What is a body of work? What can be surmised of an artist through the lens of a single genre, one that spans the whole of that artist’s life so completely? What can be said to properly set the stage for the cycle of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas?

To begin with, there is the sheer scope. The thirty-two sonatas for solo piano far outnumber Beethoven’s contributions in every other major musical genre. They are written for the instrument Beethoven mastered in his youth—the instrument on which he first made his name as one of the leading musicians of Vienna, and by extension all of Europe. It is the piano where Beethoven worked out the ideas for all his other compositions, including the symphonies. Unique among instruments, it is the piano (and its wind cousin, the organ) which can on its own cover the same range of counterpoint and texture as an entire orchestra. Thus it is the piano, and specifically the sonata genre, where Beethoven could most completely explore innovations in texture, key area, and especially form. The thirty-two piano sonatas, then, are nothing less than the lens through which to view the remarkable evolution of Beethoven’s artistic achievement.

Beethoven’s music is often divided into three periods. The early period is one of both stylistic consolidation and formal exploration. It begins in 1792, as Beethoven finally concludes his studies with Haydn. Though Beethoven had already firmly established his reputation as the foremost improviser and virtuoso of his day, he had very consciously withheld any actual compositions from publication until he felt himself fully formed in matters of technique. The first three piano sonatas that together form Opus 2 were thus an essential part of Beethoven’s introduction of himself to Viennese society as a composer with grand ambitions.

The early sonatas take their formal cues from the style of Haydn and Mozart. We think today of sonatas (and quartets and symphonies) as following a given format. The first movement is written in the rhetorical “sonata-allegro” form. The second and third movements are, in interchangeable order, a light minuet or scherzo (joke) and an expressive slow movement filled with emotion. The fourth movement is a rousing finale, either a rondo or another sonata-allegro, and in any case usually more tuneful and melodic in nature. These forms are often presumed as pre-set and rigid, the musical equivalent of filling a cake mold. Yet the forms of Haydn and Mozart are nothing of the sort. To the contrary, their forms are far freer, following—and often delightfully thwarting—the internal logic and expectations of the themes and motives at hand.

Beethoven internalizes and extends the forms (plural) inherited from his musical forebears. Listen to the presentation of short, concise motivic themes in the first minute of Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No. 1, and the way these are so clearly, cleverly, and thrillingly developed and threaded throughout the remainder of the movement. In Beethoven’s fingers, the wits and manners of Haydn and Mozart immediately become something more: they become drama, narrative, a story in tones. This is Beethoven’s innovation, and the key to his place in the history of music: abstract music can be written in such a way to tell a story, create a narrative, and ultimately to express transcendent truths made by their very wordlessness universal. Each of the piano sonatas is individual, each is a statement, and the range of expression is as vast as the world itself.

The journey of formal and stylistic exploration continues apace, often ahead of the that in other genres. Just six years later, the Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 14, “Grande Sonate Pathétique” is already exploring expanded formal designs, employing the use of a dramatic, slow introduction that returns as a formal signpost throughout the first movement. This sonata follows a three-movement scheme, omitting the minuet. The resulting structure offers one of the clearest examples of Beethoven’s conception of unity between movements. It is not that themes are overtly shared between movements, but that together they occupy and explore a single poetic space.

Now firmly in the middle period, this expanded conception of form is explored in new ways time and again. In the Sonata No. 13 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, “Quasi una fantasia” the harmonic principle of sonata-allegro form remains intact in the nocturnal first movement, even as the music itself proceeds in muted meditation. In the equally famous Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31 No. 2 (“Tempest”) the slow introduction device is again juxtaposed against music of fiery passion. In the finale third movement, sonata form is again expanded and fused with a hauntingly melodic moto perpetuo texture.

The sonatas of the late period are perhaps the most difficult to summarize. As has often been said, this is a period of introspection and experimentation. As Beethoven’s loss of hearing progressed, the piano may very well have served as a remaining point of contact with the world of tones: the fingers leading the inner ear to new possibilities of counterpoint and harmony in spite of the loss of that most vital sense. It is as if Beethoven’s spirit, in spite of this ultimate adversity, takes flight into an unbounded musical expanse.

There is the insistent virtuosity of Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”), followed by the poetic lyricism of Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109. Then there is the almost mystical conclusion of this most sublime body of work: the Arietta second movement of Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, a series of variations on a simple chorale theme, taken to ever more intricate and intimate depths, seemingly prophetic in its visions of the coming century of Romanticism, Impressionism, and even Ragtime.

The thirty-two sonatas, then, are nothing short of a summation of the artistic achievement of perhaps the most innovative, influential, and individual composer ever to have lived.

© 2021 Joseph Stillwell Music