Beethoven and the Sonata
The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was 21 years old when Mozart died, and had met and played to him as a teenager. Haydn, an established and famous composer nearly 40 years older than Beethoven, encouraged the young man to move from his home town of Bonn to Vienna, the epicentre of European music at that time. For nearly two years between 1792 and 1794 Beethoven studied with Haydn, and also took lessons with other notable Viennese musicians such as Salieri and Albrechtsberger.
Beethoven’s position in musical history is unparalleled. He lived at a time of tremendous change in European history following the French revolution in 1789, and through his considerable body of work he defined the course of music in the 19th century and heralded the start of the Romantic period. However, Beethoven’s music was still Classical in design, despite its forward-looking, dramatic characteristics, and so he developed a style which was unique and highly influential to many – if not most – composers who came after him.
Beethoven’s earliest music, that written up to about 1802, shows a composer adapting the style of the time in a quest to find his own ‘voice’. It includes the early Op.18 string quartets, his piano sonatas up to Op.14 (and therefore including the ‘Pathétique’), his first two symphonies and his first three piano concertos.
Perhaps his most active compositional time came when he discovered that he was going deaf, from 1802 onwards for about 15 years, since this was the time that he wrote his opera Fidelio, two more piano concertos including the famous Emperor Concerto, Symphonies Nos. 3 to 8 and a huge amount of chamber music and piano sonatas.
Beethoven’s last, more reflective period of work was from 1815 or so up to his death in 1827, when he wrote his monumental Symphony No.9 (‘Choral’), the late string quartets and his last five piano sonatas along with sacred works like his Missa Solemnis.
By the time that he was writing the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, in 1799, Beethoven was established in Vienna and enjoying the support of a number of influential local aristocrats, often taking on their children as piano and composition students. Dedications of many of his early works to princes and counts show that he was given plenty of financial backing, and he also sold a decent amount of his music to German publishers. Beethoven was also a concert pianist of some repute.
In the Baroque period the word sonata meant a ‘played piece’ (as opposed to cantata) and was usually for one or more instruments plus continuo (see the section on Baroque music for more on this). By Beethoven’s time, the term had come to mean a large-scale multi-movement work for a solo instrument which might be accompanied by piano. Haydn used the word to describe his instrumental compositions and developed an overall form of three movements – usually an allegro in sonata form, a central slow movement in binary or ternary form and a fast, lively finale in rondo form. Most of Mozart’s sonatas followed this three-movement plan as well.
Beethoven’s contribution to the sonata genre is massive – he wrote at least 32 piano sonatas and a number for violin and also cello. After him, sonatas continued to be written by significant Romantic composers such as Schubert and Mendelssohn, and notable 20th century composers like Poulenc, Scriabin and Hindemith.