Echoes of Fate: Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata

I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvellous, superhuman music. I always think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvellous things humans can do.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Maxim Gorky

Read The Tempest.

Ludwig van Beethoven, when asked to explain his new sonata

Beethoven’s second period began with his Eroica Symphony, but opus numbers are always deceptive with Beethoven. Research has uncovered that Beethoven worked on several compositions at once, which is why his themes crop up in multiple works that were being composed contemporaneously. He worked on multiple symphonies, piano sonatas and concertos together, making it impossible to know which actually came first and where certain musical ideas began. Perhaps it was how his mind worked, a symptom of his encroaching deafness, or otherwise due to his legendary lack of organization, but teasing out Beethoven’s musical timeline is simply impossible. So while Beethoven’s second period is often referred to as his “Heroic” Period, after his Third Symphony, his maturation from Mozart-clone to something else may have begun elsewhere.

A good candidate for that change is his 23rd piano sonata, the so-called “Appassionata.” For all the importance of his symphonies, Beethoven’s piano sonatas are where I feel most connected with Beethoven. The Appassionata was composed in that same burst of creativity that resulted in the Eroica symphony and the Kreutzer violin sonata, as well as the first stab at his opera, Fidelio. Here, as in its siblings of 1802-1804, Beethoven’s compositions are becoming more complex. For example, listen to how Beethoven introduces a secondary lyrical theme and interweaving it with the original as the first movement progresses. The Appassionata is also notable in that it anticipates the Fifth Symphony, still half a decade away. Listen carefully to the first movement—you can clearly hear the “fate chords” that introduce and dominate the first movement of the Fifth Symphony reoccur here.

In the Appassionata, Beethoven continues to undermine expectations of the Classical sonata form—failing to repeat the exposition, but repeating the development and the recapitulation, and shockingly introducing a new theme at the end.  And those are just the most obvious. In sonata form, the composer is expected to present two contrasting themes in the exposition, but Beethoven’s second theme is more or less a variation of the first. This creates a sense of unity throughout the movement, something Beethoven would do on a much grander scale in his Fifth Symphony. Like a great jazz musician, Beethoven needs only the briefest motif on which to create an entire sonic world, using harsh dissonances (often deployed in thunderous chords) to break the prevailing tonality of the piece, sending it new directions. Listen for those “sour chords” in the finale–still clearly identifiable to a modern ear; shocking to its contemporarires. Beethoven deploys these sonic bombs to disrupt our expectations, something that he has already done rhythmically and dynamically (moving from pianissimo to forte without crescendo) throughout. Indeed it is Beethoven’s elevation of rhythym to become an equal partner to melody and harmony is, at least in my view, the true secret to his enduring appeal. Take it from this middling musician–the most challenging aspect of playing Beethoven is rhythm.

The Appassionata does not settle the argument of whether Beethoven was a Classicist or a Romantic, but lends support to both sides of the debate. This music shocked contemporary audiences: Classical Period art was all about proportion and Beethoven’s disjointed forms, dynamics and rhythms were undermining those very elegant proportions that Haydn and Mozart had so carefully constructed. Beethoven may have bought the house, but he was doing a full gut renovation on the insisde.

Beethoven made his name as a performer, the leading virtuoso of his day. And if his tempo markings are indicative of his skill (rumors abound as to Beethoven’s faulty metronome), he might just be the greatest pianist of all-time. Of course, Beethoven was still using a fortepiano, which was quite a different instrument from the 88-key, iron soundboard-based instrument we know today. So, to compare, here are two recordings. First, we turn again to Emil Gilels for what I think is a definitively sensitive recording. If you are interested in an alternative approach that is more virtuosic, Google Vladimir Horowitz’s recording. Much faster, more dynamic and bombastic.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”:

But let’s also consider what this sonata would have sounded like on an instrument similar to what Beethoven was actually playing at the time. Here a more recent recording by Ronald Brautigam, playing the final movement on a modern recreation of a somewhat later fortepiano:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”:

While I appreciate much of what period instruments have to offer (my choice for the Eroica was on period instruments taken at Beethoven’s indicated pacing), my heart, at least here, belongs to Gilels.