Composed in 1800 - 1801; Published in 1802
This work, like the Moonlight, its better known bedfellow, represents one of the earliest attempts by Beethoven to create a succinct, unified sonata in which, for the first time in his piano music, individual movements are linked together without a break. A reprise of the slow movement following the finale likewise contributes to the work’s unity, as does the fact that Beethoven derives virtually all the important themes in this sonata from two ideas: a falling third, and a rising arpeggio.
The most notable innovation in this piece is the dramatic shift in the work’s centre of gravity. Until this point, the classical sonata’s weightiest moments generally occurred in the two opening movements. However, this sonata breaks that tradition by intensifying as it progresses, with the Finale serving as its climax.
In order to underscore the importance of this structural change, and make it obvious, Beethoven may have deliberately composed as innocuous an opening theme to the sonata as he could. The subsequent variation even borders on silliness: this is one of the few places in Beethoven where the music is not, as Schnabel was fond of saying, “greater than it possibly can be played.” The two intervening episodes and the coda are by far the most interesting sections of this rondo movement.
The work then deepens dramatically and suddenly. The second movement is the first example we have of Beethoven’s dark, almost sinister scherzi. A songful slow movement is interrupted by the perpetual motion, driven Finale. Brilliant as it is, however, the Finale lacks the stamina to make it all the way to the finish line. It stops suddenly, and while pausing for breath, the Adagio returns for one final reprise. A short Coda resumes the activity, and brings this unjustifiably neglected sonata to a brilliant conclusion.
—Notes by Robert Silverman