Movement 2: Allegro molto vivace
I took a glance at Wikipedia’s page on this sonata, and it says the following: “Beethoven included the phrase “Quasi una fantasia” (Italian: Almost a fantasy) in the title because the sonata does not follow the traditional sonata pattern where the first movement is in regular sonata form, and the movements are arranged in a fast-slow-fast sequence.”
What is this nonsense? I have to tell you, Wikipedia’s information on the Beethoven Sonatas is at best meaningless and at worst rubbish.
This sonata is rather short, but it still has four movements. The amount of movements varied among composers. Mozart preferred three movements, as did Haydn, but both of them wrote sonatas in two movements, and Haydn wrote several in four movements. Increasingly, the sonata started to take the movements formula of Symphonies and String Quartets (while the solo concerto firmly stayed in three movements) and in Beethoven’s first piano sonata opus, as we have seen the formula is this:
1) A fast Allegro
2) Slow movement
3) Menuet or Scherzo
If you remember the first three sonatas in Op. 2, they all follow that scheme.
The order of slow and fast movements started to change for Beethoven at the time of the Sonatas op. 27, and in both the Op. 26 and Op. 27 no. 1, his way of arranging movements was this:
1) A lyrical, not too fast movement (but not a slow movement either!)
2) A scherzo which comes as a great contrast, in minor, and in a very fast tempo
3) Slow movement
4) A quick finale
This formula seemed to give Beethoven an easier access to what he was looking for, which was to make the movements interact with each other, creating a more unified piece out of the different movements.
In classical music, unity is often created by large contrasts, which might seem like a paradox. But with contrasts, the different movements feel like reactions to each other, they are contrasting characters in an ongoing play, defining each other with their dramatic differences. It is not that different from a play, or a movie, where there are different characters building the story by being, well, very different.
In a weird way, this is actually taking a step back in music history. Instead of building drama within the movements, as in the so-called sonata form, Beethoven is building drama between the movements, just as the baroque composers did. That’s why there is no sonata form in either the Op. 26 or both Op. 27 sonatas. There is no need for it.
So, when Beethoven starts the second movement, it is in a mood that is a big contrast to the first movement. Instead of the calm mood we had, in major, he turns to a dark, fast, almost a bit threatening mood in minor. He is using a repetitive motive of three notes that is almost like Philip Glass in style. Many speak of Philip Glass as if he invented the way of using a short motive to be played over and over to create a form of hypnosis. Oh no, Beethoven used this many times, over 150 years earlier.
Again, just as in the first movement, Beethoven is playing with different articulations. This time though, it’s in a way that gives way for real virtuosity, which was of course part of Beethoven’s improvisations.