Composed in 1798; Published in 1799
Also called "Grande Sonate Pathétique"
In 1793, the German poet, Friedrich Schiller, wrote an essay entitled Über das Pathetische. Musicologist William Kinderman, in his book, Beethoven, lucidly states Schiller’s thesis: “Pathos or tragedy arises when unblinkered awareness of suffering is counter-balanced by the capacity of reason to resist these feelings.”
Beethoven’s understanding of this affect was undoubtedly close to Schiller’s. Defiance of suffering and a single-minded determination to surmount it lie at the heart of virtually all his C minor compositions. By the late 18th century, that key’s strong association with a sense of tragic drama was firmly established: Mozart had cast several of his most dramatic works in that key, while Beethoven had recently composed the first of three dramatic C minor sonatas (Op. 10/1). However, the “C minor as pathos” identification probably was cemented with the “Grande Sonate Pathétique,” one of only two sonatas whose nickname was actually provided by Beethoven.
This trait is found most obviously in the first movement, with its conflict between the solemn Grave, which is so reminiscent of the opening of Bach’s C minor Partita, and the hugely defiant Allegro. Only four of the sonatas have an introduction, and this, his first, is the lengthiest and most elaborate. It does far more than merely set the mood: it is heavily integrated with the rest of the movement.
A famous point of dispute between musicians occurs in the opening movement: some early editions of this sonata seem to indicate that the Introduction as well as the Allegro be repeated. The late Rudolf Serkin performed the sonata in this manner, as does at least one of his former students. I sympathize with anyone's desire to hear (or play) the introduction a second time. However, the overwhelming momentum of the Allegro suffers by the resulting interruption, and the devastating shock of the return to the introduction in G minor at the outset of the Development is completely lost. More importantly, how are we to handle Beethoven’s contemporaneous Piano Quartet/Quintet, Op. 16, with its even longer introduction and identical ambiguity about the repeat? In that work, repeating the introduction sounds ludicrous. Doing so in the Pathétique is equally wrong.
Was the famous slow movement consciously or unconsciously influenced by the very similar middle section of the slow movement of Mozart’s C minor sonata? Was it deliberately echoed, in turn, by Beethoven himself in the Adagio of his Ninth Symphony? We can never know such things: When someone pointed out to Brahms the resemblance between the finale of his first symphony and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, he responded “Any idiot knows that.” However, when I intrepidly asked Aaron Copland about a striking kinship between the closing measures of The Cat and the Mouse and the introduction to Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he acknowledged the resemblance, but then added that he’d never heard the Dukas piece when he’d composed his own work as a young man.
Like so many of Beethoven’s adagios, this one has a troubled inner section in the minor key. His piano sonatas often contained textures associated with string quartet writing; here, one can easily envision a duet between the first violin and cello, accompanied by the nervous triplets in the second violin and viola parts. It is also characteristic of the composer’s slow movements that some aspect of the contrasting middle section—in this case the triplet figures—remain present when the song-like opening theme returns.
The Finale may be the lightest of the three movements, but its thematic connections to the rest of the sonata run deep. The rhythm of the main theme is identical to that of the second theme in the opening movement. The middle section contains two links to the second movement: not only do they share the key of A flat major, but the melodic skeleton of Adagio is also maintained. Throughout the movement Beethoven also plays a teasing game with us: on four occasions there occurs a brilliant descending scale, beginning from the topmost F of the keyboard as he knew it. However, only in the last measure does he finally resolve it in the home key of C minor.
—Notes by Robert Silverman