Sonata #12 in A-flat Major, Opus 26

Composed in 1800 - 1801; Published in 1802

In 1802, any musician or educated music-lover who had been tracking Beethoven’s career would have come to expect a thematically unified work consisting of a dramatic, cogently-argued opening movement, followed by an intensely lyrical Adagio, possibly a witty minuet or scherzo, and finally, a relatively light closing movement. Against such expectations, the appearance of the suite-like Sonata in A flat, Op. 26 and the two sonatas quasi una Fantasia of Op. 27, would not merely have been surprising. With their unorthodox ordering of movements, and the use of genres not normally associated with sonatas, they must have seemed as shocking as Beethoven’s final sonata trilogy, Op. 109-111, composed two decades later. 

The opening movement is a leisurely set of variations, based on an Andante that seems far more appropriate to a slow movement than to the beginning of a sonata. Although the relationship between the theme and each of the five variations is clear, there is little connection between the variations themselves, nor is there much of a cumulative effect when all are heard together. (Beethoven tacitly acknowledges each variation’s separateness by concluding each with a full double bar, a practice not encountered in any of his other variation sets.)

For the first time in his four-movement piano sonatas, the Scherzo appears as the second movement rather than the third. The change of order was virtually a necessity here, given the slow pace of the opening movement. Nevertheless, Beethoven must have been satisfied with the result, because this was the order to which he would frequently return in many of his instrumental works.

A heroic funeral march serves as the slow movement. All the elements that characterize the genre are presentthe lumbering dotted rhythm, a minor key, and a military salute featuring trumpets and drums. Beethoven must also have been satisfied with this idea, because he soon was to repeat the procedure in his Eroica. (Incidentally, it is not generally known that in 1815 he orchestrated this movement and included it in his incidental music to the now forgotten play Leonore Prohaska.)

Op. 26 is the first sonata to feature a perpetuum mobile finale, a technique he would employ in seven of his nine subsequent sonatas. The theme’s gentle character is interrupted throughout the rondo by jarring syncopations in the second theme, and a middle section whose ferocity anticipates the finale of the Moonlight. The coda, while losing none of its momentum, quickly and effectively dissolves the sonata into nothingness.

—Notes by Robert Silverman