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Length: c. 25 minutes

About this Piece

Reflecting an earlier sense of the medium’s instrumental priorities, Beethoven’s three Opus 30 sonatas for piano and violin were published in 1803 as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.” The piano opens all four of the C-minor Sonata’s movements alone and introduces the thematic material. Which is not to say that the violin part is inconspicuous, but simply that it is conceived here as a more lyrical foil to the piano’s dramatic power.

In the first years of the 19th century, increasing deafness tormented Beethoven. His musical response was to emphasize originality, to step up the pace of invention and innovation that developed the heroic works of his middle period. Part of this process was the evolution of a “symphonic ideal,” music of expanded weight and forcefulness that created a feeling of a spiritual quest or psychological journey. This ideal also inspired much of Beethoven’s non-orchestral music, including his chamber music.

This Sonata is a piece on the cusp of this new period, but in its dimensions and emotional thrust it clearly belongs to this developing ideal. Beethoven opens with a huge, sprawling, brawling movement shaped by the tonal arguments of sonata form: the exposition and development of opposing keys and themes, and their harmonic reconciliation. This is music of violent contrast on all levels, which begins softly and ends in fury.

The singing Adagio in A-flat major brings a measure of sweetness and light into the work, although chromaticism is a destablizing current, and the piano’s rushing scales finally break out in explosions of C major, one of the keys of pointed contrast in the first movement. C major is also the key of the ensuing parodistic Scherzo and its contrapuntal Trio.

The Finale is another turbulent movement, capped with a delirious coda. It begins with an off-kilter rumble full of portent, an influential little figure with connections to the first movement—and there are many other points of reference to the first movement. One of the hallmarks of Beethoven’s emerging style is wringing every implication possible from the smallest gestures and extending them throughout an entire piece. This movement is a marvel of concentrated musical and psychological development, each phrase seeming to draw cumulative strength and meaning from all that has gone before. —John Henken