Composed in 1801 - 1802; Published in 1804
Although Beethoven had in 1800 expressed particular satisfaction with his Sonata in B flat, Op. 22, a year later he announced that he was displeased with his previous music, and that henceforth he would embark upon a new course. Part of this rhetorical overstatement can be attributed to the intense insecurity that escapes only mediocre artists. (An equal portion can undoubtedly be ascribed to hyperbole from one of the most successful self-promoters in the history of classical music.)
Nonetheless, there is more than an element of truth to his pronouncement. The sonatas of Op. 26 and 27 explore new structural possibilities. Although this sonata is more conventional from a formal standpoint, it explores several important new paths, including some that Beethoven ultimately decided not to pursue further: the use of Ecossais-type melodies, rapid shifts back and forth between major and minor modes (both of which would later become virtual thumbprints of Schubert), and a florid, operatic kind of writing.
However, Beethoven's most significant find lies in the area of harmony and structure. From the outset of his career, Beethoven had flirted with the notion of modulating, in his major-key sonata-form movements, to keys other than the dominant. As early as in his second sonata, he had led his listeners far afield before arriving at the expected second key. However, it is in Op. 31/1 that he finally "takes the plunge." For the first time, he modulates from the home key (G Major) to B, in both the major and minor modes (as opposed to the typical dominant, in this case, D major). Nowadays, any Grade II piano student knows that B minor and D major share the same key signature, so the modulation does not seem too strange to our ears. However, two centuries ago, ending the exposition in any key other than D would have undoubtedly shocked listeners and fellow musicians. It could well be that Beethoven chose to clothe such a radical step in the most humorous, off-the-wall, movement for piano he would compose, so as to deflect any criticism that such a departure might provoke.
The Sonata features one of the most nondescript openings in the history of music, beginning with a trite theme that the pianist's hands seemingly cannot manage to play together. The melody itself goes nowhere, turning back on itself again and again. In desperation, the pianist scrambles all over the keyboard in search of something better to do. Finally, he decides to cut his losses and start over. Unfortunately, he fares no better this time, and it is against this backdrop, that the piece finally modulates, with little subtlety, to the "wrong key." This is an example of musical hi-jinx at its best. Later on, in the Development section and in the coda that concludes the movement, it is the split hands and the mad scrambling, rather than the subsequent melodies, which Beethoven chooses for further expansion.
The second movement represents another path Beethoven chose not to explore further: the florid, opera-like style that would lead directly to the Nocturnes of Chopin and Field, as well as the Bel Canto melodies of Bellini and Donizetti. The motorized middle section contrasts sharply with the opening; yet, when the first section returns, the composer, as usual, finds a way of reconciling both elements. The movement concludes with a wondrous, lengthy coda that sounds far more like Schubert than Beethoven.
The third movement is one of those leisurely, repetitious rondos with which Beethoven frequently concluded his sonatas. Charles Rosen, the eminent scholar/pianist, notes that it is an exact formal model for the finale of Schubert's posthumous A Major Sonata (and argues that this is a rare instance where a student's effort surpassed that of the teacher). Toward the end of the movement, a cadenza deliciously teases the audience by reintroducing the main theme yet again, but haltingly now, as if to ask: "Shall we move along, or savour it still more?" (Shades of vaudeville artistes Lili St. Cyr or Tempest Storm!) Finally, the composer makes up his mind, and speeds hastily to the double bar, re-introducing in the final measures the alternating hands with which this special, and least familiar, sonata began.
—Notes by Robert Silverman