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Summer classics: Two Beethoven piano sonatas


Over the summer we are repeating some articles from the Classics on Sunday series. This was first published on November 24, 2019.

I COULDN’T decide which of these piano sonatas was my favourite, so I thought I would write about both.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn, the son of journeyman musician Johann van Beethoven and his wife Maria. He had two younger brothers, and four siblings who died in infancy.

Ludwig showed musical talent from an early age and his father, having seen what Leopold Mozart had achieved with his son Wolfgang (who was 14 years older than Ludwig), decided to promote Ludwig in the same way as a child prodigy. To this end, he started teaching him piano at the age of four, so intensively that the child was often in tears. Another teacher was soon brought in, and being an insomniac he would drag Ludwig out of bed to practise. A relative taught him violin and viola. He gave his first public performance at the age of seven, though the posters claimed he was six.

His first keyboard compositions were published when he was 13, but the death of his mother and his father’s descent into alcoholism meant he had to take care of his brothers. He made money by playing the viola in orchestras.

Later he studied composition with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in Vienna, where he became known as a virtuoso pianist in the salons of the city. His first public performance there was in 1795, when he was 25, and he started publishing his compositions to financial success. It seems to have been about this time that he began to go deaf, though I have not found a definitive account or timeline.

He wrote his Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor, Op 13, in 1798, when he was 27, and it was published the following year. It was named Grande sonate pathétique (meaning passionate, not pathetic) by the publisher. Some have remarked on the resemblance to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 14, K457, also in C minor, particularly the second movement. 

I have to say the similarity does not strike me, and at the risk of offending Mozart lovers (of whom I am definitely one) I think Beethoven’s sonata is far better.

Here it is performed by Daniel Barenboim (it is an irreverent thought, but what a strange collar he has on).

And here is the sheet music in a performance by György Cziffra.

Six years later, in 1804, Beethoven wrote Piano Sonata No 21 in C major, Op 53, known as the Waldstein in honour of his friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna. In the interim he had come to be regarded as the most important composer of his generation, with premieres of his First and Second Symphonies and his Third Piano Concerto. His deafness had become much worse, and was accompanied by severe tinnitus. For anyone this would be torment; for a musician it must have been close to unbearable. In 1802 he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers from the small Austrian town where he was living, which recorded his thoughts of suicide and his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Beethoven’s work seems to me a supreme example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

Here is the Waldstein in another Barenboim performance:

and here is the music in a performance by Mikhail Pletnev.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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