The Piano Sonatas of Beethoven

First Period

Op. 2
3 sonatas (F minor, A, C)
2 sonatas (G minor, G) "Sonates faciles"
1 sonata (E-flat)
Op. 10
3 sonatas (C minor, F, D)
Op. 13
1 sonata (C minor ) (Pathétique)
Op. 14
2 sonatas (E, G)
Op. 22
1 sonata (B-flat)

Formal experimentation, deriving from Haydn's examples, is typical of Beethoven's early piano sonatas, with their structures ranging from the quite free forms (Op. 2, No. 2) to the clarity of form of Op. 22.  The moods of the sonatas range from the tempestuousness of the two C minor sonatas to the playfulness of Op. 10, No. 2.  Many of these sonatas are technically easy, but only an accomplished pianist can do justice to Op. 10, No. 3, the finest sonata of this period.  Many of these sonatas have four movements, with the third generally termed "minuetto" but occasionally "scherzo."  Perhaps because of Clementi's influence, Beethoven's piano sonatas are the most original of his first-period compositions.  Some of the harmonic characteristics in these early works, as well as the frequent use of octaves and the thick full texture of the piano writing, may have been suggested to Beethoven by the piano sonatas of  Clementi.

The transitional works leading to Beethoven's second period were written during his progressive loss of hearing.  Of the principal works of this transitional period, the piano sonatas between Op. 26 and Op. 31 show most clearly the dissolution of the composer's earliest style and his groping for new means of expression. The "Moonlight" and "Tempest" sonatas are among these.

Second Period

Op. 26
1 sonata (A-flat)
Op. 27
2 sonatas (E-flat, C# minor) "quasi una Fantasia"
Op. 28
1 sonata (D) (Pastorale)
Op. 31
3 sonatas (G, D minor, E-flat)
Op. 53
1 sonata (C) (Waldstein)
Op. 54
1 sonata (F)
Op. 57
1 sonata (F minor) (Appassionata)
Op. 78
1 sonata (F#)
Op. 79
1 sonata (G)
Op. 81a
1 sonata (E-flat) (Das lebewohl)
Op. 90
1 sonata (E minor)

The piano sonatas of the second period show a wide range of styles and forms.  Among the earliest, dating from about 1802, are the Sonata in A flat with the funeral march, Op. 26, and the two sonatas of Op. 27, each designated as "quasi una fantasia"; the second is the one popularly known as the "Moonlight Sonata" (sometimes considered a transitional piece from his first period).

Outstanding among the sonatas of the second period are Op. 53 in C major(called the "Waldstein" after one of Beethoven's patrons) and Op. 57 in F minor, commonly called the "Appassionata."  Both were composed in 1804.  Each has the usual Classical three movements in the order fast -- slow -- fast; each exhibits the patterns of sonata-form, rondo, or variations, with appropriate key-schemes.  But their formal order has, as it were, been expanded from within by the force of Beethoven's musical imagination, expressed in themes of elemental power that require a structure of hitherto unknown tension and concentration to support their natural development and completion.

It is not its first-movement dimension that makes the Piano Sonata Op. 53 fundamentally different from anything Mozart ever wrote, nor is it the use of E major in the context of C that affects the listener, but rather a quality of melody, of sonority, and of process.  Op. 53 is the only work Beethoven dedicated to his earliest patron and supporter, Count Waldstein.  The first movement begins with thick sonority in low register, which is repeated a tone lower in measure 5.  The bass, beginning two octaves below middle C, progresses downward by chromatic step to G.  Meanwhile, the right hand moves further and further away from the descending bass to F, two octaves and a fourth above middle C.  This texture, which sets the hands in opposition moving further and further apart, and the resultant sonority are constants in Beethoven's pianism.  The sense of strain and stress that this sonority brings about is an important element in Beethoven's style and an inseparable part of his musical imagination.

Beethoven's treatment of the secondary tonal area in the recapitulation and coda is unusual in that he presents the cantabile theme, first heard in E, in the submediant, A; then, moving through A minor, he takes it to the expected area, the tonic.  In the coda this material is heard again, entirely in the tonic.

Beethoven originally intended to give his Op. 53 a long ternary-form slow movement, but after composing it, he replaced it with a much shorter and quite different composition entitled "Introduzione" which acts as a nebulous interlude between the large outer structures and effectively makes the Waldstein a two-movement sonata.

After the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" there were no more sonatas from Beethoven for five years.  To the year 1809 belong both the Sonata in F#, Op. 78, and the quasi-programmatic Sonata Op. 81a.

The Piano Sonata Op. 90 (1814) is a work bordering on Beethoven's third period;  it has only two movements, an Allegro in E minor in concise sonata form and a long, leisurely sonata-rondo Andante in E major, which is one of Beethoven's happiest lyric inspirations.

Third Period

Op. 101
1 sonata (A)
Op. 106
1 sonata (B-flat) (Hammerklavier)
Op. 109
1 sonata (E)
Op. 110
1 sonata (A-flat)
Op. 111
1 sonata (C minor)

Beethoven overwhelmed the limits of Classical form in his sonata movements by blurring the demarcations between sections and theme-groups and in creating such gigantic structures as is evidenced in the first movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 106 (Hammerclavier).

Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111, has a relatively  orthodox, straightforward first movement.  It begins with a slow introduction leading to a monothematic exposition, a short development, a regular recapitulation, and a short effective coda.  The second and final movement is a theme and variations.  The variation idea is turned into a linear exercise in which one thought leads to another.  The ongoing factor is that of reducing note length, and the process, starting from the beginning, increases motion -- perceptible as tempo -- to the point where motion becomes quiet stillness, as a spinning top "sleeps."

(see also The Three Periods of Beethoven)