Composed in 1804; Published in 1806
What are we to make of this curious, unassuming work that separates the heroic Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas? Should we read anything into its lack of a dedication, seemingly a wasted opportunity for one of the more politically astute composers in history? Is it an indication that Beethoven realized that it hadn’t quite come off? Could he have intended it as a heavy-handed burlesque of less talented composers’ efforts, along the lines of Mozart’s Musical Joke, or perhaps even his own eighth symphony? Or should we cast our votes with pianists Edwin Fischer and Alfred Brendel, both of whom have written that it is an important work (without really explaining why)?
The truth probably lies somewhere within all these assertions. In this sonata, Beethoven explored a number of radical techniques for the first time, while disguising the sonata’s experimental nature with the use of humour, so as to deflect any criticism of the piece.
In the opening movement Beethoven attempts a juxtaposition and ultimate reconciliation of two diametrically opposing ideas: an elegant, gentle minuet and a crude, heavily accented octave exercise. The minuet occurs three times, becoming increasingly ornate with each repetition, finally dissolving into trills. Interspersed are the two octave passages. They begin similarly, but partway through the second of these, Beethoven suddenly breaks off, as though he realizes that this experiment simply is not working, and returns to the minuet. He becomes contrite in the coda when, as though to atone for his sins, he delivers the movement’s finest music.
In the second movement we find the composer experimenting with structure. The thematic material, admittedly, can be shoe-horned into some kind of sonata form, but with the proportions of each section totally askew: The opening exposition is only 3 lines long, while the remainder of the movement occupies more than five pages. Furthermore, the imbalance is magnified because Beethoven specifically indicates that the lengthy second section be repeated. Perceptually, the effect is one of the composer leading us all over the map for several minutes, at a hypnotic pace that according to Donald Tovey, nothing can hurry and nothing can stop. Finally, Beethoven decides that enough is enough, and races us for the concluding double bar, leaving us all out of breath when we arrive there. The laugh is on us!
Some of the techniques he first explored here would be repeated with more notable success in subsequent keyboard works. The progressively increasing decorativeness in each repetition of the minuet can also be heard in both the slow movement of Op. 57 and the final variation of the third movement of Op. 109. The juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible ideas in the opening movement of Op. 54 is again worked out in the first movement of Op. 109. Finally, Beethoven was sufficiently satisfied with the finale that he immediately used a similar in his very next piano sonata, the Appassionata, both with respect to the tempo and asymmetrical ground plan.
—Notes by Robert Silverman