Composed in 1796 - 1798; Published in 1798
This is the first of three dramatic sonatas Beethoven set in the key of C minor. Although the Pathétique and the final sonata, Op. 111 ultimately would overshadow it, it is a strong work on its own: powerful and concise, with each movement’s character clearly delineated. The similarities between the opening of this work and that of Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K. 475, are too striking to be coincidental. Both sonatas begin with bold, rising C minor arpeggios, followed a plaintive response. However, in spite of this kinship, each sonata could only be the product of its creator. Beethoven’s restless, nervous energy is something quite new in the musical language of the late eighteenth century.
The first movement is also notable for the unusual presence of a new theme in the central section, which normally is devoted solely to the development of previously introduced material. This is one of several examples of how Beethoven, even in his earliest published compositions, methodically questioned and probed every aspect of the classical tradition as he found it at the outset of his career.
The slow movement begins with a wonderfully lyrical theme that surely influenced Schubert when he composed his own great C minor sonata. Like virtually all of Beethoven’s early slow movements, it is a work of transcendent beauty. Also typical of the composer is the passionate, almost defiant outburst shortly following the return of the main theme; it reminds us that peaceful moments are transitory, and that darker forces are always present even if they do not show their faces at every moment.
The finale is one of Beethoven’s most ominous creations. Cast in sonata-allegro form, it is one of only two movements marked Prestissimo in the entire set of 32 sonatas. Its particularly terse Development section fleetingly introduces for the first time in his music the soon-to-be-familiar motif—three short notes followed by a long one. (Interestingly, the key of the piece in which this motif was later immortalized is also C minor.) Both principal themes of the movement are ingeniously combined in the brief coda, which concludes the movement as quietly and mysteriously as it began.
—Notes by Robert Silverman