Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, Opus 53 (Waldstein)
Allegro con brio
Introduzione (Adagio molto) – Rondo (Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo)
This famous sonata, one of Beethoven’s greatest in his middle years, dates from 1804. It owes its popular label to Beethoven having dedicated it to his friend and early patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein.
The first movement is a large sonata-form structure which generates excitement with its urgent, though pianissimo introduction of the rhythmic principal subject. Its two flying tail figures will be prominent in the development. The calming second theme of undulating chords ought, you think, to be in G but appears instead in E major. Its cool mood yields to more energetic figuration and another look at the first subject. The development presents these ideas in new relationships and keys. A surprise in the recapitulation is that the second subject imagines its original ‘wrong’ key to have been a conventional dominant and so returns in A major, quite the wrong key. Beethoven finds a charming way of modulating to the right one. An extensive coda begins with the main theme in D flat; even with the end in sight we are still being shown familiar things in a new light.
Beethoven rejected his original slow movement – later published as the Andante favori – and substituted a brief, questioning Adagio introduction to the concluding rondo. Its questions are answered with seeming inevitability by the entry of the memorable rondo theme, although it cost the composer great pains to arrive at the ideal shape of the melody. With a firm bass C and a repeated G singing out in the treble the home key is emphasised with great certainty, which makes the contrast of the turbulent minor-key episodes all the more striking. The rondo theme is varied on each reappearance. If the tempo seems slow for a rondo, all is soon explained. After a big climax the theme dances into a Prestissimo, which brings the sonata to a brilliant conclusion.
© Eric Mason