Piano Sonata No.17

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor

Op. 31/2 • “Tempest”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Written in 1802, the three sonatas of Beethoven's Op. 31 probably coincide with the drafting of his famous "Heiligenstadt Testament," in which he expresses despair at his enroaching deafness. If any of the composer's works from this year indicate that he had embarked on a new path, it is the Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31/2. The composer famously dismissed an inquiry about the "meaning" of this work with the advice to read Shakespeare's The Tempest; given the music's overtly dramatic character, it is easy to see how Beethoven might have drawn parallels to, or even inspiration from, the Bard's famous romance.

The first six measures present two vastly different ideas: an ascending Largo arpeggiation of the dominant chord, juxtaposed against a frenetic repeated-note Allegro figure that descends and halts abruptly on another dominant chord. It is this passage, and not the ascending forte arpeggios in the bass that appear a few measures later, that forms the main substance of the movement's first theme group. This becomes clear when, in the recapitulation, Beethoven dispenses with the forte passage, connecting the main and secondary themes with new material, which in itself is not an unusual sonata-form procedure. The whole represents the most concentrated, motivically conceived movement Beethoven had yet composed.

The second movement, Adagio, is in B flat major; the movement's tonality is worthy of comment here, since it plays an important modulatory role in the third movement. Like the first movement, the second is a sonata-allegro and opens with a broken triad; unlike the first movement, however, it lacks a development section, and has clearly articulated first and second themes.

The D minor finale is again a sonata allegro. The first theme outlines the tonic triad, while the contrasting second theme moves in almost completely stepwise fashion. In the development section Beethoven employs the first theme exclusively, using repetition and prolonged harmonies to create an overpowering sense of anticipation. Portentously, Beethoven provides further development in a coda that is as long as the exposition.