Beethoven’s piano sonatas (as well as his music in general) are almost always categorized in three periods: the early period, the heroic period and the late period. How they are often told are something like this: the first period is more influenced by Mozart and Haydn, in the heroic period he finds his own voice, and during the last period he goes toward a more free style, which opens up for the romantic composers to follow.
I will not say that this is necessarily wrong, but it’s not really correct either.
In a way that I will try to explain here and in the different posts about the sonatas, Beethoven went from a composer who wrote pieces with different parts somewhat “glued together” to being a master in creating music where the flow is as natural and seamless as nature itself, or as something that has risen above the consciousness of “parts” in music.
The main question (if there is something we could call a main question) that seems to keep lingering about Beethoven’s evolution in style and form, is if he “left” the more “conservative”, balanced structure of Mozart and Haydn to develop something that ended up in the more “free” structures of the romantic era.
If we look at Beethoven’s sonatas and compare the first sonatas with the last, the formal “schedule” is more free in the last sonatas. For example, Beethoven often tried to find an alternative to the dominant for the second theme (go to the section “Sonata Form“) But that sort of freedom is not really the key thing. What is important is if he left the principles that was the foundation of the music of Mozart and Haydn.
The basic principle of creating two different tonal centers in sonata form was severely weakened in the romantic era, because the music (with its needs to be more “unstable” and “passionate”) floated around a lot more in terms of tonality. Sometimes, a “base” tonality might not even be 100% established in a piece.
Beethoven tried to, as said before, use alternatives to the dominant for the second theme, or the second tonal center. But he never weakened the power it meant to have two tonalities juxtaposition each other. What he did was firmly on the principle of Haydn and Mozart.
Classical music from the Haydn/Mozart era is very firmly based on the principle of a “closed” phrase, a defined beginning and end of a melody that is structured in a metric pattern divided by 2. That leaves us with phrases that are well balanced, like this one from op. 2 nr. 2
(There is a lot on this in the first part about the Op. 10 nr. 2 Sonata)
During the baroque era, there was a more fluent, “non-dividing” pattern, listen to this example in a Scarlatti Sonata:
Now, in romantic music, the themes have the same structure as in Mozart and Haydn, built on being in clear parts, divided by 2, 4 or 8. But, it is not a part of the structure that “builds” the piece. It is just a way of carrying a melody. Here, for example, in Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, the rhythmic structure is as “classic” as can be, but the melody is pure romantic music (meaning that the regularity of the phrase should not be emphasized by the performer and not strongly felt by the listener):
When Beethoven starts the sonata Op. 2 nr. 3, the beginning is just as regular in structure but the regularity is part of the style.
So, does Beethoven leave this principle in the later sonatas? No, on the contrary. He builds phrases that are breaking with those regular patterns. He does that because he wants to make phrases unstable, not because he wants to take away the effect regularity gives. The regular phrase is a strong part of the style of Beethoven, in his early and his late sonatas.
These are, in my opinion, the most important aspects when trying to answer the question of Beethoven’s position between Mozart/Haydn and the romantics. Beethoven’s music inspired and awed a couple of generations of romantic composers. But his style was firmly in the classical era, his roots in the style of Mozart and Haydn.
A theme, or a melody, or any passage, can be more or less emotionally neutral. It is NOT the same than being non-emotional. It’s more about being less easy to pin down as one special emotion. This can be a great “tool” for a composer to use when starting a piece if he wants the piece to “grow” later on.
The opening of the fifth symphony is a famous example of a theme that is clearly NOT emotionally neutral:
We will get to point to examples of non-neutral themes later (Sonata op. 27 nr. 1, “Waldstein” Sonata, for example). But for the early sonatas, this is not something Beethoven is using a lot. Themes, beginnings and such, are quite defined in character, both the slow and the fast movements. Just as one example, the beginning of the very first sonata is certainly not “neutral”:
The three Sonatas op. 2 they are clearly written by Beethoven to show the world (which was Vienna for him) what he can do as a composer and a pianist. What is striking is the length of the sonatas as well as their extreme demands of virtuosity from the performer. That is quite far from how Mozart and Haydn operated. All three sonatas have four movements, Mozart and Haydn preferred three movements in their sonatas.
All those things are the result of Beethoven’s urge, as a young composer, to show a very broad range in his compositions. This is quite fundamental to understand the music of Beethoven. Mozart and Haydn wrote shorter sonata movements, with a much smaller dynamic range. Part of this is due to the pianos being more of quasi-harpsichords when they wrote their sonatas, but it is not the whole explanation. For them, an important strength in a piece was that it was completely coherent and well balanced. In Beethoven’s early sonatas, he goes to extremes, and has an urge for variety and experiments rather than coherency.
Take the third sonata in the opus 2, for example, in its first movement. The exposition of the first movement has not less than eleven parts, and they are put one after another in a more or less “natural” way. Beethoven keeps the movement together because the momentum and energy is very strong. If a pianist would perform this too slow, the risk of the movement falling apart is quite big.
This doesn’t mean that Beethoven automatically expanded the form more than Mozart or Haydn did. Stuffing the exposition with many themes and sections is not the same thing as expanding a form. But this is the young Beethoven, who likes to go to extremes in virtuosity and expression. Those things comes to the forefront, and Beethoven often uses explosive contrasts to “glue” parts together ( he is gluing them together by not gluing them at all) and to reinforce the momentum.
Let’s hear that exposition from beginning to end. I will point out a few things:
1) at 0.22 there is the new, explosive part which comes as an interruption ( that is what I mean with parts not being “glued”)
2) at o.42 he does the same thing, but from loud to soft instead: he stops with a lot of energy, and just starts the new theme, again without “glue”
As you can hear, it’s like fireworks, with different melodies, passages and characters following each other. It’s fantastic and overwhelming in many ways, above all in brilliance and energy.
The Sonata op. 7 is built much the same way as the sonatas op. 2, with brilliance and movements of long durations.
The Sonatas op. 10 is somewhat a change of course. Beethoven starts to use the three-movement scheme for the first time in his piano sonatas, and both the first and second of the sonatas are more modest in technical difficulties and duration. They are also more economic in form (meaning that they have less amount of themes), often with a movement built on one or two small motives.
The third of the op. 10 sonatas, in D Major, gets back to the four movement plan, with the first slow movement in a minor mode among the piano sonatas.
The opus 10 sonatas are less virtuosic and more compact in form than the op. 2 and op. 7 and as a result, also shorter in time. In everyday speech, they are less “all over the place” than the op. 2 sonatas.
The Sonata op 13 ( Pathétique) signals something new in that Beethoven seeks a contrast between sections not within the same tempo and momentum, but between two sections with complete different tempo and styles. He would do this in future sonatas ( “Tempest” sonata and the Op. 27 nr. 2, for example). The beginning of the Pathétique sonata has its root in the orchestral baroque overture. This is the first time in the sonatas that Beethoven uses the piano in a way that should evoke an orchestra for the listener.