the main theme itself (or both simultaneously).  It is a tremendously forward-looking gesture:  a similar ambiguity occurs at the start of the Ninth Symphony, also in D minor, while the Fifth Symphony resembles the sonata in that it begins with a short motif that seems merely introductory but proves to contain the main thematic material.  In the sonata, the slow chord is used in alternation with a descending allegro motif, and this duality provides the principal theme of the movement (the treatment of the arpeggiando chord is another example of Beethoven developing thematically an idea that seems purely ornamental).  The first emphatic D minor chord appears in bar 21, suggesting that this is the true first subject, but it proves to initiate the transition to the dominant.  The second subject is equally ambiguous, for some see it as beginning in bar 41, while others see this passage as so similar to first-group material that they regard bar 55 as the start of the proper second subject, which is then developed in the rest of the exposition.  Debates on which is the right interpretation are futile:  Beethoven has ingeniously contrived that the movement can be perceived in more than one way.  The most remarkable feature in the movement, however, is the start of the recapitulation (bar 143).  Here the arpeggiando chord, which carries with it a traditional association with recitative, is followed immediately by some actual recitative, while the chord itself is sustained by the pedal to create an eerie, cavernous and wholly unprecedented effect, which is heard twice (Beethoven generally repeats his most striking effects, as do many great composers).

The second movement, in B flat major, is in many ways a complete contrast, peaceful and stable, and never once settling in a minor key.  Yet it does have connections to the first, for it begins with an arpeggiando chord, and expands the idea of arpeggios into cascades of broken chords in the recapitulation.  It also, like the first movement, used the turn figure both as a decoration (bar 10) and a melodic shape (bars 18-19(.  The finale makes further use of arpeggios, employing them as a main accompaniment figure throughout.  Like the first movement, it has a strong emphasis on minor keys (the second group is once again in A minor), but it does have a brief flirtation with the key of the second movement (bars 234-41), to provide integration; and its descending D minor arpeggio at the very end provides the perfect long-term 'answer' to the A major 'question' that began the sonata: everything in between can be perceived as in some sense parenthetical to this fundamental progression" (Cooper: 116-117).

"The slow movement of the Quartet, Op. 18 No. 1, had a hidden programme, and Czerny states that some other movements did too, claiming that the finale of the Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, was sparked off by the sound of a galloping horse" (Cooper: 157).


Joachim Kaiser discusses here, among other topics, Schindler's recollections with respect to the nick name of this sonata, still on the basis of their being considered somewhat "serious": 

"Ganz plastisch und ganz geheimnisvoll.  Ausnahme-Ereignis in der Geschichte der Instrumental-Musik.

Steht in d-Moll wie die 9. Symphonie, läßt ihr Hauptthema auch langsam >>werden<<. Adagio-Tonart gleichfalls B-Dur; bietet keinerlei Sonatenform-Probleme.  Rätselhaft der Moment, da Musik an eine Grenze gerät, zu verstummen scheint und >>sprechen<< will.  So wie im Finale der 9. Symphonie Schillers Freudenhymnus aufgeboten wird, folgen im Kopfsatz von Opus 31 Nr. 2 zwei Rezitative:  Fremd, fern, hinter einem Pedalvorhang, ein magischer, exterritorialer, von keinem Begriff erreichbarer Bezirk.

Das langsame Arpeggio, entscheidendes Struktur-Moment des ersten Satzes, eröffnet auch den zweiten:  einen vielstimmingen, von sinnfälliger Melodik und leisen Trommelwirbeln erfüllten Adagio-Hymnus.  Der letzte Satz erlaubt konträre Interpretationen.  Er kann elegisch-volksliedhaft, aber auch wirbelnd bewegt oder hektisch erregt verstanden werden.

Ein simpel pathetisches Ton-Drama kurz vor der Wortschwelle?  Ein herb fatalistisches Stück, dessen drei Sätze ausnahmslos leise beginnen und enden?  Beethoven hat das Werk keineswegs als >>Sturm-Sonate<< bezeichnet, was viele allzu wilde und tempestuose Assoziationen nahelegt.  Auf Schindlers Frage nach dem Schlüssel für Opus 31 Nr. 2 orakelte Beethoven vielmehr> >>Lesen Sie Shakespeares >Sturm<!<<

Was verrät nun die Leküre des >Sturm<?  Shakespeares letztes Drama hebt zwar stürmisch an, aber es beginnt eigentlich doch da, wo die großen Tragödien sonst enden:  nämlich nach blutigen Auseinandersetzungen und Vertreibungen.  Der >Sturm< ist keine Tragödie amoklaufender mächtiger Individuen mehr, sondern das muskerfüllteste Stück Shakespeares.  Überall klingt und singt es auf der Zauberinsel; ausgerechnet das Untier Caliban preist sehnsüchtig Ton und Traum; ein verbannter, gelehrter Herzog besitzt Zauberstab, Zaubermantel und Zauberkünste:  im Schlußakt resigniert Prospero, auf Gnade hoffend; und der seelenlose Luftgeist Ariel geht wieder in die Elemente ein...Dies etwa läßt sich aus dem >Sturm<-Märchen herauslesen, das übrigens den shakespeare-beflissenen Theaterdirektor Schikaneder zur >Zauberflöten<-Dichtung anregte...

Wie nahe liegt es, die Rätsel dier Rezitativ-Sonate mit der Magie des >Sturms< in Beziehung zu setzen?  Selbst der strenge Musiker und Analytiker Donald Francis Tovey räumt ein, es chade hier nicht, gelegentlich an Shakespeare zu denken.  Im übrigen: daß exakte Beziehungen zwischen zwei Werken -- über die Jahrhunderte und die Gattungen hinweg -- nicht objektiv >>belegbar<< sein können und daß hinzuspekulierte Übereinstimmungen bestimmt nicht helfen, spezifische musikalisch-interpretatorische Probleme zu lösen, dies ist ebenso wahr wie trivial.  Müssen darum wirklich alle Musikfreunde und Skespeare-Bewunderer, zumal wenn sie den >Sturm< gelesen haben, es sich nun versagen, gleichwohl ein wenig über derartige >>Beziehungen<< nachzusinnen, nachdem immerhin Beethoven selber die Phantasie der Nachgeborenen in diese Richtung wies?" (Kaiser: 305 - 306; --

-- Kaiser describes this sonata as quite plastic and very mysterious and as an exceptional event in the history of instrumental music.  

As the 9th Symphony, continues Kaiser, it is held in the d-minor key and also slowly develops its main theme, while the key of the Adagio is also that of B-Major.   Moreover, so Kaiser, it does not offer any sonata form problems.  He describes the moment in which music appears to be approaching boundaries at which it falls silent and wants to >>speak<<, as a very mysterious moment, and, just as Schiller's Ode to Joy Hymn is used in the Finale of the 9th Sympony, in the first movement of Op. 31, No. 2, there follow two recitatives, stange, remote, as if behind a pedal veil, a magic, extra-territorial realm that can not be described in any terms.   

Kaiser then describes the slow Arpeggio as the decisive structural element in the second movement, which it opens with an Adagio hymn with many parts that is filled with obvious melodiousness and quiet drum whirls, while the last movement allows contrary interpretations.  By that, Kaiser means that it can either be understood as elegiac and folk-song-like, but also as hectic and stirring.  

Kaiser asks if we are confronted by a simple, pathetic tone drama, on the threshold to dialogue, or by a tart, fatalistic piece whose three movements, without exception, begin and end quietly, and that Beethoven, by no means, has described this work as >>Tempest<< or >>Storm<< sonata, which, in Kaiser's opinion, suggests all too wild and tempestuous association.  Yet, Kaiser refers to Schindler's relating that, when he asked Beethoven for the key to Op. 31, No. 2, the composer reportedly suggested to him to read Shakespeare's >>Tempest<<.  

Kaiser even continues in this vein by asking himself what the reading of the >>Tempest<< would reveal to us and states that, while Shakespeare's last drama starts tempestuous, it begin where great tragedies end, otherwise:  namely after bloody strife. He states that the >>Tempest<< is not a tragedy of amok-running, powerful individuals but the most >>musical<< of Shakespeare's dramas.  Everywhere, so Kaiser, one can imagine hearing music on the magic island, and that even the monster Caliban longingly praises tone and dream, and that a banished, educated Duke owns a magic wand, a wizard's coat and possesses magic talents and that, in the last act, Propero resigns, hoping for mercy, and that the soul-less air spirit Ariel re-emerges into the elements...this is, states Kaiser, what one can take away from the >>Tempest<< story, which, after all, inspired the Shakespeare enthusiast and Viennese theater director, Schikaneder, to write his >>Magic Flute<< libretto...

Kaiser then asks himself what the mysteries of this recitative sonata might have to do with the magic of the >>Tempest<<, while even the very strict musician and analyst Donald Francis Tovey admitted that it might do no harm to actually think of Shakespeare, on occasion.  Otherwise, continues Kaiser, exact relationships between two works--across centuries and across artistic genres--can not be objectively >>proven<< and that added speculations as to similarities do not help in solving specific problems of musical interpretation.    However, argues Kaiser, do music friends, particularly if they have read the >>Tempest<<, refrain from reflecting on such >>relationships<<, as even Beethoven, himself is supposed (writer's note: based on Schindler's report!) to have pointed our imagination into that direction).


Anton Kuerti provides us again with a look at this sonata from his own vantage point as a performing artist: 

In his introduction, Kuerti also discusses Beethoven's 1802 statement of not having been satisfied with his work up to this time and of wanting to walk a new path and calls these remarks extraordinary for a composer who had conquered Vienna and who had already composed such masterworks as the String Quartets, Op. 18.  In Kuerti's opinion, these words reflect Beethoven's sincerity as an artist who was not only vying for success but who was striving for self-realization in not only wanting to compose great music but in also striving for the impossible, namely for the aim of transforming his heart and his mind into music.  

Kuerti further writes that, above all, the heroic personfication of his music in his middle period and in his later works stands out and thus separates it from his own earlier works and from the works of all earlier composers.  This >>personal<< influence, continues Kuerti, can immediately be discerned in the >>Tempest<< sonata if one considers the importance of Beethoven's piano improvisation.  The incredible effect that the master achieved by giving expression to his unbridled musical fantasy with his fingers and by reaching his audience with it, was, as Kuerti writes, really the most intense kind of music making that ever existed.  In the recapitulation in the first movement (bar 18), writes Kuerti, we become aware of this atmosphere, for the first time: the pedal stays down, by strictest instruction from the composer, and we are transpoerted into Beethoven's dream world, full of pulsating longing, tenderness and compassion.  The mixture of    this private, spontaneous and sometimes even moody fantasy world with the thoroughly structured character of his music bears Beethoven's most incomparable stamp.  

Largo: Allegro

As Kuerti writes, the introduction with its slow, rolling Arpeggio and its ominous, ascending figure sound as if the dark mood had prevailed far too long and as if the notes had assembled spontaneously in order to lend expression to the intentions of the composer.  The work, continues Kuerti, might be so familiar to our ears that it would be easy to overhear this extraordinary introduction with its changes from the slow, pensive Largo to the tense, highly explosive Allegro.    

This movement, continues Kuerti, is characterized by a hint of a fiery upheaval, so that one has difficulty to discover the usual contrast in the second theme, as, after all, in the first theme, there was already prevalent such an abundance of contrasts, that the conventional change of mood became unnecessary with respect to the second subject. 


Kuerti describes the Adagio as one of Beethoven's greatest slow movements and writes that this Adagio is the last long, profound and independent slow movement, up to Op. 106 and it appears to him as if Beethoven shied away from entering such tragic depth, again.  

While the Adagio, as Kuerti writes, features a number of orchestral allusions, as, for example, the drum roll-like accompanying figure that characterizes the major part of this movement, this movement, nevertheless, manages to sound natural, and that in spite of such unpianistic means such as particularly long notes, long pauses and unusually far-reaching melodic "jumps".  The broad main theme, continues Kuerti, is repeated with exquisite ornamentation and grows in expressiveness until it reaches such an intensity that it virtually seems to be shouting, "stop, I can not stand it, any more!", and thus, this movements ends with the intense, lonely chords, as if its melodic voice had suffocated in its own emotions.   

In the recapitulation, writes Kuerti, the main subject is enriched by a magically-woven accompaniment that flows through the melody, itself, and in spit of this addition, the recapitulation sounds even more calm and majestic than the beginning.  A short coda introduces a wisp of a new idea... 


As Kuerti reports, Czerny wrote that Beethoven had improvised the theme of the finale when he heard a rider gallop by outside of his window.  This, continues Kuerti, does not necessarily indicate that the character of this movement is meant to describe a riding excursion.  Perhaps, writes Kuerti, later, Beethoven senses moods and possibilities in this theme that he, at first, had not been aware of.   By no means can a horse gallop for such a long period of time, with such graceful passion and even speed--the motion does not change, and its hypnotic arabesques of sixteenth-notes are continued to the end in Ostinato style.   

As in the first movement, states Kuerti, with respect to mood and texture, there is little contrast to be noticed.  As Kuerti writes, Beethoven tried here to drive a mood to its absolute zenith and that he was forcing the form to serve him in achieving his goal.  Even after the perpetuum mobile slowly dissipates, its rhythm appears to haunt our innermost senses.     (Kuerti: 34-35).

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 31/2 - Search