Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas (not including his three juvenile sonatas) have an exceptional position in international piano literature and they represent a major contribution to the development of the genre. Beethoven’s pushing of boundaries, whether in terms of structure, harmony or the development of themes and motifs, influenced the musical thought of subsequent generations of composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. Beethoven wrote piano sonatas between 1795 and 1822. The sonatas from his early creative period were highly influenced by Haydn and Mozart in their form, but his personality was indelibly etched into their character from the very beginning. (For his first piano sonata, he chose an uncommon key of F minor, which is not to be found in the piano sonatas of Haydn or Mozart.) Beethoven became more daring over the course of time and his later sonatas are quite different in form and expression. After all, in connection with the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, the Viennese press wrote of “a new period in Beethoven’s keyboard works.” Beethoven was also an accomplished pianist, and his piano sonatas are, among other things, a testament to his technical and expressive abilities.
Let us add that the development of the instruments themselves also played a role in the composition of piano sonatas. In the case of the piano sonatas from his middle and late periods, Beethoven was given greater creative freedom by the new grand pianos by Broadwood and Graf, which had larger keyboards and provided different sonic possibilities than the instruments commonly produced in Vienna at the time. Until 1803, Beethoven’s compositions for piano fit into five octaves. Step by step he explored wider ranges, and in his Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101, for example, he had already used notes so deep that they could not be played on ordinary central European instruments, but only on Broadwood pianos manufactured in England. In his last piano sonata, he felt the need to introduce an alternative to E flat major in case that the performer did not have an instrument with a large enough keyboard.
Beethoven’s late piano sonatas (Nos. 28–32) came into being between 1816 and 1822, i.e., at the time when he was almost deaf. They are introspective works with great emotional depth, revealing his inner world. Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, is one of three sonatas commissioned by Adolph Martin Schlesinger, a publisher from Berlin. Beethoven worked on it in 1820 and composed the following two sonatas in close succession afterwards. At the same time he was also immersed in work on the Missa solemnis, which took him considerably more time than he had anticipated. All three movements of Piano Sonata No. 30 are connected in certain ways, creating a sense of continuity. Beethoven based the first movement on the classical sonata-allegro form, employing his unique harmonic language and expressive nuances. The second scherzo movement stands in stark contrast to the previous movement in its tumultuousness and rhythmicity. Beethoven’s rhythmic inventiveness is on full display here, creating a sense of urgency and excitement. The sonata’s focal point is in its final movement, consisting of a song-like theme reminiscent of a Sarabande with six variations of differing character. As the sonata unfolds before us, we can see how masterfully Beethoven was able to combine classical forms with his own innovative and progressive musical language, pushing the boundaries of musical expression.
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110, of 1821 is both experimental and introspective. The first movement begins with a lyrical theme that immediately draws the listener in. Beethoven used the sonata form within which he moves with a considerable degree of freedom. At times the music has the character of improvisation and is constantly changing. The following short second movement is an energetic and playful scherzo (although it is in 2/4 time), with syncopations and dynamic contrasts adding to its unpredictability. The English musicologist Martin Cooper discovered in this movement musical references to two popular songs of the time. The third and most serious movement of the whole sonata (in the original Schlesinger edition it was divided into Adagio and Fugue) opens with a short Adagio, but its key elements are the lamenting Arioso dolente and the three-part fugue, which alternate with each other. The fugue grows in complexity and intensity, while the composer employs various methods of contrapuntal work such as augmentation, diminution and inversion. Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint is put on a show, and the fugue becomes a powerful vehicle for expressing a range of emotions. The fugue and the whole sonata are crowned by a triumphant conclusion reaching beyond five octaves.
Beethoven dedicated his last piano sonata to his patron, Archduke Rudolf, who was a very good amateur musician. Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, was published in 1823, but Beethoven had already finished it in January the previous year – and unlike the previous two piano sonatas, he composed it very quickly. Together with the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, and the Bagatelles, Op. 119 and Op. 126, it is one of his last compositions for piano. It consists of only two movements, but this was not unusual – six of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are in two movements. The first movement begins with a majestic introduction marked Maestoso, which sets a dramatic and solemn tone. It is followed by the main section of the movement, Allegro con brio ed appassionato, characterized by intense and passionate expression. Beethoven uses dynamic contrasts, sudden changes of mood and complex counterpoint to add to the emotional depth. For all its passion and polyphonic character, however, this movement ends in the placid key of C major – the last bars prepare us for the onset of the beautiful lyrical theme of the second (final) movement in the same key. Like the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, this is a theme with variations, each with its own unique character. There are five variations in all, the last of which ends with a coda. They gradually increase in complexity – Beethoven’s expression becomes more and more condensed and there is more and more musical material in an ever smaller space. The third of the variations has an almost jazz-like character. The music flows continuously without pauses between the variations, creating a smooth and uninterrupted flow. The final chords bring a sense of resolution and transcendence. Thomas Mann, among others, paid tribute to this masterful, timeless work with an extensive passage in his novel Doctor Faustus.