Piano Sonata No.32

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Without doubt, this is one of the greatest piano sonatas ever written. While there are quite a few of Beethoven's own that are more popular, perhaps only one or two of them rival this one in sheer profundity. This sonata's stormy first movement and its ensuing lengthy Arietta, which makes up the theme and variations second panel, take the listener into soundworlds previously unexplored by other composers, making this work one of the most influential musical creations ever. Not only did it help shape the course of piano music, it influenced the orchestral compositions of Franck, Wagner, Mahler, and many others. Prokofiev modeled the structure of his Symphony No. 2 directly on the sonata -- an Allegro followed by a long theme-and-variations second movement. The sonata begins with a grim introduction (Maestoso), typical of the composer's serious style, because it starts the narrative with a question, or dilemma, with dark, emphatic chords followed by trills, which introduce an added element of uncertainty. One might wonder whether the remainder of the movement will search out some answer to the apparent question, as in the "Pathétique," but that does not happen. It seems that a lack of a resolution reflects the composer's realization that vicissitudes of life may inspire questions which cannot be answered. The main body of the first movement, marked Allegro con brio ed appassionato, begins in a sinister vein on the bass notes with the appearance of the main theme, itself a dark, hesitant creation. After it is presented in full, the tempo slows, ushering in another idea. Tranquil and reassuring, this new idea is short-lived, and the main theme returns. After the narrative is repeated, with some alterations, the development section begins. Here, in the midst of much brilliant contrapuntal writing, the mood darkens, and an element of dramatic tension is introduced as the main theme goes through several transformations. When the alternate theme appears after a climactic episode, the atmosphere changes from somber to mysterious. There is no reprise as such, since the main material is not repeated, but rather is reviewed in partial form before reaching a final climax, after which the music fades slowly.

The second movement (Adagio molto semplice e cantabile) opens with one of the composer's most serene creations in any genre. The theme sounds peaceful and angelic, but almost static, too, in its glacial pacing. It strikes one as not the kind of melody that might yield variations of sundry character. This theme and the first three variations form the first section of the movement, wherein the atmosphere and character of the music change from the sublime to the almost giddily joyous and back to the sublime. It is the fourth variation that marks the second half of the movement, the most profound music in this work. After a series of trills, this section begins with the variation slowly emerging from a haze and transporting the listener to the highest levels of musical experience. Some view this long closing section as a "farewell" by the composer. Indeed, Beethoven seems to fashion a musical language transcending terrestrial constraints, and the notes appear to be ascending into the heavens as the ending approaches.

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