Composed in 1802; Published in 1804
Also called "The Hunt"
This work was to be Beethoven’s final four-movement sonata aside from the Hammerklavier. Its layout is quite unusual. There is no slow movement: instead, the composer provides both a Scherzo and a Minuet. (Had Beethoven appeared on the late-night Dietrich Leitermann TV show, the gap-toothed comic might have quipped: “What’s the matter, Lou? After composing 17 sonatas, you still can’t make up your mind?”)
Like the other two Op. 31 sonatas, this one begins unusually. Instead of positing a thesis or statement, Beethoven asks a question. Moreover, throughout the movement, like an insecure child, he asks the same question over and over again, even though the answer is provided on each occasion by a parent whose patience exceeds that of anyone else listening to (or performing) the piece.
The Scherzo is equally unorthodox. Until now, Beethoven’s scherzi have essentially been fast, triple-metered minuets, with contrasting Trios. This one breaks with both traditions: it is a quick march in 2/4 time, and is cast in a sonata form, complete with a repeat of the opening section. Its most distinguishing characteristics are the perpetual-motion accompaniment in the left hand, and the sudden explosive chords that temporarily halt the movement’s continuous motion. The surprise ending is truly one of the composer’s masterstrokes.
The Minuet⎯Beethoven’s final free-standing one for solo piano⎯is characterized by a complete absence of the vigour and rhythmic thrust of most classical minuets by Haydn and Mozart, as well as those by Beethoven himself. Instead, this beautiful piece is filled with nostalgia and sentiment, as though the composer is reluctantly taking his leave of the eighteenth century. *
Beethoven’s student, Karl Czerny, claimed that the composer told him that he was inspired by the sound of a horseman riding wildly outside his window as he composed the finale to the D minor Sonata, Op. 31/2. There may have been a breakdown of communication between them, due either to Beethoven’s deafness or a lapse in Czerny’s memory. It requires a stretch of the imagination to hear the last movement of Op. 31/2 (marked Allegretto) in that manner. However, very few pieces better evoke the image of a furious gallop than the Finale of Op. 31/3. It begins breathlessly with the sound of hooves clattering on the cobblestones. Later on, hunting horn calls are added to the mix, and the movement continues to a joyous conclusion with only a tiny break just before the final phrase.
* Later, in his Symphony No. 8, he would return to the minuet form to parody it, rather than, as in this sonata, to pay homage to a beloved genre that he realized had outlived its time.
—Notes by Robert Silverman