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Piano Sonata No.17 in D Minor Op.31 No.2,'Tempest'

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31, No.2 (“Tempest”)

It appears that the D minor Sonata was written during the composer’s sojourn at Heiligenstadt in the latter part of that year, not only because of Czerny’s picturesque story about the last movement being suggested by the sound of a horse galloping past Beethoven’s window there, but because of the tragic intensity that distinguishes it from its equable companions in G and E flat major. What are we to make of Beethoven’s remark, “Read Shakespeare’s Tempest!”, when he was asked, years later, to explain the Appassionata (Op.57) and the D minor Sonata? Perhaps he was alluding to a similarity with Prospero in his own ability to overcome the bitterest misfortune; it would certainly be ill-advised to read any sort of “programme” into either sonata.

The restless first movement starts with a Largo of two bars that reappears several times later on: at the beginning of the development and of the recapitulation, when it is twice extended with an eloquent recitative which Beethoven said should sound like a voice from a vault. The broken-chord motif of the Largo, together with its agitated answer, form the basis of the whole movement, including the comparatively short development section.

The Adagio (in B flat major) is in sonata form, but with no thematic development, its omission being made good by elaborate decoration of the main theme on its return. A pervasive, drum-like triplet figure (not confined to the bass register) suggests that the drama and intensity of the two flanking movements has been subdued but not forgotten. The nervous finale is almost a moto perpetuo, yet its continuos semiquaver motion never becomes monotonous. The second subject provides a touch of cross-rhythm, and the long development, based entirely on the first theme, is full of striking and unexpected modulations.

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