Sonata #17 in D Minor, Opus 31, No. 2 “Tempest”

Composed in 1802; Published in 1804

The sonatas of Op. 31 continue the exploration of new paths that Beethoven had begun with Op. 26paths that include formal and harmonic experimentation. The D minor sonata, Op. 31/2 is his first work in which the main theme (seemingly) begins in a key other than the tonic. A mysterious A major arpeggio, ostensibly the introduction, immediately attracts and holds our attention through a lengthy pause. Suddenly, a rush of two-note figures momentarily identifies the correct key of the piece, but again stops on the dominant A, rather than on the tonic D minor. The mysterious arpeggio is again heard, but in the distant key of C major. After another pause, a second, longer rush of two-note figures leads to triumphant statement of the arpeggio in the home key, pounded out in the bass, alternating with a plaintive gesture in the treble. 

Here, even the most experienced listener would be justified in presuming that we have finally arrived at the main theme. However, from the outset of the piece, Beethoven has kept several steps ahead of us. After only eight measures he begins modulating to the secondary key. This is a transition: what we had thought was an introduction was actually the main theme. [Interestingly, whenever this theme is quoted again--in the repeat of the exposition and the recapitulation--the previous material elides effortlessly into it, so that Beethoven never again allows us to hear it as a beginning. Those pianists—students and professionals alike—who make a big ritardando in order to emphasize the return of the main theme have not a clue about Beethoven’s narrative sense.] The remainder of the movement is devoted to a working out of the three ideas already introduced. In the recapitulation, the initial slow arpeggio is followed by a recitative that, consciously or otherwise, anticipates the well-known baritone recitative that opens the choral portion of the finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The sublime Adagio also begins with a slow arpeggio. All the important themes are peaceful, but running through the movement is a series of ominous, short drum rolls in the bass, that remind us, as Beethoven so often likes to do, that tranquility is at best transitory. 

The finale is another of those moto perpetuo movements that so obsessed Beethoven in his middle period. Beethoven may (or may not; see my notes to Sonata No. 18) have originally been inspired by hearing a horseman galloping by his window, according to his student Karl Czerny, but he ultimately moved well beyond that image, as evidenced by the Allegretto and piano markings at the outset. A single melodic pattern predominates throughout, with subsidiary sections featuring jarring cross-accentuation. Like the two preceding movements, the finale ends quietly, with the incessant rhythmic pattern playing itself out to the point of exhaustion.

As for Beethoven’s famous response to a question posed by his amanuensis Anton Schindler regarding this work’s (and the Appassionata’s) meaning, it is possible that Beethoven indeed saw some particular connection between both pieces and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Given Schindler’s less than brilliant mind, however, it is possible that the composer just threw out the first answer he could think of.  

—Notes by Robert Silverman