About this Piece
It is clear from the works of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) that the composer was a man who valued a change of scenery – creative, temperamental scenery, that is. To illustrate the point, take his symphonic catalog: the mostly benign Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) follows the dramatically urgent Fifth Symphony; the playful Eighth Symphony is tucked between the bombastic Seventh and the massive Ninth. The piano sonatas follow pretty much the same pattern. In the group of three sonatas that make up Op. 31, for example, the dramatic No. 2 in D minor, the centerpiece of the set, is flanked by the mild No. 1 and the elegant No. 3. But even if the D-minor Sonata had more volatile siblings, it would still emerge as a distinctly powerful, if concise, essay. Its Tempest subtitle, by the way, purportedly derived from Beethoven’s reference to the Shakespeare play when asked what the first movement meant, should be taken with only a grain of programmatic salt, though it doesn’t do as much injustice as, say, Moonlight to the sonata upon which that title was hung.
The D-minor Sonata’s outer movements are determinedly single-minded. The first movement is built almost entirely on its two opening ideas: the first, the four slow-paced ascending notes of a broken chord, the second, which follows immediately and sets up the pervading conflict, an agitated motif consisting of more than a dozen pairs of close-lying notes. This leads to a passage that augments the preceding tension by way of a series of broken chords in the left hand moving in ascending steps, above which a yearning figure contributes a measure of tragic weight. Midway in the movement, the four ascending notes of the opening return and then the action is arrested when two short melodic passages without harmonic accompaniment appear on the scene, like some Handelian heroine pleading pathetically. (Beethoven became rather fond of this simulated vocalism; e.g., in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony an oboe recitative interrupts the tumultuous action, and in the Op. 110 piano sonata recitatives are used to enormous dramatic effect.)
The final movement, allowing for no such let-up of forward thrust, moves inexorably in perpetual-motion fashion, gathering intensity from its oft-repeated opening motif (an austere three-shorts-and-a-long), and finally dissolving in tranquil, clear-eyed resignation. This is Beethoven’s only piano sonata in the key of D minor (the key of his Ninth Symphony), and the troubling ending in minor might be a confirmation of the composer’s frame of mind. In 1802, when he wrote the D-minor Sonata, awareness of his progressive and incurable deafness had sent him to the depths of despair, an abyss from which only his vast moral courage rescued him. Clearly, however, he was functioning on two distinct levels of consciousness, for if the Sonata was an expression of personal anguish, the sunny Second Symphony of that same year (in D major) found the composer in the throes of musical exhilaration of the highest order. What an incredible psyche this man had!
The Sonata’s middle movement is, in its orchestral nature only, prophetic of the late sonatas. Its wide-spaced opening theme would be a perfect foil for a woodwind setting, and simulated timpani beats punctuate an idea tailor-made for horns. But, unlike the difficulties set up in the later works, here Beethoven’s keyboard orchestration, even with all of the ornamentation, falls easily under the pianist’s hands, and the movement forms a serene bridge between the Sonata’s implacable outer sections.
-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.