Continuing our Beethoven Sonata survey…

Beethoven wrote the A-flat Major sonata in 1801 when he was 31 shortly after he composed his first symphony. The calmness of this sonata and the exuberance of the first symphony would seem to indicate that Beethoven was experiencing a peaceful time in his young life. The sonata was published in 1802.

When pianists think of Opus 26, they immediately think of its unusual form. Of the four movements, not one is actually in sonata form, the prevailing formal structure involving the development of two themes in a tightly regulated harmonic scheme. Each one of the movements, rather, is like a separate character piece. The pianist Angela Hewitt likens the sonata to a divertimento, which was a loosely gathered set of pieces that have no thematic relationship to each other.

The theme and five variations of the first movement are comforting, almost “religious,” as Beethoven’s prodigy Carl Czerny regarded them. The sparkle of the second movement scherzo is followed by a surprise funeral march third movement. Very ambiguously—and with no explanation—Beethoven subtitled this third movement, a “funeral march on the death of a hero.”

Chopin regarded the Opus 26 sonata as his favorite Beethoven sonata, playing it often and teaching it. (It would have been a relatively “new” work at the time, written just 30 years previously.) It seems likely that the part of the sonata that Chopin was most attracted to was the third movement funeral march. His own second sonata has a slow movement funeral march, which has become the most famous funeral march in all of classical music.

The fourth movement is very much like an etude, with running sixteenth notes throughout. Hewitt speculates that Beethoven was influenced into writing such an etude-like piece by his recent acquaintance with John Baptist Cramer, the transplanted German living in England who wrote many similar etudes for the purpose of finger development.

My personal feeling about not only Opus 26, but the sonatas of this period of Beethoven’s life—his late 20’s and early 30’s—is that his etude-like movements such as this one are really very much FUN to play. In Opus 26, Beethoven omits a flashy brilliant conclusion in favor of simply fading away.

As always—Richard Goode’s playing of Beethoven is exemplary.

Let me parenthetically say, in this post, that we are approaching the half-way point in the sonatas. I do hope that, in addition to reading and listening to these Beethoven sonatas here in Facebook, you’ll take the time at some point to visit my music-i-love.com site and click on the BEETHOVEN SONATAS on the right-hand side, which will allow you, should you desire, to listen to all the sonatas chronologically as Beethoven wrote them or in any other way that suits you. As I’ve mentioned before, the Beethoven Sonatas–along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–are considered to be the CENTRAL, indispensable portions of the entire piano repertoire.

Movement timings:

1st mov’t 0:00
2nd mov’t 7:39
3rd mov’t 10:17
4th mov’t 15:57

Pics: young Beethoven; John Baptist Cramer; theme of variations first movement.