Composed in 1797 - 1798; Published in 1798
This sonata is generally acknowledged to be Beethoven’s first masterpiece. Each movement is a gem, with a strongly delineated profile and not a wasted note or gesture. The first movement sparkles with energy, its sense of breathlessness conveyed via mad dashes toward silences, double-takes and a surprise sudden jolt into the key of B flat major at the beginning of the Development section. Moreover, with virtually every theme based on the first four descending notes, it is as economical as any piece Beethoven composed. A sly reference to B-flat major also occurs at the very end of the movement, with a quotation from the opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K. 450, which also is in that key.
The Largo was to remain Beethoven’s most tragic creation for piano until the appearance of the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, Op. 106. According to his biographer cum flunkey, Anton Schindler, Beethoven had deliberately set out to convey the state of mind of someone who had fallen prey to melancholia. With its desolate opening, anguished climaxes, and devastating ending, he succeeded unconditionally. I often wonder what passed through his mind when he completed this work.
The Minuet begins elegantly, with a hint of sweetness. Then the surprises begin: a sudden rush in the bass is taken up by the other voices, before the music dissolves into a return of the opening theme. Finally, after a few more small jolts, it concludes with the same graciousness with which it began. The Trio resonates with the good humour that pervades the opening and closing movements, with its clumsy Landler, or peasant waltz.
As an experiment, I once attempted to follow the Largo with minuets and scherzos (appropriately transcribed) Beethoven had composed for other sonatas. None-including the one from the Pastorale Sonata, which is also in D major—provided the proper emotional release from the mood of despair. Some were too serious, others far too jocular. In trying to determine why this particular one works so well, I discovered a slight thematic connection between the close of the Minuet theme and the opening theme of the Largo, but quickly realized that this was not a valid explanation. One hallmark of a great composer is his ability to provide not merely thematic continuity in a piece of music, but for lack of a better word, psychological continuity. Beethoven’s genius in that regard is unparalleled.
The final movement is an exercise in both frugality and light-hearted comedy. The entire piece derives from only three notes, and the humour lies in that motif’s vain efforts to develop into a full-blown theme or melody. It never succeeds: its efforts are met with frustration at every turn. Later, it throws a brief tantrum, furious* at being thwarted so continually. However, rage is not its essential nature, and the mood soon dissipates. During the motif’s adventures, it had previously encountered a simple chromatic scale accompanied in the bass by “Chopsticks”-like chords. The sonata concludes with these two musical figures flying off together somewhere, silently…
* Beethoven’s incredible brain always lurks in the background, even in his most farcical moments. Consider that the tantrum is in B flat major, the key that plays an important role in the first movement.
—Notes by Robert Silverman