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Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57,’Appassionata’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Opus 57 (Appassionata)

Allegro assai – Piů allegro

Andante con moto –

Allegro ma non troppo – Presto

The title was bestowed on this great sonata by its publisher without the composer’s sanction, but it an apt label for a work of such evident passion. The sonata dates from 1804, following upon the Eroica Symphony, and just as that symphony opened a new epoch in symphonic music, so the sonata may be said to have revealed new possibilities in keyboard art. Beethoven is seen here in his Titanic aspect, unwilling to compromise in his demands upon player and instrument.

Such is the dramatic turbulence of the music that the listener may be set pondering its philosophical implications. Yet it is also arguable that the drama is purely musical, a fierce argument proceeding from the premises given at the outset.

The drama grows from the melody and rhythm of the initial figure, and an important element in the first movement’s structure is a four-note figure (introduced in the bass at the eleventh bar) which foreshadows the opening of the Fifth Symphony. The two main subjects, one powerful and the other tender, are both derived from the opening figure. Their development is forceful, and trills are much in evidence, not mere decorative devices here but units of energy which help to propel the music and heighten intensity. Tension is increased still more by a final stepping up of tempo in the coda.

After this the second movement, a theme and four variations, provides a calm interlude. Each variation divides into two halves with a varied repeat. The final cadence is interrupted by fierce chords, and the music plunges without pause into the finale, which resumes the first movement’s passion.

Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s young piano pupil, told of going on a walk with the composer one summer day in 1804. Beethoven was ‘all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes’. He explained to Ries that an idea for the finale of this sonata had come to him. Upon their return to Beethoven’s room the composer went to his piano and, not stopping even to take off his hat, worked on his idea for more than an hour. The ‘always up and down’ suggests the flying semiquaver figuration that sweeps this movement along so urgently. There is just one brief lull. Then a full recapitulation follows before the tempo increases to Presto for the coda. Here Beethoven introduces a fresh idea, a furious gallop, but it is soon swallowed by the last reappearance of the main material, now speeded up and only just coherently articulated. It is easy to overlook that the sonata’s initial descending phrase returns in the left hand to end it.

© Eric Mason


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