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Beethoven himself played the violin and viola, and even after his arrival in Vienna, when he seemed thoroughly committed to a piano-based career, he took lessons from Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the quartet leader for Prince Lichnowsky, an important music patron. Schuppanzigh played at least one of Beethoven’s three Op. 12 sonatas in March 1798, with the composer at the piano. The set was published at the end of the year and dedicated to Salieri, the famous opera composer, with whom Beethoven began studying about that time. The sonatas were considered difficult to understand by at least one contemporary critic, who found listening to them like “being lost in a forest.”

Though the three sonatas are generally blithe in spirit and crystalline in texture, they are also full of the idiosyncratic hallmarks of the revolutionary composer, and it is not hard to understand how a conservative contemporary might find them bewildering. The first movement of Sonata No. 1, for example, has the offbeat accents that can stagger metrical balance and the harmonic shifts that dislocate one’s tonal center – Beethoven actually changes the key signature for the development section, to F major (with a strong touch of the tonic minor).

The middle movement is an ingratiating theme in A major with four variations. The first two are figural, one led by the piano, the other by the violin. The penultimate is in the parallel minor, as was conventional for variations at the time, but of utterly unexpected turbulence. The final variation stresses syncopation, with a wispy coda recalling the theme in fragmentary form.

The finale is a vigorous Rondo, shot through with explosive accents and disrupted cadences. Beethoven echoes the harmonic developments of the first movement, including a suave, soft episode in F major, and provides not one, but two fake endings.

- John Henken