Composed in 1795; Published in 1796
Although many young pianists study Beethoven’s first published piano composition before they reach their teens, it would be a mistake to consider the music itself a “student” or “apprentice” effort. At twenty-five, Beethoven already was a master of the late classical style, arguably the only living composer of his time who could withstand comparison with Haydn or Mozart. Moreover, he managed to distance himself from his older colleagues by treating his piano sonatas from the outset as seriously as his chamber and orchestral music. It is easy to point to his frequent use of four movements as evidence of his enlarged concept of the sonata—he was the first great composer to do this—but one must look deeper into the works themselves to discover the extraordinary care and finish he lavished upon them.
The main theme of the sonata’s concise first movement bears an obvious resemblance to the opening of the finale of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. However, his treatment of that idea as early as in the fifth measure—lopping off the opening arpeggio and insistently repeating the turning motif (a technique Alfred Brendel calls “foreshortening”)—is pure Beethoven. Likewise, the immediate repetition of the theme in a new key, a new mood, and a new register, bears his unique thumbprint. Other original touches, such as making the second theme a smoother mirror image of the first, or placing jarring accents in unexpected places, occur throughout the movement.
Particularly effective is the way Beethoven prepares the return of the opening theme following the central Development section. Classroom definitions of sonata form often emphasize the importance of that moment, with its re-establishment of the tonic key and the main theme. However, the finest classical composers frequently disguise and modify that event. One of Beethoven's favorite techniques is to “sneak in” the main theme’s return in the middle of an on-going phrase: overshooting his target, as it were. He uses that device here, as well as in the Tempest, Appassionata and Hammerklavier sonatas, among others.
One of the more notorious points of contention among pianists occurs on the very first note of Beethoven’s very first published sonata. No staccato mark appears here, although the other notes in the motif are thus clearly marked. Eight measures later, in the parallel passage in the left hand, a staccato mark is present. The inconsistency returns later in the movement. Some performers have found a justification for playing all the notes staccato, whereas others underscore the differentiation by slurring the first note to the second, even in the absence of such an indication by the composer. (When faced with such dilemmas, I try, perhaps simplistically, to do just what the composer indicates. In this case I play the first note non legato: musically joined, but unconnected physically to the second.)
In the decorative slow movement, Beethoven again asserts his individuality. Although the language is quite similar to that of Mozart, his message is far more direct, aimed straight to the hearts of his listeners. In general, Beethoven’s early slow movements are some of the most ravishingly beautiful compositions in existence. The opening measure of the Adagio is distilled into its essence, placed into the minor key, and used as the main theme of the Minuet, an unassuming little piece that grows increasingly complex with each hearing.
The Finale begins with the same three-chord outburst that concluded the first movement. The surging, tumultuous motion continues virtually unabated for the entire opening section, but then follows one of those infrequent occurrences that illustrate Beethoven’s relative inexperience as a composer. Although this movement is cast in sonata form, he interrupts the structure in order to insert a new, self-contained section prior to the more traditional development of earlier material. This creates a conundrum for the performer at the movement’s conclusion, where a repeat is nominally called for. If one observes the repeat, as I feel I must, the new material—itself quite repetitive and now no longer new—sounds redundant. Yet, if the repeat is omitted, the movement is clearly too short, and the ending catches everyone, including the pianist, off guard. It is reassuring to know that Beethoven, after all, was human, provided we also remember that he never made the same miscalculation twice.
—Notes by Robert Silverman