The first masterpiece of the 32…

Opus 10, no. 3 is the third sonata in the Opus 10 set. Like its companions, it was finished in 1798 and is dedicated to the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, Anne Margarete von Browne. Unlike Opus 10, numbers 1 & 2, it is written in four, not three, movements. It is a more substantial work than either of the first two sonatas, taking 24 minutes to perform. The sonata as a whole is regarded as the first masterpiece in the entire 32 piano sonatas.

The most notable feature of this D Major sonata is the extraordinarily profound 2nd movement, set in the parallel key of D Minor. Many commentators feel that this is the first time in the 32 piano sonatas that Beethoven really plumbs the depths of his own inner, emotional world. In it, Beethoven captures the feeling of utter despair, in sound. Sir Donald Tovey, one of music history’s most notable Beethoven experts, said of this movement: “‘The details of phrasing and tone-colour have been provided with extraordinary precision by Beethoven himself; and if you simply make sure that you are playing what is written you will go far to realize the tragic power that makes this movement a landmark in musical history. Do not try to ‘understand’ before you do as Beethoven bids. The people who ‘understand’ great music beforehand never see anything in it except a mirror of their own minds. The player who obeys orders faithfully will be constantly discovering music’s real meaning.”

The weightiness of the second movement is counterbalanced by the good cheer, humor, and inventiveness that Beethoven spreads all through the other three movements. The overall emotional architecture of the piece seems to demand this. The final measures of the fourth movement end without fanfare, and without a musical exclamation point. Some 19th century editors felt obliged to insert a final crescendo there, but that is very definitely not what Beethoven wanted. Each one of the first, third, and fourth movements in this sonata ends with a conclusion that Beethoven obviously assigned great importance to, as he sketched out the final measures of these movements before even writing their beginnings.

Just a final thought before listening. This is sonata #7. Because of its length and especially because of its depth, it is a substantial marker along the way for Beethoven. He would compose ten piano sonatas before he started in on his first symphony. I’m not sure how to evaluate what this might mean, if it means anything at all. Perhaps the sonatas served a necessary psychological, as well as compositional, run-up to his Symphony #1 (Music I Love #245), which he felt was necessary? There may be no connection whatsoever, of course. It just strikes me as something interesting to think about.

And just one other thing. Most classical pianists could not begin to even estimate the number of times they have heard every single one of the Beethoven sonatas. I’m not sure what the parallel experience would be like in some other arts-related discipline, or even if there is one. I’ve surely heard the Opus 10, number 3 sonata hundreds of times. And yet, it is so captivating—each time—that I have to stop and listen to every note, regardless if it is a Richard Goode performance or the performance of a student who is freshly learning it.

Such is the power of originality in Beethoven. He COMMANDS our attention!

Pictures–artist rendering of Beethoven, and beginning of the powerful slow movement.

The timings in Richard Goode’s recording:

1st movt 0:00
2nd movt 7:06
3rd movt 16:17
4th movt 19:00