About this Piece
Beethoven's first three sonatas, published as a set in 1796 and respectfully if dutifully dedicated to Haydn, his largely missing-in-action teacher, owe much to C.P.E. Bach, Clementi, and Mozart, as well as to the dedicatee. Yet even these early works fairly burst, though circumspectly, at their traditional seams. By 1804, those seams were torn apart by the explosive force of the "Waldstein" (Opus 53) and "Appassionata" (Opus 57) Sonatas, in both of which the piano sonata became a virtuoso vehicle of structural and musical immensity.
Having broadened the piano sonata to then-unprecedented dimensions, Beethoven could, with the aplomb and confidence that were intrinsic to his genius, return to simpler, more concise statements in the form. The next four sonatas (Nos. 24 through 27) demonstrate how imaginatively and with what consummate mastery he was able to operate on the non-monumental level. It is as if with these works he was taking the very large breath necessary for the immense effort of his last five landmark sonatas, which were to be written between 1816 and 1821.
In 1814, the year of the Opus 90 Sonata, Beethoven was on the threshold of the third creative period of his life, during which, totally deaf, he envisioned obscure, provocative worlds, translating his findings in scores that are profoundly moving and often strangely transcendental. In the realm of his piano works, the present Sonata is the jumping-off point to his final works in the form. Yet, the two-movement E-minor Sonata suggests few if any of the other-worldly qualities of the sonatas that followed. In fact, its second movement is, although quite lovely, somewhat repetitious and, considering Beethoven's penchant for substance, merely(!) charming. The strength of the Sonata, then, is in a first movement that couples economical though raw-boned power with poignant serenity, and equates grandeur with spirit rather than virtuosity.
The textures of the first movement are decidedly lean and the materials succinct. The eight-measure main idea, alternately muscular and tranquil, is more motivic than thematic, each of four pairs of measures being made of the same distinctive dotted-rhythm pattern. This is followed by ineffably tender material which, however, gives way to Beethovenian drama: first a series of descending scales, then anxious repeated chords that lead to the second theme. This, like the first idea, is less a theme than a motif; the agitated accompaniment here is extremely wide-spaced - a kind of stretched-out Alberti bass. The development section, following an unrepeated exposition, is built entirely on the materials of the first phrases - the forceful dotted rhythm and the tender answers. The movement ends wistfully after a page of sighing, halting fragments puts into focus a Beethoven looking meditatively, and perhaps poignantly, at the movement's opening.
As if to rouse himself from this inwardness, the composer concludes the Sonata with the sunny, warm, consoling songfulness of an extended rondo finale in E major.
Orrin Howard served for 20 years as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.