Sonata #15 in D Major, Opus 28 “Pastorale”

Composed in 1801; Published in 1802

This sonata is something of an anomaly, given the six highly innovative sonatas from Op. 26 to 31 that surround it. It is, for Beethoven, a relatively conventional four-movement creation (his last) and is the most laid-back of the canon. There are few formal and harmonic experiments like those that characterize his previous sonatas; also absent is their strong dramatic presence. Still, as Donald Tovey points out, Op. 28 is “Pastoral” only in the sense that Jane Austin’s novels are. One only has to compare this masterful piece to Clementi’s Sonata Op. 40/3 (written almost at the same time, in the same key, and with a strikingly similar opening theme), to recognize the masterful quality that shines through from beginning to end. It is tightly unified; a descending scale from A to D is found in the opening themes of the first, second, and fourth movements. (One wonders whether Beethoven had at the back of his mind, the famous Bach Musette in D major we all played as children, which also begins with the same descending five notes.)

Two particularly striking moments in the opening movement bear specific mention. The ending of the first theme, in the right hand, becomes the basis of the closing theme in the left. Later, the Development section provides a classic instance of what Alfred Brendel terms foreshortening, in which more and more of a theme is chopped away, while the remainder is repeated again and again with increasing insistence.

The processional Andante follows, accompanied by a cello-like pizzicato bass line. Lest we labour under the misunderstanding that this is another funeral march, Beethoven provides a fairly jocular Trio. Towards the end, however, the movement deepens significantly, and when the Trio is briefly reprised, its far more menacing qualities are also revealed.

The Scherzo begins ambiguously, with four descending unison F sharps that could easily imply several different keys. It is only when those notes are answered that we know that Beethoven is remaining in the home key of D Major. His humorous use of silence in this movement is also especially noteworthy. The Trio anticipates a trick Chopin often used in the Mazurkas, in which the melody remains constant while the surrounding harmonies alter with each iteration.

Op. 28 marks the first instance in a Beethoven sonata where a deliberately-paced Finale is followed by a brief, fast coda. It is the most “pastoral” of the four movements, with the opening measures wonderfully evoking the sound of country bagpipes (decidedly not the Black Watch variety) in the distance.


—Notes by Robert Silverman

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