Composed in 1798; Published in 1799
This good-humored sonata is an exact contemporary of the Pathétique, Op. 13. Beethoven possibly may have planned to include all three under a single opus number, but soon realized that the two lightweight inhabitants of Op. 14 hardly belong in the same galaxy as the Pathétique, let alone the same binding.
Jokes abound throughout the piece, beginning with the first measure, which is deliberately written so as mislead the unsuspecting listener as to the placement of the main beat. The movement continues amiably until the relatively lengthy development section, where the mood becomes more serious, even confrontational. Rhythmic confusion begins again toward the end of the section, and the piece is forced to come to an abrupt, ugly halt on C#, a note as far away from G as we can get, before a return to the main theme⎯the sneakiest Beethoven ever composed⎯can be managed. He obviously liked the joke so much that he repeated it practically verbatim in the finale of his sixteenth sonata (G major, Op. 31/1).
The brief second movement is possibly the most unsophisticated in the canon. It is an unnamed set of variations in which the main theme is always discernible, while the speed of its embellishments increases from variation to variation. Interestingly, Beethoven never called movements of this type Variations, reserving that designation only for those works in which the theme itself is subjected to more profound transformations. One almost can imagine this movement having been written by a far less talented colleague, were it not for two touches that only Beethoven could have thought of: a four-bar interpolation just before final variation, and an audacious chord that brings the movement to a close.
The final movement is a rondo entitled Scherzo. Once again, the composer keeps the listener guessing: first about the time signature, then, about where the main beat is within the bar. A fitful piece, except for a lyrical episode, it keeps us off guard from beginning to end. Haydn would have loved it.
—Notes by Robert Silverman