Sonatas #19 and #20

Sonata No. 19 in G Minor, Op. 49/1 Composed circa 1797; Published in 1805

Sonata No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49/2 Composed in 1795-96; Published in 1805

Despite their opus number, the two Op. 49 sonatas are early works, published without the composer’s consent at his brother’s instigation. One can readily understand Beethoven’s annoyance: they are quite unfinished, especially with respect to their unusually sparse dynamic markings, which Beethoven invariably treated not simply as “expression marks,” but as an important aspect of a work’s structure. More importantly, for all the sonatas’ allure, they no longer reflected his compositional skills in 1805, and he would not have wanted them regarded as representative of his current work. It is for those reasons that some pianists and commentators argue that these pieces should be excluded from the canon of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and grouped instead with the remainder of his juvenilia.

Still, they were composed very shortly before Beethoven launched his career in earnest, and are much closer in quality to his earliest published works than to the student pieces he had written previously. Occasionally, they even exhibit a surprising degree of sophistication. The opening movement of the G minor sonata is a tragic Andante. This in itself is unusualslow first movements were rare in the classical erabut more interesting is the fact that both themes share a common rhythm. In the first movement of the G major sonata, the relationship is even subtler: the second theme is derived from the latter portion of the first.

Both finales are light rondos. The first combines a formal scheme that is characteristic of Mozart, blended with a humorous quality reminiscent of Haydn. The final movement of No. 2 opens with the theme that Beethoven subsequently used in the minuet of his Septet, Op. 20. Considering that he virtually disowned the Septet, imagine his anger at seeing what is tantamount to a sketch of one of its movements published several years later without his knowledge.

For all their youthfulness, the Op. 49 sonatas are delightful, charming pieces. It is small wonder that they are so often used as an introduction to Beethoven for young pianists. Nevertheless, they do deserve a more serious outing every so often…