Composed in 1794 - 1795; Published in 1796
In spite of its relative obscurity, the Sonata No. 2 contains the most strikingly original music of the three sonatas in this opus. It is also in this work that Beethoven's penchant for not allowing such trivialities as the shape of a pianist’s hand to interfere with his musical vision. Although the overall difficulty of this sonata does not approach that of the middle- and late-period pot-boilers, there are a few brief passages whose successful negotiation depends totally upon the smile of the deities, no matter how thorough the artist’s prior preparation.
The expansive first movement provides one of the earliest example of Beethoven’s practice of presenting two simple, contrasting ideas at the outset, and using the rest of the movement to exploit, and ultimately reconcile their differences. The ideas themselves are about as uncomplicated as they can get: a pair of descending motifs (an A sharply dropping to the dominant E, answered by a filled-in descent from E back to A); and an ascending A major scale.
It is in this movement that Beethoven begins a systematic probing of all aspects of the sonata—in this case, the common practice by which the opening section of a sonata movement modulates from the tonic to the dominant. True, we ultimately arrive where we are “supposed” to, but the route Beethoven chooses is so circuitous and convoluted that musicians and educated listeners of his time must have felt completely lost along the way.
The Largo is Beethoven’s first truly sublime slow movement. Its simple melody and string quartet-like texture conveys a powerful spiritual sense that was first noted by his student, Karl Czerny, shortly after the piece appeared. Formally, the movement seems to progress in a standard ternary fashion (A-B-A), and most listeners can be forgiven for expecting a peaceful close following the return of the opening theme. Even if Beethoven had chosen to do this, he would still have composed a wonderful, moving slow movement, and none of us would have been the wiser. However, he had other ideas. What appears to be the coda is suddenly interrupted by a forceful outburst of the main theme in the minor mode. That gesture is easily described, yet it is one of the most cataclysmic events in all music. It doesn’t last long. The main theme returns one last time, then the music closes quietly, just as we had expected it to do a short while earlier.
In spite of its title, the brief Scherzo is a playful minuet whose jocularity is tempered every so often by darker hues, especially in the Trio. The fourth movement is the first of those gracious, leisurely, repetitive rondos he was so fond of composing. The opening theme, with its long sigh, is not merely delightful, but also delicious, while the material that follows is as delicate as anything he wrote. However, a furious middle section crudely interrupts this delectable atmosphere. (Beethoven frequently inserted music of this nature into his rondos, but in my opinion, he “went over the top” on this occasion, with subsequent deleterious consequences, as we shall soon see). The return to the main theme is superbly paced; its third reiteration and the music that follows is just as magical as it was the first time around. So, for that matter, is the fourth statement of the theme. A sprightly coda follows, and the movement seems well on its way to a happy conclusion.
But wait! There’s more! Remember that crude middle section? No self-respecting composer would dare use such a prominent theme without justifying its presence elsewhere in the piece. Beethoven has no choice: holding his breath, he plows into it again, thankfully in a milder, shortened version. Like its predecessor, it also dissolves into what is now a fifth statement of the main theme. Finally, the storyteller sheepishly tiptoes off the stage, hoping that no one will notice that he’d been winging it for the last two pages. But what winging!
—Notes by Robert Silverman