Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, Essay Example

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Essay

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, the “Pathétique” Sonata, Opus 13, is distinguished even by the standards of so brilliant a career as Beethoven’s (Wright “Listening” 211). Beethoven premiered the work in 1799, seven years after moving permanently to Vienna in 1792 (210). Music ran in the family: both Beethoven’s father and his grandfather were court musicians at Bonn, and Beethoven, born in 1770, displayed great talent from an early age (210). The young composer took lessons from none other than Joseph Haydn, and used his considerable musical skill to obtain the patronage of the Austrian nobility (210). What he lacked in social skills he more than made up for with talent: in Wright’s words, “Beethoven played the piano louder, more forcefully, and even more violently than anyone the Viennese nobility had ever heard”, and they were completely captivated by him (210).

Following in Mozart’s footsteps, Beethoven was free to enjoy the patronage of any aristocrat who desired to extend it in order to support his artistic genius (Wright “Listening” 210). It is against this background that his great “Pathétique”, or “Plaintive”, Sonata must be seen (210). The “Pathétique” Sonata was well-received by the Viennese aristocracy, as was the norm for Beethoven’s works (211). The work displays a great deal of passion and pathos, principally due to the way that it uses extremes: in the “Pathétique” Sonata Beethoven juxtaposed extremes of dynamics, tempo, and range, all in a format that requires enormous “technical skill and stamina”, even more than “any piano sonata of Mozart or Haydn” (211). Sonata No. 8 was truly innovative: as Staines explained, the sonata very clearly demonstrates Beethoven’s “dissatisfaction with the rigidities of classical form” (49). It is a mighty, lonely, solemn work, one that exceeded the expectations of the time (49). Before Beethoven and during his lifetime, sonatas were meant to be played in homes; however, this sonata is well suited to a concert hall, a major innovation (Wright “Listening” 214).

Well before Beethoven, the piano sonata was an important genre with a prestigious history and pedigree (Miller and Cockrell 133). Before the period of classical music, the so-called Preclassical period, the sonata emerged in the 16th century as an instrumental composition; by contrast, vocal compositions were cantatas (111, 133). In fact, the first reference to “sonada” was in a 1535 ensemble of lute music, which was composed by Luis de Milán (111). Giovanni Gabrieli’s 1597 Sonata pian’ e forte is a famous example of an early sonata, which was composed for “two choirs of brass instruments” (111). From 1600 to 1650, a genre of instrumental canzonas evolved and flourished, becoming more complex and sophisticated in its use of contrasts in tempo and meter between sections (111). By 1650, these sections had evolved into larger, separate movements, merging with the sonata (111).

Out of a number of different styles of Baroque sonatas, it was the keyboard sonata that gave rise to the genre to which Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata was heir (Miller and Cockrell 112). In addition to Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven was influenced by the composers Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) and Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) (133). However, Beethoven’s work outshone and outstripped them all: his piano sonatas are considered nothing less than “the culmination of the genre” (133). Beethoven, then, stands at the acme, the summit of the form. After Beethoven, Johannes Brahms emerged to put his own stamp on the sonata: as a young composer at the age of twenty, Brahms made his name with three piano sonatas, which collectively re-envisioned and refashioned the genre (Staines 92). In Staines’s words, Brahms’s piano sonatas took the concept of the sonata and refashioned it inot “a gargantuan receptacle for teeming ideas” (92). Piano Sonata No. 3, is the boldest and best of the three (93). With this fiery, blazing sonata, Brahms revolutionized the genre so utterly that it is only apropos that he never again wrote a piano sonata (93).

The “Pathétique” Sonata is, beyond doubt, a brilliant work, one that bears the indelible stamp of its creator’s genius. Beethoven himself played this sonata, and other of his own works, with tremendous speed and force: Wright explains that “on one occasion he broke six strings” (“Listening” 211). It opens with a crashing C minor chord, a powerful attestation of the violence that Beethoven sometimes displayed in his playing (211). In keeping with his signature for contrast, Beethoven wrote the sonata in a way that would evoke very different moods, effectively juxtaposing them against each other (211). A good example is the sforzado chord, which is “followed by quiet lyricism”; the calm in turn gives way to another storm, in the form of a “chordal thunderbolt” (211). The rest of the entire first movement is a great contest, which pits the frenetic and impetuous themes against “stormy chords” (212).

The second movement is a kind of “lyrical hymn”, one that demonstrates the truth of Beethoven’s own saying that “one can sing on the piano, so long as one has feeling” (Wright “Listening” 212-214). Both the second movement and the third movement display the rondo form, but there is a considerable contrast between them: if the second movement is a lyrical hymn, the third might be characterized as “a passionate, but slightly comical, chase” (214). Movements 4 and 10 exhibit very fast scales, requiring a fantasia style: the pianist must feel both the accelerando and the crescendo (Takács 51). Overall, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, the “Pathétique” Sonata, displays the hallmarks of Beethoven’s considerable influence on the form: for composers like Mozart and Haydn, sonatas were composed to be played in the home, often by an apprentice (Wright “Listening” 214). Beethoven, however, wrote louder, longer sonatas, with a much wider range: sonatas that could be played in the concert halls that began to emerge during his own lifetime, in the early 19th century (214). The “Pathétique” Sonata is a masterful example of Beethoven’s creative powers, one that has left an enduring legacy and impact.

Works Cited

Miller, Hugh M., and Dale Cockrell. History of Western Music. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1972. Print.

Staines, Joe. The Rough Guide to Classical Music. 5th ed. New York: Rough Guides, Ltd., 2010. Print.

Takács, Peter. “Practicing and performing the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata, Op. 13.” Clavier Companion, 4.2 (2012): 51-53. EBSCOhost. Web. 06 July 2012.

Wright, Craig. Listening to Western Music. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2008. Print.

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