About this work
Beethoven originally intended this to be published as a contrasting companion piece to his "Spring" Sonata, and indeed the two works appeared together as Op. 23 in 1801. In a new edition the following year, though, the violin parts of the two sonatas were mistakenly printed in different formats, and to save face and spare the costs of re-engraving, the sonatas were published "as is" under consecutive opus numbers, "Spring" taking Op. 24.
The "Spring" Sonata is bright and sometimes humorous, but its A-minor companion is comparatively ascetic. In the outer movements, the piano is often reduced to spare, two-part writing, and all three movements, despite expending remarkable energy along the way, end pianissimo.
The opening Presto remains in the minor mode throughout, except for eight bars of tranquil F major in the development. It all begins with a grim, thrusting theme that contrasts with a spare little melody that spirals upward. Both subjects are propelled by a tarantella-like rhythm, which almost never relents through the course of the movement. In fact, it ultimately wrenches the second subject into what seems like a new theme halfway through the development. The drastically condensed recapitulation simply sputters out.
The middle movement's odd marking, Andante scherzoso più allegretto, reveals a combination scherzo and slow movement. The opening theme tiptoes through symmetrical halves before daring a delicate fugato variation on itself. A full-fledged second theme finally appears as a trilling figure first in the piano, then the violin. Beethoven subjects all this material to a measured development, never indulging in the boisterous display that would mark his later scherzos. He is much more subtle and complex here. Beethoven goes so far as to bring back the fugato's staccato counter subject as the accompaniment to the trilled theme, teasingly suggesting that he may be launching a new fugue. Instead, he merely offers a concise restatement of the movement's themes.
The rondo finale, Allegro molto, is woven from an agitated minor-mode theme that hardly changes in its several reappearances. The first contrasting section, in A major, would offer welcome relief if it were not for Beethoven throwing the violin and piano out of synch with each other-a device he would use to more comic effect in the "Spring" Sonata. The second and third contrasting sections are more relaxed, major-mode episodes, now free of trickery, but they are each soon interrupted by the bleak, unsettled primary motif, which winds down with a curt, gloomy gesture.