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:
MUSCIOLOGISTS AND BEETHOVEN RESEARCHERS
ACTIVE MUSIC CRITICS
ACTIVE, PERFORMING ARTISTS
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.
MUSCOLOGISTS AND BEETHOVEN RESEARCHERS
The Beethoven researcher William Kinderman has this to say with respect to Beethoven's fifth Piano Sonata:
"The first movement of op. 10 no. 1 distils these contrasts with utmost concentration. The powerful opening C minor chord, with its jagged, rising rhythmic inflections, yields to a quiet transformation of the same second, while the ensuing motivic fall from C to B in bar 4 sets up reiteration of the forceful opening gesture, now intensified through the use of the dissonant diminished-seventh chord (see Ex. 10). The following phases build the climax of the opening theme through a threefold stress of the dominant, G, before the line descends stepwise through an octave and breaks off mysteriously into silence. Here, as elsewhere in Beethoven, the pauses are no less important than the notes: the rapport of sound with silence imparts tension to the end of the opening thematic period, before the head of the theme is reasserted with even greater vehemence.
Most of what follows is related to this opening theme. Variants of the stepwise descending motif lurk in the tranquil transition passage, whereas the more lyrical second subject in E-flat major utilizes the falling semitone figure of the opening theme while also hinting at its rhythm. The new melody that emerges in the development section brings together motifs from both principal themes, carrying the music through minor keys. The approach to the recapitulation, on the other hand, reshapes the descending line from the opening theme, the passage that had been broken off initially into silence. Now the pause is filled in, supplanting the mysterious interruption by a sonorous connection to the reprise--the symmetrical turning-point in the movement as a whole.
Another climax occurs later in the recapitulation, where the brighter second subject is drawn into the sphere of C minor, with an effect of pathos. Beethoven does not merely transpose it according to convention but first elaborates it in a major key, F, re-entering the tonic minor only at the point where the second subject is decorated with rising staccato scales. Thereafter the tonic remains unchallenged; the movement closes laconically, with stark cadential chords. The terse, concentrated expression of this movement would be misconstrued if taken as the effusion of a youthful, emotional Sturm und Drang. As the other movements make still clearer, the Beethoven that emerges here is as much a clearsighted rationalist as a romantic visionary.
As usual in Beethoven's C minor works, the slow movement, an Adagio molto, is in the key of the flat sixth, A-flat major. Its grand lyrical expression relies much on decorative variation, especially in the quiet second subject, in which each phrase is reshaped into rapid, delicate figuration. This movement is a sonata form with a single, emphatic dominant-seventh chord standing in place of a development, but there is an extended coda, in which the reflective main theme is given a new continuation and a new outcome. Its characteristic falling melodic thirds are extended here to reach the dominant, E-flat, before being softly resolved to the tonic in a gesture of thematic completion and liquidation.
Out of the stillness at the end of the Adagio emerges the lean, shadowy opening of the prestissimo finale, in which motifs from the first movement--such as the semitone C-B--reappear in a new context. Still more surprising is the way the principal motif is absorbed, with comic effect, into the second subject-group of this compact sonata form. Riotous humour erupts in the cadential theme: as if the drastic contrasts of dynamics and register and the hammering, 'telegraphic' rhythms were not enough, Beethoven wickedly inserts a 'wrong' chord on C-flat, fortissimo, just before the cadence!
Following the brief development and a recapitulation hardly less amusing than the exposition, despite its turn to the minor, the coda gradually slows the tempo to adagio. Beethoven lingers here over his second subject, transforming its jaunty character into a more reflective expression, while brining the music to rest on a seventh chord of A-flat at the first tenuto marking (Ex. 11). What is the meaning if this striking gesture? The sound is familiar, being enharmonically equivalent to the first vertical harmony in the shadowy main theme of the movement. The point is that this sound contains the tonic sonority of the A-flat major of the slow movement and can thereby serve both as a harmonic threshold to the finale and, later, as a subtle means of reference to the Adagio molto. Without making a direct thematic allusion, Beethoven thus evokes the aura of the slow movement, effectively setting off his final plunge into the prestissimo, which quickly dissolves into a silence of pregnant irony" (Kinderman: 37 - 39).
ACTIVE MUSIC CRITICS
'Our' trusted companion of this section is again Joachim Kaiser. His introductory comment to this sonata is:
"Die sogenannte >>kleine<< c-Moll-Sonate -- aber keineswegs klein oder leicht, sondern exzentrisch und an der Grenze zum Unspielbaren. Konventionelles Motivmaterial wird in jeder Weise >>molto<< behandelt: der erste Satz überfährt die Dreiklangsthematik samt Haydn-Anklängen zum erregten Sturm, der zweite balanciert extreme Ruhe mit zahlreichen Vierundsechzigstel-Noten (welche die Benutzung eines Rechenschiebers ratsam erscheinen lassen). Und im Prestissimo explodiert, was sich im Klaviertrio Opus 1 Nr. 3 vergleichsweise harmlos ankündigte. Dieses Finale nimmt bereits das Schicksalsmotiv der 5. Symphonie vorweg. Zugespitzter und stürmischer als die eindeutigere, selbstsicherere Pathetique, die c-Moll-Violinsonate Opus 30 Nr. 2 und das c-Moll-Streichquartett Opus 18 Nr. 4 ist die Sonate Opus 10 Nr. 1 ein ungeheuerlicher, stilistisch keineswegs >>sauberer<< Ausbruch für das Soloklavier" (Kaiser: 109; --
-- He refers to this sonata as the so-called >>little<< sonata in c minor which, nevertheless is, in his opinion, neither little nor easy but rather eccentric and at the border of un-playable, in which conventional motivic material is, in every way, treated, >>molto<<, whereby the first movement drives the triad thematic, including allusions to Haydn, up to a raging storm, and whereby the second act balances extreme calm with countless sixty-fourth-notes (which, in Kaiser's opinion, suggests the need for the use of a calculator), and whereby, in the Prestissimo, there explodes what, in Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 3, was foreshadowed rather harmlessly. Kaiser writes that this finale already alludes to the so-called 'fate' motif of the 5th Symphony and that this Sonata is more pronounced and stormy than the more obvious, self-assured "Pathetique", the c-minor Violin Sonata Op. 30, No. 2 and the c-minor String Quartet Op. 18, No. 4, and, all in all, a stylistically, by no means, >>clean<< break-through for the solo piano).
Let us continue with Kaiser's lively recollection of his impressions of this Sonata:
"Es mußte viel zusammenkommen -- Pädagogenstumpfsinn, klassizistische Scheuklappen, besserwisserisches Nicht-Ernstnehmen der Beethovenschen Vorschriften und der relativ kurze Umfang des Stückes--, um die communis opinio zu ermöglichen, diese Sonate sei eine von den harmlosesten und spielbarsten. In den von Jacques Gabriel Prod'homme nebeneinandergestellten Schwierigkeitsskalen (>Die Klaviersonaten Beethovens<, Wiesbaden 1948) -- wo meist die Sonatinen Opus 49 als leichteste, Opus 111 und die Hammerklaviersonate als schwierigste Werke ausgegeben werden -- rangiert die Sonate Opus 10 Nr. 1 tatsächlich unter den allereinfachsten Stücken: A. B. Marx, Damm, Volbach und Casella befinden sämtlich, sie sei weniger schwer als Opus 13, Opus 26 oder Opus 28. Ein wüst genialer Ausbruch wird Klavierschülern ausgeliefert, die kaum über Sonatinen hinaus sind. So spielt, kein Wunder, die c-Moll-Sonate Opus 10 Nr. in den Klavierstunden eine große Rolle, wenn es darum geht, den Adepten mit Beethoven bekannt zu machen und doch nicht gleich zu überfordern. Die Ecksätze sind so angenehm kurz, das Adagio scheint so faßlich und melodisch: keine schlechte Brücke zu Beethoven. In Klavierabenden hört man das Werk darum auch seltener. Warum sollen ausgewachsene Pianisten ihre Kräfte an ein Schülerstück verschwenden? . . .
Wahrscheinlich gibt es keine zweite Beethoven-Sonate, die einen derart radikalen Lernprozeß notwendig macht oder zumindest nahelegt wie Opus 10 Nr. 1! . . . Warum provoziert gerade diese c-Moll-Sonate so grotesk unterschiedliche Deutungen? Der Antagonismus liegt gewiß auch in der Sache selbst. Wenn man etwa den Es-Dur- Seitengedanken aus dem ersten Satz isoliert, drängt sich der Eindruck harmlos traditionalistischer Frühklassik auf . . . Auch die Durchführung enthält einen harmlos elegischen, übrigens nur mühsam aus dem Vorhergehenden ableitbaren, simpel begleiteten f-Moll-Gedanken. Im Adagio findet sich immerhin eine so einfache Kantilene wie . . . Und das Finale bietet nach Durchführungsbeginn, gerdezu süffig, hübsche Sequenzen. Schließt man von derartigen und analogen Stellen aufs Ganze, läßt man sich ... beindrucken von einer Reihe mehr oder minder überzeugender Korrespondenzen zu der großen c-Moll-Sonate Mozarts (KV 457). . . . " (Kaiser: 110-111; --
-- Kaiser writes that much had to come together--the stupidity of music teachers, classicistic narrow-mindedness, nosed-up, know-it-all disregard of Beethoven's instructions and the relative shortness of this piece in order to enable the mind-forming forces to create the impression that this Sonata is one of Beethoven's most harmless piano sonatas and one of those that can be played, most easily and that the degrees of difficulty that Jacques Gabriel Prod'homme set next to each other in his work, >Die Klaviersonaten Beethovens<, Wiesbaden 1948--where mostly the Sonatinas, Op. 49 are listed as the easiest Sonatas, Op. 111 and the Hammerklavier Sonata as the most difficult works, this Sonata, Op. 10, No. 1, is actually listed among the easiest pieces, and that also A. B. Marx, Damm, Volbach and Casella found that it is less difficult than Op. 13 or Op. 28, and that piano pupils who have barely moved beyond sonatinas, are subjected to the furious, genial outburst of this sonata. Therefore, states Kaiser, it is no surprise that the c-minor Sonata, Op. 10, No. 2 plays a major role in piano lessons whenever piano pupils are to make the acquaintance of Beethoven while they are not supposed to be unduly challenged. After all, writes Kaiser, the outer movements are to "pleasantly short", the Adagio appears to easy to grasp and so melodic, so that one would consider this sonata as a good introduction to Beethoven. By the same token, continues Kaiser, this sonata is less heard in piano recitals. Why should mature pianists waste their powers on such a student piece? . . .
Kaiser writes that, very likely, there is no other Beethoven Sonata that requires such a radical learning process, or that at least suggests such a learning process, than his Piano Sonata Op. 10, No. 1, and he asks himself why particularly this sonata evokes such grotesquely different interpretations and opinions and comes to the conclusion that the antagonism may already lie in the subject matter, itself. For example, argues Kaiser, if one were to isolate the side idea of the first movement, then one would easily gain the impression that one is dealing here with harmless, traditional early classicism, and that also the development contains a harmlessly elegiac, simply accompanied musical thought in f-minor that can only with great deliberation be traced back to the preceding music and that in the Adagio, we find such a simple cantilena . . . and also the finale, after the development, offers "pretty" sequences in abundance. If one were to draw one's conclusions from such passages in one's judgment of the entire work, then one is allowing oneself to be impressed by a number of more or less convincing similarities to Mozart's great c-minor Sonata, K 457 . . . ).
From here on, Kaiser's discussion traces insights and accomplishments with respect to this sonata, of great pianists of the 20th century.
'Our' active pianist is, again, Anton Kuerti:
"Beethoven wrote three sonatas in the key of C minor, Op. 10 No. 1 being the first of these. This may help explain its relative neglect, for all three deal with the tragic muse, and there is no use denying that the two later ones (Op. 13 and Op. 111) do so in a more powerful, dramatic and original manner. But poor Op. 10 No. 1 could not know what sort of composition it would eventually have to face, and if we forget these comparisons and meet it on its own terms, we will find it to be s strong and interesting piece" (Kuerti: 22-23).
What does Kuerti have to say of the individual movements?
Allegro molto e con brio
Kuerti writes that the outer movements are frought with nervousness and that, in the first movement, one can sense a forced determination and orientation towards seriousness and drama, an intention that is almost undermined by the main theme and that this creates the impression of a young man who is trying to play an adult, tragic role, and that, in playing this sonata and in listening to it, both the pianist and the listener have to work hard in order to make this believable. .Kuerti describes the theme as very intense and filled with dynamic contrasts and sudden, awe-filled pauses and that any trace of banality vanishes with the onset of the beautiful, ascending transitional theme.
"Sometimes this Sonata is called the "Little Pathetique," because of its to the "Pathethique" in key and mood. In the first movement of both pieces Beethoven uses one of his favourite dramatic devices: he presents the second subject in major (2), full of warmth and hope, but when it reappears in the recapitulation, chillingly converts it to minor (3). This is an irrevocable act of great gloom and foreboding. Like the disintegration and death of Ophelia in "Hamlet," it extinguishes the one sunny and untroubled element in the movement" (Kuerti: 23).
With respect to this movement, Kuerti writes that both main themse of the Adagio are utterly simple, whereby mainly a common phrase is being worked on. One could alsmost say that this movement is written in sonata form, continues Kuerti, provided that one recognizes the concept of a development that consists of nothing else than a single accord, as such. Therefore, this "brevity", according to Kuerti, is understandable since the material of the movement has already been elaborated on so thoroughly. A development that would be based on new material would be inappropriate in this little sonata. A beautiful Coda, writes Kuerti, replaces the missing development. Its new, syncopated accompaniment and the continued bass line provide, as Kuerti writes, a very satisfying feeling of breadth and nobleness in the main them, that, prior to this, had been stopped in every second measure.
"The serious nature of Op. 10 No. 1 is underlined by the fact that all three movements are in sonata form (if we give the benefit of the doubt to the Adagio). The Finale has an awesome intensity, made especially effective by the fact that it whispers and holds its breath for the entire first theme, until it can no longer contain itself and bursts out explosively. It, too, has one of the shortest true developments ever written (6), and ends as it started, ominously and silently" (Kuerti: 23).
Here, we offer you a chance to listen to a midi file of this sonata, via the following link:
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 10, Nr. 1 - Search