Composed in 1809; Published in 1810
This is first of three relatively brief piano sonatas that appeared four years after the Appassionata. Its brevity, however, is not an indication that it is a slight work; indeed, Beethoven claimed that this sonata was one of his favorites. (Presumably, he was sufficiently objective not to allow his special affection for the sonata’s dedicatee, Therese von Brunsvik, as well what may have been more than affection for her sister Josephine, to color his judgment.)
Anyone believing that keys lost their distinctive personalities following the introduction of the well-tempered system of tuning need not look further than this sonata. Try playing the introduction in G or F major, then play it in the proper key of F#. The difference is astonishing; the piece becomes so dark, so haunting! No wonder Beethoven wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest by the fact that the pianist has to “walk on eggs” in order to play the rest of the sonata!
The miraculous four-measure introduction sets the stage and the mood of the remainder of the movement, with the cantabile feeling moderating all the harmonic and rhythmic contrasts that follow.
The main theme of this exuberant, kaleidoscopic second movement is based on a three-note idea that appears inconspicuously in the first movement, followed immediately by the refrain, Brittannia rules the Waves, from Thomas Arne's anthem Rule Brittania. (This could be a coincidence, although Beethoven knew the theme well, having composed a set of piano variations on the English melody in 1803.) Good humour abounds through the continuous two-note chirrups, the sudden changes in register, and even the sharp major-minor shifts. One of the movement’s finest touches occurs just prior to each return of the main theme, when the composer keeps us guessing about exactly when it will happen. Also in evidence is Beethoven’s genius for knowing precisely how to end a movement.
—Notes by Robert Silverman