Piano Sonata No.23

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor

Op. 57 • “Appassionata”

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

From the writing of his Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802 up to the composition of the "Appassionata" in 1804-1805, Beethoven produced some of his most pivotal works, music that foreshadows and heralds the arrival of what is commonly identified as the "second" period of his creativity. Beethoven, it seemed, had turned inward and begun to produce music only he could fully understand. If he had resigned himself to the futility of his cosmic anger, he also determined to thrust his immense genius in the face of God and Man alike, accepting no limitations upon the magnitude or trajectory of his creativity. It was the Beethoven of these works who unleashed the "Appassionata" Sonata in 1805.

Opening with a dark, enigmatic theme -- one of the most striking curtain-raisers in any of Beethoven's sontatas -- the work abruptly explodes with what some have called shrieks of rage. The work makes immediate, fearsome demands upon the pianist, calling both for percussive handfuls of chords and accompanimental figuration demanding the utmost delicacy. The movement is driven forward with a demonic intensity and a daring harmonic sense; the opening phrase, as one example, is repeated a half-step higher in the second phrase, momentarily shrouding the tonal center in a strange, unsettling ambiguity. Prefiguring the dot-dot-dot-dash motive of the Fifth Symphony among its rhythmic materials, the "Appassionata" unfolds with a volatile, start-and-stop rhythmic scheme that lends it a particular sense of conflict and urgency. In one of the classic examples of Beethoven's organic motivic sense, the second theme of the first movement makes clear reference to the first; while the genesis of its rhythm and contour is obvious, Beethoven here transforms it into a lyrical and yearning if brief moment of respite.

The second movement, a relaxed andante, is a set of variations on a simple, chorale-like theme that retains a shade of the dotted rhythms of the first movement. The variations gradually increase in activity; a sudden reprise of the more sedate original theme and leads without pause to a savage, impassioned finale. Here, Beethoven makes formidable demands upon both instrument (especially the pianos of his own day) and player; the Presto finale is nothing so much as a pounding blur of fury. The sonata's "Appassionata" subtitle is not Beethoven's own; it was first applied by a Hamburg publisher in 1838.

Done