SONATA NO. 1, OP. 2/1

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. 


Our introductory comments of our creation history to Beethoven's first three piano sonatas already contained, to a certain degree, also comments as to their musical content, particularly our closing comment by Maynard Solomon.  Here, William Kinderman offers us a detailed comment on Op. 2, No. 1: 

"Our examination of the music from Beethoven's early Vienna years will focus primarily on his piano sonatas, beginning with the three works in F minor, A major, and C major published with a dedication to Haydn as op. 2 in 1795. The first movement of the very first sonata serves as well as any to illustrate Beethoven's thorough and original mastery of the Viennese classical style. This Allegro is dominated even more than usual by his favourit practice of increasing structural compression--a device sometimes described as 'fragmentation' and which Alfred Brendel has more suitably termed 'foreshortening' and described as 'the driving force of his sonata forms and a basic principle of his musical thought'.(3; 'Form and Psychology in Beethoven's Piano Sonatas', Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts, p. 47; also see Brendel's essay 'The Process of Foreshortening in the First Movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 2, No. 1' in the same volume, pp. 154-61.) In a foreshortening process phrases are divided into progressively smaller units; the effect is to drive the music forwards with a nervous intensity quite alien to the relaxed rococo elegance of the ancien regime. The opening theme of op. 2 no. 1 (Ex. 4) juxtaposes two-bar phrases on tonic and dominant, using a version of the 'Mannheim rocket' figure with a rising staccato apreggiation peaking first on A flat and then B flat in the treble, while staccato chords on the weaker beats in the left hand provide the accompaniment.

[Ex. 4 is inserted here.]

The vitality of this theme is sustained from within, through constant re-examination of the ongoing musical discourse. Bar 5 is an intensification of bar 2, cutting the initial phrase to half its length; 6 similarly curtails the second phrase to a single bar. All the dynamic markings are structural: they emphasize the melodic peaks of the opening phrases as well as the isolation of those pitches through sforzandi, while the crescendo to fortissimo at the broken chord in bar 7 reinforces both the upper linear motion to the fifth degree, C, and the growing intensity of the process of rhythmic diminution. The last bars of the theme are also controlled by consistent foreshortening in th harmonic structure: the tonic chord in bar 7 is sustained for only a half-bar, whereas the shift from tonic to dominant in the last bar of the theme is compressed in successive beats. The very silence at the fermata after the turn-figure in this bar seems generated by the intensity of the drive toward concision, resulting in virtual liquidation of the basic thematic material. In this arresting theme the initial two-bar units are thus reduced to single bars, half-bars, and single beats before the music abruptly confronts that silence out of which it came into being. One senses in the opening rhetorical accents of Beethoven's first sonata a more aggressive variant of Haydn's exquisitely delicate play with silence in some movements of his op. 33 quartets.

[Ex. 5 is inserted here.]

Beethoven's rough draft of this Allegro shows how concerned he was to tighten its thematic and harmonic relations. Compare, for instance, his sketch for the beginning of the second subject with the final version (Exx. 5a and b (4; Nottebohm transcribed the sketch in Zweite Beethoveniana, p. 565) In the finished work Beethoven has changed his sketch into a free inversion of the shape of the first subject, designating a crescendo and sforzando to make the correspondence clear. But that is not all: he has also shifted the second subject into the minor mode, so that the flat sixth degree of the A flat minor---F flat--is emphasized in two registers, harmonically as part of a dissonant minor is emphasized in two registers, harmonically as part of a dissonant minor ninth chord on the dominant. This stress on F flat in the second theme sounds much like an intensification of the emphasis on the minor third (A flat), in the opening theme.

Beethoven's procedure of foreshortening is a flexible means of intensification that is especially appropriate to the development section of the sonata design. In this movement the development starts with a varied restatement of the opening theme beginning in A flat major but passing though the pivotal harmony of a German augmented sixth to the second subject, now in B flat minor (Ex. 6). Beethoven thereby telescopes the entire first half of his exposition, deleting a dozen of its bars while dramatically juxtaposing the two subjects he had devised as inversions of one another. The energy produced by this accelerated plunge into the second subject is sustained in turn through a new process of foreshortening. First, the eight-bar model of the second theme leads through a new augmented-sixth chord into C minor. Then the basic phrase is shifted into the bass, and descending sequences carry the music progressively lower in pitch as the thematic structure breaks up into smaller units. The prominent accented dissonances thus fall from A flat to G flat and F flat, before Beethoven takes the crucial step of stripping away the melodic material while preserving the descending linear motion and syncopated rhythmic energy in the circle-of-fifths progression that follows. These deeper musical processes are the very life-blood of the music. The falling series of syncopated bass notes reaches E-flat, D-flat, and C (pitches echoed a fourth higher in the treble), and the energy of this impressive passage is finally released at a powerful half-cadence on the dominant of F minor (Ex. 7). The rhythmic articulation or structural downbeat at this juncture is marked by the ensuing dominant pedal, presaging the recapitulation 21 bars later.

The following passage on the dominant pedal is no longer driven by the impetus of rhythmic compression and modulation; it assumes a more static, retrospective character. This music echoes the climatic cadence that had preceded it, particularly the semitone fall F-E, and the associated harmonic resolution of the diminished seventh chord, now heard over the pedal. There is a close kinship here with the second subject, with its similar dominant pedal and harmonic support; the relationship is easily audible in the recapitulation, when the second subject appears at the same pitch level. The gradually subsiding effect of the end of the development is conveyed by the decrescendo to pianissimo at the last cadential echo dissipates, reducing the music to a substratum of softly pulsating Cs in the left hand. This too is part of the process of foreshortening in its broadest sense; the lively eight-bar unit of the second subject has undergone a dramatic development so exhaustive that its material literally dissolves.

Beethoven now uses the turn-figure drawn from the opening theme to signal the imminent recapitulation, which is enhanced through more forceful placement of the accompanying chords of the main theme. Even more striking is his treatment of the closing theme of the exposition and his reinterpretation of this music at the close of the Allegro. He marks these passages 'con espressione'; they are imbued with declamatory rhetoric recalling the opening theme (Ex. 8 shows the passage from the end of the movement). The scaccato chords resemble its chordal accompaniment, while the basic motivic shape--except for the ascending leap to the dominant, C--derives from the rhythmic augmentation of the turn-figure. What sticks out curiously is the upward leap and accented stress on the dominant note, an inflection that soon delivers an astounding punch. The gesture at first sounds odd, but harmless; only on its third appearance does Beethoven make this point. He repeats the motif an octave higher and drastically reinterprets the sensitive dominant note fortissimo with full harmonic support, prolonging it fourfold, through an entire bar. So emphasized, this pitch becomes the surprising penultimate chord of the cadence that closes the exposition.

When Beethoven returns to this passage at the end of the movement, he retains not the same formula but his instinct for surprise. This time the emphatic 'closing' chord is reharmonized to pass deceptively to the subdominant, evading a tonic cadence. A pause and descending sequence follow, carrying the progression down a tone to the mediant. Then Beethoven resorts for the last time to rhythmic diminution, as faster sequences of accented chords drive to the close in F minor. the brief coda traces a linear descent from dominant to tonic--thereby echoing gestures like the climax of the opening theme or the 'con espessione' phrases--while gathering rhythmic energy through foreshortening to lead into the terse, emphatic cadence.

This tight, concise movement shows that by 1795 Beethoven was capable of achieving a thematic integration and formal coherence which, though comparable to Haydn's, are quite individual in quality. Particularly noteworthy is Beethoven's almost obsessive use of rhythmic foreshortening as a means of musical development. Douglas Johnson's comparison with Haydn, claiming that 'the old man's models are lean and taut, while the young man's copies are overweight and longwinded' (5 '1794-95. Decicive Years in Beethoven's Early Development', p. 26k) does not apply here, though it is true of certain other works from this period. In op. 2 no. 1 that criticism could perhaps be levelled at the second movement, a florid Adagio in F major, although its lyrical repose does bring welcome contrast after the terse drama of the Allegro. Like the opening Allegro con brio of op. 2 no. 3, this Adagio uses material from Beethoven's earlier Piano Quartet WoO 36, no. 3, a work he wrote in Bonn at the age of 15, while duteously emulating one of Mozart's violin sonatas. We shall return to the issue of Beethoven's use of Haydnesque and Mozartian models. More important in connection with op. 2 is actually to acknowledge how boldly independent Beethoven had already become"  (Kinderman: 30 - 37).


For those of you who prefer comments by active music critics, here, we feature references to comments from Joachim Kaiser's book on Beethoven's Piano Sonatas:

"Die >>kleine f-Moll<<. Trotzig, knapp, willensbetont. >>Du mußt es dreimal sagen<< als Prinzip auskomponierter Dringlichkeit im ersten Satz. Danach: grandioser Balanceakt zwischen erweitertem Bonner Traum, verunsichertem Menuett und exzentrischem Ausbruch" (Kaiser: 41; --

-- Kaiser describes this 'small f Minor Sonata' as stubborn, short, willful, as initially emphasizing everything three times, followed by a balancing act between extended Bonn reveries, insecure minuet and eccentric breakout).

However, Kaiser also points out what we can no longer do when listening to these works, today:  

" . . . das Staunen über soviel kompositorische Sicherheit und seelische Selbstsicherheit. Denn wir können die Stücke ja nicht mehr wie >>zum erstenmal<< hören, oder gar als überhaupt erste Arbeiten begreifen, mit denen ein junger Mann, ohne jedes Tasten, ohne die bei >>frühen<< Werken oft so unmäßige Weitschweifigkeit und Redseligkeit, sogleich etwas für die Unsterblichkeit tat. Zwar blickte Beethoven damals bereits auf gut zwölf Jahre Kompositionserfahrung zurück, aber der Umstand, daß der junge Künstler erst diese drei Sonaten (nach den drei Klaviertrios Opus 1) einer Opuszahl würdigte, weist doch darauf hin, daß er genau wußte, wann es mit ihm und seiner Kunst so weit war: nämlich jetzt, in diesem Augenblick. Präsize Selbsteinschtzung als Ausdruck früher Reife. Seine Selbstkritik, sein Qualitäts-Instinkt, sein Schönheitssinn funktionierten präzis, ja unfehlbar. Dafür bietet Opus 2 Nr. 1 ein ungemein instruktives Beispiel: Die achttaktige Melodie des langsamen Satzes ist dem C-Dur-Klavierquartett entnommen, das Beethoven 1785, also als Fünfzehnjähriger, in Bonn komponiert hatte. Von den acht Takten zitiert Beethoven in der Sonate nur die ersten fünf. Die letzten drei Takte sind hier jedoch neu -- und wenn irgend jemand die Kategorie >>Qualität<< jemals relativierend bestreiten wollte, dann brauchte man zum Beweis des Gegenteils nur den alles verändernden Schluß dieser Melodie mit dem (harmloseren, nichtssgenderen, unverbindlicheren) Schluß der Melodie des Fünfzehnjährigen zu vergleichen, um den >>qualitativen Sprung<<, die reine Meisterschaft des Fünfundzwanzigjhrigen zu erkennen. Sinnfällig wird hier die Differenz zwischen harmloser Gefälligkeit der Schülerarbeit und klarer Schönheit im Adagio von Opus 2 Nr. 1. Daß es so selbstverständlich wirkt, was uns so selbstverständlich dünkt, verstand sich auch für einen Beethoven keineswegs von selbst. Aber nun, ab Opus 2, ist diese staunenswerte Sicherheit des Formulierungsvermögens da.

Die Form der vier Sätze wirkt übersichtlich, scheinbar unangefochten. Als ein Moment des Archaisierenden, an >>Sturm und Drang<<-Kompositionen Gemahnenden ließe sich begreifen, daß Beethoven in dieser ersten Sonate (ganz im Gegensatz zu den nächsten beiden Sonaten, aber auch zu den Klaviertrios Opus 1) auf die für Haydn, Mozart und Clementi so typischen, galanten, verbindlichen, spielerischen Sechzehntel-Passagen verzichtet hat.  Achtel-Noten im >>Allabreve<< (also in >>halben<< Takteinheiten statt in >>Vierteln<<) sind etwas charakteristich Anderes, weniger >>Flüssiges<<, Verspieltes . . .  Nur im langsamen Satz erscheinen gelegentlich Verzierungs-Sechzehntel; aber sogar das Finale kommt mit Achtel-Triolen aus.  Die Sonate verzichtet auf konzertante, virtuose Passagen, sie hat dafür etwas Dringliches, ja im ersten Satz sogar Lakonisches.  Was das Fehlen der Sechzehntel in den Ecksätzen betrifft, so erinnert Opus 2 Nr. 1 an jene große c-Moll-Sonate KV 457, die Mozart achtundzwanzigjährig, 1784 komponierte.  Möglicherweise hat sich der junge Beethoven von Mozarts reiferem, depressiverem und bedeutenderem Werk beeinflussen lassen.

Überhaupt ließe sich diese erste Sonate ohne Mühe noch ganz >>aus der Tradition<< erklären.  Sie beginnt mit einem aufsteigenden Dreiklangsmotiv, das man damals, im Hinblick auf die Mannheimer Schule, >>Mannheimer Rakete<< nannte, sie bedient sich in der Durchführung des ersten Satzes barockisierender Sequenzen.  Es wären ohne weiteres mannigfache Analogien aufzutreiben, ob man nun das Hauptmotiv des Finales aus Mozarts später g-Moll-Symphonie als Vorbild für den Beginn des Beethovenschen Kopfsatzes reklamieren oder beim Menuett an Haydns auch in der Emotionskurve ganz ähnlich verlaufendes >>Menuett<< der cis-Moll-Sonate (erschienen 1780) denken wollte.  Aber solche >>gebildeten<< und gleichwohl wenig über Originalität oder Konventionalität besagende Assoziationen werden erst in dem Augenblick wichtig -- und gefährlich! --, da sie zu einer Vorentscheidung über die Interpretation der Sonate führen.  Gerade weil lakonische Zurückhaltung diese Sonate zu charakterisieren scheint -- eine auf den ersten Blick >>traditionalistische<< Zurückhaltung, die sich sogar der Symmetrie der banalen Begleitfiguren des Prestissimo-Finales anmerken läßt --, gerade darum liegt es nahe, diese Mischung aus Lakonik und Ekstatik als konventionell-traditionalistisch zu verstehen und dem Werk eine gewisse Barock-Festigkeit zu belassen, es zwischen den Stilen anzusiedeln:  Zwischen Mannheimer Crescendo-Ausbrüchen, Beethovenschen willensbetonten Aufschwüngen und den Freiheiten der Bach-Söhne . . . " (Kaiser: 41 - 43; --

-- Kaiser points out that we can no longer be amazed at Beethoven's compositional competence and psychological self-confidence, since we can no longer listen to these works as if we heard them for the first time, and that we can no longer look at these works as being Beethoven's first works with which he, as a young man, without any uncertainty, without rambling about, found his voice at the piano here.  Kaiser argues further that, while Beethoven had already been composing for twelve years when he wrote these sonatas, the fact that he considered these works worthy of receiving an opus number would point to the fact that he knew very well when he was ready, namely precisely at that time.  Kaiser describes this as an accurate self-assessment on Beethoven's part, as a sign of his maturity and that his self-criticism, his instinct for quality and his 'sense of beauty' worked perfectly.  Kaiser then lists an example in support of his argument, namely in Op. 2, No. 1.  He refers to the fact that the eight-measure-melody of the slow movement has been taken from his C-Major Piano Quartet that he wrote in Bonn, in the year 1785.  Of the eight measures, writes Kaiser, Beethoven only took the first five from his Bonn work, while the last three are new.  Kaiser argues that this new addition changes the quality of the melody distinctively.  He refers to the 'Bonn' end of this melody as more harmless, non-committal, while the new ending, in his opinion, shows a new maturity and clear beauty.  . . .  

Next, Kaiser discusses the form of the four movements and describes it as well laid out, apparently untouchable.   He then refers to the fact that in this sonata, Beethoven omitted the playful semiquaver (sixteenth-note) passages that were so typical for Haydn, Mozart and Clementi; Kaiser describes this as an 'arachaic' momentum, reminiscent of the composers of the >>Sturm und Drang<< (storm and stress) period.  Kaiser describes quavers (eight-notes) in >>Allabreve<< [that Beethoven, according to Kaiser, apparently applied here] as something characteristically different, less playful . . .   He then mentions that only in the slow movement can be found the odd 'decorative semiquavers', while even the finale made do with quaver triplets, and that the sonata does not feature any virtuosic passages which lends it a more urgent or even laconic character.  As far as the missing semiquavers in the outer movements are concerned, writes Kaiser, Op. 2 no. 1 is reminiscent of Mozart's great c-Minor Sonata K457 which Mozart composed in 1784.  He finds it possible that Beethoven might have been influenced by this mature, depressive and important Mozart work.    

In any event, writes Kaiser, this first sonata can still be entirely considered from a >>traditional<< viewpoint.  It begins with an ascending triad motif which, at that time, referring to the >>Mannheim school<<, called the >>Mannheimer Rakete<< (Mannheim Rocket) and, in the development section of the first movement, it employs sequences reminiscent of the baroque style.  Kaiser maintains that one could easily find many analogies, whether one refers to the main motif of the finale from Mozart's late g-minor Symphony, as an example for the beginning of Beethoven's first movement, or to Haydn's emotionally similar minuet of his c-sharp-minor Symphony (published in 1780).  However, Kaiser warns that such >>educated<< and, yet, not very conclusive statements as to originality or conventionality, can become dangerous if one allows them to form one's prejudices with respect to the interpretation of this sonata.   While this sonata appears to us, when we listen to it, for the first time, rather laconic, we might be tempted to only understand this sonata, with its mixture of laconic and ecstatic passages as conventional and traditional and 'rather baroque', so that we are tempted to place it in-between Mannheim crescendos, Beethovenish willful outbursts and the liberties Bach's sons took in their own era . . .).

Kaiser's further discussion of this sonata deals with its various interpretations by important pianists of the 20th century, such as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Daniel Barenboim and Friedrich Gulda, which goes beyond the framework we set ourselves, here.  

After Kaiser's comments, perhaps, we can move on to 'our' active pianist and his comments.  


As we already discussed in our overview of the music criticism offered here, 'our' active pianist is Anton Kuerti, and 'we' work here with his Analecta/fleurs de lys CD set.  In the accompanying brochure, Kuerti first offers his readers somewhat of a >>crash course<< in the terminology of the classical piano sonata.  Turning to Beethoven's first piano sonata, Kuerti emphasizes that Beethoven did not appear in public as a full-fledged composer at a 'precocious wunderkind age' but rather only then when he was really sure of himself.  As does Barry Cooper, Kuerti finds it possible that Beethoven delayed the publication of his first works so that he could "throw the world on its ears" (Kuerti: 14).  In these early sonatas, Kuerti already sees the characteristics of Beethoven's styles at work:  in the breadth of his expressive capabilities, in the daring contrasts of his dynamics and tonality and in his ability to develop these on a solid basis, but also his sure feeling for dramatic effect, "which lies at the heart of Beethoven's music and is also central to the nature of sonata form" (Kuerti: 14).  With respect to the individual movements, Kuerti has this to day:  


"The first movement of Op. 2, No. 1 is terse and arresting, one might say it is tragic in an unpretentious manner. It is one of the most compressed and concentrated examples of sonata form that exist. (Kuerti: 14)

Kuerti's description of the musical content of this movement conveys that the main theme first ascends quickly and that the second subject, after a brief transition, descends and that the theme, at first glance, although it is very agitated, also radiates a certain warmth, while it, in the recapitulation, in which it appears in the minor instead of in the major key, makes a rather forlorn impression.  


"The Adagio is imbued with a sincere and spontaneous tenderness, which was equalled only occasionally prior to the deep wisdom of the late works" (Kuerti: 14).

Kuerti explains that the Adagio owes much of its warmth to the contrast of keys:  thus, the "minor" mood of the first movement, is removed by a single note, namely through the change from f-minor to F-Major.  This Adagio, continues Kuerti, is quite free from Beethoven's later striving for expression, but also from the rhetoric of his adagios with their dramatic outbursts and long, declamatory pauses, "that occasionally approach the limit of credibility" (Kuerti: 14).

Menuetto: Allegretto

"The Menuetto mimics this major-minor contrast of the whole work on a diminutive scale. Its slightly formal restraint creates a refreshing break between the outpouring of love in the slow movement and the passion of the last movement" (Kuerti: 14).

According to Kuerti, this minuet is an example of a movement whose entire effect depends on its position in the work and that it, without all other movements, would appear rather pale.  


"The theme of the stormy Finale, if examined out of context, is painfully primitive, but when clothed with all of the music's elements, its very simplicity gives it a quality of singleminded determination. Note also the nearly schizophrenic disparity of its two components: the explosive menacing one, followed by the more nonchalant one which pretends it has nothing to do with the preceding outburst. We find this often in Beethoven's themes, the welding of thematic elements which seem to have nothing in common, yet, inexplicably, sound natural and necessary to each other" (Kuerti: 14-15),

The new development theme, writes Kuerti, is the most lyrical element of the outer movements and reminiscent of Italian opera, so that one, not without reason, could ask oneself if Beethoven's studies with Salieri might not have had a certain influence on it.  Towards the recapitulation, the underlying agitation of the movement is masterfully re-introduced by gradually interspersing fragments of the first theme among the songful cantilena until the first theme re-emerges and the music rushes towards its climax.  

With this, Kuerti's introduction to this sonata ends.  While we can, unfortunately, not offer you a listening sample of his rendition of this sonata, we wish you a great deal of listening enjoyment, should you have a chance of listening to it, yourself.  

What we can offer you here, in conclusion, is a link to a midi listening sample of this work:

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:

Op. 2, Nr. 1 - Search