An Introduction

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn. Bonn is situated in today’s Germany, but Germany was not a country in 1770 as we know it today. Bonn was the main city in one of the many mini-states that created the area we now call Germany. In fact, the concept of uniting people through the concept of belonging to the same country was not fully established back then. France was the first country in Europe to really build on that concept and Germany was slow to follow. Beethoven lived during a very turbulent era in European history.

(Video is from the festival Tengstrand Noll10 in Växjö, Sweden)

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Beethoven grew up with a grandfather who was a bright star in the music world of Bonn, and that meant being a musician hired by the court. The ruler of Bonn was basically a prince, and his court had an orchestra and a group of singers. The musicians were seen and treated as servants. Beethoven’s father, on the other hand, was a mediocre singer who, as many people back then, became an alcoholic and an embarrassment to his family, leaving young Ludwig as a guardian of the family when his mother died in 1787.

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Beethoven was not a wonder-child, and he hasn’t left us any great pieces which he wrote as a child. He was a bright star as a young piano virtuoso, though. He traveled to Vienna for the first time in 1787, but that was cut extremely short because his mother died. The second time he left was in 1790 and this time he never returned to Bonn.

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Beethoven quickly established himself as a prominent piano virtuoso, and a fantastic improviser. As a composer, he still had years to go before he could claim to be at the same heights as Haydn and Mozart, but he would eventually surpass them in fame and status.

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Now to the sonatas: a solo sonata was not considered a piece for a big stage, but more a piece to be played in a private setting. Public concerts were rare in those days, and if they happened, it was more for orchestral pieces, arias and solo improvisations. Piano sonatas were rarely played by Beethoven in public concerts, but it happened (if he did, most times it was only one or two movements from a sonata).

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So, the typical setting for Beethoven playing his sonatas, at least in the beginning of his time in Vienna, was to perform them at a private concert in the house or estate of a prince, count or such. Usually he played the sonatas quite a few times before deciding to publish them. An Opus number means the order in which pieces were published, not composed. So, Beethoven wrote many pieces before his Opus 1 (which was three piano trios). To be able to show different kinds of music, an Opus was often containing most times either three or six works (but of the same kind, three sonatas or three trios etc.). For example, in Beethoven’s second set of published work, the first three Piano Sonatas which are Opus 2, the first one is dramatic, the second elegant and the third brilliant (in very general terms). Op. 10 has one dramatic, one comic and one which is mostly brilliant but too large in scale to make a generalization of. That the Sonata Op. 7 contains one single sonata shows us that Beethoven thought the sonata was special enough to “stand on its own”. Very soon, Beethoven started to abandon the principle of having several sonatas in the same opus, as the individuality of his sonatas grew and possibly also for financial reasons (he could sell one at a time rather than many at a time).

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There is the list of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in Opus order (which is not, in fact, the order he composed them, as you will see on the posts on this blog)

Piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven
No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 Link
No. 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2 Link
No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3 Link

No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 Link

No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1
No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2
No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3 Link

No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique) Link

No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1
No. 10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2

No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22

No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 (Funeral March)

No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27, No. 1
No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight)

No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 (Pastoral)

No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1
No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (The Tempest)
No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 (The Hunt)

No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1
No. 20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2

No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 (Waldstein)

No. 22 in F major, Op. 54

No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)

No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 (A Thérèse)

No. 25 in G major, Op. 79

No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a (Les adieux)

No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90

No. 28 in A major, Op. 101

No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

4 comments

  1. Some remarks on a certain motive in the 1st movt of the Tempest sonata. It is late, and I am rather tired, so the text will follow in Swedish only. If Per decides that the subject has common interest I can rewrite it in English.

    Sonaten op. 31:2, den berömda Spöksonaten. Första satsen
    Har suttit och lyssnat igenom ett dussin av de stora pianisterna och fäst mig vid ett motiv, ungefär en minut in, som kommer i högerhanden strax efter avsnittet där vänsterhanden har melodistämman som går i en linje från basen till diskanten, med korsade händer. Ett korthugget upprepat motiv om sex åttondelsnoter och en kvartspaus. Här spelar nästan alla pianister likadant och i värsta fall blir det en transportsträcka som fladdrar förbi. Undantaget är Glenn Gould. Om du inte har hört honom, så gör det! Han spelar frasen som den står INOM taktstrecken (de allra första två åttondelarna blir som en upptakt). Det låter som en synkopering, men det är det inte. De två åttondelarna som avslutar takten (efter paustecknet) bildar en liten ters, medan “upptakten” har en stor ters – detta måste vara medvetet. Gould håller ett ganska lågt tempo, närmast Moderato. Effekten blir rent ut sagt kuslig! Strindberg talar om “hammarslag i huvudet” – här sitter de: TJONG TJONG. Przybyszewski kanske spelade som Gould gör här, det kan vi bara spekulera om.
    Det finns en annan detalj som talar för att Gould har tolkat Beethovens tanke rätt. Om man spelar frasen utan att se på taktstrecket får vi en fallande linje som dessutom avslutas med en kvartspaus. Om vi däremot spelar som det står skrivet INOM taktstrecken får vi en stigande linje med en förskjuten dynamisk markering. Det ligger en jäkla energi nedlagd här.

    Bengt Samuelson

  2. I think it’s amazing that Opus no. 1 is such a moving and riveting piece of music. It doesn’t sound like the work of a beginning composer. It sounds like someone’s work who has decades of experience in music, and life experience. That was smart of him to start selling his individual Sonatas. Honestly, I have a hard time learning all movements of a piece of music, when all I really want is a certain movement.

  3. Bengt S., I too would like to hear your remarks on that motif from the “Tempest” – which I love especially for the gorgeous cantilena (?) from second movement. I’m still fairly new to LvB’s 32, and unfortunately keep getting swept away by the later sonatas. But they’re amazing, from beginning to end. I’ll have to listen to #1 again!

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