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Beethoven ‘Pathétique’

Beethoven Piano Sonata Op.13 No.8 in C minor, ‘Pathétique’

Vienna from Belvedere by Bernardo Bellotto, 1758

Beethoven composed this sonata in 1798 and dedicated it to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, who was a friend of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s and a strong supporter of music in Vienna. It was given the name ‘Pathétique’ by Beethoven’s publisher, though probably with the composer’s consent, due to its dramatic moods, particularly clear at the very start with the brooding Grave introduction. The C minor key, one which Beethoven used most famously in his Symphony No.5, provides many dramatic opportunities, and Beethoven would have been aware of both a Piano Sonata and a Fantasia in that key written some years earlier by Mozart.

Beethoven and the piano

Beethoven had been living in Vienna for five or six years by now and was forging a reputation as a talented and compelling pianist and improviser. The piano he would have been playing on was quite a recent invention but was largely replacing the harpsichord in popularity given its ability to play at different dynamics and with a wider palette of colour. Beethoven’s performing style was known for its dramatic contrasts and he was getting a reputation for being passionate and even forceful in his playing. He often spoke of his frustration with the lack of power in the pianos he played and longed for a greater, more dramatic sounding instrument.

You can see plenty of examples of Beethoven’s approach to piano writing in this sonata. His use of dynamic contrasts, thick chords and a wide tessitura (range of pitch), along with other performance markings, was groundbreaking at the time.

Sonata form

The first movement of this sonata is in sonata form, a structure which had become commonplace and popular in the Classical period, particularly in first movements of sonatas, symphonies and string quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Sonata form developed out of binary and ternary form. It has two main thematic and tonal centres arranged into three sections called the exposition, the development and the recapitulation. Most sonata form movements are then rounded off with an ending section called a coda.

Some sonata form movements, like the ‘Pathétique’, begin with a slow introduction. Then, the exposition presents (or ‘exposes’) the main thematic material, arranged into two subject groups, the first in the tonic key and the second in a related key such as the dominant or the relative minor/major. The subject groups are linked by a bridge passage or transition and are usually quite different in character. The exposition usually finishes with a short passage called a codetta, usually in the ‘new’ key of the second subject.

The development section is the part of the movement where some of the themes heard in the exposition are ‘developed’, perhaps by changing their character, expanding one or two motifs or exploring new keys. Since the development is the central section of the music, there is a sense of build-up and increasing tension and, eventually, a return to the tonic key.

Then we hear the recapitulation, where the music of the exposition is repeated (‘recapped’) but without the move to a new key for the second subject. The bridge passage therefore becomes rather redundant but inventive composers like Beethoven still liked to allude to different keys in this section, without ever really settling on them. After the second subject is repeated, we usually have a coda to finish the movement.

Sonata Form, in summary, looks like this:

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