Beethoven around 1804


Barry Cooper describes this sonata as a valley between two high mountains, the "Waldstein" Sonata and the Appassionata.  Yet, also valleys can hold some charm.  How do "our" music critics see this work?  However, before we turn to this question, we should first deal with the creation of this sonata.  


The time frame for the creation of this work is known to us, to some extent, from our creation history on the 21st Piano Sonata.  However, here, we should sort all time indications provided to us by Beethoven biographers, in a chronological manner, so that we can arrive at a targetted overview of the time period of the creation of this work.  

In this respect, we can turn to Thayer and Cooper, whereby we should also consider of what kind their particular indications are.  

In his discussion of Beethoven's work on his opera Leonore (the original versionof Fidelio), Barry Cooper mentions the following with repsect to the year 1803:  

"Also jotted down at this period were early ideas for two works that were produced somewhat quicker:  a Piano Sonata in F (Op. 54) and a Triple Concerto in C (Op. 56) to replace the one in D abandoned in 1802.  Indeed the concerto was mentioned in a letter from Carl dated 14 October 1803, although there is no other evidence that it had even begun at this date.  Perhaps Beethoven turned to these works while awaiting later sections of the libretto of Leonore, for as late as about March 1804 he was till requesting Sonnleithner to finish the text "so that I can press on with my work and so that the opera can be produced in June at the latest'.  Further delays in Leonore arose through a change of management at the theatre.  Baron Braun, already in charge of the two court theatres (The Burgtheater and the Kärtnerthor), now bought the Theater an der Wien too, on 11 February 1804.  Schikaneder was promptly dismissed, and Beethoven had to change rooms to a 'wretched hole' where his servant had to sleep in the kitchen.  Beethoven was keen to leave as soon as possible, and before long had moved to the Rothes Haus in the suburbs, where his friend Breuning was living.  With his contract at the theatre terminated, Beethoven proceeded much more slowly with Leonore, turning his attention to the F major Piano Sonata and the Triple Concerto, which were probably both finished that spring" (Cooper:  138-139).

Although this comment mainly contains information with respect to Beethoven's work or with respect to the interruption of his work on his opera, it also provides us with an indication as to the first traces of his work on Op. 54.  

Both Thayer (p.355) and Cooper (p. 142) report that Beethoven spent the summer of this year in Baden near Vienna.  With respect to this, Thayer (p. 355) quotes from a letter Beethoven wrote:  

"Not in my life would I have believed that I could be so lazy as I am here.  If it is followed by an outburst of industry, something worth while may be accomplished."

With the help of his brother Johann, Beethoven is reported to have found lodgings in his Oberdöbling summer quarters of the year before, in the late summer.  Thayer (p. 355) assumes that there, Beethoven worked on two piano sonatas, namely on Op. 54 and Op. 57, his 'Appassionata', while, as we already know, Cooper considers it possible that Beethoven's work on Op. 54 might already have been completed in the spring of 1804.  Thayer (p. 355), however, also points out that Beethoven's work on Op. 54 interrupted his work on his "Leonore" sketches, and in this respect, he particularly refers to sketches for the second movement of Op. 54, that were reportedly found in the midst of Beethoven's work on the first "Leonore" finale.  

In any event, Thayer (p. 362) lists Op. 54 as having been completed in 1804.  



As already mentioned in the Creation History of Op. 53, on August 26, 1804 wrote to Breitkopf & Härtel and offered this publisher six new works, namely  Opp. 53 - 57 (Cooper: 142).  

Let us, therefore, take a second look at the relevant section of this letter:  

" . . . now, I have several works, and for the very reason that I am inclined to give all of them to you, my wish that they may soon see the light of day might, perhaps, be fulfilled all the sooner -- therefore, I only tell you briefly what I can give to you:   My Oratorio[5]; -- a new great Symphony[6]; -- a Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and piano-forte with the entire orchestra[7] --three new Solo Sonatas[8] . . . "  (Ludwig van Beethoven Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 1, Letter No. 188, p. 218 - 220).


In our Creation History of Op. 53, we also mentioned Cooper's report (p. 149) that Breitkopf & Härtel did not want to pay the price Beethoven had asked for, for these works, and that these works were subsequently published in Vienna.  

Thayer (p. 411) lists Op. 54 as having been published by the Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir in Vienna, in 1806.  

After establishing a time frame for the composition and publicationof this work, we can turn to discussing its musical content.  



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. 


Here, we turn to the two Beethoven researchers and biographers Kinderman and Cooper:  

"A remarkably original yet somewhat neglected piece from this period is the Piano Sonata in F major op. 54, of 1804, the first movement of which is above all a study in contrasts.  Richard Rosenberg dubbed it "La Belle et la Bete", and Brendel has described how its two contrasting themes--a gracious, dignified 'feminine' theme resembling a minuet, and a stamping, assertive, 'masculine' theme employing accented octave triplets--gradually influence one another in the course of the movement, until they become thoroughly integrated and combined in the final passages. (10: Die Klaviersonaten, ii. p 262; Musical Thought and Afterthought, pp. 47-50)  Here the music resembles the conventional form of minuet and trio only very superficially, and the point of the dissonant outbursts immediately preceding the final cadence is to remind us--through the diminished-seventh harmonies, triplet rhythm, and the use of register--of the contrasting thematic complex that has gradually become absorbed into the minuet while transforming it.  In this movement Beethoven thus explores a directional process and an ongoing synthesis of experience--qualities he further developed in many later works.

The ensuing Allegretto ins a perpetuum mobile  rhythm is already the finale--op. 54 is the first of Beethoven's major sonatas for piano to compress the formal plan into a pair of movements.  This sonata form unfolds with an irresistible momentum in long ascending lines punctuated by syncopated pedal notes.  The two-voice texture is reminiscent of Bach, but the dramatic power is unmistakably Beethovenian.  In the development Beethoven inverts the ascending linear motion so that it sinks chromatically into the depths of the bass, preparing a modulation into C minor.  The coda then accelerates the perpetual motion in a furious piu allegro.  We can discern in this rhythmic drive a key to the relationship between two strongly contrasting movements of op. 54.  The initial minuet had proceeded in halting fashion, stopping every two or four bars in cadences set off by rests, but the assertive contrasting theme of that movement infused the music with an energy that in the finale becomes an all-encompassing force.  The discovery, integration, and celebration of this rhythmic energy is a guiding idea of the sonata as a whole" (Kinderman: 96-97). 

"Op. 54 is best viewed as the valley between the mountains of the 'Waldstein' and the 'Appassionata', and is Beethoven's first big piano sonata in only two movements (the two-movement sonatas of Op. 49 are scarcely more than sonatinas, which he did not even publish initially).  The moderately paced first movement is marked 'Tempo di Menuetto'--a minuet in rhythm, but not in form or style.  The form resembles a simple rondo with coda, but the refrains are increasingly decorated, while the two episodes use the same material as each other and are very unequal in length--45 bars and 12 bars respectively.  Two main rhythms are set up in opposition: dotted rhythms in the main theme and triplets in the episodes, with the two combined and reconciled in the coda.  The second movement, an Allegretto, uses incessant semiquaver motion throughout (apart from two strategically placed trills).  It is in a modified sonata form, with no distinctive second subject, and the exposition is extremly short, barely 20 bars, followed by an enormous development section, then further development after a reprise of the main theme.  Thus the proportions of the movement are bizarre, with Beethoven deliberately flouting convention, but they are none the less very finely judged, for the reprise of the main theme appears precisely where one might expect, about three-fifths of the way through, and close to the point of the Bolden Section. (4: The Golden Section, which has been widely used in music since at least as early as the thirteenth century, is the point where the proportion of the smaller section to the larger section of the movement is equal to the proportion of the larger section to the whole" (Cooper: 139-140).


Let us take a look at Joachim Kaiser's comment:  

"Diese anspruchsvolle zweisätzige Sonate wird -- von Kommentatoren auf Plattentaschen, seitens intelligenter Pianisten -- unentwegt gerechtfertigt.  Zunächst zitieren die Apologeten verdrießlich Einschränkendes: >> Schatten von...<<, >>fast unscheinbar...<<, >>am niedrigsten eingeschätzt<<, >>die Konzertspieler lieben wohl durchschnittlich Opus 54 nicht allzusehr...<<, dann nehmen sie all ihren Gratismut zusammen und gegen diese Verleumdungen Stellung.  Auch Opus 54 sei ihres Schöpfers würdig.

Die F-Dur-Sonate, in Beethovens Meisterjahren entstanden, Kompositionen gewaltigster Dimension benachbart, ist gewiß ein vollgültiges Werk Beethovens.  Jeder der beiden Sätze folgt seiner eigenen Logik, auch zahlreiche Analogien zu anderen, zweifellos bedeutenden Beethoven-Kompositionen verbürgen den Rang.  Das Hauptthema des Kopfsatzes etwas ist der Melodie jenes >>Andante favori<< eng benachbart, welches Beethoven zunächst immerhin der Waldstein-Sonate für würdig hielt, die Coda antizipiert jenen punktierten Aufschwung, dem wir am Ende des Andante der 5. Symphonie begegnen, und der Schlußsatz verbindet Durchführungstechniken der Waldstein-Sonate mit Perpetuum-mobile-Wirkungen der As-Dur Sonate Opus 26.  Die F-Dur-Sonate Opus 54 ist kein Nebenwerk, kein Abfallprodukt.  Sie wird auch keineswegs >>zu Unrecht vernachlässigt<<, sondern erscheint immer wieder auf Konzertprogrammen und Schallplatten.  Aber sie steht eben doch zwischen Waldstein-Sonate und Appassionata -- zwischen zwei Gipfelwerken abendländischer Musik, die sie überragen.  Ihrem Anspruch, ihrem Tonfall, ihrer Dringlichkeit und ihrer emotionalen Reichweite nach ist die Sonate Opus 54 kein solches Gipfelwerk.  Der erste Satz bringt ein immer reicher verziertes Hauptthema und einen donnernden Oktaven-Kontrast in folgenreiche Beziehung: beide Teile verändern sich im Verlauf des Satzes charakteristisch.  Das Allegretto-Finale läßt sich -- aus der Scarlatti-Haydn-Perspektive betrachtet -- als eine klassizistische, späte und raffinierte Toccata verstehen.  Man kann es aber auch als einen durchaus streng geformten Vorläufer jener vitalvirtuosen Finali sehen, die Carl Maria von Weber (As-Dur-Sonate), Robert Schumann (g-Moll-Sonate) oder Chopin zu noch effektvolleren, eleganteren und enthusiastischeren Reißern steigerten.  Allem >>Titanismus<< und >>Heroismus<<, aller rhetorischen Gewaltsamkeit bleibt diese verspielt artifizielle Sonate fern:  kaum ein Werk Beethovens entspricht dem Klischee-Bild der Beethoven-Verächter weniger" (Kaiser: 383-384; --

-- Kaiser mentions that this, in his opinion, demanding two-movement sonata is constantly being defended by commentators and intelligent pianists and he writes that, at first, apologetic commentators tartly refer to limitations, such as >> the shadow of...<<, >>almost overlooked<<, >>held in the least esteem<<, >>concert players usually do not like Op. 54 too much<<, and that then, they muster up all their free courage and refute these arguments, as also Op. 54 is, in their opinion, worthy of its creator.  

This F-Major Sonata, argues Kaiser, the neighbors of which are compositions of most grandiose dimensions, is certainly a full-fledged Beethoven work, and each of the two movements follows an inner logic, and also countless analogies to other, undoubtedly important Beethoven compositions confirm its rank.  The main theme of the head movement, writes Kaiser, for example, is closely related to the melody of that >>Andante favori<<, which Beethoven, at least initially, considered worthy of being included in the Waldstein Sonata, and its coda anticipates that poignant ascent that we encounter at the end of the Andante of the 5. Symphony, and the final movement, writes Kaiser, combines executions techniques of the Waldstein Sonata with Perpetuum-mobile effects of the Piano Sonata, Op. 26.  Kaiser considers Op. 54 a >>side work<< but by no means a >>product of musical refuse<< and states that it is in no way >>unjustifiably neglected<<, but rather, it keeps appearing in piano recital programs and on recordings.   And yet, argues Kaiser, it still is the Sonata in-between the Waldstein Sonata and the Appassionata -- between two masterworks of Western music, and it is overshadowed by them.  From its tenor, its urgency and its emotional range, Op. 54 is not such an outstanding masterwork.  The first movement, writes Kaiser,  sets an increasingly adorned main theme and a thundering octave-contrast  in a consequential relationship to each other: during the course of the movement, both parts are characteristically changed. Kaiser holds that the Allegretto Finale, at least seen from the Scarlatti-Haydn perspective, could be seen as a classicistic, late and sophisticated toccata, but one can also see in it a strictly formed predecessor of those vital-virtuoso finales that   Carl Maria von Weber (in his A-flat-Major Sonata), Robert Schumann (in his g-minor-Sonata) or Chopin accellerated to even more effectful, elegant and enthusiastic show pieces.   Kaiser states that this playfully artificial sonata stays away from all >>titanismus<< und >>heroism<<, and from all rhetoric force, so that hardly any other work fits this clichee image of Beethoven haters less than this).


The active pianist Anton Kuerti provides us with the following overview on this sonata:  

In his introduction, Kuerti argues that it is hard to praise this work, in spite of the fact that some excellent Beethoven defenders, such as Edwin Fischer and Alfred Brendel, spoke with particular feeling of this work, but as the only sonata between the "Waldstein" Sonata and the "Appassionata", this sonata should plead "no lo contendere".  Kuerti describes this sonata as one of the few Beethoven sonatas without effect, which might perhaps allow the conclusion that Beethoven might not have been very proud of it.  

Beethoven, continues Kuerti, was not beyond sarcasm and parody.  A good example for this is his own arrangement of his sublime Violin Concerto as a bizarre work for Piano and Orchestra, including a grotesque cadenza, full of hefty jokes--it even uses, writes Kuerti, the kettle drums for some un-noble utterances.  As Kuerti argues, Beethoven might have been angry at the pbulisher who asked him for this impossible arrangement.  

In Tempo d'un Menuetto

Basically, Kuerti wonders if here, Beethoven might not have written a parody on bad composers, as in the introduction, the music desperately stutters and offers a weak, ridiculous wisp of a melody that halts after only four measures and laboriously continues its path...the composer find no better solution than repeating this little wisp note for note.  Perhaps, Beethoven is mocking somebody, here, who is trying to improvise but who gets stuck here and there, and this goes on until something new is desperately needed.  

However, Kuerti is of the opinion that the music should preferably have remained in this nonsense than plunging itself into the burning coals of the following octave exercise that is, ridiculously, introduced as the second subject.    Kuerti aks himself if we are dealing here with Beethoven's response to stupid composers who had no feeling for what fits together.  Certainly, continues Kuerti, this empty passage of octaves with its sharp, irritating accents that are indicated for each measure, has no right to be connected to the main them, except in the event that it represents a temper outburst that one has to listen to something like that.  

Barely, writes Kuerti, we breathe a sigh of relief that this stomping has ended, when Beethoven only switches gear and offers us another dose of it and repeats this childish fanfare, practically unchanged, in the recapitulation, which Kuerti finds so clumsy that he considers that it can hardly have anything to do with Beethoven.  

Only in the coda, writes Kuerti, the real Beethoven appears briefly, perhaps, he has lost patience with this rough kind of joke and wants to compensate the listener for these sufferings with an exquisite phrase.  


When the first movement, continues Kuerti, sounded stuttering and constipated, then the second is certainly suffering from the opposite disease, for, once this sewing-machine-like operation is set in motion, it can simply not be stopped up to the last chord, so that, perhaps, one should call it "taylor's apprentice".  However, as Kuerti concedes, this constant chattering has a certain charm.   

However, argues Kuerti, by then, the "apprentice" has learned his pattern, a rather simple up-and-down pattern, which represents the only thematic material of this movement.  It winds itself gracefully but aimlessly, without form, through a great number of keys until it gets bored with itself, in the end, and rushes to the finale in a sudden spurt.  Obviously, the apprentice has lost control of his sewing machine when it hysterically sews up and down and tears his silly little patterns into shreds.   (Kuerti: 38 - 39).

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 54 - Search