Beethoven piano sonatas, continued. The Grande Sonate Pathétique, no. 8 in C minor, op.13

[I started working my way through Ronald Brautigam’s complete recordings on fortepiano of the Beethoven piano sonatas as an experiment in chronological listening. The first 7 were posted on twitter, but that’s a bit too short form for what I’m doing, so I’m moving the comments here.]

Time to get back to the Beethoven piano sonatas. Something very big happens with the next one: number 8 in C minor, op. 13. It’s the first sonata with a nickname: “Grande Sonata Pathetique” (from the publisher). Which is apt, since it’s the first sonata in which Beethoven emerges, fully formed. Dramatic pauses, pathos, formal experiments carried off with bravura, pushing the new technology of the fortepiano to its limits, it’s all here. I think that the first movement, while announcing something new, does it by way of a critique/extension of Mozart’s minor mode slow introduction form: it’s almost as if Beethoven sees Mozart’s “Dissonant quartet”  and raises it a few chips. The opening slow material, marked grave, isn’t  destined to be buried, suppressed by the rest of the piece, in Mozart’s manner (as if it were too troubling to bring into the main body of the work). Beethoven brings this troubling, static, anguished material back, three times, subjecting it to sonata form development and elaboration. Mozart’s formal exception becomes Beethoven’s formal development. Beethoven makes musical form expand, he breaks it and then and re-forms it, to encompass a more broadly imagined world. Darkness, horror, formless ambiguity: no longer something to be acknowledged but held at bay (Mozart’s practice): it can now be incorporated into the heart of a musical text. (Brautigam, disappointingly, flubs the opportunity to repeat the first movement’s the opening grave, which changes everything). 


The rest of the piece (which the always brilliant Andras Schiff calls “so unpianistic i can’t describe it”) is smaller: The very singable (dangerously easy to sentimentalize) slow movement is a rondo (A B A C A). I guess we just need to hear that tune three times? It worked: it’s the first tune Beethoven wrote that anyone who knows a bit of Beethoven can hum.