Beethoven, sonata no. 23 (“Appassionata”)

Today we make a leap in time, from the 1720’s to the start of the 19th century; from Bach to Beethoven. The reason for going to Beethoven is that, over the last couple of weeks, I have been following a course on the Beethoven sonatas via coursera.org. One of the sonatas discussed, albeit shortly, was the “Appassionata”, sonata no. 23, op. 57. Here’s the second movement of this sonata, performed by Daniel Barenboim:

Of course, you’re invited to listen to the entire sonata. The sheet music can be downloaded here, for example this pdf; the second movement starts at page 430. Beethoven wrote the sonata in 1804-1805, a period known as his ‘middle period’. The classical sonata typically consists of three movements; an allegro first movement, a slow second movement, and a fast third movement. He had been significantly changing and experimenting with the sonata form over the years. Here, he has written a second movement that actually consists of a theme with three variations (although not explicitly indicated as such in the score). The theme and variations are in D♭ major. The first part of the theme has a rather simple melody, if one can speak of a melody at all (A♭ – B♭ – A♭ – B♭ – A♭ – A♭ – A♭). It is eight measures long. However, the harmony makes the opening theme of a serene, peaceful beauty. Feelings of darkness and solitude. The second part of the theme (12:22) are the next 8 measures; the melody rises from the bass notes, a voice starts to sing in the right hand, and some crescendos appear,

In the first ‘variation’ the theme is repeated (12:57), but the left hand now alternates with the melody of the right hand. The second part of the theme (13:40) becomes stronger and stronger and in ends in forte; the distance between left and right hand grows. The left hand calls for attention and passes over the right.
In the second variation (14:28), 16th notes decorate the theme, and the entire setting has shifted an octave. We are moving towards a lighter, brighter, setting.
In the third variation (13:50), 32th notes decorate the theme, and again the entire melody has shifted an octave. The darkness of the theme has been left behind completely.
Then, at 17:06, after descending from high on the keyboard, we are back at the main theme. The circle of variations is complete. The movement ends with a diminished chord that leaves an unsatisfactory feeling, and serves as an introduction for the last movement of the sonata (“attacca l’Allegro”). For more in-depth information, please listen to Andras Schiff.

Daniel Barenboim, who performs the piece in the video above, is well-known for his Beethoven performances. He has recorded all sonatas twice in his life; the one above is from his later recordings. His earlier recording is, fortunately, also available:

An interesting (and lengthy) documentary of Barenboim, where he is teaching current well-known pianists (like Lang Lang) on the interpretation of the sonatas of Beethoven can be found below.

I hope you like this movement from the Beethoven sonata. It is somewhat less known than the first and third movement, but in my opinion at least as beautiful. More Beethoven sonatas will definitely follow in the future!

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